Cristián Gómez Olivares interviews Rodrigo Toscano.
CGO: Rodrigo, in NAU we are exploring what surrounds the poet and the poet’s craft. So we were immediately interested in your experience as Labor Projects Director (currently working with the Labor Institute, United Steelworkers and National Institute of Environmental Health Science), coordinating multiple organizers on the field around projects that focus on Health, Safety, and Environment. Ok, so usually, at least in Latin America, the link between labor & poetry has been severed in the last 30-40 years after the neoliberal takeover (even though the “pink wave” of the nineties tried (unsuccessfully) to recover that link). But beyond that, one doesn’t often see avant-garde poetry taking on issues of social justice and/or issues of state-market-body-control like we see in your poems. So our question is, how do you manage that link? Do you look at your work like that? As actively striving for that link? Or do you see your work as variously engaging other topics or core concerns?
RT: First off, I want give a mention to four of my colleagues (and there’s many more!) who are creating incisive and expansive interfaces between labor and poetics: Jill Magi, Jeff Derksen, Jen Fitzgerald, and Mark Nowak.
But yeah, you’re right, this dense neoliberal fog (and who’s truly, fully exempt from its effects?) is obscuring even “labor” unto labor. So, a good portion of my poetics has been to ideologically explore the derangements of the very DNA of labor movements. I’ve engaged the issue on a scale ranging anywhere from laboristic thinking on the economies of word exchange values to allegorical treatments of social manifestations involving labor actors in “real life”. But you’re asking if linking my day-work to my poetic dream-work is done on purpose, so to speak. And the answer to that is, yes, but not from “my” purpose, per say, but from a purposiveness that precedes me, or rather goes through me in ghostlike fashion towards futures unknown, the same purposiveness that bedevils the billions that inhabit this planet as well as propels those billions to make – billions more. I want stand exposed to that reality as nakedly as possible, and poetry is the barest and most elemental art form that I know of to do that.
On a more practical matter, coming up with schemes for book-length poetic projects is something that has preoccupied me for the last decade or so, like in Collapsible Poetics Theater, Deck of Deeds and Explosion Rocks Springfield (though my first published book, Partisans, presaged that orientation by eight years). I’m not content to pump out individual, separable poems, and then aggregate those poems into “collections”. But rather, the pieces must interrelate to each other towards constructing poetic platforms that can themselves perhaps stimulate cultural workers towards building platforms of their own. In this way, we can have broad conversations about tectonic political shifts in aesthetics and try to correlate those shifts to newly emerging social conditions. All this said, I should add, I’m not a yes-man homo politicus, in the sense of censoring what might act as a temporary contaminate to political aim. I very often proceed as an opposition within the opposition. As Brecht is famous for observing, I see contradiction as the very life force of any aesthetic endeavor.
CGO: It seems to me as if there might be two different (and apparently separate) forms of representation in which you are engaged. On one hand, and I quote you, the economies of word exchange values would point towards a concept that encompass the symbolic realm inside the capitalist/neoliberal dynamics, one in which the word acquire a “value”, a transactional value within the cultural capital market. On the other, “the allegorical treatments of social manifestations involving labor actors in “real life”” would indicate a more testimonial kind of poetics. Can’t be both reconciled? Is that, in part, what your poetic project is about? To inhabit that hiatus? To bridge it?
RT: I should say that there is no central “about-ness” across my nine books, either formally or in terms of content. But there are, indeed, aesthetic tendencies and concerns that over time become identifiable to readers. One of those persistent tendencies is my inclination to stress test social utterances against one another, at the level of the word, the line, the stanza even. I believe that it’s only by testing language that we begin to understand its range of valences. And the results of those experiments immediately puts my poetics onto terrains that are more unstable than not. Both “author” and “reader” are challenged to apply a fair amount of mental agility in navigating those terrains.
I should say too that there’s nothing more unappealing to me than to encounter poetics that dole out assurances of meaning, or even worse, prescribe emotions that are meant to buttress said meaning. It really rattles me to read or hear people indulge in high Romantic aesthetics, where utterances are strung together to act as a harmonic backdrop meant to support mere sentiments. I like rigorous counterpoint, I like sharp contrast. I resist tonal centering in my work, although I am also not an atonal poet by any means. Some of my favorite music (music I actually play on the keyboard) is late Renaissance / early Baroque. I find that transitional periods in culture reveal deep tensions and contradictions within and between systems of meaning making. And my oeuvre to date seems inclined towards formally arranging such revelations. My works might be well characterized as radically syncretistic. The descriptor of “avant-garde” (a-g), doesn’t really fit the work. Avant-gardes of various stripes have often struck me as being overly concerned with purity of stance. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that a-g’s draw bright lines in the sands for aesthetic progress, but I am not one of those people who easily abide by strict delineations. And embracing that attitude also takes me out of “reconciling” and “bridging” games, because to play those, I would have to be legitimately anxious about the contradictions of different signing strategies. I am not. I want to, with varying degrees of intensity, inhabit cultural-political transitions in order to feel and express their tensions.
CGO: Would you agree with me if I say that these tensions are better expressed through translation? Is translation better suited to inhabit and to express those cultural-political transitions? You have previously said, here and in other venues, that you are a poet of contrasts. Is the splitting of the self into multiples personas (always hyphenated, always in transition), as it happens, for instance, in Sandra Simonds’ poetry, and the work of Mónica de la Torre, a performance that can happen more easily in a translated text? And related to this: do you have a take on why there are so few translations published in the US?
RT: There’s actually an abundance of translations being published in the US. Now, more than ever. Perhaps the books are not as publicly visible as they should be, but that’s the usual and unfortunate fate of poetry. To name here just a few presses that publish vast amounts of translations: Green Integer, Guernica Editions, Ugly Duckling. And then there’s Action Books, which is almost exclusively translations. Matter of fact, there’s whole magazines dedicated to translated works, like Circumference.
Now, in terms of what I think about translation as an arena where cultural-political tensions get best expressed. Well, I wouldn’t say “best”, but, yeah, I agree that a text in one language translated into another, activates scenarios for political investigation. But here’s my problem with raising “translation” into the highest realms of poetic praxis. Most readerships and live audiences simply don’t have the interest or opportunity to take a deep dive into the problematics of translation. If met with a certain translated work by some author – that’s it, they just take that work at face value. I mean, they don’t have the chance to feel the glide or scratching of translation in the works presented. Now, there are poets, like Monica, who actuate translations to perform their performance. And then sometimes, poets even talk directly about translation in their work, like in this poem (by Monica).
But of course, thinking about translation as a general problematic (not just from a “source” language to a “target” language) is something that I find to be essential in poetry making and presentation. Take for instance, the potentialities inherent in shifting dialects, or jumping from one kind of argot to the next within the “same” language. Hell, too many poets don’t even play with that! Me, I’m all about messing with registries of all kinds. Why? Because I feel they mess with us – non-stop. There’s dramas that are already in motion. There’s dramas that yearn to be. And then there’s dramas that might or even should be. All those possibilities I try and remain open to.
CGO: When you start messing with registries, changing from one dialect to another, one kind of slang to another, I can’t help but relate your work with people already mentioned here, like Monica de La Torre, but others as well, like Rosa Alcalá, Román Luján, even Wendy Treviño. All of them fall into the category of Latinos, which you may agree as being more of an umbrella concept than an accurate label. There are many different ways of being Latino. However, beyond topics of identity, I wanted to point out the diversity of their writing, the barrage of representational strategies available to them. That said, I can still see clear lines, people working with a more complex understanding of the word, with debts to the first wave avant-gardes, while some tendencies are more aligned with conservative takes on language, where the work is dependent on “meaning”, on a narrative. I am thinking here of people like Richard Blanco, or The Wind Shifts, the anthology of Latino poetry that Francisco Aragón put together. Does the Latino poetry world simply replicate forms and attitudes coming from the mainstream? Billy Collins kind of poetry at one side, Lyn Hejinian’s on the other?
RT: Well, let me put it like this. The overall state of “the world” of Latinx poetry is something I don’t quite keep track of, per say. Between my work and other pursuits, I have little time to sit down and survey the field. One organization that plays an excellent role in assessing and celebrating Latinx authors is Canto Mundo. Of course, I am very happy when I see new actors on the scene that are putting out strident work. Poets like Jose Luis Moctezuma and Edgar Garcia. are two poets (among others) that are really extending what it means to write from/about this Hemisphere. I think the tension that you’re referring to – that is, topic based “mainstream” poetry vs. “experimental” poetry, is something that’s largely been resolved. Mainstream got its butt kicked – two decades ago. Though still, conventional author-authoritative works get all the acclaim. But few people are really passionate about that kind of work. Even those authors’ graduate students know that it’s institutional needs that are raising their teachers to prominence. Neoliberalism needs reliable (and pliable) subjects that assert traditional lines of demarcation, like, what’s a “real” poetic experience. It needs to reproduce its subjects, over and over. And many (not all) of these departamentalistas play the game perfectly. For example, a preoccupation with the redeeming powers of poetry is something that is drummed into people from a young age. The assembly line begins there. And the product ends up in an MFA program. And the graduate often goes on to service other products. So for sure, yeah, it bothers me to see Latinx poets take easy ideological bait, sinking into hyper-personal concerns wrapped up in Latino/a garb. You see, living in a condition of split consciousness, say, between a Latin American consciousness contrasted against an Anglo (or African or Asian or whatever) “American” perspective, casts momentary flashes of light onto terrains that are largely uncharted. And I’d say it’s those terrains that afford us fresh vantage points from which to see, sense, something entirely else. I mean, look at the terrible situation that we’re in right now, globally. People are reverting to nationalisms of all kinds. How do we, as cultural actors counter that? Do we do it by doubling down on ethnic identity poetry? Do we ignore real cultural contradictions in poetry altogether? Obviously, neither. And if it’s the case that poetic activity out bounds even the intents of the poetic “explorer”, then how could one possibly get “behind” one’s own work? Or worse! How expect people to join one back there – tucked in, cozily trusting the poet’s intents? I suppose I am ineluctably drawn to poetics that are institutionally unasked for, that are audacious gambits, poetics that upend their own temporary foundations.
CGO: If you’ll please allow me now to take our conversation onto another terrain that I believe is still connected with previous aspects of our dialogue. You’ve talked about “the economies of word exchange values” before, as a process in which symbolic exchanges are involved in an economy of meaning that enact logics that are oftentimes foreign to what has been part of the transaction. And in that regard, I wonder how those kinds of transactions are “translated” into your own work. What I mean is that (for instance, in an interview in Jacket), there is mention of your poetry as being “industrial”, but at the same time, given all the different layers of meaning and composition, being quite resilient towards being commodified. Do you think this has been a recurrent feature in your poetry? I am thinking of some recent Latin American literary studies, in which the so-called null exchange value of poetry is just the starting point. Some scholars like Luis Ernesto Cárcamo-Huechante and Alejandra Laera locate the work in a net of determinants that may not provide the work with an exchange value as such, however the work is still determined by market trends, literary prizes, fellowships and critical reception that tip the balance in favor of some works, schools, authors instead of others. The paradox is that poetry barely contributes to an actual surplus value, at least directly, nevertheless it is not by any means alien to its determinative influences. In that sense, what kind of niche (market niche) do you think your work operates in?
RT: Right off the bat I should say that in terms of my own poetic practice, I have never believed that there’s an intrinsic aesthetic action that “liberates” the work (or what the work points to) from economies of commodity exchange. There have been poets who, at least temporarily, believed that they were signal jamming Capitalist logics by enacting certain linguistic gestures or procedures. And those poets (like the Cambridge Marxists, or some early Language Poets) are very much worth examining. Because, you see, the resistive gesture in and of itself helps to define the dramatic interface that any given poem imagines or desires. I look at poetics as basically a problematic of drama. What does the stage (or given space) consist of, what are the elements that make up the spectatorship, how does the speaker stand in relation to the spectator? And particular word choices, or manipulations of the very morphology of words, can act as concrete instances in investigating, or I should say, exacerbating, what I call, The Shape of the poem. Shape being not typography per say, nor topicality either, but the occasion of a poem plus its intentions divided by the social make up of the “recipients” So, what might such a crazy equation yield? Maybe like 20% “real” connection, 5% work-to-be-done in common with others, and the remainder is hopefully not just mere dressing and hoopla. In the end, you can’t really control meaning, right? But you can delve into a probabilistic calculus that goes into meaning making. Fanny Howe once called this particular quality of poetic mindset, bewilderment. I like that.
As far as what “niche” my work fits into. Right now? Probably several. But, like in crime, as they say, “follow the money.” In this case, follow the publishers: Green Integer, O Books, Atelos, Krupskaya, Fence Books, Counterpoint Press. Anyone who’s familiar with these presses knows that they are, in a way, confederated projects. Quiet often, they’ve published similarly aesthetically inclined poets. Added to that, there have been dozens of journals loosely associated with those publishers. All together – certain journals, anthologies, and particular presses go on to make an overall platform for my works. But what does that platform “stand for” you might ask. Well, (and I’m rather uncomfortable with the term), perhaps “experimental”, or “avant-garde” (an odd fitting coat too). Like many a Generation X-er, I am extremely apprehensive about marketing labels. But suffice it to say, that I poetically came of age at around the mid-90’s to early 2000’s. That was when the internet was in its infancy stage, and social media (at which I currently suck at) didn’t exist, let alone dominate The Scene. Back then, for better or worse, it was all about a culture of entré, or better, put, strenuous peer review of one’s works. There was no social media strategy to blow oneself up with beyond the bounds of one’s abilities. I see a lot of that now. Hype galore for a few months followed by a decreasing number of “followings” and “likes” until a mob amnesia of particular actors (and they are actors) sets in. These days, I’m interested in representing more fully the place (“reality”) in which I live, that is, New Orleans. And my upcoming book, In Range (Counterpoint Press) is a first stab at that. Every social location one inhabits, whether it be vocational, social station, city, region/state, nation, marks one’s work in definite ways. This speaking across locations is what makes it all interesting and worth it for me.
CGO: When you portrayed poetic work as taking place in a stage (given space), when you likened readership to spectatorship, how the speaker relates to the spectator, I couldn´t help but thinking of Chilean poet Enrique Lihn (1929-1988). Especially relevant are Lihn’s stage performances as Gerardo de Pompier, his alter ego and other voice. Lihn longed for a public poetry that could emit from a lectern, in front of an auditorium, as opposed to the “privacy” of a voice secluded in intimism. His Escrito en Cuba, is a long poem that takes the form of an essay. His Lihn/Pompier is a transcription of his public performance at the Instituto Chileno-Norteamericano in Santiago de Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Another book, El Paseo Ahumada is a kind of long elegy on that downtown artery of Chile’s capital city. These examples of Lihn’s works prompt me to ask you: is your poetry better suited for an “audience” instead of a “reader?” Also, do you think that contemporary avant-garde poetry should look to establish a new contract (so to speak) with its potential readers/spectators? And doesn’t it do that already?
RT: I should begin by saying that I have no prescriptions as to what others’ poetry ought to do. Also, I don’t believe that there’s any immanent functions to poetry per say. All postulations that begin “Poetry is … ” are erroneous from the get go. The postulations themselves can be thought of as poetic acts, and the social context for those acts are what determine their meaning. All that said, in my own practice, the concept of some sort of dynamic compact between the teller and the listener, is something that I tinker with a lot. Since different words are able to transport parts of an individual’s consciousness in different ways, one might say that in the midst of being a spectator/listener/reader, that individual’s “oneness” is not entirely operable. Or, better put, that oneness is proven to be a multiple. Same goes for the writer/speaker. In the transport of meaning, The Poet is undone as “the poet.” So that between the poet and the listener (or reader) there exists a terrain of indeterminate potentiality for meaning where determinate momentary locations can be explored “together.” And so every poem for me is an opportunity to engage that fleeting togetherness. I’m glad you brought up Lihn in this respect. I’ll have to look into the projects that you mentioned. But I will say this, yet another Chilean poet is a verified master at the physics of intra-communal poetics. And that is, Cecilia Vicuña. Her performances are legendary worldwide. Few poets can exist at the zero hour of silence-to-sound as long as she does.
CGO: I’ve hesitated in asking you this next question, because it seems so obvious. But here it goes. Throughout this conversation, we’ve stressed the discontinuities in speech that you’re inclined to, their instability as well as resilience to certain forms of coercion, especially those coming from market forces. However, one kind of discourse that has been absent in this dialogue is multimedia. I wanted to introduce this issue because it is so central to many artistic disciplines today. I’ll go even further: multimedia and internet are nearly essential to so many artists now. I don´t want to talk about the “end of the book” or such nonsense, a theory rapidly debunked by the book industry development in the last decades. But maybe you’ll agree with me that these new formats might have essentially changed the way we read, and probably the ways in which we write. In that regard, are there some kind of poetry schools/tendencies better suited to exploit all that the internet and multimedia formats have to offer? Is this the future we should get better accustomed to, if we aren’t already?
RT: Absolutely, yes. The preponderance of media trained spectators is transforming what we think of as poetry. And not just in terms of format presentation, although that’s developing quickly too, but more in the way of overall consciousness as measured by the was words and affect are understood. Let’s take for instance the current practice of “livestreaming” (whose antecedent was podcasting). In livestreaming, the host (or hosts) have the option of interacting with viewers from virtually anywhere in the world. These border-crossing moments, or we should say, border-arcing moments, already flout many responsibilities to the local, regional, or even national. There’s great potential there for a whole new kind of poetics. But to achieve it, curiously, the language might very well have to be pared down to a kind of ersatz, universal interface, a neutral, you might even say, globo-techno English. That’s a real challenge. Does human language really function at its best like that? That’s one question. Another is, do such projects risk being absorbed into the circulation of capitalist logic itself? And yet, we might say, the local-regional-national, has to be wary of that same absorption, albeit, through institutional structures. So maybe that’s what we’re really talking about. How are the mediating institutions of Lit™ themselves changing (or not). Well, I’ll say, they’re largely not. Here in the U.S., The Prize World and Star System of “Liberal-Democratic” (Oligarchic-Kleptocratic) “Love of Poetry” regimes, have only strengthened. Based on evidence I’m seeing the ground, I predict that younger folks are going to walk away from the MFA mills as legitimate places where poetry gets made.
Some of the most interesting things I’m seeing right now are literally coming off the street – not from the web. Take for instance, the global-trotting, New Orleans based poet, Ben Alshire (“Poet for Hire”). Here’s a poet that owns up to poetry as industry, but not somebody else’s. He’s the worker, manager, publisher, and director of distribution all at once. He engages “the audience” – one person at a time. Public people (not MFA department staff) actually walk up to him and ask him to write a poem. This puts him in a very powerful positon to link himself to that person and whatever “topic” they’ve agreed on, as a way to navigate the global. And look!
What the Foot said to the Shoe
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I exist because:
to anything else.
(Your parents are the Chinese children
hurling themselves out factory windows.
I never asked to be bound
in the skin of the slaughtered.
What you never realized
is that pain makes me.
Stronger than you.
I used to walk everywhere naked
& never get sore.
I can do it again. Trust me.
Hundreds of poems like these fly off his 1950’s Olivetti Letteri 22 manual typewriter. The point I’m trying to make here is that a deeper notion of Technology predates our current “technology”, and it is this more fundamental (evolutionary psychological, you might even say) aggregated intelligence that perseveres us and drives us forward. Some people call that “culture”, but that term now is so besotted now by notions of “community.” I believe we need to dismantle all these staid guiding posts of poetry to get to something truly vital and edifying.