Devil’s Lake


Interview with Gabriel Gudding

Q: I read your interview with Adam Fieled and I was really struck by several questions you posed about experimental and post-avant writing. You said you wondered why "post-avant" writing is so white, why so few "experimental" poets write anti-war poems. That interview moved into asking how, in your teaching, you attempt to, in Fieled’s words, "enable the poetry world to broaden its cultural scope." I’m interested, though, in cycling back to the questions you asked: why do you think the "post-avant" tends to be white? why the gap between "political" and "experimental" writing. I’m interested also in your relationship to experimental writing, particularly flarf and conceptual writing. (And those were your original quotation marks around "post-avant" and "experimental," which makes me wonder if you have questions about those terms.)

I have no relationship, that I am aware of, to flarf and conceptual writing, aside from knowing some of the poets in those manufactured arguments. More important, those poets in turn have no genuine relationship, that I am aware of, to experimental writing.

Most poetry is ethically empty. Writing ethically efficacious poetry is, I feel, the goal of genuinely experimental poetry. The schools you mention, as far as I can see, have no interest in doing that.

I think it good to remember that poetry business in great part is a system of entraining attention. The debate that exists between the two camps you mention is a pseudo debate, one that was cynically fabricated. The purpose of that debate, and in fact the purpose of most literary movements, is to create what Adorno would have called a false need—a manufactured sense of lack around which an economy of attention can operate. Such movements are strategic modalities whose goal is to accrue cultural capital. They don’t in themselves have anything intrinsically to do with experimental writing. They are instead excrescences of show culture, manufactured spectacle. The debate between those two camps is manufactured, as were the camps themselves, with a cynical eye toward poetry-news making over poetry making. When critiqued on precisely this point, those involved in these false debates make gestures to show that their positions are merely ironic and mimetic of the already false nature of all aesthetic valuation. The upshot is that the participants in these fields gain value and attention precisely because of their own ethical emptiness—by both those not in on the supposed joke and those who feed the joke in order to benefit themselves. And there are sociological reasons, laid out nicely by Pierre Bourdieu, why certain kinds of art function this way. Bourdieu shows that such struggles for capital in the field of cultural production tend to become so intense that socially relevant and ethically momentous content is removed from the art in the struggle to distinguish itself. In a very basic ethical sense, then, these debates have nothing to do with "experiment" or even with writing. They are instead ethically empty and cynical methods of accruing cultural capital. They do however serve as an instructive example as to how orthodox art will feign its own unorthodoxy, will feign a vibrancy, as a means of acquiring capital.

So, it’s easy to succeed in the field of poetry. The problem is doing so in a way that is not disgusting. My sense is that if those of us who really care about experiment and writing as a means of ethically engaging our world are to stop manufacturing false needs through poetry, we’ll need to cease treating poetry as both a kind of country music (a methodology of musical nostalgia) on the one hand and a hipster cage fight on the other (pick latest post-avant movement) and embrace instead a basic attitude: just as Stoics like Epictetus felt that any philosophy that did not teach someone how to live her life in a flourishing and ethical way was useless, so also is any poetry that doesn’t do this useless. We’re here to love one another, to help one other live a flourishing and just and happy life, doing so, incidentally, while being surrounded by the causes of death, and if some movement wants to treat its art like a Seinfeld episode, go for it, but there is more than enough ecological and social injustice and ignorance and harm needing to be addressed to persuade us that fabricating spectacles over syntax and form and methods of poetry composition, aleatoric or otherwise, is not just a waste of energy, it is an act of ethical stupidity.

Q: When you were in Madison, you read several translations. I’ve also seen that Rhode Island Notebook was translated into French. I I was thinking about that reading and your work as I was reading the conversation between Ilya Kaminsky and Adam Kirsch about translation in the March 2010 Poetry. In that conversation, Kirsch expresses doubts about the ability of translation to really accurately convey the spirit of the poem. So I wonder how you think about translation, particularly about its value and its limitations. What do you feel you’re getting when you read work in translation? How did you feel about your own work being translated?

Not having read the dialogue between Kaminsky and Kirsch, I’m not sure what Kirsch might mean by the spirit of the poem. I do feel we too easily as poets and lovers of poetry encourage ourselves to think of poems as precious artifacts whose textures are subtle and limpid and anchored in a kind of platonic realm of aesthetic vibrancy and unchanging purity and whose meanings are eternal and hard-won and coaxed from some rare state of inspiration. If we take that view, privileging poems as precious artifacts with delicate auras, treating them as easily scuffed and brittle delicacies, then sure, you can’t translate the spirit of such objects. But if we consider that poems are themselves commonplace, though beautiful and sometimes terrible, temporary accidents that are always and continually being transmuted, if not translated, by dint of semiotic drift, such that their novelty and meanings and sounds, even when anchored on the page, are shifting and eroding and continually being lost simply by the motion of the calendar, meaning that it’s miraculous that their intended and found meanings inhere long in them at all. If we consider that, then the act of translating them into another culture’s network of sounds, passions, associations and cities does not seem like such a humanmade and unfortunate exercise in loss.

Certainly large and gross features of a poem, which might be called, maybe not per Kirsch, its spirit, can be rendered well: anger or gratitude or a thesis. But obviously often with a poem it’s precisely the subtle elements that can cause it to lodge in the imagination—and those can of course easily be lost and are more often than not in translation necessarily abandoned in order to reach for some other emerging accident arising in the act of translation. I’m a fan of following such accidents and abandoning, within reason, authorial intention in the act of translating. But some translators can do both brilliantly. My colleague Kristin Dykstra, for instance, is a pioneering translator of contemporary Cuban poets, and she does a consistently ingenious job of rendering their work with extraordinary accuracy, in terms of thesis and sound and texture, while still moving their work into English with a remarkable vibrancy. When I translate, however, which I only do occasionally, I’m much sloppier with authorial intention, and I take many more liberties in order to reach for interesting accidents. I’m very undisciplined that way.

As to reading my own work in translation: I’ve always found that really enjoyable. When I can read the language into which it’s been translated, I get a great kick out of it. So, when it’s been translated into French and Spanish I’ve some inkling as to the choices made by the translator, but hearing my own work in Danish and Vietnamese is downright freaky, as those language are so foreign to my ear. If you’re asking whether I mind that any translation of my work is inevitably "mis"translated, no, I don’t mind that in the least. Unless someone does something heinous. But generally I’m happy it’s being translated, and I trust the poets writing in those languages to render it into something that, hopefully, works well.

Q: Given the structure and content of Rhode Island Notebook, I’m interested in your ideas about the role and limits of autobiography in poetry. In writing Rhode Island Notebook, what limits, if any, did you put on yourself? The journey itself creates a kind of structure, it seems, but there’s also the issue of attention and selection, the question of what you record from all the many possibilities. You call Rhode Island Notebook "a book about a journey, dedicated to a daughter." How is that idea of "dedicated to" different from "written for"? In other words, it’s dedicated to a daughter, but it’s also a book, a public document aimed at a far wider audience than just a daughter. How did that doubleness of audience—daughter and poetry-reading public – shape your writing of the book?

Great questions. Well, I’m not sure I imposed any limits on myself so much as I made peace with and assumed the limits already involved in writing a book responding to Iraq and national psychosis and divorce and severe depression while driving in one’s car. The book began not as an autobiography but as a means of making something useful while spending 36 waking hours behind a wheel every weekend and a few times a month. The book is necessarily a chronicle of stuff that occurs in the interstices of a life: the divorce and my relationship with Clio happens almost entirely outside the limits of the book: you can hear it coming from the edges of the travelogue. So, though the book is first person narrative and ostensibly "my own" voice without a persona, it’s not really autobiography, or even diary: it’s annotation. In fact, in some sense it’s not even literature, as much of the writing is substandard stuff I chose to publish precisely because it was bad writing. As to how the doubleness, as you put it, shaped the writing: it did so profoundly. I found myself simply thinking of my daughter as part of a wider audience, while it is clearly a book whose content at times is very embarrassing and outside the bounds of what are considered typical parentally appropriate subjects (erections, etc). The impulse was this: here is a tiny being with whom I had a unusually bright and strong connections (Clio and I are very similar and strongly connected, even when she was very little) whose growth I am removed from: I wanted, more than most things as a parent, to provide her a broad collection of memorabilia and "calendar points" as she grew, so that she could feel that her childhood life did not have any severe memory loss, deep lacunae, in it. This had been my impulse with her from before she was born: I recorded the first 1,478 words she spoke referentially, her first sentences; I made many scrapbooks of her childhood, including such items as the upholstery from her first stroller, etc; I kept diaries for her that filled hundreds of pages; I took up photography and bought an old manual SLR Minolta in order to record her growth and childhood. And I did this to give her a rich childhood, anchoring her solidly as a being with a strong sense of her own past, even naming her Clio, muse of history. And then, through divorce, I was removed from her. And I resolved that I would simply continue in the same vein on her behalf, recording what was, recording what was true in my life, even if she couldn’t see it or read of it or understand it for years to come. Too, I did this for myself, because I had lived through too much abuse in my life to that point of divorce — but this time I wanted to force myself to remember and to grow from the trauma, to make something of it in spite of the difficulty.

Q: You’re on sabbatical now, working on a project, I believe, on time. Could you talk about that project, its origins and what you’ve learned?

I have two projects going: one concerning rivers, the ecology of the notion "river." The other is a kind of cross-generic (essay, poetry, aphorism) study of the history of clock manufacture and how clocks influenced the moral epistemology of culture. Part of the work highlights the ways we have in recent centuries conceived of "time" first as a theological entity, then as a geologic, astronomical and as a mathematical dimension. Our sense of the "amount" of time that surrounds us has ballooned exponentially since the 17th Century, profoundly altering how we treat one another. So, those are the two things I’m working on. I’m enjoying it – and actually finding time to paddle around on some pretty amazing rivers. Thanks for your questions.

GABRIEL GUDDING is the author of the books Rhode Island Notebook (Dalkey Archive, 2007) and A Defense of Poetry (Pitt, 2002), the chapbooks Congratulations on Being Here (Paper Kite, 2010) and To a Sun at Anchor (Observable Books, 2008). He teaches ethics, critical poetics, literature, and experimental poetry writing in the creative writing program at Illinois State University.