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Aaron Beasley interviews Rodrigo Toscano
Aaron Beasley: So much is often made of poets’ responsibility as citizens of the world, the communities they inhabit, the country they occupy. Jen Benka recently argued that “it’s poets who have always served as our country’s conscience.” As a poet, do you feel beholden to a larger body politic? (Is the answer different when we talk about poets in the world instead of poetry in the world?)
Rodrigo Toscano: In this political climate, I am resistant to making overarching claims about poetry or poets. I have a deep urge to pare things down, so much so that I am refusing to write, or so it seems. I am also acutely aware that I don’t have to do any of this poet stuff necessarily—My work life doesn’t depend on it, my immediate relationships don’t need it, my body doesn’t require it, and I don’t cling to the identity of a poet when I move in the world. If at this point in my poetic career “society” expects something out of me in terms of social responsibility or commitment or whatever, I say fuck society. You see, I don’t want to “attend” to the current moment, I want to be another moment. In a way, a “conscience” functions as a reminder of past values. And that’s fine, I totally get that, I’ve even cultivated a vulnerability to that. But now, no, absolutely not. The times are tricky. Many new ideological traps are being laid every day, especially around the notions of identity. People are going mad with throwing down for identities of every kind, many of them in contention with other identities. But this is not the only time that has been tricky. I’m thinking of Malcolm X, precisely as X. It wasn’t just Malcolm the heady black writer who was acutely distressed, or a Malcolm hearkening to a proven past, it was X, of no precise definition, no promises therein, no peremptorily traceable trajectory henceforth. Of course, everything that I am saying right now is “problematic.” Alright. But I’m staking out my ground right here in this out-of-cards mode. I’m not coming back to the table to serve up old saws, or wade through endless “complexities,” to play the poet hero—which, of course, is sounding very much like some version of the poet hero. See what I mean! It’s monstrous.
AB: To go large a moment before dialing it back, it seems like you’re describing a kind of risk or wager, a gamble with a sense of history at stake (or am I reading too much temporality in your use of “cards”)? One hears the murmur of an argument happening at the poles of playing too safe and playing too close to the chest, neither of which eludes the problem of historical unpredictability, or chance. In certain (mostly academic) circles it seems that the position of patient vigilance or silent reflection would contradictorily deal in both: a too cautionary bystanderism that simultaneously risks ending up on the wrong side of history. Leaving aside the possibility that history, that record of winners, might end up with no “right” side (though this too is perhaps impossible, all things self-determined), wouldn’t endless “complexities” actually make matters worse—in a good way? Where do you see these intellectual traps forming?
RT: One of the traps to avoid would be picking up the baton where we last felt socially “sane,” or rather, less battered by the incessant sirocco that is Trumpism. That would mean jettisoning the belief that a sheer quantity of more worthy deeds or being better informed—whatever we deem that to be—might result in a tipping point that qualitatively jerks new realities into place. I rather agree with Slavoj Zizek’s provocative injunction, “Think! Don’t act!” You see, in my day job, it is exactly the opposite, or close to it—rallying cries like “don’t mourn, organize!” predominate. Poets, to my way of thinking, are in an excellent place to enact precisely a forestalling of expected returns on moral or ethical investments. They can, with some effort, unbuckle the demands of social time from the needs of social space. And whatever is revealed in that strange moment of suspension, if only vaguely sensed, need not be parked onto a discursive grid by naming it. But even the notion of “effort” needs to change (hey hey, ho ho, agonistics have to go!). This, of course, does not preclude one from learning, and even championing (with tactical care) movements like the Fight For Fifteen, Black Lives Matter, or the lightning bolt that is the #metoo movement. But I think it is important for poets to resist becoming professional virtue signalers. We can do much more, and quite a bit less. Again, engaging some notion of X as radical fugitivity (with a barricadist’s élan), spurns me—“onward”? See! How prefigured the road signs of “resistance” can be?
And as far as any sprouting “complexities” that might “make matters worse [for the Trump/Putin/Orban/Duterte et al cultural-political landscape] in a good way” well, the “might” part of that proposition, I’m open to. At the very least a trained, ready rejection of nationalist reductionism won’t add to the damage. But we have to continuously examine what we say, write, or even daydream about, whether it contains elements of the preemptively victorious. Rubble, from the previous House we inhabited, is at our feet. There is no reconstructing it (neoliberal status quo ante + <left or right> nationalism), no way to resurrect the subject (resistant or collusive) that made hay out of it. And now the word “repurpose” is ribbing me for a say. Why don’t we ignore it a bit and see if it has enough chutzpah to make its way into the conversation later.
AB: If I am reading you right, but even if I’m not, it would seem that one of the supplementary (necessary?) contributions that poets can make to the symbolic is a careful activation of a plurality of speech/thought functions beyond the tacitly declarative or wishfully imperative. That poets might complicate the modes of demand, indeed of desire, as well as interrogate the forces underwriting that yet-to-come, or forestalled. It seems like the slightest victories in the U.S. political scene carry both a hard-won relief and pre-eminent anxiety: Alabama elected its first Democratic senator in a quarter-century and within a day the FCC canned net neutrality regulations. These are of course broad targets with not-yet-manifest collateral. (As you say, examine! think!) Do you think, then, poetry has any decisive potential with regard to how such collateral effects get processed by society at large? Or is some hermetic clean-up due at the Unacknowledged Legislators Bureau?
RT: On September 12, 2001, I found myself about 500 meters from “the pile” (as emergency responders then called the remains of the WTC towers). That summer, I had been training members of the Utility Workers Union in health and safety practices, and so I was able to ride to the site in their trucks. Between being transfixed by eerily de-purposed objects, such as fire engines reduced to chest high pancakes of steel surrounded by thousands of day minder pages scattered among a sea of concrete dust (some inscribed with to-do’s of months past, others with projected plans), I had to find a spot to pee. I chanced upon small hotel whose staff and occupants had hastily evacuated leaving a trail of personal effects strewn on the floors and stairwells. The Charybdis of the day before had already swallowed up not just the definitions of relations between people (and objects) but the very understanding of the social time undergirding those relations.
I crave a poetics of resolute historical recognition where radical repurposing of the remains of immediate pasts is at a premium. And I want to sense myself as a collateral effect, first and foremost, before moving on to the representation of causes and projected results. You see, in our epoch, we’re crazy good at stuffing our heads with globs of information encased in emergent (and often, purely defensive) affectual armor, but we’re not so good at ghosting historical experience. And that’s where poetics (not “poetry” per say) can lend a hand. Ghosting would first entail that speaking subjects be unrestricted to temporary forms of authority gained by remaining within the social locations supposedly proper to them (“as an American” “as a Mexican-American” “as a pan European” “as a Diasporic South Asian,” etc.). Those subjects would embrace forms of Global Citizenship that stem from root needs and desires of The Living as opposed to the diktats and strictures of Finance Capital and its state networks. Second, the horizons of the Future Living would be thought of as para-individualistic—neither autonomist individualistic nor fully sutured collectivist. In this way, the concept of collaboratively conjoined intellectual/emotional/psychic labor is philosophically eons away from wanting to become Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators, or worse, Pound’s “antennae of the race.” So I’d say, yes, I’m interested in, or rather imagine a poetics of decisive potential that, in bright flashes, recognizes (but doesn’t “know” per say) its phantasmal self amidst the torn up, the crushed, the pulverized; a poetics of newly sprung alter-nows pressing their way forward towards a futural form of universal agency (X) that’s not yet entirely (if ever) “ours.” Short of that, it seems we’ll be relegated to retrenching back into whatever identities are most available to us. And that, judged from the present moment, seems to invite deep fatigue and empty antagonisms.
I am thinking about the progressive grassroots Indivisible movement, which is currently picking up momentum with chapters in hundreds of cities. The movement is far from revolutionary, but it does recognize the spectral quality of the current moment, that a page has been not “turned,” but torn out. The loosed-knit organization basically acts as a central meeting place for new or seasoned activists and resisters to Trumpism to integrate their local/regional efforts into mass action, something like the Tea Party but from the Other Side (important not to express that as Left). So, from ghosting to real monster. And you have to love the name, Indivisible. Long gone might be the days (and merry ways) of the Postmodern Dukedom and its fiefdom of divisabilities.
AB: If we try to understand the stakes of a psychology of the “futural,” I think one would need to meet that decisive potential, or any sense of “recognition,” with a measure of both doubt and hope. Yasmin Nair has spoken of the conscious (self-conceived woke?) Left’s turning away from the unconscious through an obsession with spectral coherency, with performing its dutiful, hygienic logic of ‘right’ word & deed. We trade the mess of drives for narratives of “piety and penitence” ("professional virtue signalers" as you put it) and invariably end up in the self-assured echo chamber, or what Nair calls, a “deep void of blandness that we mistake for politics.”
Apart from your activist work with multiple dimensions of labor, you have kept some creative distance from the movement style of poetics, which is often given satiric, playfully-serious treatment in your poems. You came on the scene (long before I read poetry) amid the post-Language diffusion of poetic practices, yet simultaneous with the seminal productions of Flarf and Conceptualism. At this still-early stage of our immersion in the Trumpist era, have we reached a moment of post-movement poetics? Or do you see an Indivisible-esque emergence of poetic thinking, one that might reconsider the kinds of divisibilities that shaped/dismantled collective frameworks prior to 2016?
RT: The practice and legacy of Littérature Engagée—the idea of the artist’s responsibility to society, especially as defined by Jean-Paul Sartre, namely, that people existentially define themselves by consciously engaging willed action—has, by now, quite a long and traceable history. Myself, I look at “commitment literature” as one plot along a matrix of many possibilities of social marking. A good part of my poetic trajectory has, up to now, shown a strong tendency to exfoliate and exacerbate the tensions among multiple modalities that make up a “social mark.” I’m neither for nor against the modality of alignment literature, per se, but I can tell you that I generally loathe art and literature that doesn’t employ some kind of contrast in its composition. But do I think that we’re in a post-movement poetics? Not necessarily. I just think that not owning up to, or better yet, not completely embracing the vertigo that is being produced by a sense of historical time unbuckling will not get us anywhere in terms of paths towards liberation. Somebody might say, “but, we measure the sense of social ‘time’ by our very steps along the path, not by metaphysical meditations,” yes, but the “accomplishments” are not merely of this time (though they may even be immediately useful); and that's what I said at the beginning of this dialogue, that I want to be another moment. This thing of thinking one’s self a node, instead of a relay, I think is holding us (“humanity”) back. A relay has completely different set of responsibilities than a node. Nodes defend identities as against identities—to the death even; relays see the current going both ways, and measure progress by differences in potential. People, for example, often ask me, how can I spend days, weeks, months listening to Alt-Right podcasts. The simple answer is I assume that we’re all constituent of the overall epoch we live in. Sometimes the right is revolutionary (in a horrible way, of course), and not understanding the dimensions of that can be fatal.
In terms of whether certain “divisibilities” should be rehabilitated, people have to decide that for themselves, but from my view, I don’t see the point, given that most divisibilities return like zombies anyway. I could very easily unfurl a laundry list of concrete movements, and deliberate on how to shape those movements, but I simply can’t bear to at this time. I think I captured that dilemma in a piece called, “Clock, Deck, and Movement” from Collapsible Poetics Theater. In that piece, one of the readers repeats variations of a phrase with a machine-gun rapidity. This is done as the other readers are intoning more static (“visible,” “understandable”) junctures in the social realm. The refrain goes like this:
jerking-it–around-to-see-what-it-knows-and-what-it-can-really-do-ness, to jerking-it–around-to-see-what-it-knows-and-what-it-can-really-do-ness, by jerking-it–around-to-see-what-it-knows-and-what-it-can-really-do-ness, as jerking-it–around-to-see-what-it-knows-and-what-it-can-really-do-ness, jerking-it–around-to-see-what-it-knows-and-what-it-can-really-do-ness this of…dot, 6, siege / counter-siege / siege / counter-siege / siege / counter-siege…spipping a freeze to frizz a spupping to grot grot grot: it’s like i—like, could like—not liking it, “it’s their fault we don’t live in radical times”, it’s actually, our fault, man
There are fourteen permutations to that particular module, all honing in to the crux of un-sayability as sayability. You can watch me reading the variations (circa 2008) here.
But I also think it’s time now to do fearless test runs on Whoever The Hell We’ve Now Become (as political subjects), rather than strike a voyeuristic, “critical” stance unto The Era. The poet Sandra Simonds, for example, seems totally bent on a radical immersion into this modality. In her writing, she lets her “self” be split into multiple personas that are totally and not totally her at the same time. And alongside that “self” are hosts of strange societal bedfellows, unwitting perpetrators of their own oppression or momentary motions of freedom. So there’s a ton of bardic ghosting going on that’s not yet discursively explainable, but that feels essential to a re-tooling of political volition. And it’s not achieved by means of slippage (since the early 90's, people have invested in either willful or accidental discursive slippage as harboring a place for potential liberation), but rather through rank pushage and crashage. So again, there are many modalities to the political besides alignment of the so-called person (node) to preemptively graspable “movements.”
AB: Your points here resonate with a passage I just read in the third part of Will Alexander's troika, “On Higher Phlogiston Current,” where, speaking to Aimé Césaire (or his “extinguished presence”) he says, “I could place your flaws in my hand/ & break them/ & scatter broken advice/ making it linger through ghosts/ in undeveloped refrains.” Césaire similarly embraced the vertigo of his social time, embodying a profoundly emancipatory politics while dissenting from Aragon's official PCF (Parti Communiste Francais) doctrine of socialist realism, diverging as well from Senghor's essentialist mode of negritude.
What strikes me in various encounters with your work is a mobility of the word that is both durable and durational. Where a more discursive practice might look away from the disconcerting volatility of language’s slippage (or crashage), your poems turn that granular instability into a testing ground where thought, subject, predicate, proposition, and preposition face elemental re-articulation and yet still obtain the impression of something said, if unsaying. Since we have more or less discussed here a question of thought (but engagement in action) that requires a continued movement at one moment, and a moment’s rest at another, can you say something about your writing practice in light of these states/processes of being? Is your thinking about a futural political volition in any way tied to, for instance, your deployment of permutative refrain?
RT: You know, Shakespeare invented more than 1,700 of our common words—changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. And I can tell you that I spent sixteen years in New York City attending “experimental” reading series, and I can remember only a dozen or so instances where poets took a chance on the practice of actual lexical contorting. It’s mind boggling how absolutely conservative most poets are. If you look at the kind of poets that most institutions lionize, you’ll start to see the actual barriers to the reception of revolutionary poets like Césaire and our contemporaries that have an irrepressible bent to de- and re- particularize, detour, and salvage language. Of course, poets do not have to stress and test language at every point, but to never do it—that, to me, speaks of a passivity toward the social itself, given that the social depends so much upon language. But The Social is also fatigued by the corpulence of words that point to it, starting with “social.” The same goes for The Body, and, by now, “body poetics.” But, I do believe that more needs to be done in that poetic direction. At the end of the day, mind is body, and body is the barter of the system. But the semanticathons many of us have engaged in, have no doubt turned off battalions of would-be poets that might have contributed mightily to the understanding of and perhaps kicking to the curb of the worst abuses of language in our epoch. Then there are the quiet poets. So good. So essential. So indispensable. Simply because they don’t exist. There is no such thing as a quiet poet. Every line of poetry is a pair of symbols crashed onto your nose. But it’s quite what I want, a quiet poetry, one that’s activated bodily, and phantasmally aware of history’s wiles. In terms of my own practice, like dead flora in the stomach after a heavy round of antibiotics, after the battering of the political moment, after the poor absorption of even my best contemporaries, after the aches and bloatedness and bad mood, it needs to come alive again, slowly, and needs to be fed the right nutrients to do so.
But about this “futural political volition” issue: Think of a horizon you’re heading towards, gazing on its most distant edges, barely visible, a blurring of land and sky, but still a line, and after that, more blurriness, followed again by a line, and so forth. What is more vital for a poet, to keep looking for the line, or to arrive somewhere? I’d say it is remaining open to the very intensity of that question that makes for the renewal of political volition.
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