Gary Sullivan

Carol Mirakove

[This interview was culled from an ongoing e-mail exchange between Mirakove and Sullivan. Some of the passages have been "cleaned up" so as to flow more as an interview, but for the most part, it's a cut-and-paste job. We weren't sure whether to do it as a "dialogue" or as an "interview"; it wound up being a little of both.]

Gary Sullivan: What kind of response have you gotten from WALL?

Carol Mirakove: Keston Sutherland, a dear friend, wrote some provocative and thoughtful comments on it to the BritPo list regarding, in short, what can be "said" per the poems; Ethan Fugate, also a friend, wrote a generous review of it in The Washington Review in which he compares my poems to experiments in quantum physics; and Elizabeth Treadwell gives some attention to gendered presences in the poems in How2. That’s more attention than I expected. The otherwise majority of the response I’ve felt has been about enthusiasm for the cover.

GS: Well, it's a pretty great cover. And, really, what's there is picked up from the work itself, so we see these kind of "Ped Xing"-type signs of various words and ideas or types-of-words ("pronoun") used in the body of the book. And, of course, I think it's an appropriate way to show these things, definitely in keeping with the spirit of the text. There's a kind of almost pixie-ish cynicism to the pictures, and, really, your poems have, at least to me, these poems do, have this same kind of pixie-ish cynicism, this wonderful balance between, you know, totally cynical (possibly unredemptive cynicism? what Sianne Ngai might call "raw matter") and playfulness, almost naïve, but not finally naïve, since playfulness really requires intentionality. You mentioned Elizabeth Treadwell, and what she says about this aspect of the work rings true for me: "She's charmed me by titling one of her pieces 'barrette' and it's not merely (demurely?) about cuteness, though that tendency has its place in her register, which strikes me as legitimate. (Especially as it's one of the languages that's deeply pressed upon / negotiated by females in their formative years.)" Does this strike you as a fair set of comments? I realize that, in a way, describing your work as having a kind of "pixie-ish cynicism" runs dangerously close to something Chris Kraus says in I Love Dick about that word "quirky" as it's been used to describe (and downplay the importance of) certain women artists.

CM: Yeah, I appreciate Elizabeth’s comments. The barrette is something for a female described as a "TV mantis / placing her neck on the guillotine," and I have a sense that it’s appropriate. Cuteness isn’t going away as a cultural thing, and the humorous aspects of it can be appealing, especially when undercut. The real problem with cuteness in and of itself is that (1) it remains a strictly feminine adjective, and (2) there’s no response to offer in the face of "you’re cute." But taking cuteness for its redeeming factors, the joy and playfulness of it, I want to say that a lot of Dubuffet’s works involve cuteness. Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys is cute all over the place. Is Stein ever cute? Shit, even Kool Keith can be cute:

are the monsters
of the original Mister Softee
ice-cream trucks.

Your "pixie-ish cynicism" is different from "quirky" (1) because "pixie" is not a cliché argument, and (2) because it, unlike "quirky," is not by itself in the adjective slot. If you were to say I’m a pixie poet, well, I don’t think the agility factor would carry the day.

GS: You quote Mina Loy in the book, and some of the work actually does remind me, a bit, of Loy. I mean, she does this really odd (to me) kind of melding of the satirical, the personal and the really wildly experimental, or "oblique," I guess. I remember some of this from your live reading at the Zinc Bar last year, I mean, I remember it having these qualities, although the personal element of that really came through mostly through your reading of it aloud, which as I guess I've told you before, was incredibly passionate, as though these things (like the work environment stuff) are being taken personally. Which, I mean, how can't it?

CM: It is personal, and it’s not. Example, the woman supervising my professional role as a systems analyst at the time I wrote "meticulous," she was difficult to work for because she didn't treat me as someone who had a life, and that was personal; but her attitudes were more symptomatic of a much larger problem, and on that level, it wasn’t personal (although of course she "personally" does fuel corporate dehumanization).

GS: I guess, to begin, I want to know what the title's doing, WALL, which in the context of poetry, my immediate association is Philip Whalen's:


which he inserts in the middle of a poem, several times, as though the wall is between what he's attempting to address, I mean the fact of being in the process of writing a poem, and then this sudden, you know, WALL ... and then, a bit later on in the poem, we get:


(of books)

which is kind of funny, how Whalen often slips back into this sort of studious bumpkin personality. (Ginsberg once chastised him for being too bookish, which Whalen I think took very personally, even going so far as to address the charge in an interview.) But, that's of course not the wall we're necessarily talking about here. In Whalen's case, I wonder if it isn't that wall of ... well, History, I guess, if we think of that as his own knowledge of let's say literary history & other histories (including personal), that do come up, and perhaps more often than we're even aware of them, as an impediment.

But in your case, I think, the wall is something more social, or more directly, immediately social, "the culture," maybe, or what the culture does. I still don't quite understand it (which is okay), although it feels appropriate as a title for these works, in this order.

CM: Yeah. I wasn’t aware of the Philip Whalen connection; my title might be simply explained by saying I was hooked on Creeley for years, almost exclusively, and I enjoyed the flexibility afforded to me as a reader in his open titles. I guess when it came time to do my chap, though, WALL seemed a bit vague for the poems, but I didn’t want to change the title of the book. That’s why the cover became important. Jenn McCreary, who was a wonderful editor to me, suggested the jacket cover format, supported the cover design, and then imagined & acquired the interior orange cardstock.

Your thinking on the title is in line with what it meant and means to me: it's a social / cultural mass, each of us a block. Of course it doesn't break down that neatly, but it was supposed to / once upon a time. The speaker is opposed by the wall, the speaker is part of the wall.

GS: Why did you choose the stuff you did for WALL out of all your work?

CM: I had the concept for WALL before I wrote it; I didn’t choose poems after the fact. WALL was one of the sections of my MFA thesis, given a few minor adjustments. My thesis was called Welcome to Concrete, which I got from the movie This Boy's Life. I’d have never watched if not for my affection for Leonardo DiCapprio (then of The Basketball Diaries) and my friend Emily Lloyd’s knowledge of that affection; she’s the one who told me to see This Boy's Life. Leo, at one point, is forced to relocate again because his character’s mom gets re-married, and he approaches home past a huge smokestack that says WELCOME TO CONCRETE. Concrete was the name of the town. & I thought every town should bear that sign in some capacity. So then I had this book-thesis thing to do, and I decided to use Welcome to Concrete as the title. I’d make it in 2 sections, one called "wall," which started with the same Debord quote that's in the chap, and another called "block to block," which started with Robert Creeley: "we break things in pieces like / walls we break ourselves into / hearing them fall just to hear it." That’s funny when I typed that I accidentally wrote "hearting them fall" or "we break ourselves into / hearting." Happy Valentine’s Day.

The basic distinction between the chapters was that "wall" was going to be written in political subject positions, and "block to block" would be written from lovers’ positions, friend-love included -- i.e., one who’s in the company of high celebration and intense criticism. & this is not to say that the poems in WALL aren’t intimate and interpersonal, but the positions in WALL are so strongly informed by politics and culture. When it came down to the choosing one for my chapbook, "wall" was more complex; in terms of my value system, it merits a level of engagement that the block-to-block chapter doesn’t.

GS: I want to address something specific to this book: The notes in the back, which I don't think people often do, but which I think shows a kind of interest, for you, in contextualizing the work. So there's this kind of tension between: The Poem Says It All, or the poem is supposedly self-evident, its own instance, but that you're not comfortable necessarily with that prospect, and want I guess remind us that things are contingent, they need context for understanding, or that we at least ought to understand, be cognizant of the fact that they're NOT contextless, that, really, finally, nothing is.

CM: The notes, yeah, I take context pretty seriously. These notes are practical and specific though -- I felt compelled to attribute sources, and to give credit, especially to Pynchon, & to also document the influence of the data warehouse people & MCI. I didn't want footnotes under the poems because they would dampen the visual aesthetic w/ some sort of academic-feeling clod. I don't want readers to deal with asides, or to suggest that the notes are critical to the poems.

Your point about The Poem Says It All versus the poem is supposedly self-evident, yes, I remember confronting that issue reading Susan Howe's The Nonconformist's Memorial, and I’m grateful to her for that lesson in reading. I appreciate that the information is there if you want it, but you're not forced to use it. BYOC: Bring Your Own Context (you will anyway -- ).

The overwhelming presence of information is a huge deal in the present-day, disturbingly titled "first" world. Volumes of information are seeping into my head whether or not I'm aware of it. I think I try to be aware that I couldn't possibly be aware of what’s affecting me, and how that affectation comes to me. I write through it, both the mass and the anxiety of responsibility that comes with the access. So this right here is The Thing for me: looking at what’s shaping our cultural and political climate, and what might be brought in, both in terms of the structure of the poem and in terms of vocabulary.

GS: Your book begins, as you continue, to seem like a kind of playing with the poet's position(ing) and "function" ... "I am / a prophet" ... but who's "splashing a big logo" ... as well as "breathing fifty riffs of hair / clapping" which is almost a surreal thing to say, a kind of surreal image. And we get all of the kinds of things later played out further in the book: poetic language, a sort of acknowledgment / play with "business", and of course these huge social edifices like the taj mahal, I guess seen as a kind of wall.

I mentioned Mina Loy because "navels" sort of seems "of that realm" to me ... it's oblique, but it also feels like something's kind of being satirized, and by satirized I don't mean like Saturday Night Live, but just, you know, examined in that critical way that satire does. And this is true also of "parergon," where you purposely choose the more difficult (at least so far as anyone seeing it and instantly recognizing its meaning) word, for "frame," and the whole poem is just, I mean it's beyond me what it's about, I feel, again, how I do sometimes reading Mina Loy: Wow, there's this very odd and cool language here, but I can't "add it up" or even get a kind of mental foothold here. Except there's a sort of hardness here, where I do feel the words were chosen purposefully. As though the words were being taken from a personal constellation of references.

CM: Your comment about lacking a mental foothold is hard to respond to; I’m often without a mental foothold myself. For fuck’s sake, slavery is a raging business and people are being convicted of crimes based on their political powerlessness, rendering them incapable of effectively resisting crimes of the State. I can’t add it up, either. It seems appropriate to address that in my poems.

GS: Can you unpack that word "address"? First, do you mean that in the sense of acknowlegment, or something more active, a kind of incorporation of this state into the poem? Secondly, can you talk a bit about the political value of doing this?

CM: First, I mean both; I mean it as acknowledgment of a specific (but not certain) set of things, and the incorporation in which breathing & breaking occur in the acknowledgment process. Come on, I was raised on Creeley, of course I’m going to say form and content sleep together. Secondly, the political value of doing this, well I can’t pretend to know that, but I guess I can say a few things / I’m sure they’ll feel inadequate … it seems valuable to juxtapose two seemingly disparate items or manners and have them groove together, and/or to achieve dialectics in language and thinking. I think the act of practicing new structures can suggest that our established structures aren’t only the deals to be had (they seem to not work a lot of the time). In art, we have more choice than anywhere else, as far as I can tell. We can make choices and take risks that aren’t already invalid. I mean, when you’re negotiating money or power, you don’t have those choices; those rules are hard and long to challenge. But in art, the options are there for the taking. & then further, a reader has to make decisions about the logic of the poem, and what it values.

At Bard last summer, 12 of us were reading Joan Retallack’s Icarus Fffffalling, and when we got to a $, 12 people yielded 3 different translations: "dollar," "dollar sign," and "money." I enjoyed the "money" response.

GS: Okay, "lesson forty-six seven zero zero" is great, just beautiful, and the absolute absurdity but also TRUTH of: "The future belongs to organizations that can search massive quantities of disparate data" ... really wonderful.

CM: Right, and here’s how the notes’ function of locating context can be useful: "The future belongs to organizations that can search massive quantities of disparate data" is not mine -- that's a direct quote from a book on data warehousing, which I was required to read during my short tenure as a systems analyst. What a terrifying job that was! No one had any clue nor care about the social implications of all these data structures. And in the dawn of e-commerce, I hear similar language spoken without irony that terrifies me; "moving bodies" though web sites, web page design in terms of "real estate"… how people casually use the word "branding" never ceases to stun me: the human brain as the ass of a captive farm animal.

So this is why I don't think an artist’s source material needs to be a work of artistic genius. Cage seems to have disagreed with that in discussing his writing through Finnegan’s Wake, but I've used all kinds of crap. It's important to purposely handle language you otherwise wouldn't. And investigate language you don’t necessarily respect. Didn’t you write Dead Man along those lines?

GS: Well, yes and no. Dead Man was entirely collaged from Mickey Spillane's 30-odd novels, and it was definitely a kind of investigation; specifically: "What is narrative? How does narrative work?" It begins with two epigraphs, one from Spillane, and one from Maurice Blanchot's Death Sentence. In one sense, Dead Man was an American rewriting or "translation" of Death Sentence; I mean, I was literally trying to remember that book -- which I hadn't read in years -- and to rewrite it, but only allowing myself to do it with language culled from Spillane. But it's also a kind of investigation and critique of more-or-less contemporary French literary theory, a sort of taking things like "the body is a text" or whatever to their logical, "fictional" conclusions. The primary inspiration for this was The Firesign Theater -- who, by the way, are my all-time favorite "crap-into-art" alchemists -- records like Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers and of course their ongoing "Nick Danger" series. But I was also really inspired by Johanna Drucker's Dark Decade, Ted Berrigan's Clear the Range, several of Tom Veitch's wonderful collage novels (one of which he wrote with Ron Padgett) and even James Sherry's In Case, which I found and read while I was about halfway through with the book.

There's a way, though, that it functions, I think, very differently from your use of "crap" language in WALL, and it may well speak poorly as to my own political engagement: I was trying not to write another collage novel, something that would be seen, immediately, as a kind of politicized commentary on hack writing like Spillane's, but to put myself into this position where I was, finally, really trying to write something more-or-less narrative-based, but loosely so. It actually took much longer to write than it should have; mainly because I got confused during the writing of it: Now who was this character again?

CM: And it’s in the reading, too -- I have been ashamed of myself reading that book, because I’ve tried to piece together who is doing what to who, and what has "happened," in very traditional ways. And I really don’t read that way normally! -- it happened like a reflex. So I think that Spillane’s language as reassembled by you reveals to me further the power of trained thinking. Dead Man has the feel and language of a mystery, so my immediate response was to read it as one, rather than to allow the language its own path.

GS: Yeah, I mean, it's set up that way, as a kind of trap, and you do rely on your reflexes: I mean, all of the signs of a "real" mystery novel are there, and aren't completely messed with until at least the second chapter, I don't think. And you're not the only one, by the way. A reviewer of it for The Poetry Project Newsletter apparently read the book similarly, and even went so far as to make at least one assertion as to what was actually going on in the plot that was nowhere in evidence in the text itself. I think -- given a set of circumstances which are not entirely known to you, not entirely graspable -- you can't help but speculate. It's a similar situation and impulse, I think, that drives philosophy. Anyway, so this really was a "mystery," albeit more on the level of "what the heck is going on here?" than on the level of plot. What is going on there, by the way, is really -- well, that certain more-or-less recent theories of reading and writing (as well as my own "theories" and preoccupations) are being tested, critiqued, played with.

I don't know if it makes for interesting, or even "fun," reading. The ideal reader, to me, is one who completely falls for it as a plot-driven book, and then slowly but surely realizes everything else that's actually being played with. Or realizing that, okay, the plot as such may appear to be falling apart, but the narrative is still running, because, for instance, when I say that one character "had picked up a tail," he literally suddenly has this tail, swinging back & forth from the base of his spine, and then has to cope with that. Talk about "quirky"!

CM: I know, and I love that in Dead Man -- how it's insanely unreal in its literal-ness!

GS: But, to bring this back around to WALL, there's this sense I have from some people that collage, plagiarism, appropriation, and so forth are all finally dead issues, have been played out. I obviously disagree with that ... and I think you definitely have shown in WALL some of the ways in which this impulse continues to generate new, often surprising, work. Part of what I like about it, as you use it, is that it's not instantly recognizable as cut-and-paste, there's a way in which you take even the most heinous language, and make it yours -- or the poem's.

CM: The most heinous language is not usually short on impact. I'll use heinous over boring anyday. I mean, if the heinous language is out there, in our culture, & it's fucking it up, makes sense to try to wrestle it and expose it for what it is.

The issue of intellectual property rights has been played out? I doubt it. ... Anyway, that assessment is unfortunate because it treats the act of use in itself to be the item at hand. And I'm with you, the points of interest are how and why these sources are used -- the syntheses and situations yielded in the new texts.

Carol Mirakove Work Online

"rental mental" at The East Village
from WALL at Readme

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