|rk, drawing by Gary Sullivan|
This exchange took place over email between December 2007 and January 2008, and first appeared in MiPOesias. It’s about 3,700 words, or 8 printed pages long. Since it’s here for mostly archival purposes, I’ll just park the whole thing in one post.
RODNEY KOENEKE: Let’s start with endings. You write beautifully about the dead. The Introduction to How to Proceed in the Arts, which centers on the funeral for your friend Ramez Qureshi, and your Afterword to Daniel Davidson’s culture, are some of my favorite prose writings by you. (You’re also Davidson’s literary executor.)
The title of your Rain Taxi strip, “The New Life,” is a tip of the hat to Dante—who claimed to have seen the dead—but also refers to a near-death experience you had on a New York subway. Elsewhere #3 carries elegies to John Wieners, Jackson Mac Low, and Robert Creeley. Not to put too fine a point on it, your first book, Dead Man, opens with an epigraph from Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence.
I don’t think of you as an especially morbid or death-obsessed writer. How do death and the responsibilities of memory shape your approach to poetry?
GARY SULLIVAN: I don’t think I’m morbid, but then again I’m toying with an issue of Elsewhere devoted to images from Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. I wrote Dead Man a couple of years after that subway fire you mentioned, so maybe there’s some connection. And, come to think of it, my first published poem was “Among the Living,” which ultimately wound up in Swoon.
I’ve long been obsessed with ideas about death, with cultural ideas surrounding it, and how those ideas turn up in ideas about writing—which accounts for my specific interest in the Blanchot. But this seems part of a larger obsession I’ve had with ideas about anything that we’re not capable of fully comprehending, or a general obsession with “otherness,” if that makes sense. Death is the ultimate “elsewhere.”
I don’t feel any particular responsibility to remember the dead; if I did, I’d be the kind of writer who’d grapple on some level with Irish history, with the famine, with the systematic decimation of the Irish language. I’d probably have worked at reading Joyce’s writings more thoroughly, especially Finnegan’s Wake, which has so much to do with death and memory, down to the level of etymology. I remember attempting to get through, around the time I was writing Dead Man, Frances Yates’ book on Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theater, but I just couldn’t do it.
But death, on some level or another, probably colors my writing post-subway fire, when I moved from San Francisco to Minneapolis. I wrote a short book of poetry around that time, Right in the Head, which had a lot of death in it—there’s a poem from it in How to Proceed in the Arts, “Wall of Sound,” which ends with the narrative I, in a cemetery, “pedaling away from the dead.”
That might have been a reference to Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, which takes place after death, and has a lot of stuff going on about bicycles. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. It’s pretty hilarious, chock full of exotic theories (e.g., darkness = accretions of black air). Has anything ever been as exoticized as death?
Which makes me think of your own work, because it definitely seems to have come out of your own thinking about exoticizing, to some extent. Rouge State, especially, though also in Musee Mechanique. How much of the kinds of thinking that went into your scholarly book on I.A. Richards winds up in your poetry?
RK: Rouge State was kind of the back weave of my dissertation, which turned out looking better hung in reverse. Both books were trying to puzzle out what to do with all this bad history that sticks around like fissile material—empires, exploitation, and the complicity of even its hippest critics in the larger habits of language and thought that enable it.
In retrospect, I think I was looking for the alternative of an “elsewhere”—like China was for Richards, or the Maharishi for the Beatles, or the “I” for Rimbaud—without really believing there is one. At the time, that seemed to leave two options: either flipping over well-meaning thinkers like Richards to expose the spotted underbelly, or sending up the whole shebang like Macy’s Day balloons. What would it mean “to run / the little India of ourselves / with a languorous bureaucracy?” At what point does the tree forget its seed?
I’m intrigued by your idea of death as the ultimate “elsewhere,” the last zone it’s OK to exoticize. Could you talk a little more about how you conceive of the Elsewhere? It’s the name of your ongoing comics serial, and your blog. It connects with your interests in Bollywood films, world musics, and that capacious global aesthetic you and Nada Gordon call “the Autré.” What does the concept of an “elsewhere” mean to you, and how do you think we get there?
GS: Two somewhat parallel events profoundly changed my relationship to self and other. The first was when I was in my 20s, living in San Francisco. I was very much attached to the idea of being Irish-American, and read almost nothing at one point but Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien. It got to the point where I was becoming biased against anything English. I briefly went out with a young Irish girl who claimed to have a boyfriend back home who was in the IRA.
Then, in 1989 or 90, when I was in my 20s, my paternal grandfather died. On his deathbed, he revealed to my father that he had been adopted, and that he’d run away from his adopted family at age 14, and took on the name Sullivan. His adopted family’s name was Shepard. But he had no idea who his real parents were.
Basically, I had been told that I was possibly the very thing I had been teaching myself to hate.
Then, in 1996, when I was living in Minnesota, I was randomly exposed to two things: one was a cassette tape, Haydi Söyle, by the Turkish arabesque superstar Ibrahim Tatlises; the other was the Bollywood film Khuda Gawah, which stars Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi as Afghans.
I hated living in Minnesota, but out of a sense of self-preservation, since I was bankrupt and couldn’t move out of the state for several years, I just decided to fully immerse myself in the idea of being a Twin Cities person. I made a conscious attempt to embrace what was going on locally: so, for instance, I got really into the local bands, like Babes in Toyland, Trip Shakespeare, the Replacements.
I don’t know what possessed me to pick up the Ibrahim Tatlises cassette, other than that it was only two bucks. Tatlises’ voice was amazing, and even more so, the intense coloration of the music, which both rocked harder than anything I’d ever heard, but was also incredibly complex. I felt like I had been cheated out of hearing this all my life, and I blamed both myself, my intense identification with the local, what I imagined to be the limits of my “self,” and with the provinciality of the U.S. press, which pretty much ignored—still does—anything like this, anything not already being marketed to westerners.
My response to Khuda Gawah was similar. Why wasn’t Bollywood being talked about in the U.S.? Why was it always the products of filmmakers like the Coen brothers? And, most importantly, where could I get more of this stuff?
I was only in the Twin Cities for another year before moving to New York. But by the time I moved here, I had already shifted my attention away from the local. It was tough to do that in the Twin Cities, but here in New York, I had much more access. I started to discover that bodegas in different neighborhoods, mostly in the outer boroughs, sold CDs, cassettes, videos and DVDs from other places. So, walking down Steinway Street in Queens, for instance, you could get Bollywood films and filmi music in one hole-in-the-wall; further down the street you could get Arabic music at the Lebanese grocery; and a bit further, at a bodega run by a guy from Algeria, you could get a bunch of rai music.
Since then I’ve found a bodega in my neighborhood, Kensington, run by Albanians—and discovered Albanian pop, which runs the gamut from inconceivably fruitily awful to utterly jaw-shatteringly great. Or little video and music stores in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that sell DVDs from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, and Japan—most with English subtitles.
What I’m drawn to musically has little to do with what is commonly understood as “world music”—a better name might be Bodega Pop. It’s the stuff that immigrant cultures have shipped over to the U.S., and it is completely different than what you find in the World or International sections at places like Tower (which went out of business) or Other Music or even Kim’s Video.
This is not to say that it’s more “authentic.” I don’t believe that word has much relevance regarding pop from any culture at this point.
That’s part of what Nada and I address in our talk, “The Autré,” which is a play on the words “outré” (outrageous) and “autre” (other). It was largely about 20th and 21st century artists around the world who have consistently explored and pushed the limits of “identity.”
We broke the talk down into five sections:
+ REVERB (inappropriateness and cultural misprisions or “misprisons”)
+ CONTORTION/ PAROXYSMS
+ INGENUOUSNESS/ “INGENUOUSNESS”
Elsewhere—the blog and the comic book series—are both direct results of my own immersion, or semi-immersion, in all this stuff. Neither are answers—they’re questions. How does culture travel? What happens to it on the way? And what happens when cultural information is picked up by the “wrong” receiver?
Almost no-one I can think of in the poetry world is dealing with that last question at all. It’s there in Rouge State, just opening the book randomly:
Arameaen E-Z Off.
Mesopotamian Speed Dialing.
Mycenaean Bingo Night.
Etruscan Live/Work lofts.
Thracian Dental Tape.
Deutero-Malay Meatless Entrees.
Arapahoe Pool Supply.
Potawottamie Wok Emporium.
… and so on. I’m curious about what you’re working on now, Rodney. You did that great talk on Bollywood at New Yipes, which I think you called “Filmistan,” the idea being that Indian film culture is a whole other, specific, culture—not exactly Indian, though obviously related. That got me thinking an awful lot about culture, generally—or culture made manifest in cultural product.
American poetry culture isn’t America, it’s like, what? Poetrystan.
Why does Poetrystan seem so reluctant to address what seems to be a fact of everyday waking life—incoming signals not meant for us?
RK: Wait, so your grandfather made up a name, a paternity to go with it, then occupied that new identity till his deathbed. The authentic propped up by a secret.
I wonder how that moment with your grandfather shapes the tendency in your own work to occupy different voices, or to “write through” earlier texts. Dead Man is collaged from lines out of Mickey Spillane novels. You’ve created uproariously on-target descriptions of your friends’ work by inserting their names into Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker art reviews. The siphoning of voices and identities from the Internet in your recent plays comes to mind here, too, but so do your projects with other poets—the space you share with Nada Gordon, for instance, in Swoon, or the juxtaposition of her words (and O’Hara’s syntax) with your drawings in Elsewhere #2.
It seems to me that identity, authentic or otherwise, comes under serious pressure in your writing, but doesn’t get disappeared. Instead, it has to show it can bear the intrusion of the plural, or hold up somehow under the barrage of “signals not meant for us.”
Which is part of what that poem you opened to from Rouge State is playing with too, I guess. It’s not so much sending up the idea of “world civ” as testing the notion to see what it does under the quotidian weight of Kotex and pool supplies. What would it feel like if origins—like self, like “voice”—in the condition of permanent diaspora that is modernity, dictated exactly nothing? What if history were like a phone book when your tooth breaks, all consequential choice?
I thought of Rouge State and Musee Mechanique as discrete worlds, each with their own gravities and histories, which readers could enter (or not) and experience as the patois of some forgotten, self-contained tribe—say, Low Germans hunkered down on Dust Bowl pig farms, or Greeks extracted from their soda shops and made to freeze corn. The manuscript I’m working on now is called Etruria, which is the name of the country Napoleon invented out of Italy to please a feckless Bourbon. (It’s also the home of the Etruscans, Romans reversed.) I hope it’ll sort of cap the trilogy, the last Wordistan.
I’m also working on a third neo-benshi piece for filmmaker Konrad Steiner. Konrad’s been organizing these shows where he invites poets to pick a scene from any movie, turn off the sound, and perform their own dialogue for it. (He got the idea from the benshi actors, or “film-tellers,” of the silent era in Japan.) I’ve written pieces for scenes from Guru Dutt’s classic Pyaasa and Paul Wegener’s German silent, The Golem; right now I’m working on a scene from Mary Poppins, the first film I ever saw.
Could you talk about the use of different voices in your own work? What does the choice among various identities and tones involve for you?
GS: Identity comes under pressure in myriad ways in all writing, but especially so in poetry. Because it isn’t, in our culture anyway, just This Guy or That Gal writing the stuff, it’s This Guy Who Self-Identifies As A Poet or This Gal Who Understands What She’s Doing As Part Of The Larger History And Conversation Of Poetry. We self-identify as poets, and that determines to a much greater extent than anyone probably wants to admit, what and how we write, what we’ll allow ourselves to include or avoid, and absolutely determines how we think of ourselves.
The fact that I self-identify as “poet,” the fact that I’m very aware of what I’m doing is “poetry” determines as much as anything what words or phrases I’ll decide to string together, whether from my head, or something I see or hear out in the world, or from some series of Internet search results that I like.
That said, here are a few specific examples:
For the text of the first issue of Elsewhere, I chose English phrases that I had seen on people’s T-shirts or on signage or on notebook covers and so on, all of it in Japan, which is where the images in that issue come from as well. This is sometimes referred to as “Japanglish.” But I didn’t just choose any Japanglish; I really tried to make the language and images in that issue resonate with each other. And I tended toward language that at least sounded like it was explaining a process or situation to the reader. That gave it some feeling of coherence, even though it was all nonsense.
In the second issue of Elsewhere, I used only images that had language in them. But this wasn’t conscious, and as a result there are actually three images out of the 90 or so that I used that don’t have language at all, including the last image. It was only after I finished the comic that I realized why I had chosen what I had chosen.
In my poems I may choose a lot of language, even from a variety of authors, around a single subject, such as in a long poem I wrote, “Futurama,” using stuff posted to a bulletin board where people were demanding the return of the Matt Groening TV show of the same name. There, I picked language that all seemed to follow itself, and it reads as one voice, despite the fact that the language comes from about 30 or 40 different people.
Sometimes I write things around a single word, like the play “The Medium,” which was written from results of a search on “ABBA,” which has many different meanings, including a person’s first name, a rhyme scheme, a pop group, a Biblical word, and I forget what else. This creates an interesting effect, not too far off from real life, where a group of people will all be talking about something, using a word that has vastly different meanings for each person and/or in each different context.
RK: One thing that strikes me about your work is how insistently collaborative it is. Swoon’s the obvious example, but much of your writing is basically dialogic—the plays, of course, where dialogue is part of the formal fabric, but even in your writing through of Spillane or Schjeldahl, or in the more explicitly satirical pieces (“Poetry Phone,” for instance, where the poetry world’s imagined as a menu of options on a telephone touchpad), there’s a persistent approach to writing as conversation, a space where conflicting voices jostle and hum. (What’s flarf but a giant collaboration with the Internet?)
How is collaboration important to your work, and how do you see the value of other voices—invited, sampled, or stolen—in your poetry?
GS: Language itself is collaborative! Period. And beyond that, our understanding of ourselves as “poets,”, the whole culture of poetry—that’s a collaboration, too. The idea some people have and perpetuate of the solitary poet coming up with his or her work alone is, as far as I’m concerned, a complete misrepresentation of reality.
But, beyond that, I do love collaboration in the narrowest sense, and have worked with Abby Child on a film, “Mirror World,” as well as creating comics with a number of poets—Stan Apps, Brandon Downing, Drew Gardner, Juliana Spahr, Brian Stefans and, of course, Nada. I wrote part of a play with Daniel Davidson, and a whole play with Kasey Mohammad, and numerous plays with Stanton Wood.
And, considering how the flarf list works—with one person picking up on phrases or other aspects of poems posted by another—it’s definitely a collaborative project, so far as I’m concerned.
RK: How do you think your work has changed most since you first started writing? What’s your biggest “wish I’d known then”?
GS: My writing—and my motivation to write—actually hasn’t changed much since I was a kid. The first poem I wrote was for my third grade teacher, Mrs. Cosgrove. It was a rhyming poem that detailed every planet in the solar system. She accused me of plagiarizing it—she had only asked for a one page essay, and assumed I must have either swiped the poem or had my parents write it—and wouldn’t accept it for a grade.
The second poem I ever wrote was an attempt to write a scary poem, after having read Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” That poem completely freaked me out, and so I tried to write my own “horror” poem in an attempt to work through the fear—to get at the mechanics of what made my hair stand on end.
In high school I wrote and published an “underground humor” magazine, called Retch. I was nearly expelled for it. My step father had forced me to take a typing class when I was a high school freshman, and it was so humiliating—I was the only male in a class of about fifty—that I figured I’d better get something out of the deal. So I used my new-found typing skills to type up the magazine, and made copies using carbon sheets. These were in editions of like 3 or 4, however many carbon copies I could make whacking as hard as I could on a manual typewriter, and I sold them for 25 cents the first year. By my senior year, they were already selling for a dollar, and the editions had gone up to 10-15 copies, which meant retyping the entire issue three or four times.
My next attempt at poetry was actually discussed in Swoon—I had a crush on Lori Lubeski when I was at S.F. State. So much so, that I couldn’t talk to her. She was one of the editors of if magazine, which was State’s student-run experimental poetry journal. I figured that, if I could get in the magazine, I would have a legitimate reason to talk with her. So, I basically just collaged together phrases from crossword puzzles and Ann Landers-type advice columns and created a couple of poems with lines like “the breathing sound of yarn,” and submitted them. They accepted them immediately. And I still did not have the courage to talk to Lori Lubeski.
I can’t think of any “wish I’d knowns” … do you have any?
RK: Not really. But I’d have saved myself time and stress if I’d figured out earlier that poetry’s not an escape from anything, it’s smack in the middle of everything; that publication fails to clear up acne; that Bohemia is dead; that [insert landmark Modernist here] will always be il miglior fabbro; that the Internet was coming; that the Beatles’ favorite band was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; that there’s a Bollywood; that I don’t have to finish Anna Karenina, Daniel Deronda, or The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; that Google’s as close as we’ll probably come to eternity; that libraries are apologies; that the owl of Minerva flew off with the Sixties and that the Ouroboros leaves every party hungry.
Thank you, Gary. Reader, thanks.
GARY SULLIVAN is the author of Dead Man, How to Proceed in the Arts, Swoon (with Nada Gordon), and PPL in a Depot, which will be published this March by Roof Books. He has self-published three issues of a comic book, Elsewhere, and co- or guest-edited numerous presses and magazine issues, including Detour Books, Stifled Yawn, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Chain (#8, the comics issue), Readme, and The East Village. His poetry, criticism, and comics have appeared in numerous anthologies, including 21st Century Poetics, Telling It Slant, Nineteen Lines: A Drawing Center Writing Anthology, and The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with the poet Nada Gordon and their two cats, Dante and Nemo.
RODNEY KOENEKE is the author of Musee Mechanique, Rouge State, and Empires of the Mind: I.A. Richards and Basic English in China, 1929-1979. He lives in Portland, Oregon with Lesley Poirier and their son Auden.