Over at BOMB Magazine, Laura Van den Berg interviewed Stephanie Barber about her new book, All the People(Ink Press 2015), which is a collection of short, prosey portraits of dozens of fictitious-but-real humans. It’s a beautifully produced book—the cover is nicely printed onto cereal boxes and the binding is hand-sewn In the interview, Laura prompts Stephanie to talk about the thinking behind her varied types of work like writing a haiku everyday on Facebook, or the time she installed her studio for a month inside the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Stephanie Barber talks about the what:
But also, as regards media, I feel very strongly that I am simply making pieces of art. I don’t think a painting is a poem, or a film is a song, but I do think they can be received and created and considered as simply emotional or philosophical offerings made somehow sensorially manifest. I like the Buddhist word ayatana, which includes the mind as a sense organ.
and also how that works in her new book, specifically:
I’m also interested in using a sort of generic vernacular, particularly when what I am writing about is potentially too precious or heavy. There’s a desire to balance the depth of the concept with a light—or degraded?—handling. Mostly I was thinking about how something is being said as “the portrait,” not what is being said.
What an honor to be named by the Baltimore City Paper as a Best Of. They highlight Stephanie Barber and Megan McShea’s books, as well as the Chris Toll Prize. I love that they mention how PGP has “only gotten better since 2009″—and it’s not too shabby to be called a “true cultural treasure”! Read their write-up here.
Their recognition means a lot, and the award is made even better by the number of literary comrades who were also named. I thought I’d highlight them here (along with any crossover we have):
All of this reminds me of what a great literary town this is. Does YOUR CITY’s alt weekly give an award for best chapbook? And there are a lot more literary and arts awards in the issue—I’m just highlighting the ones I’m connected to. The whole issue is worth reading, better than any travel guide.
So thanks City Paper! The award couldn’t have come at a better time, since my 2009 plaque is all broken and dusty:
One thing Publishing Genius authors are doing over the course of the year is interviewing each other in a chain. In this installment, Stephanie Barber talks to Megan McShea about her new book.
STEPHANIE: i love the way the first 10 or so pages are small snippets of a poem. i was imagining them as one poem broken up by page turns or as poetic koans getting me into the meditative space needed to receive the longer poems. it’s a sort of classic theatrical introduction to location and characters.
what made you think about opening the book in this delicate and unusual way?
MEGAN: That was 100% Adam Robinson in concept and execution. I won’t speak for him as to where the idea came from, but I like how, in drawing lines from the pieces in the book and reassembling them into a completely different piece, it gives the book an added set of echos, which are always a pleasant sort of hook, and also because of the interactivity of the act. I wish I had a better word for that because interactivity makes me think of website design, and that’s not the kind of interactivity I mean. To me, it would be the best of all possible reader encounters if a reader felt activated, free to play with the images and ideas and language there. So when Adam just up and did that and made it part of the book, I just thought, well, perfect.
STEPHANIE: oh, i see. it really does work so well, i like thinking about them as echoes. they are sort of pre-echoes. how about the quotes by kenneth patchen and yves bonnefoy? they seem to contradict each other. language as hope and language as killer—why did you choose these and how do you see them impacting the reader’s thoughts about your poems?
MEGAN: I hadn’t even noticed their opposite-ness but I see what you mean. They have such different tones, heavy and light, but I sort of see them as saying the same thing in different ways.
I was reading The Journal of Albion Moonlight last year when we were editing the book. Among its themes, or channels to tune into let’s say, was this overt engagement with language as a live thing that’s sort of uncontrollable. My read of the Patchen passage I put in my book is as an oracular statement about a rebirth of the wildness of language. And the Bonnefoy interview I think speaks to a similar thing, that if we can shake off the perfunctory use of words, then we might be able to see through the veil of everyday assumptions about what everything so obviously means, and what everyone is so obviously trying to say, if we can “discover” just one word, as he says, we can enter that live wild part, the “true life.”
They’re both conferring language with an animating power as well as a deadening power. As an animating power, language can be world, energy, animal, life, and it can put us in direct contact with those things, or put us in their presence as Bonnefoy says in another part of the interview. But for both writers there also seems to be some force that has deadened language, something that has to be thrown off in order to re-animate it.
Those ideas resonate with my experience of writing. It’s like I’m trying to wake up the words, and wake myself up with the action of the words. This probably isn’t a foreign idea to most poets, I imagine. I’d be glad if people who read my writing experience that, some of what I experience writing it, that it makes language new and alive, animates them somehow. Thinking about it now, I am noticing how the opposite tones of the two quotes, one heavy and one light, also reflect something in my work. It does oscillate between the two qualities, I think.
STEPHANIE: can you take us through one of your poems and talk about the language as animating power and deadening power simultaneously?
MEGAN: Well, just to clarify, I’m interested in the animating part, not the deadening part
To continue being general (sorry, I know you’re trying to get me to be specific), I think readers will recognize strategies of disruption in most of the pieces in the book—disruption of logic, of meaning, of grammar, of any convention available, really—narrative, character, etc.—nothing that hasn’t been done before, of course. Hopefully these strategies will trigger something in their imagination or consciousness, heighten their attention, and maybe activate a sense of freedom to let language misbehave, and experience some of the gifts it can bear when it’s freed from its duty of imparting particular meanings or functioning in expected ways.
The quotations from Patchen and Bonnefoy are aspirational statements about what I take the whole project of writing to be. I would guess that a lot of writers who’ve embrace experimentation would also embrace those aspirations.
STEPHANIE: it’s interesting in terms of this concept you are proposing, this giving the reader a process which triggers a sort of linguistic dance session, that the first full piece in the FIRST PART is called “The Brain is a Pleasure Organ.” it connects with both what you have written above about activating a sense of freedom as regards language as well as working against the sparse compositional beginning to the book.
MEGAN: Yes, thanks. That piece probably spells it out much better than I could in plain language.
A dance is a good analogy. This is also why I immediately loved your collage for the cover, because reading this stuff is something like going into the woods. It asks something of readers, you have to go into it, but it’s likely there will be unexpected delights.
STEPHANIE: “Going into the woods” makes me wonder where you wrote the majority of poems in this book? Where, when, how? How does where or when you write affect your form or content??
MEGAN: I wrote the pieces in this book over a period of about 10 years, and almost all of them were written alone in my house, and often in the morning, or some other part of a day in which I had the luxury of not breaking my solitude until late in the day. I’m easily distracted, so once I’m out and about I find it difficult to conjure up the right kind of focus to write. And for like 20 years I have written on a manual typewriter. This is a somewhat embarrassing confession because it seems to imply a romance I am having with ye olde writers and their typewriters or something, but actually borrowing an old army-issue typewriter from my boss at my first post-school job got me started writing, and it’s a habit I have a hard time breaking. I like that you have a session on the typer, and then you have this artifact of the session, ink on paper. I think the speed of it (cast iron, not electric) is just a little slower than my thoughts and somehow that bends the language in a way I like.
There are a few pieces in the book that were written during live performances of experimental improvised music, by hand, sitting in the audience. I say which ones they are in the notes section at the end. Those pieces are more artifacts of my own active listening at a performance that is wildly unstructured, so improvised structures are getting thrown up every minute, and I just try to record that somehow in words. I guess that practice is something close to my writing at home alone on the typer in a way. It’s just that what I’m tuning into is more internal at home. It’s so liberating to leave the interiors once in awhile. And when it’s a group improvising, you can hear them listening to each other, and you sort of feel like a collaborator even though you’re not out there in front of the audience. It’s a secret collaboration. A super-shy collaboration.
STEPHANIE: i like this idea of a secret collaboration. i’ve always thought all art work is a collaboration with all other art that has come before it, the way we build upon each other implicit and explicitly (like engineers GETTING AT IT). So for “Parked,” “Damn Pigeon for Company” and a number of the other you were ‘”hired” as the bard for the High Zero Festival and so these “collaborations”, do they feel more musical to you than the others? Or less musical in an attempt to counterbalance the music? Do you remember how any of these listening pieces went in and out of ‘collaboration’?
MEGAN: I totally agree about the grand collaboration that is art. I think we’re all channeling influences all the time, taking what we’ve absorbed and making it into something else.
One year the High Zero festival in Baltimore did hire me as a sort of festival writer in residence in exchange for a festival pass, which was a very intense few days of listening and writing. If memory serves me right, “Idea for a Song” is from that batch. That one turned out more narrative than usual. I was naming sounds and describing their actions. Oh, this sound is an elephant, a rock star and Philip Glass make an appearance, an ice cream truck, something falls over a cliff, takes a train, signals are sent back and forth between a dolphin and a quail, there’s weather.
But I also just go to shows now and then and write surreptitiously. I like to think that musicality is one of my strengths as a writer, that the music is always there, but when I’m writing from actual live music, the rhythms and images are coming from sounds produced by others, rather than my own lyrical instincts. I’m trying to pick up on their lyrical instincts and translate them into words, and it’s an inspiring challenge that leads to things I can’t predict.
“Crap Collapse on the Slow Channel” was a piece I wrote during a performance by a DC outfit called Caution Curves. It’s the one we took the title of the book from. That one is more fragmented, which is another thing writing to music triggers, because the music usually moves and changes more quickly than I can write, so I don’t really finish one thing before I’m off to the next. So the writing leaps a lot, and in fact, might be a little less lyrical because of the fragmentation. My reaction to that effect as a writer is to find other ways to make the words cohere, by repetition, say, or simply rhyming, carrying a family of vowel sounds through for continuity. That piece also sets up a dynamic relation of pronouns, which provides a sort of structure, goes from a third person thing to a first person presence back to some third person action then resolves in a first person plural, a we. Of course none of these persons are anyone, but I find that sort of dynamic satisfying. Going from “I” to “we” has a certain feeling to it. It’s a natural instinct when reading to try to locate a subject, who’s doing the action? who’s thinking the thoughts? who’s feeling the feelings? and when you can move the subjectivity of the piece around among these basic conceptual entities, I, you, it, he, we, they, it suggests relationships, and it can have all these different sort of effects.
STEPHANIE: yea, it also changes the readers participation. it moves dangerously close to collusion. do you have a favorite poem in this book?
MEGAN: Gosh, that’s hard. Well, my favorite title is “Yelling Séance in a Crowded Theater.” That piece is a favorite, too. I think I’m kind of partial to the ones that lean just a little more to the narrative side, like “The Appointment,” “Cannibals and Canopies,” “Us and Her.” And the elegy, “A Perfect Bedlam.” Okay, so that’s five. And five is also my favorite number, so I’ll stop there.
Stephanie Barber offers some thoughts about her new book, Night Moves, a compilation of YouTube user comments about the Bob Seger song of the same name.
This book is so conceptual. Should it include an introduction or an explanatory note of some sort?
I think the temptation is to couch it in explanation but I think it would be stronger not to. I’d rather not have an essay at the beginning of the book because that seems a bit insulting and programmatic. In an ideal world there will be a really broad array of reasons why people might be interested in a book like this. I’d rather not push them into my notions so quickly.
The book makes me feel sick to my stomach.
I understand why it would make you feel a bit sick. It doesn’t do that to me, or rather it does and then, the next moment it changes its tune and soothes with kindness and insight. But, yes, of course I see what you mean. And actually that is what is so great about it. (Or one of the things I think is so great about it.)
One reason for this anxiety is simply that the text is constructed by people from so many different ages and economic levels, etc. The ways that people speak and spell and the (sorry) crudeness and stupidity of what some people say is socially and existentially shaking. It’s like, well, I’m just hoping the humans step up their game—cringing, like “please don’t say anything else ugly.” And they do! And then the next moment a pile of wise and empathic pearls spill out. It is dizzying, the speed and precision of the vacillations. A dizzying, wild and very precise sociological artifact. But yes, there is some sickness. Something in here about Plato’s philosopher kings, his distrust of a government in the hands of “the people.” Who are the people? Wow! What are they doing?
Yes, there are all kinds of people and attitudes represented here. I like the comment that is something like “83 people are diurnal,” which is a little smarter than I expected.
Yes, that line is smart formally (if we imagine the participants (the commenters) were aware of how the ‘narrative’ would unfold, like the most sensitive improvisers!) and it is smart linguistically, a sort of pun on the entirety of both the song and the discussion.
So what did you do? Did you edit the comments or anything?
No, it’s not edited (though we did remove the attributions). I was tempted but that goes against the whole spirit of the project, which is the recognition and celebration of a very ubiquitous collaborative critical inquiry that is happening on YouTube or Facebook or any online community where people share and comment and discuss in a public way. I made a video in 2011 that uses the YouTube comments from a television show as a visual element. In this piece, “Tatum’s Ghost,” I did edit and amend and add to the comments. I took out some of the truly cruel comments and added a lot of lines to sculpt the experience more concisely and that felt right for that piece, but this is a different and more comprehensive analysis or simple “framing” of this phenomenon.
Why this song?
Yeah, so many reasons and then, also, just chance. My car has no way to play music except for the radio and even there the pickings are slim. I get just the largest signal stations (hip hop, classic rock, new country) and I cycle through these three, alternating between joy and stoic martyrdom. I think I’d been listening to that song and wondering just what the appeal was and went home to look up the lyrics and sort of stumbled upon this litany of considerations. As a song it is philosophical and perverse, genuinely moving and cloying simultaneously. Musically it is tedious but somehow ‘effective’ in the way of a satisfying mathematics. His performance is believable, attractive. The topic is very, very heavy. The song is about nostalgia and sex and mortality. When Bob Seger writes “autumn closing in” he’s writing about the end of his life nearing. The dreaming back to youth and sex is so intensely SAD and universal and frightening and in these comments people are doing a little bit of their own philosophizing and wandering down their own nostalgic paths. It is so intense (and I think that too causes a bit of the sick-making anxiety, the cringe factor of the unschooled philosophizing.)(Which, you know, I LOVE!)
A few days ago I was speaking to a friend about this project and we were talking about a sort of pre-nostalgia that is implicit in the creation and reception of the original song. I mean, Bob Seger was not very old when he wrote it. Autumn was not quite “closing in,” was it? And my friend, Mark, when explaining how much he hated the song remembered his older brothers loving it when they were young teenagers and how could they be able to empathize with the suggested narrative of an older man remembering the sort of existential virulence suggested? What was the attraction?
How much do we really empathize with pop music?
Pop music is a very strange and particular form of art because it shrinks and expands beyond the merit of its music and lyrics. It’s almost alchemical. Pop songs are music, performance, poetry and both a sociological gauge and creator. (And certainly there’s no denying the element of economic machinery beyond a song.)
But putting aside the ambient nature of music, the way we are able to move through our lives and entwine the reception of music with our daily sad and joyous activities colors and impresses the way we actually ingest the piece. This is, of course, all music, but pop music is what you will experience without choosing to. Supermarkets and thrift stores and radios and you know, it is our country’s most prevalent, consistent and considered art form.
Anyway, back to Mark’s teenage brothers, when Mark was an even younger teenager, they felt the also-young Bob Seger’s preemptive fear of aging and death and mourned, with him, the memory of young sex (which they may not have even yet had!) and, though this confounds all logic, their empathy is wickedly earnest.
Somehow this is simultaneously creepy as regards our societal program(mability) as well as fortifying for the evidence of human generosity and desire to understand each other’s experience. And art! A desire to understand art!
Yes, I love when they speak about the merits of the song in terms of its language or musical chops.
One of the wonderful things the comments posters do is discuss art. They are thinking primarily about nostalgia, their own sex or mortality and then ART! How terrific! It’s almost like the Situationist graffiti campaign of the late 1960’s. (It’s hard for me to speak about this sort of mass media artifact without thinking about Debord I guess–obviously his thoughts on the spectacle creating the individual are intensified by online communities.) Internet graffiti for absolutely no purpose but to share and consider each other’s views on these topics. How many spaces are there for this public armchair theorizing?
But here again, back to your anxiety (sickness) … yes …OK … I guess people publicly mourning for, or waxing poetic over, their early sexual experiences is incredibly tender and fraught but has an oft triggered ick factor that causes anxiety but also is WOW to me, so cool. So moving to hear. Sometimes truly sexy–like the woman who says no one ever kissed her the way that Jerry Sinor did. It’s a really surprising and beautiful moment. And I like sex having an ick factor anyway—isn’t that why it’s sexy? Yes, I know there are some nudists in Vermont who find it only natural and beautiful (… ultimate ick!).
What is it about the form of the comments?
Formally it blows me away, the way it is all somehow spatially visual. Like, how can I say this? The lines that seem to go together (when one poster comments on the comment of the previous, etc.) are little runs, right—but for the most part it is all, somehow, happening at the same time. I am thinking about Gotthold Lessing who, in the 1760’s wrote that visuals are all, essentially, static and simultaneous (as opposed to the temporal and linear unfolding we experience with the written word). This book, and YouTube comments in general, seems to exist in this visual way (though of course we still need to travel through the written word temporally). They are often not responding to each other, they go in and out of integration with the exquisite corpse text they’re constructing and focus, almost primarily, on a sort of selfish and removed interaction with the song (or video) they are thinking of. Through a negative lens it’s like a cocktail party with people that don’t listen to each other and just keep saying what they are thinking about regardless of what anyone else has said. And then, also, I can see it as a Miro or Cy Twombly, Cecil Taylor (his piece Stepping on Stars)—intergalactic, cluttered and sparse simultaneously. Energetic in it’s philosophical stasis. (I mean the redundancy of the conceptual offerings creates a static review of how people feel about these ideas: music, sex, mortality). It is so formally MODERN! Like all of the simultaneity being realized through contemporary quantum physics. It’s all in the eternal NOW but it is all about NOSTALGIA! Really it is nostalgia and then it is also about nostalgia. (That too is awesome.)
Also, formally it is almost an epistolary poem. All these letter snippets sent out to an imagined reader which is, I guess, what a song is too. And in some way sex is a letter too. Yes. Really.
Multi-disciplinary artists Bonnie Jones and Stephanie Barber (whose book and DVD, these here separated, was published in 2008) have invented an interesting new way to present improvised literature. They’ll be performing it for twelve (yes, 12) hours at the Reverse Space in Brooklyn on September 22. Complete details here.
Here’s documentation of a previous performance. Listen to the stories, the genuine laughter. Look at the text. Full justification.
“Translation is entirely mysterious. Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else. What is the other text, the original? I have no answer. I suppose it is the source, the deep sea where ideas swim, and one catches them in nets of words and swings them shining into the boat … where in this metaphor they die and get canned and eaten in sandwiches.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
The summer issue of Cineaste features Michael Sicinski’s three-page article about book-DVD combos by Stephanie Barber and Abigail Child. It explores the questions filmmakers face about making DVDs of their work, and if it makes sense for an audience to attend screenings with some foreknowledge of the experimental films they’re going to see.
The article nicely summarizes Stephanie Barber’s work available on These Here Separated (“carefully designed and assembled by Publishing Genius Press,” it says!), and says in the end,
“These women produce rigorous, intellectual films and videos, works which not only engage with multiple discursive fields and external media, but also do so in an exceptionally compact aesthetic mode, one which demands and rewards intensive viewing. Not only does this mean watching single short films repeatedly. It also means reading along, and reading up. This will hardly bias one’s viewing of these films. Rather, it will deepen our engagement with them, help us to see (and hear) much more than we ever could …”
It’s true. Even after watching “Catalog” three or four times, it took reading along to approach a full understanding of all the things that happen in the film. Thanks to Cineasteand Michael Sicinski for the wonderful article.