David Herrle SubtleTea Interview with Megan A. Volpert
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D: Your latest book, The Desense of Nonfense, is as playful as it is frustrating, as witty as it is prickly. It's both a pie in the face and a skewer. I enjoyed it very much. Though you cut the tongues out of authoritative mouths, cast doubt on the most granted terminology, "shit on the monuments/unaccountable" (to use your words), and brave the treachery of narrative, you kindly assure us of the existence of cartoons. Thank you! The debunking of cartoons would surely spark mass panic.
Explain (or unexplain) your intentions for The Desense of Nonfense. I wonder if the book can be summed up by the following passage from one of my favorite pieces, "definition":
nonsense is the fact
that we have so far
Or the last line of "how to read":
and so forth
M: This is a bit of a trick question. There is a famous anecdote about Ayn Rand-an audience member at one of her lectures asks her to describe her philosophy of Objectivism while standing on one foot. The idea here is that the principles were so complicated or convoluted that she couldn't explain it all in the fifteen seconds she could stand on one foot. Well, she did do it, much to the delight of the crowd in general and to the smug satisfaction of her devotees in particular. I've always been bothered by this: why is it good to be able to explain your major project in two sentences? Rand devoted her whole life to explicating the various facets of Objectivism; she should not have been so willing to stand on one foot-that reeks of writing for the tombstone.
The first piece in my first book is called "abstract." This "poem" is what I actually submitted as the abstract for my MFA thesis when the grad school refused to accept my program completion forms without one. They didn't care what the abstract said, but they did have to have one. The second section in my book is titled "please negotiate/abandon obsession/dependence with/on aboutness." People are always asking me, "what's your book about?" They are asking for a generic theme or thread, or they are asking for plot details as if it were a novel. This is a situation that I find irritating.
Maybe I have too strong a sympathy for Emerson, who said, "to be great is to be misunderstood." But this circles back to Rand in an amusing way. She has said-and here I'm hardly even paraphrasing, because it's been a long time-that if a person disagrees with some particular trait you possess and consequently judges you as villainous, it says as much or more about that person's traits as it says about your own. So you see now where that little twitch in my eyebrow comes from when somebody asks me, "what's your book about?"
I realize you did not ask this. You asked me to explain my intentions. I have been performing my intentions for the last three paragraphs. If we study a text and cannot derive its aboutness, we toss it in the bin with nonsense. There's a party going on in there though, and it seems to me like a far more interesting place to be than the place where everybody is falling all over each other like morons, trying to define themselves while standing on one foot. My intention is to go to the party. This book will get you loaded.
D: For me, your poetic power (in this book, at least) rests primarily in clever one-liners, surrealist high jinks and incongruities. Some kickass examples: "hysterical is the straight shooter/in a room full of bubble blowers," "to flaunt itself like a polka dot," "no sir you loving embrace genius motherfuckers" (a ripe candidate for a Camper Van Beethoven album title), elbow-rubbing with Lewis Carroll, Alanis Morissette, Leonard Peikoff, John Wilmot and Johnny Depp, spieling from shekinah to bukkake to Magic Eye posters and from left-handed Robert McNamara to "marmoset/right handed."
You seem to work yourself into a mischievous froth or a confetti blast at times, which peaks in the next-to-last poem, "cast of characters," which is a contextual and extra-contextual bukkake session, so to spooge: blasting a barrage of fictional and actual pop-culture icons, artists, thinkers, etc. into the reader's face before adding your not-so-humble name at the very end. It's a signature list of the Declapation of Inderendence; it's Mozart's fart after his harpsichord virtuosity in the Amadeus film. Or what is (isn't) it? Does "s and f" refer to the displaced letters in Desense of Nonfense? Talk about what seems to be your joy of dissonant imagery, mischief, deconstruction(?), etc.
M: I approve confetti. Yes, the "cast of characters" poem seems to me to possess a number of interesting ideas, including many of the ones you describe. Yes, the "s and f" refers easily to the spoonerism in the book title, meaning the underlying title is actually The Defense of Nonsense, but that passage also seems to be saying independent things about good old-fashioned phonetics and the like.
Please realize, before I go on, that I am still not speaking now of any "intention" of mine in the writing. I enjoy analyzing my own poems as a critic more than I enjoy rehashing them as a writer-potentially an arbitrary distinction, but one that I strongly "feel" all the same. So I am not speaking of what I "put" into the poems as much as I am speaking of what can be found there. But beware of taking me seriously in this: My sophomore year of college, I bet myself that I could use a Rubik's Cube in every oral presentation I did between then and graduation. The connections were often far-fetched at best, and yet based on my grades, you could say these connections succeeded in appearing credible. Criticism, at its most interesting, seems to me to be that daring bridge between imagination and credibility-an art unlike any other. Oops. I may have inadvertently begun to answer your question.
Let me "talk about what seems to be [my] joy of dissonant imagery, mischief, deconstruction." Consider that I was born in 1981, spent 7 years on debate teams through high school and undergrad, and then went to grad school from 2003-2006. One can easily build a lexicon of my received images. Is there anyone of my age and education that doesn't consider "deconstruction" a bit of a given? This is the fun part for me-checking out the soup to see if its ideas are dead or alive, or both. As for "mischief," talk to any of my teachers or anyone who has overseen my teaching career; I've always had a problem with pedagogical authority. "Dissonance" is a basic feature of life in my demographic, and I am just particularly preternatural about it, I suppose. Symptomatic of all this: Foucault is not really for high school kids, but there I was, sitting alone in the library at lunch...
Look, I'm self-aware about it, but that's not to say that these things are deliberate or that I am self-assured. Especially in a retrospective approach like this interview, what we have here is a loss of the author's ability to locate her intentionality. To quote Jackson Pollock: "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own."
D: Favorite books, films, music, visual artists?
M: Though I love to make lists, I fear the question of favorites. But I suppose I have some that are well known. For example, I generally tend to cite two poems as foundational for me: William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow" and John Yau's "830 Fireplace Road," which is coincidentally a rearrangement of the above quote from Pollock. I also generally cite two poets as foundational for me: John Yau and Laura Mullen, though I would not venture to declare a particular favorite title among their many excellent ones.
But let me tell you things that are not so well known. If my answer to the first question didn't tip you off, I spent many years idolizing Ayn Rand, but have mostly recovered. My favorite novelist is Bret Easton Ellis, and I love each of the three film adaptations based on his work so far. I never watch horror movies, though I love highly stylized violence in the Kubrickian tradition or an old-fashioned exploitation film. Magazines I currently subscribe to: Rolling Stone, Out, Maxim, Poets & Writers, and Wine Spectator. Currently in heavy rotation on my iPod: The Killers, The White Stripes, Fall Out Boy, and Katy Perry. Always in my iPod: Ed Hamell, Flogging Molly, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty. Currently on the walls of my office: Dali and van Gogh's self-portraits, two Escher landscapes, and a painting featuring Noam Chomsky getting into a van with his own portrait on the side of it. Always on the walls of my office: a Breakfast Club movie poster, two watercolors of the tea party scene from Alice in Wonderland, and my favorite painting in the history of paintings-Dominique Appia's "Entre les Trous de la Memoire."
I can go on like this a long time, but there is no need. Most of my "favorites" end up in the poems sooner or later, so all will be revealed in due course.
D: I'm a whirlpool of fetishes: from feet to Tinker Bell. My wife recently admitted that the squeak of shifting fingers on acoustic-guitar strings makes her hot. What are your fetishes?
M: This is clearly two separate questions. Fetishes: argument, confession, symmetry, aboutness, poetics, pedagogy. Things that make me hot: my lovely wife, the city of New Orleans, the smell of gasoline puddles, the sonic thumps of motorcycle engines or electric guitars, and getting away with murder.
D: Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote: "When actually faced with the question of what femininity consists in, most people find it very difficult to say." This reminds me of Augustine's spiel about knowing what Time is until being asked to explain it. Aside from some odious conventions, are "femininity" and "masculinity" qualifiable -- to any degree? What is Time? (Insert puckish snicker here.)
M: When faced with the question of what anything consists in, I often find it very difficult to say. But still, I get up in the morning and-tick tock-I live out my life. And yes-ha ha-I live my life out, as in: queerly. So you're asking me an essential question of "my people." Like all things, I think femininity and masculinity are distinctive up to a certain point, at which point distinction itself as a mode of understanding collapses. My love for Judith Butler is surpassed only by my love for making fun of her. I'm not sure how I feel about this, but increasingly, I find myself agreeing with Richard Rorty on a number of things.
Time is another matter entirely. Everyone that knows me will tell you I am a workaholic. There will never be enough hours in a day. I am always manic, though my exterior is generally placid. I have a very difficult time relaxing, though I am seldom ill at ease. It wouldn't matter if there were more hours in the day, and this isn't about a fear of death. This is about a love of productivity. This is the difference between wheel speed and engine speed. The tires aren't moving, but you can hear that engine turning over loud and clear. Time is the closest thing I have to an enemy. I think I'm a bit of a Futurist, minus the warmongering part.
photo by Rob Friedman
D: WWJYD? (What would John Yau do?)
M: There are some matters on which I do not care to speculate, lest I later inadvertently find myself unsurprised and thereby ruin my own good time. I do spend about ten minutes each month pondering what Christian Bok would do. Unfortunately, I lack a) an ability to speak in tongues, b) a graphing calculator, c) a willingness to tip my hand to the clever bastard, or (d) all of the above. So I will not actually report to you the preliminary findings of that investigation.
D: Your "dali: the natural history" concludes thus: "there shall be no more heroic or more astounding personality than him." Spiel about Dali, about Surrealism. Do you employ a sort of Critical Paranoia in your work? Does "shit stains were the last straw" refer to Breton's (or the general) shock at Dali's Dismal Sport? What inspired the sprinkled binomial nomenclature and the animal vignettes?
M: In the body of my work as a whole, this piece will probably always stand out to me for a number of reasons. The original was composed in response to an assignment Andrei Codrescu gave me. I do not remember what the assignment was specifically; it had something to do with non-fiction. Chronologically speaking, this piece fits somewhere in the middle of my first book-it's actually in the version that was filed as my thesis with LSU. This was the first poem I ever wrote in two categories that have been increasingly important to me. Up until that point, slam poems where the only poems I wrote that exceeded one page. So this is my first lengthier poem. I still tend to prefer poems that keep to one page, but the longer ones do pop up more frequently now that I've broken the seal. Also up until that point, poetry was something that sprung up pretty exclusively in response to my life experiences, as opposed to in response to research. So this is my first researched poem. Research has become an extremely important part of my writing process. In this piece it's apparent, because I do things like include the scientific names of animals that were once on the endangered species list. You asked what inspired this sprinkle of scientism, and the unfortunate answer is once again that I don't know. You can see I've tried to relate certain segments of Dali's life to the habits of these extinct creatures, but as for what sparked the idea of putting those together in the first place, that is lost. In general now though, the working through of my writing increasingly relies upon the miracle of Google.
The poem also has a few other distinctive features. For one, the poem itself underwent very little in the way or revision, but I think I changed the title like fifteen times. Usually I can revise a poem a great deal, but the title is pretty well set in stone. I always do the titling last, unless it's a killer title that sparks the poem in the first place. Over the years, people have often told me that titling is one of my strongest abilities as a poet. I believe a title is not simply a subject heading, and that it should do something the poem cannot do by itself-thus the necessity of writing the poem first, to see what it can do. But I remember having a lot of trouble settling on a title for this piece, reasons unknown. Another distinctive feature of this poem is that it has garnered more rejection letters than anything else I've submitted for publication. Somewhere in the mid-twenties, I think. Hell, I ultimately rejected it myself from inclusion in the first book. I was so obsessed with getting it in print, probably because of all this assorted newness it contained for me.
So despite my unwillingness to find or discuss my intentions toward the resultant poems, you see there is a lot I can say about my writing process itself. You asked me whether I employ a critical paranoia. I would definitely say yes, though not in the strict sense that Dali employed it. With an obsessive-compulsive, Myers-Briggs textbook ENTJ personality like mine, this is a natural method. But I obviously do not think of it in the light of a psychosis, and I don't "induce" it. I don't keep records of my dreams; I have never taken hallucinogenic drugs; I don't exhibit a lot of the behaviors you'd expect from somebody labeled "surrealist" as frequently as I am. This is interesting to me, because I find many of the original Surrealists more interesting as people, as characters with certain habits or traits, than I do as artists. Most of that poem is about Dali's life; it doesn't actually contain much of anything in the way of reflection on his paintings. I read a lot of artist biographies-I am often more interested in an artist than in the objects they produce.
D: In a MiPOesias interview you said that deliberately political/philosophical poetry "would create a ruckus" that couldn't be ignored by a society in poetic torpor: "it would trouble." I'm fascinated with and wary of the blurry line between alarms and opiates, corrosives and lullabies of the masses. While sociopolitically charged art may stir the activist breast, I think it also risks solidifying into dead dogmas or "closed" cases and serving as sermons for choirs. "Revolutionary" art, for example, can become a Statist wet dream that airbrushes ugly Marats into pristine martyrs or convinces stupid Nerudas to gush over bloody Stalins - just as "enlightened" thinkers can usher in Robespierres, Maos, Black- or Brownshirts.
Anthony Burgess pointed to a "renunciation in art." I see such renunciation as a refuge from the Common Good, PC, theocracy, pragmatism or utilitarianism. Martin Buber said that "art transcends need and makes the superfluous into the necessary." Far from sedating or deactivating, disinterested art seems to be salvational in the midst of material determinism and morally frozen eras. I applaud Pasternak's Zhivago over Cesar Vallejo, Waugh over Toni Morrison, Magritte over Daumier, Helmut Newton over Jacob Riis. Give me Mucha's "etherealized women" (Whistler's criticism) instead of social realism, Shakespeare over the fate of the peasantry. I'd rather wander in Delvaux's nightmare than live in H.G. Wells' liberal-fascist utopia. Coltrane, not Rage Against the Machine.
I tend to love self-centered, heart-to-heart, expressionistic or imagistic poetry. Though I'm aware of the iconic nature of my iconoclasm, the minute I flex a certain global notion in poetry, I cringe. I'm pendulous. When a cause is trumpeted, I long for silence; when frivolous complacency reigns, I want manifestos. Though I believe in Logos and transcendent purpose, I loathe logic and the neighborly "We Are the World." Sometimes I need a red wheelbarrow and some white chickens (a nod to one of your favorite poems) or a Dostoyevskean stuck-out tongue to save me from Bertolt Brecht. Is this all just a dialectical gig? A tension between responsible/moral art and arts for art's sake? Your thoughts, please.
M: I was once a very political poet, in the classic sense. Raised in a slam poetry community supersaturated by identity politics, that was the only road to take: openly activist and openly located. I still believe that revolutions, as a response to the lessons of hindsight, are inevitable in our future history. Though I am much less activist in the sense of being on the poetic frontlines of these revolutions, whose particulars often bore me now, I still embrace their theoretical value. One notion I have always agreed with belongs to Althusser: ideology is inescapable; it is always already there. A cigar is never just a cigar. Everything is an argument, so politics is to a great extent unavoidable. Politics breeds revolt as a means of disagreement, and this is not bad so much as it is necessary, just as life breeds language as a means of representation. In sum, art and politics seem equally unavoidable to me. I have not seen any explication of "disinterested art" that convinces me such a thing exists. Your question is therefore a bogus one: art and politics do not escape each other, and there is consequently no such thing as "art for art's sake." Art is always responsible to some ideology.
Your question is actually, "should artists be held morally accountable for the ideology to which their art is responsible?" Well, yes and no. No: I don't think we should discredit Nietzsche's entire body of work because later on some Nazis would use it to justify genocide. But alleged anti-Semitism is always a great controversy-just look at Heidegger or Paul de Man. There's the bathwater and then there's the baby, you know? I didn't abandon everything Ayn Rand taught me just because she spent a minute hopping around on one foot. But then, yes: this is where Richard Rorty knocks. I wrote a chapbook all about getting used to married life. It doesn't make any major issue out of the fact that I'm a woman married to a woman, and I wouldn't call it an "activist" collection. But then I'd be crazy not to hope that some homophobes out there pick up my little book and soften their opinions as a result of reading it. I hope that chapbook matters, in the sense of causing positive political change. Moreover, I'd like to get credit and be held morally accountable for the positive changes it may cause.
This is not "all just a dialectical gig." It's a cacophonous gig, but on the ultimate effects of this gig I believe we have no choice except to remain agnostic-that is to say: the poems will do what the poems will do. In grad school, I drank a bunch of glass jugs of sangria, and then painted labels on three of them. The labels were good, evil, and pretty. I threaded a chain through the three handles to bind them loosely together, and filled the one marked "pretty" full of white Mardi Gras beads. The "good" and "evil" jugs remain empty. I've had this sculpture for six or seven years now, and people still comment on it all the time. The sculpture troubles-a symptom of the ideological cacophony it is imbued with as a piece of art. I hope the desense of nonfense accomplishes this same thing.
D: Megan, I admire you and your witty work (no matter how nonfensical it can be). I wish you blessings on your path. Do you have any closing words for readers/fans?
M: Thank you, David! It has been a pleasure interviewing with you. Yes, I do have some closing words. I worry that people who read this interview will mistakenly arrive at the following possible conclusions:
Volpert is into analyzing questions without answering them.
Volpert is just a product of her lame and ordinary circumstances.
Volpert is all theory with no pragmatic or moral substance.
Volpert is a showboating hypocrite and a liar who cannot be trusted.
Really, I worry that people who read this interview will "arrive" at "conclusions." But most seriously, I worry that people who read this interview will think they did not "arrive at conclusions" because they are still asking, "what's this interview about?"
And finally: Jorie, if you are reading this and if the poem on page sixteen is or is not troubling you, please email me.
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