by Johannes Goransson on Mar.31, 2013
[Matt Miller conducted the following interview with Mark Tursi. Matt is a poet and scholar, author of the book Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass and professor at Stern College in Yeshiva University.]
Like many of us, Mark Tursi wears many hats. In addition to being a poet, he is the co-founder and editor of the online journal Double Room: A Journal of Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction, as well co-editor as of Apostrophe Books, a press focusing on “poetry intersecting theory, philosophy, cultural studies, and pataphysics.” He has published two full-length collections of poetry, The Impossible Picnic (BlazeVOX Books, 2007) and most recently, Brutal Synecdoche (Astrophil Press, 2012), as well as a chapbook, Shiftless Days (Noemi Press, 2007). Tursi teaches at New Jersey City University and at MoMA in Manhattan. This interview was conducted via correspondence in early 2013. As a disclaimer, I would note that Mark is a longtime friend. – Matt Miller
Miller: With a new book out and your online journal, Double Room, about to make a comeback, we have much to discuss with respect to you personally, but I would like to start with a more general topic and work our way back to your work. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on where you think poetry is at right now. How would you describe the current scene, and what are some of the specific assumptions and challenges you see for poetry in the twenty-first century?
Tursi: Describing the current poetry scene isn’t easy. I think this is largely because one of the distinguishing characteristics of the contemporary situation involves excess. That is, it is marked by profusion, overabundance and multiplicity. But I don’t see this as a crisis. It makes some people uncomfortable because it complicates the scene and presents many challenges. Such variety and diversity threatens easy categorization and dismantles many established lineages or paradigms or schools of thought. This is a good thing. Poetry should make people uncomfortable.
But, it does mean sometimes wading through a lot of work that you might not find personally compelling or interesting. Though I would prefer this situation over scarcity any day. Such a profusion of publishing forces our hand as writers and editors. The publishing and reading possibilities are numerous—and in the American scene at least—almost anything is permissible. Generic distinctions are being dismantled and multiple aesthetic and stylistic potentials are explored. So, how does one find an innovative poetry, a unique language that is compelling, noteworthy and remarkable? That seems to be the greatest challenge.
As a reader and writer this is simultaneously exciting and frustrating. There’s so much to read and so many ways of seeing and reading to negotiate. As a teacher too this can be a challenge. When teaching contemporary poetry one can no longer rely on categories and labels like Beat Poetry or the New York School or Surrealism. It’s not that these aren’t part of the discussion – they definitely are – but it requires a broader cultural and historical context, and I also think really forces us to contend with each poem on its own terms. I don’t mean simply a close reading in a New Critical way (though that is part of it too), but I mean really contending with the text itself and situating the poem in the present and trying to figure out what the poem is doing via its own logic and universe without the “aid” of labels or pre-established lineages. I certainly don’t think we need canonical filters or some established poetry authority to determine what’s good or interesting. One way I’ve managed to do this personally is to find certain “scenes” or niches and then I attempt to really explore those fully– you simply can’t encompass everything. I use a kind of “rhizomatic” approach (in the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari). I immerse myself in a work and see what different (non-linear) trajectories it suggests. For example, in a course I teach at MoMA on art, literature and experimental film, I teach some Stan Brakhage films that have led to some really weird and diverse paths: the 18th-century mystical poet, Novalis; Rosmarie Waldrop’s Inserting the Mirror, Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation and two short stories, “Altmann’s Tongue” by Brian Evenson and “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme, as well as some philosophy regarding the sublime by Jean François Lyotard. Pretty weird and disparate connections, but I think the students dug it. And, personally, I love taking these different flights thought.
Also, I do think reviews have become even more quintessential these days. Serious, well-written reviews. I guess they’re a kind of ‘filter,’ but I hate to use that word. I mean, I wouldn’t want reviews to limit my scope as a reader, but they do help shortcut a path to some good finds. I’m talking about a review like American Book Review or Rain Taxi, to cite just a couple of examples– there’s also a profusion of reviews! But, you can see pretty quickly in a well-written review what the work is like and if it’s something you want to pursue.
I guess the scene is vibrant and maddening at the same time. I think a lot of poets from our generation have realized this, and it can be quite liberating in a way. I mean, when you and I were doing our MFA’s I think there was this necessity to know all the new hot poets and all the lineages – to really be on top of things and embarrassed if someone mentioned a poet you hadn’t read. Now, that’s simply impossible. It doesn’t let us off the hook—I mean we have to read more wildly and profusely and diversely than ever—but there’s no way to contain or encompass the American scene, let alone the global poetry scene. One of the things that bothers me most is when people think the poetry scene has to be a certain way – there’s even a new kind of digital canon afoot; i.e. that you have to be constantly online and engaged with the poetry blogosphere to be relevant. This is another bullshit kind of restrictive canonization. Sure, many of the online discussions are invaluable and often engaging, but there are some great scenes in local communities that are just as important. I’m kind of lucky being in the NYC area, because there’s so much happening everywhere that it’s dizzying, which is actually a pretty a good word to describe the scene overall. There are so many ways to be a poet today, why let some establishment voice or singular view—old or new—limit your vision and scope?
Miller: The profuse, unsorted abundance and variety you discussed does seem to be a central characteristic of today’s poetry. How do you approach the situation as an editor? You have produced several books through Apostrophe and also co-edited the popular online journal, Double Room. I’d like to hear about your thought process in dealing with these problems and possibilities hands-on.
Tursi: There’s a lot of interesting work out there, but I think a poem needs to be more than just interesting. I’m not necessarily saying a poem needs to ‘move’ me emotionally, but I do want to feel some urgency or immediacy and/or have my brain twisted in knots in some intriguing way. If the writer isn’t struggling with nihilism at some level, I doubt I’d be very interested in the work. That sounds more sweeping than it is. There are numerous ways to deal with the possibility that life has no inherent value or meaning or that the whole human endeavor is absurd without being overloaded with gravitas. Writers from Artaud to Ashbery or Olson to Edson confront nihilism in some way.
Double Room and Apostrophe have unique niches, which can be helpful in dealing with this problem of ‘unsorted abundance.’ As you know, Double Room is devoted to prose poetry and flash fiction while Apostrophe is interested in ‘genre-bending’ poetry that intersects philosophy/pataphysics/cultural studies. But, you’d be amazed at how many people don’t even read the call for entries, let alone our books or the journal itself. So, when people send verse poems to a prose poetry journal, it’s pretty easy to cut, or if people send manuscripts to Apostrophe in the Robert Frost or Billy Collins aesthetic – also easy to cut. Perhaps that’s one of the downsides with excess and abundance – lots of writers who don’t actually read. But, we do have a lot of excellent work submitted to Double Room and Apostrophe that I truly admire, which makes it difficult to reject, but our budget is miniscule.
I tend to like poets that read widely in philosophy. I’m all for mining the unconscious, but I think poetry and fiction writing are endeavors that should be as rigorous as anything in philosophy. I don’t think this is the same thing as the well-honed workshop poem either. I’m kind of a champion for the postmodern, but a postmodern aesthetic doesn’t simply mean gimmicks in style. At the very least, one of the things gained from postmodern theory and philosophy is a deep interest in language itself, otherwise it’s a bit like chewing on Styrofoam. I like what Viktor Shklovsky says about this: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” He was talking more in terms of visual art, but I think the same can be and should be applied to poetry.
But, I confess that I’m a sucker for dark humor, virtuosic language and strange juxtapositions with bizarre images. And, being somewhat mystified or disoriented in poem has its own reward—say, something like Flow Chart by Ashbery or anything by Will Alexander—but I have to really want to stay in that space either through the language and diction, the imagery and rhythmic energy, the internal logic or engaging anti-logic, the possibility of a narrative (even if never fully realized), the political or philosophical intrigue, or the subject matter – something to compel me forward and maintain my attention either musically, viscerally, emotionally, psychologically, or intellectually.
Miller: You phrased it in terms of personal taste, but I wonder if you would be willing to make a larger claim about work that is “struggling with nihilism at some level,” as you put it. Do you feel that this kind of struggle, in its various forms, is central to our ethos in a broader sense? If so, I’m curious about how you differentiate between “the Postmodern aesthetic” and what came before it. Is the central problem of post-modernism (can it be said to have one?) the same as that of modernism only with different flavors? Or are the flavors really the important thing? I realize this is an enormously complex topic, but I would be curious to know what you mean when you use the phrase, “the postmodern aesthetic.”
Tursi: Perhaps I’m being a bit too glib with my use of “postmodern aesthetic.” It’s easy shorthand for what I think amounts to some significant paradigmatic shifts in philosophy, literature, poetry and the arts in general. Some argue that Postmodernism is simply an extension of Modernism; different “flavors” as you put it. Or others argue it’s a significant change in our position toward reality and the human experience. I lean more toward the latter, but I wouldn’t get too worked up about it. As writers, we’re always responding to our current social and cultural milieu in some way, and conversing with the texts and writers who came before us. I think that this contemporary moment is vastly different than the world of Yeats, Pound and Elliot and worthy of its own unique designation and historical periodization, but I’m not sure it’s all that interesting or useful to get too bogged down in the terms.
However, with that said, I do think period labels can be quite instructive, even if inherently problematic and limiting especially if one regards the categories in a rigid and inflexible way. Literary epochs are a way to historicize and contextualize. Certainly, there is a risk in relying too much on easy labels, whereby we end up focusing exclusively on the ways in which a certain text is consistent with or subverts the label, rather than the often more difficult work of immersing yourself in the text and the specific ways in which the writer responds to his or her own cultural moment. Can you read T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein without talking about Modernity and Modernism? Certainly, but it would be a pretty incomplete picture. And maybe the “incomplete picture” is fine as a reader, but it’s not if you’re teaching Modern Poetry, for example. So, I don’t think it makes much sense to eschew all labels, movements or epochs as academic claptrap, which some critics do. This kind of thinking amounts to its own breed of narrow-minded dogmatism. There still exists a strong anti-Postmodern backlash in the poetry world and segments of academia. A lot of critics and readers attack it with a rancor and vehemence that seems a bit ludicrous to me. There’s certainly a lot to criticize in Postmodernism, but there’s also a lot to criticize in previous epochs and paradigms. Undoubtedly this rancor is connected to misunderstandings or misgivings about Postmodernism’s connection—some significant and crucial and some erroneous ones—to Poststructuralism, Deconstruction, Feminism, Cultural Studies and other critical trends that are in many ways connected to Postmodernism. But perhaps this is a bit off topic.
I do think that our struggle with nihilism is probably central to our ethos, but I’m not sure how to formulate that as a broader claim and a way to distinguish between Modern and postmodern poetics. I’ve tried, and it keeps sounding a bit like this: if Modernist writers are obsessed with making meaning in a meaningless universe, then perhaps Postmodern writers can be said to be obsessed with highlighting this meaninglessness and abandoning meaning, or dismantling what once seemed like the promise of something meaningful. At first glance I find this kind of interesting, but I’m not willing to stand by the claim. I think ultimately it’s a gross generalization and probably not very accurate. Were Beckett and Joyce—two writers who I think represent a certain pinnacle of Modernism—obsessed with making meaning? That would be a hard one to argue if you’re slogging through Finnegan’s Wake, where meaning may be one of the primary concerns, but there sure as hell isn’t any kind of nostalgia for a more unified center. I’m not trying to be coy, but, as you note in your question, it’s complex. So, I would still maintain that the struggle with nihilism is central, but I don’t want to overemphasize it as it overshadows some other areas that deeply interest me: especially ideas regarding the imagination and the sublime. One interesting way to trace the intellectual changes from Modernism to Postmodernism is looking at discussions of the sublime from Burke and Kant through Wordsworth and Coleridge then through Lyotard and Žižek. There are really some extreme shifts in the way the sublime has been conceptualized from epoch to epoch.
And, in terms of postmodern poetics, I think others—Marjorie Perloff, Jed Rasula, Pierre Joris, Jerome Rothenberg, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, and a whole cadre of younger poet-critics—have nearly exhausted that, so I don’t think I can add much new to the inventory of characteristics already out there. But, I did come across something recently by Lara Glenum in an essay called “Language is the Site of Our Collective Infection,” which is pretty great. It’s a bit like Guy Debord and Situationist International (“we live within language as within polluted air”) meets William Burroughs (“language is a virus from outer space”). Although I don’t agree with the entire list, it’s pretty fabulous and a great example (for me) of Postmodern Poetics. I’ll just quote one of her points: “The use of the lyric ‘I’ does not confess a self, but rather a raucously messy nest of conflicting desires and proclivities that can be costumed this way or that. Don’t try to resolve pesky disjunctions in your identity; savor them and tap them for their cultural power. Don’t edit the noise out.”
Miller: It seems to me the critical, controversial quality of what we are discussing as post-modernism is its coolness. I’m thinking of that word in the sense that musicians use it when discussing jazz: the spectrum of hot to cool, passionate to detached, sentimental to analytic, and so on. The modernists regarded as closest to the post-modern are the cool modernists (Stein, Duchamp, Francis Ponge) and the “hot” modernists (Yeats is a good example) seem the most distant. The cool version of PoMo is a porridge too cool for readers who are not academically trained, and recently, there seems to have been a backlash against it among a sector of those who are, even among those who had previously relished in the cool. If there is a unifying quality in younger poets I admire, perhaps it is a tendency to advance some of the adventurous strands of modernism, while still reckoning with the problem of what, if anything, to compose of ourselves and our lives.
I bring this up because I believe your poetry negotiates this issue in an intriguing way. Where the resurgence of identity too often evokes hysteria or irony, in your poems autobiography seems as natural as self-consciousness, and you seem alive to your emotions even as you are able to treat them as phenomenon. In your new book, poems like “In Magpie & Mongolian” eschew wit in favor of reportage and journal-like notation, which is juxtaposed against ambitious philosophical speculation. I would love to hear your thoughts on negotiating the self in your writing, how to keep it real without succumbing to the torpor of received forms or the glibness of facile irony.
Tursi: I like your characterization of that poem. It is probably the most autobiographical piece I’ve written. It began as a kind of exercise in form when I was in my PhD program and in a workshop with Cole Swensen. I can’t remember all of the specifics anymore, especially since the poem changed quite a bit since then, but I do remember certain details. In fact, it was in part based on a received form. I was working with the Japanese form, the Haibun, which remains intact for large sections of the piece. My experience of the Haibun is mostly with Bashō and is based on vivid description of day-to-day events during a journey reported in prose (the reportage / journal-like sections) followed by haiku. The prose sections are typically concrete details and the haiku ostensibly offer some kind of epiphany or insight at the end of the day’s journey. I tried to follow the form but also critique it, tweak it, and even poke fun at it a bit. It turned out that this was a really interesting way to negotiate and blur categories, borders, boundaries, and margins on many levels. First is the formal negotiation between prose and poetry. Second is my grappling with the form and structure itself and how that coincided with my daily experience. And, third, was my own interior and exterior negotiations and reflections. Part of the poem was written in the early stages of a relationship with my now wife, Sunya, who is Mongolian. We were still trying to figure out some immense cultural differences at the time, which is both exciting and difficult. It was all good fodder for this kind of writing.
Typically, I resist autobiography in my poems. Partly because it is always there inserting and insisting itself. There is no way to escape, transcend or erase the self, despite how hard we might try. And, for me, this is an essential part of poem making. That makes me a bit of a follower of Jack Spicer: get out of the way of the poem so the green Martians can broadcast a clearer transmission. I wonder if that puts me in agreement or opposition to the Glenum quote I made earlier?!? Anyway, I am always trying to get the ego out of the way of the poem, but in this piece I kind of just let it go. I guess it was a kind of Zen approach. In other words, I forgot about artifice and the different apparatuses I often construct to squeeze out the ego and just let the poem go where it went via the concrete details of my day and of my thoughts and reflections about those daily events. Though I should probably also mention that it’s not completely “nonfiction.” There are certainly fictional elements to the narrative.
The other parts of the poem—the intertextual passages and quotes from philosophy and history—were based on books I was reading at the time that seemed to intersect in deeply interesting ways. I was kind of lucky in that sense. There are even direct passages from the Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia, which I find fascinating, especially the way in which their suggestions or cultural rules (the do’s and don’ts) do or do not match-up with reality, or at least my experience of it. I also like the way things get characterized in these very practical, no nonsense ways, but how, in fact, the nonsense is often the most intriguing and interesting aspect when visiting another region or experiencing a vastly different culture. So, the poem is about my day-to-day reality, but this Zen approach allowed it to really morph into something quite far removed from a conventional lyrical/confessional poem – at least I hope. It is a discovery made explicit in the poem itself; i.e. Desmond’s agapeic astonishment: “a condition of mindfulness that is between: nonknowing and knowing.” I like to think that at least. Sidestepping the ego by not worrying about the ego. This isn’t really a formula for the ways in which I negotiate self or identity in all my work, just this particular piece, I suppose.
Miller: So it sounds like some of the poems in Brutal Synecdoche were written before the publication of your first book, The Impossible Picnic. I would be curious to know more about the history of its composition and what factors lead to its organization. With a few noteworthy exceptions, the book struck me as darker in tone and vision than The Impossible Picnic, which overall seems more inclined toward wit and sometimes humor. I’m wondering how much of this tone or consistency reflects conscious structuring on your part versus a phase of your writing or sensibility that is being unconsciously reflected. On a related note, I would also be curious to know how you conceive of poetry books in general: the trend toward “project books” as opposed to just collecting one’s best recent work, for example. To what extent–and how–is the book for you more than the sum of its individual parts?
Tursi: It’s partly true that many of the poems in Brutal Synecdoche were written prior to The Impossible Picnic. Some were written around the same period as the poems in my first chapbook, Shiftless Days, and were originally part of a single manuscript that I was calling “Overlapping and Oblivious to the Other,” which is a line taken from a Russell Edson poem and was part of my MFA Thesis. But, I don’t think it really cohered as a complete manuscript, so I broke it up into a book and chapbook and then realized I still had some significant work to do on both. In fact, I had to let the poems kind of simmer for a while. I usually get a great kind of great buzz after I finish a poem and especially after I feel I’ve finished a book. I feel a real jubilant high, and I’m actually excited about the work. But, this doesn’t last. Weeks, even days later, I find myself kind of horrified by the work – even despising it to some extent. It’s weird – an almost complete reversal. But I realized that if I let it sit for a while, then I can revisit it with more lucidity. Sometimes my initial impulses stand, but often not. Anyway, it was with The Impossible Picnic that I saw the poetry book as a more unified (even if cacophonous and fragmentary) project, rather than simply a collection of individual poems. I don’t think all of the connections are self-evident or straightforward, but that book has several different unifying trajectories: imagistic, philosophical, linguistic, political, etc. So after finishing this project, I revisited older poems. I revised many of them, let some stand, and wrote new ones. This eventually became Brutal Synecdoche. As a result, I think there are a lot of different “poetic registers,” i.e. varied styles and gestures and forms.
What I began to see when I revisited the older poems was the concept of the self and of identity as a synecdoche. So that became quite significant—but not as a modus operandi, more of something akin to loud background noise—the entire time I was putting the manuscript together. I find synecdoche fascinating and often brutal. It’s in part the fragmentation of identity, but the attachment between tenor and vehicle in a lot of synecdoche is really the most intriguing aspect. I mean, there are really fun ones like “bar & grill” where you see the etymology built in the terms themselves. But some of our most brutal insults in English are synecdoche: dick, prick, cunt, asshole, etc. I also think there’s something synecdochic at work in racism; i.e. the racist sees only one part of a person—their skin—as the entire person and then begins to formulate prejudiced notions based on irrational and ignorant perceptions about what that skin color means. It’s also part of sexism and misogyny when men—particularly—see only the woman as individual erotic parts. I know I’m being a bit reductive and I’m certainly not saying that eliminating synecdoche would eliminate racism and sexism, but I do think this is one way to investigate these issues, that is, its construction and emergence via language. So anyway, I began to see the different ways in which we construct our identities and our perception of the world and others via synecdoche. I tried to follow this impulse in considering the entire book. So, the form – ala Olson/Creeley – was in many ways a direct extension of the content, which is its own synecdoche, I suppose. I’m not sure it’s fully realized, but I think I’ve hit on something that I’ll continue to investigate. My current manuscript—“insects scraping at the dreams of people sleeping uneasily”—probably has the clearest connecting structure or cohesive framework yet and also deals with some of these ideas of identity but in surrealistic ways.
Miller: I’d like to conclude this interview by discussing a subject I know you’ve given a lot of thought: the “surrealistic ways” you mentioned at the end of your last response. As a proponent of the enduring significance of surrealism in poetry, as well as a longtime teacher of the subject of the relationship between visual art and literature, how do you feel the influence of surrealism has unfolded? How has surrealism been exploited and transformed by more recent poets? Finally, I wonder if you might be willing to attempt to relate surrealism back to the problem you identified as central to your own poetics at the beginning of this interview: nihilism.
Tursi: Surrealism is certainly one of the most significant philosophical, artistic and literary movements of the 20th century. Its influence in literature and visual art is tremendous – for better or worse. I think there is a lot that passes for Surrealism that is not. Simply a list of bizarre and incongruous images is not Surrealism. In common discourse, “Surrealism,” has come to be used synonymously with “weird.” I remember after the 9/11 attacks, people kept referring to the event as “surreal.”This is really off the mark. If anything, it was hyperreal. But with that said, I also realize that this is how language works – usage changes meaning. So I try not to be overly prescriptive, but I do think that in the context of poetry and visual art it’s important to know the history and context of the movement, especially if you are attempting to make surrealist moves and gestures in your own work.
I remember my first significant encounter with Surrealism. It has really stuck with me. I think I probably encountered various ‘neo-surrealisms’ earlier in high school via Allen Ginsberg and other Beats and via the New York School poets. And also, a kind of psychedelic surrealism in music lyrics by the Grateful Dead, but it wasn’t until I was freshman in college in a course with a professor named Robert Keesey where I first encountered ‘true’ Surrealism. It was in an Intro to Lit course and we were reading the very first edition of “Text Book” by Robert Scholes, et al. This was 1988. In addition to the French Surrealists, it was essentially my first introduction to artists and writers from Sigmund Freud to Giorgio de Chirico to Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes to Italo Calvino to Jacques Derrida – a whole host of important thinkers who were very formative in my early days as a student of literature. Anyway, there’s a chapter in the book, “Surrealist Metaphor,” with this passage from André Breton:
. . . there go the fuses blown again
Here’s the squid with his elbows on the window sill
And here wondering where to unfold his sparkling sewer grill
Is the clown of the eclipse in his white outfit
Eyes in his pocket . . .
This really blew me away. I’m not exaggerating. There was something in this and in the idea that poetry could disrupt conventional ways of thinking and challenge our daily habits of thought that was just awesome. So, I’ve always been into the spirit of Surrealism, rather than the letter of the law of Surrealism. You mentioned that this interview might be posted on Montevidayo. I know there are some regular readers of that blog that are rather purist in their thinking about Surrealism and will probably attack me for what I see as a more open-minded approach. I think the kind of purist French Surrealist dogma is partly what led to the demise of the movement. The other reasons are numerous: historical pressures (WW II, Naziism, etc.), as well as the emergence of Existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre, etc. (but that’s another story). When Breton was crowned the “Pope of Surrealism” by other Surrealists, it wasn’t a compliment. You can see the attacks made after I put out a fairly innocuous announcement asking for other writers to put forward names of writers who might be considered Neo-Surrealist. Anyway, I am very interested in the legacy of Surrealism in its many incarnations – not a cookie cutter definition that excludes artists and writers who are using the influence and impact of Surrealism in exciting ways.
Some critics see Surrealism as an extension of Romanticism – a kind of pinnacle of the Romanticist trajectory. I don’t agree entirely but there really is something to this, especially in regard to nihilism. I think the early Surrealists had a Romantic vision of human experience, but certainly not a romanticized one – this distinction is important. Their poetic turn, in part, was an inward and nostalgic one – an effusive and unapologetic idealism. Breton’s notion of a super-reality and the possibility of “ending all the principle problems of life” is hyperbolic and over-the-top, but also profound in its way. And, Breton himself saw Romanticism as a continuum, going so far as to suggest that its function was to create “a new general conception of the world.” This resists nihilism in wonderful ways– a poetic panacea of sorts. There was this profound sense of loss because of the war and it was coupled with the failure of art, literature, reason, mind and imagination to stop it or even contend with it (according to Dada and Surrealism). The feeling of malaise and alienation as a result must have been tremendous. But their optimism was fabulous – a feeling that we could access and regain a purer primordial and antediluvian idea of humanity first wrought by our ancient ancestors is really wild. Through Surrealism, ostensibly, we could access parts of our unconscious that were lost and thereby return to a better version of reality and human experience.
I think that many of the Postmodern Surrealists or Neo-Surrealists have abandoned that kind of optimism and even the existence of a single and stable consciousness. Some, like Will Alexander, Andrew Joron, Robert Kelly, Clayton Eshleman, George Kalamaras, and Robert Bly still seem deeply interested in a kind of mysticism—maybe a linguistic mysticism—but I don’t think they have any pretensions of a super-reality that will solve all the principle problems of life. Or the Fabulists like Russell Edson and James Tate who continue to blur the lines between dream and reality, conscious and unconscious as well as exploring human paranoia, guilt, stereotypes, values and shame. In a lot of this work, we definitely see what Breton called “a wild reasoning of madness” or what Edson calls “dreaming awake.” Then there are poets like John Ashbery and Rosmarie Waldrop, who have confronted problems of meaning and communication in wildly interesting and disparate fashion that reveals a parallel kind of oneiric disruption as the earlier Surrealists. Ashbery, for instance, has several methods – one is by building meaning, so the reader expects a kind of philosophical epiphany, but then he just pulls the rug out and we’re left with nothing. Or, he just allows meaning to erode, so all that’s left is the debris. It’s a Surrealist madness of consciousness through erosion rather than juxtaposition. Waldrop does it syntactically and through a kind of anti-logic (non sequiturs, post hoc fallacies). So, I think the early Surrealists are still tied to a stable ego and the existence of a stable consciousness in the most Freudian sense, whereas a lot of the contemporary writers I like to read seem less metaphysical and more pataphysical (ala Alfred Jarry and the science of imaginary solutions). It still means contending with nihilism but through uncertainty and possibility.
One way to look at poetry, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben seems to, is that its very nature and existence is always already a response to nihilism. And he really makes a positive turn here in regard to nihilism. He’s fiercely critical of human experience, but also incredibly optimistic. He views human existence as possibility or potentiality by conjoining nihilism and decisionism in an interesting way. Since we are essentially consigned to nothingness, we can freely decide to exist or not. The very fact of this decision demands that we are all ‘potential.’ That is, we don’t simply ‘have potential,’ rather it is the very thing that defines us as human beings. The possibility of a meaningful life—and the very notion of personal identity is self-fashioned (Foucault’s phrasing). And for Agamben, poetry enters the picture when philosophy breaks down. Susan Howe has said something similar: “Where philosophy stops, poetry is impelled to begin.” I don’t think she means it in exactly the same way as Agamben but the differences might be too complicated to elaborate on here. I like to think of poetry in the way that both these writers suggest, and I like poets who seem to grapple with the uncertainties inherent in difficult philosophical problems. I also tend to view poetry as a way of self-fashioning through philosophical uncertainty or even absurdity. Agamben, who has become a fairly important philosopher for me – and I confess that part of the initial attraction to him is that we’re both Italian – is keenly interested in language and what he calls ‘the coming community.’ I don’t quite share his optimism, which is a future for human kind that is not exactly utopian but less alienated and depraved and involves an ongoing process of re-thinking language and politics—but I do think that there’s a lot to gain from his ideas about impossibility, potentiality, uncertainty and paradox. I do like to think that literature is edifying in some way and that it does participate in this conversation toward something like Agamben’s ‘coming community.’ I doubt it can be as revolutionary as the Surrealists imagined, but who knows? It seems to me that any ameliorating cultural shifts will be gradual, sluggish transformations. But, in the spirit of Agamben, maybe it’s fitting to end with a bit of poetry? I thought of a poem titled “Who Delights in the Mind Can Delight in No Destiny” by Fernando Pesso, which seems appropriate in terms of our conversation about nihilism. He’s a poet I admire very much, and in this poem he’s writing as his heteronym, Ricardo Reis:
Who delights in the mind can delight in no destiny
Better than to know himself. To know he is nothing
Is better than not knowing:
Nothing inside of nothing.
If I don’t have within me the power to master
The three Fates and the shapes of the future,
May the gods at least give me
The power of knowing it.
And since in myself I cannot create beauty,
May I enjoy it as it’s given on the outside,
Repeated in my passive eyes,
Ponds which death will dry.