This interview was published in Dandelion 34.1 (2008) 110-17.
JB: To begin with, I’d like to ask a short question requring a long answer. What is the influence of Flarf and of Silliman’s new sentence on your work in general?
rf: Let’s start with Flarf, because the project that ended up as FAKE MATH started out as a reverent attempt to mimic the kind of work coming from writers who were part of the Flarf collective – work that is strange, fragmented, and often quite terrifying, albeit in a profoundly terrible way – and ended up going in a different direction in terms of aesthetic (though not completely) while still using the Flarf method of composition – Google Sculpting. At a certain point I found that I wasn’t completely happy with the results I was getting from my “flarfier” work, work that I occasionally found aimless and often toothless. This isn’t to say that Flarf work is toothless (because it isn’t) or apolitical, but that I found that I needed to couple Flarf’s focused engagement with chance with something more explicitly political. Something like Michael Magee’s series of “Fascist Fairytales” (in his book Mainstream) is certainly a touchstone for this, but so is Jeff Derksen’s work in Dwell and Transnational Muscle Cars, which doesn’t work within a “flarfist” paradigm. As I composed FAKE MATH, I was mostly interested in how far Flarf’s flexible engagements with Google allowed a chance to have chance encounters with the world (or at least the world as mediated by the internet) in a way that isn’t rigidly constrained by poetic procedure, something that I find hard to swallow in terms of my own attempts at composition.
As I move on to Silliman’s new sentence, you’ll have to pardon me as it’s been a while since I’ve read Silliman’s book and I don’t have a copy handy, but, as a brief note, I do share Silliman’s interest in parataxis between syntactic units, whether we’re talking about the sentence, the phrase, or whatever. Along with placing limits on how straightforwardly meaning is transmitted from sentence to sentence, this tactic provides a great opportunity to instill a greater ambiguity into a text, which, I think, makes that text more readerly and open to interpretation and dialogue.
JB: I’d like to turn a segment of FAKE MATH back on you and ask you to respond to the following questions: “Which poems / are courts? Which poems are gas stations?” (78).
rf: As I was writing FAKE MATH, I fell in love with the idea that a poem (or any text) could act as a site for dialogue and I think these lines reflect that. It follows then, that if a poem could be a site where we can work and think and play as readers, then perhaps different poems might emulate physical sites in the “real world.” Do poems have certain uses? Are they sites of justice (“courts”), competition (“courts” again), consumption (“gas stations”)? I think this may be the case, but it really is something determined by the reader, which, of course, means that a poem might be a site of several things simultaneously. Maybe a comedy club, maybe a lecture hall, maybe a garbage dump. It depends who you ask.
JB: The line “My assassin brings me products I love” (FAKE MATH 71) seems to me to be a sort of mise en abyme or metonymical moment in which a part of the text (this particular line) stands to comment on the text as a whole, and in analyzing this quotation we can come to an understanding of the book’s movement or purpose as a whole. Certainly, in a basic sense, this phrase encapsulates a general theme of the book, our willing and perhaps knowing capitulation and recapitulation to the more violent and virulent aspects of our language, which we use to code and recode ourselves within capitalist structures. I’m wondering if you could comment on this idea, and also if you could talk in general about the influence of theory on your writing. I’m particularly interested to know if you have much to say about Baudrillard’s notion that it is not production (as Marx would have it) but rather consumption that is the main drive within capitalism, and how social theory relates to your poetics.
rf: Theory is an interesting thing in terms of my poetic practice. If you were to look at what I’ve read over the last few years, you’d probably find that the vast majority of it is theory or philosophy, but I’m not sure you could tell from my writing. I try to avoid using theory as content in my poems, instead trying to use it to direct my thinking about the world and the role of language in it. FAKE MATH is directed as much by the way I composed it as it is by the theorists I was reading. At the time, I was reading books that are interested and engaged by the political: Marxist theory, Democratic theory, Deleuze and Guattari, and other things that I’m sure I’m not remembering.
Marx and other Marxist theorists are very important to my poetic praxis, which is something that I hope becomes clear through the pages of FAKE MATH. Despite of this, I’m not sure I would consider myself a Marxist and the more I read, the more I want to divest myself, not so much from a lot of the ideas, but from the label. Perhaps I could be considered a Post-Marxist, but I’ve taken to saying, to borrow a phrase from Jacques Derrida, that I’m “working in a certain spirit of Marxism,” though I’m still trying to figure out what that means. As far as Baudrillard goes, though I came to his work very late (just recently, actually), I think that you’re right in suggesting that his work is very important to my work. I came to much of Baudrillard’s ideas about consumption through much different sources, the most important being Naomi Klein’s brilliant No Logo, which deftly looks at both North American patterns of consumption and the overseas production that allows it. I think what is most brilliant about Klein’s book is how it underlines the fact that, even though it is so easy for us in North America to imagine consumption as more relevant to our lives than production, consumption and production are fundamentally interlocked.
JB: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of “risk” in your poetry — what does “risk” mean to you as a poetic concern, and why do you value risk?
rf: “Risk” is a troubled word, but is the best word for one of the things that I value in my own and other people’s work. There an idea that I’ve borrowed from psychologist Lev Vygotsky where he says that children learn best when they are thrown into slight discomfort by what they are learning. What I took away from this is that we change and grow when we throw ourselves into areas we aren’t comfortable. I think this is possibly much more useful to a radical poetic than Pound’s dictum that we should “make it new,” which is something that I find increasingly problematic. Maybe instead of worrying about whether our work is “new,” we should be taking our own poetic practice out of the safe zones they occupy to put them at risk.
For me, radicality in writing seeks to be emancipatory. In Pedagogy of Freedom, Paulo Freire says that there is “no such thing as freedom without risk.” Don’t get me wrong, the word “freedom” has a history of being misused and should be under suspicion, but Friere is getting at a meaning of freedom that doesn’t have anything to do with illusion of emancipation provided by “Coke vs. Pepsi” or even the kinds of choice provided by our own “democratic” system in Canada (where voting anything other than Conservative in Alberta seems like a fatalistic exercise). Making choices is important to writing and making choices that consider the social consequences is important to a radical writing keeping in mind that “social consequences” doesn’t mean that you’re worried no one will pick you for their team if you don’t write in a certain style or with a certain content. I find that I need to constantly examine and reconsider how my work affects and effects the world around me. Freire says that “To decide is to break with something, and, to do this, I have to run a risk.” Freire isn’t talking about writing – he’s talking about teaching and pedagogy – but I think his words are applicable if I turn them around a bit. If I want to break with something, I have to run a risk.
JB: What does “taking risks” mean on the craft level? In a less theoretical and more practical sense, how do you go about introducing risk during composition?
rf: For me, introducing risk is something I do whenever I feel myself getting too comfortable in my writing practice. It often has to do with setting up procedures and rules for myself as I write and recognizing when things are getting too easy. Some strategies that I find useful as far as craft goes are things like disallowing certain parts of speech or poetic structures (or alternately, limiting myself to a particular structure). To give you an example, after I finished FAKE MATH, I found a number of the ways I was defining my practice too pat and easy – things ranging from the line/stanza setup I was using to the compositional use of Google sculpting to the type of humour and irony I used in the pieces. A lot of this became second nature, which is great when you’re at the end of a project trying to edit seemingly disparate pieces together, but it is far too easy to fall into the trap of rewriting the project you just finished, because you’re already in that mindset. So after I finished FAKE MATH, I took all of the things that helped me in writing that book and disallowed them, which was the start of writing Ghost Prison – a series of very personal prose poems that is probably the project that was the most difficult for me to navigate, because I needed to rewrite my own set of poetic strategies and reconsider what I value in writing.
JB: You mention Freire, and I know that you also work as a public school teacher. To what degree do you consider your interests in teaching and radical politics to be linked to your writing? Your work, while not didactic as such, is plainly aligned with a radical politics and there is arguably an aspect of the work that seeks not so much to “inform” the reader about anything but to expose her or him to a counter-narrative within capitalism, or display linguistic operations as being part and parcel of a ideological system. Certainly when you cite Vygotsky you aren’t suggesting that your readers are analogous to children who must be led, but is there some degree to which you see writing as a pedagogical project?
rf: I think that your mention of the “didactic” in much political poetry holds the key here. I think that for poetry to even have the possibility of being politically transformative, it can’t dictate a specific viewpoint; like you suggest, Jon, the reader is not an empty vessel to be filled up with knowledge (or, alternatively, a child to be led), but is hopefully an active participant in a dialogue about the state of things (even though “dialogue” as a concept is somewhat problematic as far as global capital goes). I view my job as a writer is to provide a space, a vocabulary, and, hopefully, a spark for that dialogue which is certainly one of the things Freire is interested in. I’m thinking of a quote from Pedagogy of Freedom: “In my relations with others, those who may not have made the same political, ethical, aesthetic, or pedagogical choices as myself, I cannot begin from the standpoint that I have to conquer them at any cost or from the fear that they may conquer me.” I think this is where I begin ethically as a writer and though I’m really not interested in participating in that dialogue in a reasonable way (reason being too dangerous in the wrong hands), I am interested in he openness that Freire talks about. In terms of my writing this means an openness to new practice, an openness to new and different readership, and an openness to whatever feedback or criticism I might get.
JB: You mentioned already (when talking about Flarf) that you felt a need while composing FAKE MATH to inject a certain sense of political engagement into your work, to avoid it feeling “aimless and often toothless.” And I’ve seen the working draft of your book Ghost Prison and now these new poems from the Fortified Castles manuscript that we’ll be reproducing alongside this interview [in Dandelion, not here], and both books-in-progress share a similar interest in the psychological spaces where the political and the personal intersect. I am wondering what this political investment means to you, why it is such a strong and consistent theme in your writing. Because it’s not the simple approach to politics—writing a poem in order to complain about Bush, or make some point about a specific localized event—not something occasional but something sustained. I’m wondering where this concern comes from, and why it manifests itself in these large series concerning ideological superstructures, rather than in occasional poems concerning historical events or figures, a more mainstream approach.
rf: I don’t like pedantic or simplistic thinking about the political and I value writing that is as complex and ambiguous as life is. This doesn’t preclude simpler structures or approaches like the occasional poem (I remember reading a series of poems by Charles Bernstein written during 9/11 that were quite affecting). I think that every action we make is deeply affected by some kind of political or economic structure and most people don’t see this because we tend to write ourselves out of these structures. The political only concerns “historical events or figures” or political leaders. We see politics as a negative, foreign thing rather than what it is: an agreed-upon system a group uses to make decisions. Unless it’s planning to be antisocial or a social, poetry needs to examine the political in some way, because each of us should be examining how we act upon and react to the system we’re handed. Right now, what is really interesting to me is how this personal element constructs and is constructed by the political and economic forces around us. And though it might seem like a throwback to identity politics, but I think that there’s a need to examine the idea of individual subjectivity and how it interacts (or fails to interact) with the structures of global capital.
JB: What strikes me about the poems in Fortified Castles is that you’re using all these I-statements you’ve either written or harvested from the Internet, and putting together these very disjunctive little lyrical poems. So the poems take the form of the traditional lyric and have a serious investment in the expression of subjective experience, yet this isn’t the poet’s subjective experience that’s being expressed, but the experience of some illusory collective subject you’ve cobbled together out of these I-statements. A collective subject that doesn’t “exist” as such, expressing itself through these lyrics that aren’t quite lyrics. It’s an excessive project in a way, an excess of lyricism, of subjective expression, rather than an attempt to void out these elements, like much so-called “avant-garde” poetry attempts. I am wondering what you think of this description—is this something you see yourself doing in these poems, or do you conceive of the project differently—and what is your interest in or connection to the lyric genre?
rf: It’s interesting to consider Ghost Prison and Fortified Castles as two sides of the same coin; whereas Ghost Prison is an intently personal project that actively avoids personal expression, Fortified Castles is a project that explores the idea of personal expression without addressing me personally. Fortified Castles started from a displeasure on my part with some of the more ironic elements of FAKE MATH because people seemed to be responding to the poems as just funny without catching the tragic element I feel the poems have. What I decided to do was to use the same compositional procedure as FAKE MATH with a couple of differences: I would consciously try to avoid the irony and humour that drives much of FAKE MATH and one of the ways I am doing this is to collect common I-statements to use them as search strings in Google. When I find a search string I think might work, I feed it into Google in quotation marks (which searches for the uninterrupted phrase rather than just the collection of words), which usually yields a nice sized bank of sincere or fake sincere language that I can use to compose the poem. The process is one of discovery as I trace out how this “sincere” language is employed and it will be interesting, when I get to the editing phase, to try to sequence the poems so that some of the patterns I’m beginning to see become more visible.
JB: You’ve expressed (in private) an interest in “the trace” and in “ghosts” as well as the abject. Could you flesh out what this interest means to you, in the larger context of a general poetics, and also on the level of craft?
rf: At a recent reading I gave that I think might have spurred your question, I said that the poems from Fortified Castles that I read weren’t “about ghosts” but “had ghosts in them,” which, I think, speaks to my interest in the absent (or, to steal a bit from Baudrillard, the more absent than absent). I’m very intrigued by the idea that we’re affected and driven by something that we can’t see but can sense. There is a trace of something. Something spectral. Something constantly behind me, urging me to move in certain directions. My interest has spurred a lot of reading into psychoanalysis, but the books that spurred my interest are Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx and Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and their shared notion that what we think is dead is actually not and is pursuing us relentlessly. As a writer, what this interest has done for me is that I have had to realize that I can’t get to the root of things (as a good radical writer should) by tackling things head on – I need to approach things sidelong, hoping to catch glimpses of the capitalist hegemony with its pants down.
JB: Where do you see yourself going after Ghost Prison and Fortified Castles are complete? I know you’re doing a conceptual project, which maybe you can talk a bit about, but have you given any thought to the next major project, or do you have any general thoughts on where you’d like your poetry to go, some elements of your practice you’d like to continue to explore, abandon, or reconfigure?
rf: I always find that space between projects to alternates between fun and horror, because I’m never quite sure what project idea I have is going to stick. Before I settle on a project, I’m often working on two or three different things. I have some vague ideas of what might happen after I finish Fortified Castles. When I started Fortified Castles, I was considering attempting longer narrative poems, which is something I’ve never really tried. I might go back to an older unfinished project like “Hounds of Love / Loss Leaders” (my attempt at sound poetry). It’s important for me to keep exploring what is possible in my practice. I like to make sure each project has a different approach so that I can keep myself on my toes and interested, because I think it’s way too tempting to write the same things over again.