Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Interview with K. Silem Mohammad

Tom Beckett: A taxidermied deer eye stares reproachfully from the cover of Deer Head Nation (Tougher Disguises Press, 2003). It’s, uhh, spooky! “Spooky”—in fact—is a key word in Deer Head Nation. Would you speak to keywords and method in the composition of this book?

: Actually, it’s an inflatable deer head, a big advertising balloon from some used car lot in some red state. When you see it in full color it’s more kooky than spooky. But to answer the question, the method came out of one developed by Drew Gardner, Gary Sullivan, and others including myself in the “Flarf” group. You punch a keyword or keywords or phrase into Google and work directly with the result text that gets thrown up. I paste the text into Word and just start stripping stuff away until what’s left is interesting to me, then I start meticulously chipping away at and fussing with that. It’s similar to normal writing, but like you have a head injury that only gives you access to certain words and structures.

I chose the keywords pretty much on the inspiration of the moment. I don’t remember how or why “deer head” came up, but for some reason it started to obsess me, and I tried combining it with all these different words, like “spooky” or “terrorism” or “porn” or “hovering.” Some of the poems don’t even have “deer head” in them, but they felt to me like they were part of the same poetic impulse—like “All I Wanted Was to Play Guitar,” which is about chimps rather than deer, or “Wallace Stevens,” which is about Wallace Stevens and Danzig and teenage boys on crack.

The best theoretical concept I can situate the Flarf collage process in relation to is Charles Bernstein’s “dysraphism,” which he glosses in a note to his poem of the same name in The Sophist:
"Dysraphism is a word used by specialists in congenital disease to mean a dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts—a birth defect.... Raph literally means “seam,” so dysraphism is mis-seaming—a prosodic device!"
I don’t think I was actually thinking of Bernstein’s concept when I wrote these poems, but the idea of things wrongly sutured together, like the pathos of a badly taxidermied funny animal or a world falling to pieces being stacked back up in clumsily re-ordered columns, was there.

TB: Dysraphism as a prosodic device reminds me a little of a Steve Martin bit where he talks about teaching children the wrong words for everything. It’s a humorous but somewhat frightening idea which leaves plenty of room for paranoid projections. That hinky deer head isn’t one of those “evildoers,” is it?

KSM: Yeah, I love that routine. It also reminds me of my favorite Twilight Zone (not even the original Rod Serling show, but the eighties revival), an episode titled “Wordplay” directed by Wes Craven. Robert Klein plays a guy who wakes up one day to find that language is slowly changing: all the words are the same, but they’re gradually shifting to refer to different signifieds. For example, he hears his neighbor call a dog an “encyclopedia”; he says something really innocent to the women who work at his office, like maybe “do you have a paper clip” or whatever, and they blush and giggle and maybe one of them slaps him. Eventually all the familiar words have morphed their meanings, so that all language is completely incomprehensible to him. At one point you see him being wheeled into the emergency room, only instead of EMERGENCY on the wall it says ELEPHANT. It’s funny, that show had a big impact on me. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s responsible for a big chunk of my poetics.

So yeah, the idea that language could be this hyperflexible network that can do without etymology or tradition or euphony is simultaneously ludicrous and exciting to me. The Google collage technique is a way of imaginarily courting that kind of radical mutation—or even of acknowledging that in many ways such a mutation is occurring. Maybe not on the level of every little individual word, but on the level of the syntactic and otherwise combinatorial structures that we find “aesthetic” or “poetic.”

TB: I thought it really interesting that in your most recent book, A Thousand Devils (Combo Books, 2004), you ended “My Content” (a poem dedicated to David Bromige) with the phrase “process is sleazy.”

KSM: The poem is dedicated to David because he was appreciative of it when I read it at an open mike reading in Orono in 2000, shortly after I wrote it. The parallel between the titles “My Content” and “My Poetry” is coincidental, though maybe that’s part of what he liked about it! The phrase “my content” came from an Earthlink personal-website template, I think: the blank space they give you to fill in with personal info or other text when you sign up for their internet service. I was noticing the proprietary connotations, as in “my beach” or “my country right or wrong” or “leggo my Eggo.” The idea that one could lay claim to content in the abstract, as though one should hit a vein of random content while drilling for it in Alaska and then just rope it off and stake a claim: this is what really happens, when you think about it, but at the same time it deconstructs the very notion of content. Once something becomes so specific and motivated to count as what we usually mean by content, it’s past discovery. Its having-already-been-discoveredness renders claims of personal ownership redundant, if not pathetic. So maybe process—random operations, meter, or anything else—is a way of legitimizing the sleazy claims we make in the name of intellectual property. And though this poem is pre-Google (in terms of me using Google as a compositional tool, I mean), that has obvious implications for the collaging of found texts via search engine that I’ve been doing. The sleazy appropriating the sleazy….

TB: Is Google now the starting point for all of your poetry writing?

KSM: For the past two years or so, Google has been my launching point, I guess you’d say. The starting point is whatever idea for a search I begin with, and maybe some vague sense of a project around what I anticipate I might come up with in the search results. I’ve asked myself whether I should “kick the habit,” and I suppose I will sometime soon, once I feel that that I’ve exhausted whatever it is I’m doing with it. But really there’s no more reason I can think of to kick that habit than there is to kick the habit of doing essentially the same thing with the thoughts in my head that I do with the Google search results, which is as good a description of how I was writing before I used Google as any other I can offer. I see no reason to privilege one method over the other, no more than there’s a reason to privilege Yahoo over Google, or whatever other engines.

The advantage of the Google search text over the thoughts in my head is that I’m not limited to the small expanse of my own knowledge, cultural experience, vocabulary, moral values—I have access to things that would never come up in my own imagination. But my imagination does get to do the re-ordering and combining, which is where I see the most interesting possibilities for poetic construction anyway. Lately, I’ve been interested in preserving the sequence in which the results come up, while giving myself liberty (as usual) to delete and compress whatever occurs along the way. I think it was Lyn Hejinian’s description of her procedure in The Fatalist that sparked this interest in me: she took a year’s worth of correspondence from her to other people off her hard drive and kept its chronological order but edited heavily within each section, truncating and suturing at will.

TB: Is it important to you to begin a project with some sort of procedure in mind?

KSM: If you construe “procedure” loosely enough, yes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a rigid set of formal restraints or parameters (though it might be), but there usually has to be something about the act of composition itself that excites my imagination. That could be as general as, say, writing while listening to a certain kind of music, or writing with a particular (real or imagined) reader in mind. And I would modify the wording of your question a little: I don’t so much want to begin with a definite procedure in mind as to apprehend and define the procedure during the course of composition. So one goal of writing for me is to find new ways of writing. That way, I also find out (among other things) what seems to be important to write about. It comes out of the process, because the process is always wrapped up in all that other stuff out there, like politics and emotions and deer heads and war and Halloween and love and friendship.

Process is sleazy in this sense because it represents ulterior motives, i.e., desires, for which any justification is de facto sleazy. I think sleaze is an interesting part of poetry. And life. I associate sleaziness with wanting/needing something so badly that you “readjust” reality to support that desire. That people are sleazy is also what makes them poetic, creative. Ethics comes in after the fact, as a way of saying, OK, a substantial number of us can’t do collectively without this (perhaps morally questionable) desire, and/or there are these beneficial aspects to the desire despite its risks, so we’ll write in some moral flexibility to accommodate it. Similarly, poetic process congeals into a ethically meaningful practice when a way is found to place the private pleasure of indulgence it gives the writer in the scales against its uses as a mode of social engagement, and the latter can be claimed to outweigh the former.

TB: Recently on your blog you wrote “poetry is that art form using language as its medium which tends to concern itself more with the affective response language itself produces in the reader/hearer than with what that language ‘says’….” That said, what for you is at risk in a poem?

KSM: I’m understanding your question to suggest that my definition values “form” over “content,” which I can see would be easy to get from it, but it’s not what I intended. The key word here is “affective,” which has everything to do with content. What’s at risk for me in a poem is, I assume, pretty much the same as for anyone else: what meanings will people get from it, how will they feel about it, and what (if anything) will they do as a result of reading it? The extreme risks at either end of the spectrum would be, on the one hand, that they kill me (or themselves or anyone else) for it, and on the other, that they just don’t care. Fortunately the former risk is the more extreme, and thus the less likely.

I should modify the statement to read “which tends to concern itself with the affective response language itself produces in the reader/hearer, either as a direct correlative to what the language ‘says’ or otherwise.”

TB: I wasn’t thinking form-content dichotomies at all. I glommed on “affective” right away though because I believe that emotional responses always entail some risk (a continuum of which you’ve articulated in your previous response). And yet, you implicitly raise a good question about your own work—a formalist procedural bias coupled with a desire for felt response says what about the role of intention in your writing?

KSM: I don’t think my bias is significantly more “formalist” than anyone else who writes poetry. My point was exactly that poetry is a formalist practice by definition, at least the way I’m defining it, which is not just with reference to my own work, but an attempt at a general description of the art. So as a poet, you can either be conscious of your formalism or deny it, but either way you’re arranging words in ways that are different from the ways you arrange them when you just want to convey information, and thus you’re engaging in a formalist activity. And I see no contradiction in the idea of “coupling” that activity with “a desire for felt response”; it does, however, raise the question of why we are inclined to respond to certain formal arrangements with certain kinds of emotion. Some of it is attributable to convention, undoubtedly, but those conventions have origins, and new origins come into being all the time. Form makes us feel. Why it does so may be a question for neurolinguists or theologians. As a poet, I accept it as a given that it does and make it my business to see what can be accomplished with it.

TB: Speaking of the “business” of a poet, do you think a poet has any special social responsibilities?

KSM: “Special” ones, no. A poet has the same social responsibilities as everybody else. Maybe you could say that because poets are supposed to be more aware of verbal nuance, they have more of a talent for perceiving the ways in which language is used as an instrument of social power, whether to oppress or empower, and that therefore they have more of an obligation to use that talent responsibly. But that doesn’t even necessarily have to do with the poetry itself (although naturally it may); it just means we all use what we’ve got in whatever way we can.

TB: What sustains you as a writer? What keeps you going, keeps you interested?

KSM: For one, the element of curiosity—just finding out what I’ll come up with next. The first thing I try to do as a writer is surprise myself. The next step is to try to convey that surprise to readers or listeners. That’s where the delicate phase of revision and polish comes in, which is also part of what keeps me interested.

I say “delicate” because the risk is that in the process of revision and refinement you lose that initial freedom of exploration, and substitute for it some more “socially acceptable” mode of expression. But the alternate danger is that you slip into insular self-indulgence. You could argue that an ideal function for poetry is to harness the energy of self-indulgence to some act of meaningful communication between persons, and thus to transform that self-indulgent energy into social energy. This draws on the old account of poetry as a lyric, self-expressive form, with all its implications of egoism and narcissism, and tries to rescue it via a synthesizing fusion of the writer’s and the audience’s needs.

I’m increasingly interested in the whole notion of “audience,” and the different kinds of creative-writing dogma that spring up around the notion. Like, you should or shouldn’t write with a particular audience in mind. My take is that you’re always writing for an audience, even if that audience is just yourself. But who wants to go through life writing “for themself”? Invite some friends along from time to time. Get out more often!

Sometimes I think shyness is a cover-up for hostility. Our initial instinct is often to excuse people who don’t participate in group discussions, etc., on the basis that they’re sensitive souls who shouldn’t be prodded to step into the spotlight against their will. But that kind of sensitivity is like a wound that will get infected and potentially spread to others. Poets who cling to a “dark-horse” romantic investment in their own maladjusted anti-sociality (here I’m thinking of Jim Behrle’s very funny comic strip “Dark Horses” on his JimSide blog) and complain bitterly about nepotist publishing practices, cliquishness, etc. often seem to be longing for a poetic universe in which each poet is one omnipotent god complete unto him-/herself, and somehow the whole cosmos of solipsists is supposed to integrate magically into a heaven of objective purity, uncontaminated by things like friendship, desire, ambition, flattery, and other human diseases. So I’m interested in that other poetic cosmos, where we’re all minor cherubs who promote ourselves and each other shamelessly. Because all that stuff definitely keeps me going.

TB: I’m also interested in that “other poetic cosmos.” But from my vantage in Northeastern Ohio, the only place I’m glimpsing its possibility is in the realm of the blogs. You’ve been blogging for quite awhile now. How do you feel, at this juncture, about blogging in terms of your own practice? And what are your thoughts about the impact of blogging in terms of poetic practice more generally?

KSM: The effects, I think, have been more substantial on poetic “culture” broadly construed than on actual practice—bringing people from diverse poetic backgrounds together and fostering constructive discussions, etc. I’ve met lots of poets and formed some friendships I wouldn’t have if not for the blog. So far as that coming-together has inspired collaboration, sharing of ideas, and general critical reflection, it’s definitely affected my practice, but not in any one way I would associate with the technological medium of blogging per se.

The best thing about blogging, as with the web overall, is the potential for rapid communication between interested parties. I don’t know that blogging can make anyone a better (or worse) poet, however.

TB: What are you reading these days that you find particularly engaging? What kinds of writing turn you on?

KSM: I’ll give you a current inventory of the most readily visible books that are piled up on my desk, stuffed in my bookbag, and spread all over the floor: Ron Padgett’s biography of Joe Brainard, Alli Warren’s chapbook Hounds, Ron Silliman’s Under Albany, Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, Jennifer Moxley’s Often Capital, Catherine Daly’s Locket, David Larsen’s The Thorn, Curtis White’s The Middle Mind, Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces, Standard Schaefer’s Water & Power, Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books, Taylor Brady’s Yesterday’s News … there are more, but as you can see, poetry dominates. In general, the writing that turns me on breaks down the distinction between intellectual concepts and sensible images. It burlesques thinking, or it theorizes screwing around. It colors outside the lines, but makes up new lines to go around the straying color.

TB: A recurring final question: what do you find most encouraging/discouraging about the current poetry scene?

KSM: Encouraging: the growing opportunities for poets writing in adventurous ways to find audiences for their work, as more and more publishers and academic hiring committees open their minds to the new. Less encouraging: the growing potential for those writers, especially younger ones, to be packaged by unscrupulous or clueless publishers as just another kind of “edgy,” market-driven, image-obsessed product, or for university writing programs to use “experimental” personnel and textual surfaces as promotional sheen. But I don’t really think the present moment in poetry is all that different from any other historical phase of the art: what changes are political and economic structures, and the writing reflects that change. It can choose to do so consciously and resistantly, or it can passively reproduce the symptoms of the culture at large. Now as at any time, there is writing that does the one, and writing that does the other. And a good deal of the time we do both, of course.


Blogger ed schenk said...

A very inspiring and fascinating introduction to 'flarfing'.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

This is another fantastic interview, and I'd like to INVITE both of you to consider writing FRESH NEW CRIT of EITHER David Bromige or some of the other CORE Sonoma mid-1980s' "Bromige pals" group of us that the first issue of Loose Gravel Magazine will celebrate (finally, after all these years of keeping it on the back burners): http://hanksoriginal.com

Very bests, Kasey and Tom! :)

7:10 PM  

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