On 8 September 2017, Jason Cornell (better known as BRZOWSKI) released his third full-length solo record: ENMITYVILLE. As with his previous releases, BRZOWSKI’s new album is meticulously crafted. Each one of its various “parts” (sonic, aesthetic, lyrical) have been fine-tuned to create a remarkably coherent “whole.” At the same time, the album’s “various parts” have the capacity to stand alone: they manage to embody the “coherent whole” of the album in-and-of-themselves, without any support. The relation between the microcosmic (the parts) and the macrocosmic (the whole) levels of BRZOWSKI’s latest record is a topic too big to discuss here. So – only one example will have to suffice…
Let’s take the album’s title: ENMITYVILLE. First and foremost, “Enmityville” implies a “place”: a small village or suburb, for example. As such, “Enmityville” is a space with defined borders; a place that one must travel to and enter. As an album, ENMITYVILLE is an acoustic equivalent to the confined space suggested by its title. The album is, plainly speaking, unique. Its blending of early 90s rap, parred-down beats, and rock ornamentation is an unprecedented (almost hermetic) style. To press “play” on ENMITYVILLE is to find yourself pulled into new territory and not released until the album’s close.
The title “Enmityville” also hints at the character of this confined space. “Enmityville” is, well, a place of “enmity”: of hostility and division. Whereas the social ideal of the small village or suburb is amicability and happiness (often manifesting itself in a perverted and “Disneyfied” form), here, friction, opposition, grit, and grime are its overwhelming qualities. Additionally, “Enmityville” is a place of horror and the macabre. By an associative leap, the title brings the listener to the territory of “The Amityville Horror”: to the terrifying supernatural experiences of the Lutz family at their home in Amityville, New York. As an album, ENMITYVILLE easily translates “enmity” and “horror” into an acoustic experience by infusing certain gothic tropes into its instrumentation: picked bass lines, heavy synths, monotone choruses, and Halloween-like effects.
In spite of the specificity of “Enmityville,” the space BRZOWSKI creates is also an “everytown.” In being a fictional equivalent to the suburb or small village, it exposes the underpinnings of such apparently stable social structures. BRZOWSKI does not shy away from direct attacks at the evils behind contemporary society, even in its smallest instantiations: its consumerist tendencies and its corporate culture. In this dystopian present, the status of the artist, pushed to society’s peripheries, is a concern. While such a peripheral status is certainly a difficulty to the artist’s physical preservation, it is this peripherality that also gives BRZOWSKI the freedom to sonically experiment.
In short, the title of BRZOWSKI’s latest album serves as a linguistic analogue or microcosm of the 45-minute acoustic experience that is ENMITYVILLE. As I’ve described above, the album’s title reflects its content largely on a thematic basis. However, a formal similarity also exists. The verbal acrobatics of the title (its punning, associations, reversal, and rhyme) effectively reflect BRZOWSKI’s manipulation and play with the language and sounds of rap. In his hands, sounds do not remain fixed in their denotative or conventional form, but, rather, warp and convolute. Both album and album title are like a house-of-mirrors or, more aptly, a maze of horrors and excitements.
As such, ENMITYVILLE is a place in which the listener can easily get lost. The purpose of this extended interview with BRZOWSKI is to act as something of a guide-book. The interview’s many flaws (mainly on the side of the interviewer) only confirm the need for such a guide-book type interview, for they reveal the difficult relationship between the creator of ENMITYVILLE and its listener. Although BRZOWSKI has guided my questions by his music, he has, making his work maze-like, given me enough freedom to make certain mental associations and leaps in logic that are, flatly, illogical. ENMITYVILLE does get a lot of its excitement by this kind of dual action: by bringing the listener into the work (into the confined space of “Enmityville”) and also giving the listener enough freedom to move beyond it. This mix of confinement and associative freedom is the very source of this album's difficulties.
It’s easy to get lost in such territory. Welcome to ENMITYVILLE…
Jason Cornell (aka BRZOWSKI) is a rapper from Portland, Maine via Providence, Rhode Island. Cornell has been part of musical projects around New England since the early 1990s. Over the twenty-five years of his musical career, BRZOWSKI has performed over one-thousand live shows, released three full-length albums, four mixtapes, five ep’s, and two 7″ singles, and made countless featured appearances. His self-released CD-R New England Gothic (2002) and his Milled Pavement releases MarryShelleyOverdrive (2005) and A Fitfull Sleep (2011) are mainstays in the New England underground scene. BRZOWSKI is also known for performing in the rap/goth/doom group, Vinyl Cape.
AA. I want to begin by taking a look at the visual aesthetic of your new project. Let’s begin with the “stencil" typeface you use in your wordmark. It immediately takes me in two directions. The first is to punk, particularly bands like Crass, Agnostic Front, or even Rancid who have all used the “stencil" typeface. The second is to spray art and, so, to hip hop. The associations you imply in your typeface say a lot about the context from which “BRZOWSKI” emerged. In high school, you were in a punk band called “Pope on a Rope” (1994-1999) and, later, in a metal band called “Under the Weight” (1999-2003). At the same time you were graffing with S-One, collaborating with Nyhilistx, and attending the Unity Open Mic nights. Although your legacy is in the hip hop world, your style really seems to come out of a confluence of “sub-cultures.” Did the “BRZOWSKI" style emerge from an intentional blending of hip hop and punk? Or did it happen naturally? If intentional, what elements of punk—musical, visual, or ideological—did you see fit to mix, manipulate, and bring into your rap style?
JC. This is, on the surface, a total homage to Gee Vaucher’s work with Crass. I was so taken with that punk-rock collage/propagandist work in my teenage years that it stuck with me for my entire life. I liked the severity of the stenciled font. It looks utilitarian and rather severe, and that is certainly what I’m trying to project at 1st glance. I’ve used a stenciled font/logo since 2002.
In terms of punk rock’s influence, I enjoyed the fact that there was aggression and anger (if at times unfocused) front and center, as well as heavily Leftist politics being on prominent display in a lot of the Crust and UK Thrash I enjoyed.
The blending was more ideological and visual, I don’t consider my personal audio production or what beats I choose to work with to be all that influenced by punk, aside from the aforementioned and the pervasive DIY ethos. D-Beat drum patterns and buzz-saw power-chord progressions don’t fuse well with a rapped or spoken delivery, in my experience.
AA. For your album art, you’ve chosen an oil-painting by Nicole Duennebier called “Hunting Hotbed.” I know you have a background in the visual arts yourself. Between 2001 and 2003, you attended Maine College of Art and received a BFA in painting with a minor in Art History. In spite of your personal history with visual art, you’ve largely kept your visual practice separate from your musical one. What does Duennebier’s painting contribute to your music that a painting of your own couldn’t?
JC. To boil the question down to the bones, the fact is that when I execute the art for my own record, I feel like I’m talking to myself. It feels overly self-referential and masturbatory. I did the photography used for the covers of A Fitful Sleep, Blooddrive Vol. 1, Blooddrive Vol. 3, contributed a painting to the Milled Pavement Records instrumental compilation Hold Yr Tongue, did two paintings for the Black Puddin’s (Moshe & 32French) Deeelicious! EP, painted/drew the cover for the Raygunomics Spunik EP (w/ Nomar Slevik), drew the cover art for a few early demos...and I feel like I can be more divorced when I’m capturing an image or painting for someone else’s project, as opposed to manifesting a visual representation of my own musical output. My paintings are often humorous or derivative of recognizable “pop-cultural” iconography/detritus (two things I don’t usually overtly explore in my music), and Nicole’s work from this period in her career is hermetic, Renaissance-influenced, and mildly obtuse. This is everything that worked as a visual representation of the music contained therein.
AA. As a follow up question, do you think bringing your personal interest in art—visual or otherwise—into the “professional” and “academic” setting of Art School affected your approach to the arts at all?
JC. Coming from Art School and still being involved in it in various capacities, it absolutely shapes my rather academic approach to making art of all forms. I think about legacy, I think about interpretation, I try to make a “work-out-of-time” so it has replay/re-examine value, I think about a body of work and not one song/piece existing alone out of context, I think about things being Archival as opposed to Ephemeral. And I realize that process is only truly important for the artist, not the audience.
I remember around 2001 a favorite professor of mine, Sean Foley (an amazingly accomplished painter based out of Mount Desert Island, Maine-for now) saying to me: “Are you making Art for Everyone (i.e. Pop/Kitsch), Art for The Mildly-Initiated, or Art for Artists?”...I knew right then I was making Art for Artists, but wanted to reward the more adventurous of the Mildly-Initiated...but truthfully I am conscientious not to consider “audience” anymore when actively making. I owe the present audience better than that.
TRACK 1: "Masking Fluid and Painter's Tape"
AA. Now let’s get into the meat of the album. The first track on ENMITYVILLE begins with a moody guitar arpeggio, bowed violin (possibly cello?), and scratching, before a heavy bass line and drumbeat drives the song from its atmospheric intro to its first verse. In these opening moments, we also hear two vocal samples: a snippet from the movie CBGB (2013) and another from a talk delivered by the painter Mike Kelley (1954-2012). The vocal samples immediately make the topic of the song clear: your choice to take up the unprofitable and unacknowledged profession of “artist”—a choice that has left you an “other.” Do you think the fate of the artist is always bound up with an “outsider” status? Do you resent the “dominant culture’s” tendency to laud monetary pursuits and disparage artistic ones?
JC. No, it is not absolute, by any means. I know an appreciable amount of people who are fortunate/savvy/tenacious enough to make a living solely from artistic pursuits, ranging from paltry to extravagant. It is possible to make a living off of art, but if you are considering the audience too much or worried about sales in the act of creation, you have already failed, artistically.
It’s not an inexorable fate to languish in obscurity or poverty, but it is a common one. The artist is not the “Other” any more than the mirror is: we hold up a reflection to the world at large and ask them for their comprehension. Usually those that understand are in 2 of the 3 strata of “audience” outlined above.
I absolutely reject the whims of the Market and “dominant culture”, hence the sample from good ole Mike (RIP). That isn’t sexy messaging–but that’s where I’m at.
TRACK 2: “Contemporary Cynic”
AA. Your first line on this track, delivered over distorted, down-stroked guitar chords, is a play on the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” You say, “I have seen the greatest minds of my generation ruined by who gives a fuck.” The line is an interesting application of a postmodern attitude of indifference and inactivity to a literary work that is actively critical of modern civilization. The “postmodern” dimension of your song reaches its climax in the “meta-” lines of the song’s chorus: “Here’s where the feeling is supposed to happen / Here’s where I get inspired to write a chorus / Here’s where I put my better tomorrow / Something cliché right now.” Firstly, do you agree with Ginsberg’s assessment of modern civilization as “Moloch”: industrial, monstrous, inconsiderate, and bloodsucking. Secondly, do you think apathy, indifference, and inactivity contribute to the evil conditions of modern civilization, or, is this postmodern attitude the only way we can really cope with it?
JC. Yes, I absolutely agree with Ginsberg’s appraisal (regardless of how I feel about A.G. the human). “Moloch” has risen in scope and popularity since Howl was written, to be sure. Apathy, indifference, and inactivity are symptoms of the societal ills, that is, they are a reaction to the problems (ecological devastation, rampant corruption, nepotism, medicine-for-profit, lack of livable-wage working class jobs, etc.)...it’s a coping mechanism. I’d almost prefer the clichéd “angst” of the 90s and early 00s to the apathetic posturing that seems so prevalent. The world is actually on fire and you are actually going to die because you can’t afford medical treatment...is the best use of your time to project a cool indifference?
My adoption of the pervasive apathy is addressing the narcissism, vanity, and affectation of indifference...it’s not that “I don’t care” as the sample refrains. It’s that I care so much, and have been so consistently disappointed, that now I’m icy and PoMo for survival purposes too. “I’m glad you had some kids, the world needs some more wage-slaves.”
TRACK 3: “Demonic Exercises”
AA. “Demonic Exercises” also touches on the theme of the “artist as outsider.” Like in “Masking Fluid and Painter’s Tape,” you seem to depict the artist as someone who acts and, by doing so, actively sets themselves apart. In the opening line of the song, you actually depict yourself engaging in two forms of activity: composing and teaching. You say, “I am an outlaw / drawn and quoted on vellum / with architectural pencils / counseling wayfarers on composition.” As someone who acts doubly, you also seem to be doubly removed from mainstream culture: you (an outlaw) teach composition to wayfarers (outlaws themselves). This may seem like a big leap, but I want to ask you about your use of the phrase “post-rap” to describe your music. Does it function in the same way as the line above: i.e. to draw attention to a sort of “double remove”? Do you use it to deliberately set yourself apart from a sub-culture (hip hop) already set apart?
JC. That IS a big leap. And I’m completely onboard...I mean that by “post-rap” exactly what the progenitors of post-rock, post-metal, or post-hardcore implied by deploying that particular prefix. After “Prog- “ comes “Post-.” Rap is the trope that was the substrate for germination, and this is what comes after. I feel very divorced from hip hop or rap, but in certain ways I always did. The designs I schemed on for rapping in the context of hip-hop music were always headed over the left-field fence. To participate in this particular culture, I have complete self-awareness that I’m a white guy with 2 art degrees. I acknowledge that I’m a guest in the cultural arena of hip hop, and act accordingly.
TRACK 4: “Leave It All Behind”
AA. “Leave It All Behind” slows the pace of the album down again: an unhurried guitar melody rings out over a minimal drumbeat to compliment your slowed and more measured flow. The song’s lyrics seem to complicate the theme of “activity,” which we have been touching upon in the last few questions. You consider the idea of “work,” here, in the more conventional context of a 9-to-5 and, while doing so, depict it as a sort of Sisyphean endeavor: “The tournament is won by he who gives up on all their other interests / the ladder is grease and that rope is a loner / You can’t afford it.” Although you depict the idea of “work” (in the American dream or Protestant ethic sense) as unfruitful, meaningless, and shackling, I do think you propose a kind of “way out”…
The song includes a number of samples: a speech made by Francis Underwood in House of Cards, an interview with Mark Cuban, and a snippet of a Rick and Morty episode. Somehow, these samples seem to amount to more than just you adhering to one of the conventions of rap music. They seem, rather, to be an example of a possible re-organization, re-contextualization, a shuffling, and a giving of “meaning” to otherwise disparate entities. Is there, in fact, a politics in your sampling practice? Is the “meaningful re-shuffling” involved in sampling a template for a certain political practice? Or, is re-shuffling also fruitless...do we need full revolution?
JC. In my past lives as a student and educator, one of the recurring themes of conversation was that “everything has been done, but not everything has been combined.” This theoretical academic framework was in lockstep with the dawn of “Remix Culture” in the early 2000s, and is still playing out in contemporary culture. By re-appropriating popular culture and re-deploying it as an anti-capitalist or pro-labor sentiment is a detournement I’m interested in exploring, and it’s been of interest to me for some time. For the less-initiated, a (barely...or very) recognizable sample may provide a point of entry. I can’t scry into the cultural crystal ball and see what Full Revolution would look like, in terms of sampling. To Purists in “hip hop,” full rejection of the original “digging” culture is already been in full swing since the early 00’s. This is an interesting exercise: to envision what a total redefinition of sampling practice would look like.
TRACK 5: “Pit Mine”
AA. This gothic sounding track is the first place you mention the derelict “everyplace” you call “Enmityville.” What does the creation of a fictional “place” add to the communication of your message?
JC. Naming ENMITYVILLE as a locale puts this is in the context of “Everytown, USA”. This is a play on the common US town name “Amityville,” most often associated with the “Amityville Horror” haunting case of the 1970s. Amity meaning “an amicable relationship,” vs. Enmity meaning “the state or feeling of being actively opposed or hostile to someone/something.” I’ve had the name/framework for 3 years or so, while I crafted and collected the songs that made it on the album.
TRACK 6: “Fall Zone Pink”
AA. During the heavy guitar chords, erratic drums, and quickly-picked guitar melody that make up the chorus of “Fall Zone Pink,” you rap the line, “push for answers where nothing seem to be presented.” Again, I’m going to make an associative leap. This process of “pushing for meaning” is really a summation of what may be called “critical thinking,” or, in this context, “critical listening.” If I’m understanding your lyrics correctly, you imagine this process as being difficult, but also revelatory. Can you speak a little bit more about the process of “pushing for meaning”? Is this the type of critical thinking you hope for from your listeners?
JC. This is a lengthy bridge from the song’s content, and I appreciate the more obtuse analytic detour. Historically, the works of art/literature/film/architecture- whatever- that have given me the greatest intellectual rewards have been the ones that were difficult to understand. If I like it the 1st time, it will play itself out. As a teenager, Nietzsche was impenetrable, but I knew I wanted to understand. So I kept re-reading his work and understanding the context until I understood. Then I concluded...“ok, cool, I finally understand. But also, partially fuck-this-guy and his more selfish ideas.”
It took me a while to understand and appreciate Marx, Modernism, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, Žižek...jazz music, quinoa. I still don’t enjoy jazz. I still don’t like quinoa. Although I fully appreciate and can internalize their value. Every area of exploration was worth the time to understand.
Do I hope to get that same commitment from listeners? I hope, of course. I piss down the wishing-well, and optimistically expect genies and clairvoyants to burst forth with their presumed aid and utilitarian adulation. Some listeners dive deeply and meet me at shows or message me on the intertubes to ask about meanings or discuss concepts, and I thoroughly enjoy that, and feel a mild validation as a resulting effect. I feel that my efforts are understood by the small few who were tuned to receive them and were on that hunt for meaning. I don’t trouble myself with their volume.
I’m realistic about my expectations of the listener, but I always remain hopeful. That “OH SHIT” moment the listener gets when the meaning of a song or line dawns on them is worth it. I love those “AHA!” moments myself, that feeling never gets old.
TRACK 7: “Surplus Humanity”
AA. On first listen, “Surplus Humanity”—a song characterized by an odd keyboard melody, played over droning guitar chords and upbeat drumming—seems to be about overpopulation; however, upon a second or third listen, a more complex concept comes to the surface. The “surplus” you speak about is not, in fact, “breeding gone wild,” but, rather, something closer to the proliferation of what may be called “the masses”—a horde of people who have lost their individuality and humanity to materialism, plastics, social media, and mechanization. As an artist, do you not feel the pressure of these objectifying forces? How do you navigate the tenuous line between keeping true to your self (Jason Cornell) and the marketing of your rap-self (BRZOWSKI)?
JC. Of course I feel these Spectacular forces at work. I hear the feedback all the time: “Dress younger, lose some weight, get some more tattoos, make more music videos, post more pictures of yourself on social media!” A bunch of things that may help my “Brand” or marketing, but would alienate the folks that have been riding with me for the past 16 years...not to mention alienate me, myself. I take the suggestions with a boulder of sea salt.
The line between BRZOWSKI and Jason Cornell is fairly fluid and malleable. BRZOWSKI is less of a “character” and more of a hypertrophic extension of certain under-expressed personality traits and thoughts in Jason’s day-to-day, so Jason can stay convivial, kind, and gregarious in nature. BRZO says what Jason thinks, on stage and on record. Jason is an intensely private person, 2 or 3 shades less combative, and doesn’t do interviews. (guffaw of laughter ensues).
TRACK 8: “Microplastics”
AA. The politics on this experiment in dub and electronic sounds is quite focused: the effects of pollution on the environment. Close to the end of the song, you rap the lines: “trying to understand the aesthetics of abandoned shopping malls / Renaissance landscapes you will never experience I promise you / Nostalgia to eras long since over, but not quite gone.” I want to know if you have a personal connection to “place” and, more specifically, to “nature”? Do you think your art embodies the “places” that are meaningful to you (“the icy wastes of New England,” as you say)? Are these “places” now under threat?
JC. Those lines that you quote in particular are a skewering of the trappings of “Vapor-wave”: a subculture I find fascinating, but ultimately of the Spectacle, and not a true counter-culture. High on Concept, Low on Content. This of course largely depends on the creator helming the vehicle. My long-time collaborator C $ Burns made a few stunning Vapor-wave records in the past two years, and changed the way I thought of the entire cultural experiment (TRANZ, out on the label HVRF Central Command is the one I most highly recommend to start).
I have a huge connection to “place”. The Disneyfication/Starbucksification/whatever is making everywhere the same place. I’m against that. I don’t want to patronize a chain-store, chain restaurant, or anything of that ilk. Where is the localism of “here”? I want to be where the locals are, no matter where I am. I want that genuine experience of being in this place that I am. I don’t tour Germany to eat at Subway. I don’t play St. Louis to eat at Jimmy Johns. I intensely love New England. A grip of my early records said “Product of New England” on the back, near the copyright info. My music is from the Northeast US, absolutely, and an expression of the 10 month winter. We’re sharp in tone, don’t suffer fools well (if we know better), and like to do things quickly to keep the blood pumping. That said, I was heavily influenced by westcoast US underground hiphop, and to a lesser degree, punk. Freestyle Fellowship, CVE, and the like. Two of my favorite live-music moments ever were from the westcoast: getting onstage to rock a song at the Project Blowed open Mic in 2006 and headlining the Gilman St. in Berkeley on a Friday night with my man DJ Halo in 2016.
TRACK 9: "So I Walk"
AA. “So I Walk” is another goth-y track: an echoed bass line, heavy synths, and flat singing in the chorus. Can you explain your interest in the gothic, the macabre, horror movies, and in hermitic figures (those “strangers in the woods”)? Is your affinity for the macabre purely aesthetic, or do the themes and figures associated with it communicate something that isn’t addressed in other aesthetic genres?
JC. I’ve been interested in the Gothic idea of creative expression since I was a teenager, particularly in relation to Romanticism. “Backward-looking thoughts,” some of which are based on an era I never experienced. I appreciated ruined castles in the same way younger artists fetishize the 80s or 90s. My recollection of those decades from my youth appraise that those times were horrid and shallow, but since it seems to have more substance, or to be imbued with more meaning than the present, the spirit of the Romantics tells me to yearn for that unreachable time beyond my experience. It’s the same spirit that makes 20 year-old folks yearn for high-top sneakers, 8-bit graphics, 80s color palettes, and explains the otherwise unlikely appeal of Vapor-wave. These people are nostalgic for an era they were not present in the 1st time around. This is the same wavelength of wealthy aristocrats constructing pre-fabricated ruins on their properties in the 1800s, or the allure of pre-ripped jeans in the 1980s. This is the ghost of Romanticism waving at us across the seas of time.
My affinity for the more macabre is both aesthetic and a personal mystery. I was always drawn to the books/records/movies with the scary imagery, even as a very young child. By confronting fear and death, we familiarize ourselves with those things, and make our selves acquainted, if not friends outright. I am very afraid of death and my body breaking down, and so I nihilistically help the breakdown along, instead of staving it off. Psychologically I’m getting behind the wheel for a Freudian Death-Drive, instead of being a passive passenger. I struggle with it in a philosophical and practical way and don’t recommend it! That’s about where my analysis of that fascination will have to end. I honestly have not thought about my predilection for the macabre in a long time, it’s just part of my make-up.
TRACK 10: “Ordinary Monsters” (feat. Renée Coolbirth)
AA. Although “Ordinary Monsters” is quite heavy and industrial, its melodic violin makes it one of the most appealing songs on the album. The track is also one of the only songs containing a guest feature. To stray a bit from the song itself, I want to dwell on the point of “relations.” It seems like complex networks of artistic relations are almost inseparable from the world of hip hop. More personally, you seem to be very appreciative of the network of relations you’ve developed during your own creative life. The list of your collaborators is huge, not to mention that you’ve been roommates with k-the-i??? and one of the members of the incredible doom band Ocean. Your biggest collaboration, however, has been with the label Milled Pavement. How does Milled Pavement fit into rap’s various networks of artistic relations? What sort of support does Milled Pavement bring to its artists?
JC. I want to say 1st, that Moshe is the authority on what Milled Pavement is and isn’t, but since I’ve taken on the “#2” role about 5 years back, this is my take. Milled Pavement operates as more of an artist-collective than a label, and that’s been the way we’ve done things for a decade. MP has provided a point for digital and physical distribution under Moshe’s watchful eye for over 15 years. All of “your” favorite outré rappers have put out at least a song under the MP banner...barring any folks that emerged in the past few years. MP was formed out of necessity in the early 00s, in an era when an artist needed a label/crew/banner to rally behind, and we have a very particular pirate flag and branded name to compete. The majority of our 66 releases are one-offs with friends or artists that needed a proper home to launch their efforts from.
TRACK 11: “Lachrymimosa”
AA. One of the most striking things about “Lachrymimosa” is the way you reveal the versatility in delivery. Where does “flow” fit into the creative process? Does it come after you’ve written your lyrics and decided on a beat? Or, does the beat come first, then the flow, and then the lyrics?
JC. For this song, I was listening through a CD of productions (yes, I prefer CDs when possible...thank you and sorry to C$!) while driving through the mountains of Vermont, and I realized that this song was not quite “metal” enough to fit with the Vinyl Cape Glitter of Putrescence album C$ Burns and I were working on at the time...but the flow to the chorus hit me like lightning on that drive, and I had to pull over to write it down with “place-holder” words. The lyrics came later, the flow 1st. I often let the production inform the flow and lyrics, I don’t often graft a piece of pre-existing writing onto a song unless the fit is seamless. His scratch-title “Lachrymimosa” was kept and informed the lyrics and feel.
TRACK 12: “A World Where There is Only One of Everything”
AA. “A World Where There is Only One of Everything” is my favourite track on “ENMITYVILLE.” It’s slow, heavy, protracted, difficult, but also funny. You begin, for example, with two comedic conflations of modern life with high art: “A selfie of Dorian Gray / Beatific fading / Swarm of fruit flies / left the still life out to wilt on pedestal.” It seems like a lot of people overlook the comedic aspects of your work. What effect do you hope comedy will bring to your art?
JC. This is one of my “favorite children” from this record as well. Gallows humor is my M.O., most certainly. You are the 1st to pick up on these lines, which I self-servingly laughed aloud at, when writing...but so few have come to the record armed with the proper reference points to “get it,” so I’m elated you dig it. It was put there for listeners like you.
Humor is a candy-coating on the bitter medicine in the lyrics, and humor is my only mild concession of “kid-gloves” when covering difficult ground. I enjoy the comedic. The humor in my music is not overt in the writing unless you are intently deconstructing the lyrics, but I often tell jokes or humorous day-to-day anecdotes between songs in a live situation. It acts as a pressure-release and lulls the room into a familiarity or false sense of security.
AA. I want to end with one last thought. Are you happy with “ENMITYVILLE”? Do you think it properly captures “BRZOWSKI” as he is at this moment in time? If you were suddenly unable to make music, would you be happy with “ENMITYVILLE” as your last effort?
JC. This is a cliché for many musicians at this point, but this is easily my favorite solo offering. I put in the time and picked over the minutiae with C $ Burns on the back-end and nothing is haphazard or unintentional. I was supremely smug about the Vinyl Cape record The Glitter of Putrescence last year, and think that it serves as a high-water mark of my writing and abilities to deliver something complex and stylistically multifaceted. ENMITYVILLE has in certain capacities surpassed it, in terms of a more personal statement, but held to the same self-flagellating standards of quality that C$ and I make for ourselves. This is as much his record as it is mine, with the outstandingly talented 80HRTZ as the close second. He stretches some inspirational canvases to paint on, and I’m eternally grateful. Halo, Renee, Mary, Mo, Nicole, Chryso, and everyone else that contributed are all irreplaceable. Glitter was about the Grand Downfall, ENMITY is the Personal Apocalypse. I approach every body of work as if it were my last chance at exposition. My last will and testament. I set the bar impossibly high in terms of Grand Statements. That’s why it took years to build. That’s why I scoff at quickly shat sketches that are passed off as albums. That’s why I’m hard-pressed to come up with “top 10/20” album-of-the-year lists when prodded. That’s why ENMITYVILLE is not for everyone, and it isn’t meant to be. Rome was not built on a day...but it was sacked in three. Taste is subjective, quality is irrefutable.
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to unpack this project in a scholarly long-form fashion, and to hell with lazy listeners and lazy readers. Our creative lives are too short to cater to the Dumbs.
In the interview below, Emmanuel “Kiki” Ceac (otherwise known as k-the-i???) speaks of two “modes of creativity”: his “da Vinci code style” and his “exorcism form.” While the former is cryptic, difficult, and underground, the latter is personal, intuitive, and social. In k-the-i???’s music, these two modes of creativity clash to create a kind of paradoxical acoustic space: his music is at once chaotic and melodic, his lyrics both enigmatic and expressive. While holding these opposites in a tensional balance, his music, unable to handle its paradoxical elements, malfunctions, implodes, or glitches. k-the-i???’s musical mainframe, in other words, acts out as it becomes overloaded and unable to process the inputted information. The signs of these “glitch-moments” are the mechanical sounds of static, repeated loops, kaleidoscopic effects, industrial sounds, and sheer noise, all of which distort, delay, speed up, and layer a song’s lyrical and musical rhythms. At k-the-i???’s most experimental, the mainframe seems to take on a “de/form/ed” life of its own, glitching until it overtakes a song’s constructed rhythms and leaving it in near-ruins.
Meanwhile, the person of k-the-i??? presides over this domain. He remains in control.
To listen to k-the-i???’s music is to be presented with the difficult task of processing and decoding the information outputted by this overloaded and often malfunctioning machine. The procedure is not always pleasant and, while some listeners prefer to avoid the difficulties of k-the-i???’s music altogether, others find its difficulties the site of intrigue. For k-the-i???, intrigue in the face of difficulty is the first step towards an important ends: a “higher knowledge” hidden from “us” by our human nature, its illusions, and our general distaste for extended periods of introspection. k-the-i???’s music both simulates and stimulates the difficult experience of coming to understand (or at least struggle with) the hidden or the unknown. The process involves a confrontation with the conflicting experiences and emotions involved in being “human” and, in turn, to uncover an unsettling truth about reality: that, beyond the illusions of the human, the cosmos (including the human himself or herself) is really a computer-like mechanism.
The uncovering of this truth does not solve or settle, however. At one instance, to become aware of the computer-state liberates us from human illusions and constrictions. At another, it threatens us with its infinite and mechanical power. So, is such an end really worth the difficulties of the process? Well – listen...
Generally, listeners have been quiet (at least in a “written” context) about k-the-i???, his music, and the interpretive experience his songs and his persona invite. In the interview below, I ask k-the-i??? a few questions in an attempt to elucidate the nature of his musical output and his persona. His answers demand attention not only for the light they shed on the dark and difficult parts of his music, but also for their reflections on the nature of human experience in “the digital age.”
Emmanuel “Kiki” Ceac (aka k-the-i???) is a rapper, beat-maker, and producer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started making music in 1995 and eventually released two small-issue records: Teletron 1 (2003) and Fair Weather Under the Surface Negative (2004). He released his first studio album Broken Love Letter in 2006 to critical acclaim in rap’s underground. His follow up records Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (2008) and Synaesthesia (2011) were released by Mush Records and Fake Four, Inc. respectively. He has innumerable side-projects—including Youth:Kill and 1000 Apes in a Room—and collaborations.
AA. We’ve heard the story of your name (cf. interview from 2011). It’s both personal and cryptic. Is the “hidden identity” or the “cryptic” a concept consciously at work in your music, your raps, or your persona?
KC. Most definitely it is. Being cryptic and personal is 100% my persona and it most definitely reflects in my music. In general I love making people think. On one end I’m personal and cryptic but I’m also a people person. Though I tend to be an open book sometimes I force you to read thoroughly until I allow you to move on to the next chapter. da Vinci code style lol.
AA. You have a massive discography, but a lot of your music is also very hard to find. You put your fans into a kind of never ending treasure hunt. Is this in any way a response to the over-accessibility of mainstream music, or to the mainstream’s tendency to give a select number of songs repeated airtime? Do you see yourself responding to the mainstream?
KC. Funny you say that. This is also a part of my da Vinci code element. Sometimes unintentionally I make my music limited and difficult to find unless it’s one of my major underground releases. Like...Broken Love Letter (Mush), Yesterday Today Tomorrow (Mush/Big Dada), Synesthesia (Fake Four). I will say this...I’m working on a series of 7 inch records that will be released limited but I plan to promote them and they’ll also be released digitally. Usually when I do a limited release I never allow them to gain any legacy. This time around they’ll be a full roll out of my limited releases (vinyl, digital, tshirts, stickers etc...). Not to mention I plan to re-release everything all in one place so that my fans find everything. As for the mainstream I feel like what I’m making now-a-days is more palatable to everyone even though everything my hardcore fans have grown to know me for and love is still applied to the craft. I guess my music is a little more mature. I was totally making music for a specific set of people when I was younger lol.
AA. What we know (for certain) is that you started in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, you were associated with “The Lost Channel,” “Rebel Alliance,” “Komadose,” among others. In the early 2000s, you moved to LA. Just by listening to your early recordings, it seems that, by the time you got to LA, your sound was already developed. Is this true? I mean, your musical output is insanely coherent—a k-the-i??? song is always recognizable as a k-the-i??? song. Your later stuff may be a bit more “precise” or, at times, “avant-garde” but that is all. Do you feel that, at any point, your music went through a drastic shift? Or is your musical trajectory based on a few ideas you’ve held from day one? If so, what are those ideas?
KC. I was associated with all those crews but Lost Channel and Komadose were some of my high school homies from Cambridge so it was more personal. I moved to LA early 2007 and by that time I felt way more developed and less random, because at one point in time my verses were so avant-garde and weird that the direction of my lyrics were random and had no direction whatsoever. Just free flying complex poetry on beat. My music changed but remains to have its core still intact. So I wouldn’t say drastic but I no longer rap about ninjas, robots and aliens. Well not as much as I used to and if I do I mask it way better.
AA. What is your creative-process like? In one song you mention that “you wrote this in five minutes.”; yet, in an interview, you mention that your music tends to “build” meaning over time. Do you start “intuitively” or in a rapid state of creation and then hope your work picks up meaning (slowly and overtime) after its completion? How do songs start and end for you? What about lyrics?
KC. It depends on my mood, spurt of thought, and emotion. I read a lot, I watch a lot of documentaries, movies, etc...So I have a bunch of stored information. Sometimes thoughts spew out of my mind at light speed. These are the days it’s pretty much a written freestyle and I let my body take over. I call this my exorcism form lol. Not really but you get the concept. And other days my mind is relaxed and I just dive deep into my subconscious to create crafted verses that are way more in depth. Musically sometimes I do the writing first then make the beat and match it or other times I create the beat first or already been given the beat and allow the beat to guide. My creative process changes all the time. I’m just now noticing how weird that is. Haha.
AA. The song “kollidoscope” has an almost mythic story-arc. You (or your persona) goes from “you’re driving me crazy / let me out / I’m held captured / locked in myself, vortex” to “my eyes are more open now with three-dimensional scenery / a liquid-based polygon, computerized entity.” You seem to suggest that “freedom” comes with a transformation from “human” to “computer.” As I mention in my introduction, the “personal” and “human” in your music is often associated with confusion and conflict, while the “computerized” and “alien” represents a freedom from those human difficulties. Are you, in fact, employing this mythic story-arc in your work? What do you find in the computer-world that is different from the human?
KC. When I look at the computer world compared to human world it runs opposite in contrary to most people’s belief. Mind you I wrote kaleidoscope my senior year of high school in 1997 way before movies like The Matrix stated the world we live in isn’t real. I kind of always felt that way since I can remember being able to remember. In 1997 I think reality really hit me and I started noticing that it’s not about just living your life any longer and that we’re about to switch to a technically advanced world where they’re going to start programming us and we’re not even going to notice it, but I noticed it all and it upset me. Not to even sound crazy I remember experiencing weird signs of euphoria that would allow me to see things that weren’t there. As if an entity from a parallel dimension warns me and feeds me knowledge. All my research reflects within my music. Basically my senses are always on alert and open. The conflict between the digital, the spiritual, the multidimensional has always been an everyday battle for me. The computer world is the truth, the actual world that we’re living in, while the human world is the complete opposite and just plays the role of a shell for the computerized world.
AA. In an ‘a capella’ rendition of your verse from “kollidoscope,” you mention that the song is a kind of experiment in language. “This is my vision of words [through] a kaleidoscope,” you say. Can you explain a bit about what that means? What are you doing with language that makes it “kaleidoscope-like”?
KC. It’s a language to the other side, as well as the understanding in what it hides. There are many layers and in all actuality it shows that the rabbit hole is infinite. The understanding that when someone says something it is more in-depth then what it appears to be on the outside. Hence how people who let my music grow on them tend to have a different understanding of a song of mine 5 years later because the language was layered and coded. And like we, all kaleidoscopes turn, rotate, show angles, are layered, as well as colorful but here is the thing...what you see inside isn’t what is actually on the outside.
AA. My impression of your idea of “words through a kaleidoscope” is a kind of “glitching” on the level of rhyme. The turning of a kaleidoscope seems akin to a series of mental associations precipitated by rhyme. Here are some lines from “Lead the Floor”: “Correct me if I was meant to attend Hailey’s Comet / No comet comment concurred referred validating maintenance / It hasn’t been the same since / Before the bulldozer moved over the hands of time to obtain / You couldn’t look under a rock to find history of my name.” Each line doesn’t really stand alone. Instead, each line “flows” into each other by means of “rhyming sounds” more so than by your own agency or control: “comet” leads you to “comment” and you don’t really have much say in the matter. The process is almost computerized, or automatized, rather than it is existential or expressive of a process of “individual genius.” Am I getting close to your take on rhyme and “words through a kaleidoscope”?
KC. Yes totally my dude. You just narrowed it down and understand – as metaphorical as words through a kaleidoscope may appear - that there’s so much truth to the core of the matter. Like really...We say we can trace our lineage but what if our lineage is a lie and we come from an unknown planet? We’d have to rethink life. This is a different subject but I feel like there’s more to the beginning of humanity then the theory of 2 rocks colliding creating life. I feel like someone is not telling us everything but I’m starting to be infused with knowledge.
AA. Your music is futuristic and genre-defying, but its also in heavy dialogue with the culture and traditions of rap. “Glitched-out” sounds will often clash with classic boom-bap beats. Is this the result of you putting your influences together in a mish-mash? Does this confluence reflect your own tastes in music? Are you consciously putting your influences together in your music, or does your sound just “come to you”?
KC. Totally!!! I’m a genre clasher. I’ll mix together what I feel will make sense from all sounds of music and my influences or sometimes it’s just cool random record finds to be used in my music. It comes to me as well. Digging for records attaches that element. Sometimes I buy records from artists I know since I have a large understanding of all genres from the 50’s on and sometimes I buy records that have awesome covers and just hope it’s good. And for the record I can sample and use anything. Like anything!!!
AA. On the topic of the tradition of rap, you often collaborate some heavy hitters in the world of rap. From myka 9 to busdriver and nocando (of Good Life / Project Blowed legacy); and from Bigg Jus to Orko and Thavius Beck. I’m especially interested in the tradition that comes out of the Good Life/Project Blowed. Can you tell me a bit about working with those guys and how they contributed to your musical vision?
KC. Being from the east coast there wasn’t many west coast artist that influenced me growing up aside from NWA, Hieroglyphics, and The Good Life/Project Blowed homies. So when I moved to LA I reached out to a few of the homies to collaborate since at this time we had gained respect for each other and built individual relationships with a few of the homies. Working with these dudes came easier for me than most. It was almost like I was from LA. Everyone took me in with open arms. I’ve done short run tours with Aceyalone, Myka 9, Abstract Rude in Germany (2010), I met NoCanDo and Kail in 2003 at Scribble Jam. A gang of us rappers were staying in the same hotel (Budget Host) and I remember being the only rapper not jumping in cyphers and I can clearly remember NoCan asking me if I rapped I told him I did and he asked me to kick a verse. I did. He was impressed. He kicked a verse. I was impressed. We were cool immediately. I was a black weirdo rapper from out of no where. Cambridge, Massachusetts at that. Weirdo black MCs were a thing back then...we were deep, lol. Met Busdriver in 2006 at SXSW playing the Mush Records showcase with him. So I, as you see, throughout the years, have built individual relationships with a gang of the homies, so when I moved to LA working with them just seemed right. These dudes contributed to my records by adding the element of styling...I was making abstract shit and the only set of cats that were as abstract as myself and that understand what I was doing was The Blowed.
AA. The “Youth:Kill” project is especially experimental. Are there any particular ideas you’re working with on this project? It’s absolutely incredible stuff.
KC. I love that project. Last year we recorded a 15 minute song with my homie OptimisGfn but we lost the file. It was about to be released on vinyl. But I’m always with Walter Gross when I’m in Berlin so we’re planning at some point in time to sit down and make something. We’ve done improv shows people really loved so people really like the Youth:Kill sound and energy and I feel like we should create new music when we can. Funny thing is I’m on my way to Berlin to his new place as I’m writing this lol.
AA. “Glitching” seems to have a dual function in your work. On the one hand it is a kind of means to be humble yourself. In “Electrobug” you say: “wait for her / To apply data / Oriental it / Must be in my mental operating system / Glitching / I’m not completely / That mad.” Your conflicted emotional state, here, is figured as a kind of “glitch” in your mental operating system. On the other hand, your “glitching” teaches. It demands a heightened attention from your listeners, a real concentration. The listeners need to adjust themselves to these difficult forms of sonic communication. Can you define “glitching” and your understanding of its function?
KC. Glitches were major for me then. I just couldn’t get over the emotional depression so I looked at it like a flaw in my system. Not to be able to get over an emotion, stressful, or a depressive situation was considered an error to my functionality. I would eventually get over things but the second I’m reminded of the mishap here come them glitches, system shutdown, and socially antisocial mode is initiated. And once operational I need to avoid diving deeper within my subconscious. I’m a heavy thinker. Glitching out wasn’t the healthiest. Everyone should be aware of the way they operate. I’ve studied my actions so I’m well aware and informed enough to relay the message to the masses. Refrained from system failure by properly scanning my data base for errors.
AA. With the popularity of groups like Death Grips and clipping, do you think there’s more room for the kind of music you’re creating? Will you forever be underground?
KC. Funny you say that. As far as performance goes, rap wise I get compared to Death Grips. I think it has a lot to do with that the aggressive energy. I was asked to open up for Clipping last year in Hamburg, Germany. To me it’s all with marketing. And content creation. Hard works pays off. I’ve been in no rush to become an industry dude. Respect from my peers goes a long way with me and I’m respected by them all. To be honest though...this year and so on I’ll be putting in major work to get my music to more people so we’ll see what happens. I think it’s officially time to upgrade my legacy. I’m ready to remove myself from the depths of the basement and replace it with a sliver of the attic. Then we can work on rooftops. I’ve built my foundation a while ago so yeah...it’s time.
AA. Lastly, anything you want to plug?
KC. First of all, thank you for reaching out. I am working on some newness that I can’t officially plug until the paper work is concrete but be aware that I’m working and you’ll notice a series of content, music, videos, podcasts, and so forth this year so if anything… Just stay tuned in. Peacers.
In my previous interview, the name of one poet consistently crops up: Steve Roggenbuck. At one point, Leo Mercer writes of him, “[he’s] the only person I feel is one step ahead of me in the things I’m concerned with.” Any number of “internet poets” would espouse a similar sentiment. Roggenbuck is undoubtedly one of the major figures associated with internet poetry. I came to know of him after Kenneth Goldsmith (poet, founding editor of UbuWeb, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and MoMA’s first poet laureate) praised Roggenbuck in a New Yorker article entitled “If Walt Whitman Vlogged” (2014). Goldsmith’s comparison, an internet poet to Whitman, is arresting, but, oft-repeated. The New York Times, Gawker, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and the Atlantic have, if not made the same comparison, made equally praiseful comments: Roggenbuck is inspiring, hypnotic, hilarious.
They also speak of Roggenbuck as the embodiment and expression of a 21st century sensibility. Along with Tao Lin, Mira Gonzalvez, Spenser Madsen, and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Roggenbuck is one of the leading proponents of that sensibility’s artistic corollary: “Alt Lit.” In the New Yorker article, Goldsmith describes Alt Lit as a literary style “marked by direct speech, expressions of aching desire, and wide-eyed sincerity.” Alt Lit’s lyricism often outweighs its craft; but its poems do contain some consistent formal characteristics: “lowercase letters, inverted punctuation, and bad grammar.”
Another thing journalists will often mention is that Roggenbuck and the other stars of Alt Lit adopt a counter-cultural, do-it-yourself ethic. The DIY ethic of the Alt Lit community, Roggenbuck mentions to me via e-mail, is “an extension, evolution, or continuation of the punk DIY ethic.” In a fashion reminiscent of Ian Mackaye (let’s say) making and distributing LPs via Dischord Records, Roggenbuck printed and mailed over 1,000 free copies of his first chapbook, i am like october when i am dead (2010), from out of his own home.
In addition to punk, the Alt Lit ethos has another relative: the internet tabloid. Whereas a limitation of punk is its exclusionary nature (anti-mainstream, anti-masses), the internet tabloid is inclusive, social. Alt Lit poetry does its best to appeal to the general public and to adopt the speech of the common person. Take this poem from Roggenbuck’s DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM (2011):
The poem seems democratic. It is understandable to just about anyone pop-conscious in the mid-2000s and is so for two reasons: first, it alludes to a popular movie; second, it uses the syntactical structure of that movie’s advertising slogan. The poem, in other words, is democratic because it adopts not only the contents of consumerism, but also the language of consumerism.
The language of consumerism, I want to claim, is a formal issue. It’s the syntax that marks “Buy the iPhone 7 now!” It’s easy, slogan-like, accessible. And, in reality, it’s a far cry from the ideals of democratic language. To speak with the ease and accessibility of advertising is to speak without personhood. It is to hand over your agency and language to the tycoon. “Speak for me now,” you say to Him as He lifts a spoon to feed you more of his plastic excreta. My worry is not that Alt Lit poetry endorses consumerism, but that it’s forms do. You don’t need to consume to speak like a consumer.
In my previous interview, Mercer gets close to addressing my worry. At one point, he speaks of Roggenbuck and Sam Riviere as poets who have “branded themselves.” About the former he writes, “I feel like Steve’s now marketing a grandd, and defiitely noble, vision of life which he wants to persuade you to aspire to” [sic]. Before he completely weaves Roggenbuck with corporate interests, Mercer clarifies: “Also, its not true what i said about steve, his work includes powerful look-in-the-mirror-statements such as when he saysin his characteristic vocie that he’s sure that we can achieve for free the happiness that corporations are trying to sell us” [sic]. Mercer’s second point is beyond true and, here, I want to repeat it: Roggenbuck does not endorse corporate interests!...at least thematically.
In an e-mail to Roggenbuck, I mention the issue of “branding” as the general topic of my interview. He immediately responded:
SR. My immediate thoughts: I think there is a sense in which everyone inevitably brands themself, even just your family and friends, even people who are not public figures. for example, your dad might have an awesome beard that he is known for, and then one day he shaves the beard, and it feels really weird and like he is a different person now, because the beard seemed like a symbol of who he was. The little external detail, the beard, became a symbol or almost a “logo” of what your dad is all about. You obviously dont need to call this “personal branding” to understand it, but i think it’s the same principles at work. I think it’s a potentially fun way to understand how the little details of what we say/do, how we present ourselves, are what we become known for, and how we can intentionally affect the image/associations that other people have of us. You can adopt a catchphrase if you want, and a few months later, your friends will think of you anytime they hear something similar being said by someone else. You can be the “cat person” in your family, simply by expressing your love of cats all the time, and then everyone will start getting you cat-related gifts on the holidays, and sending you cat pictures on facebook.
Roggenbuck’s response is valid: personal branding and corporate branding are similar in principle, but obviously different in scale and effect. But, what if personal branding and corporate branding align? What if your dad’s beard is a lot like the beards worn by American Apparel’s male models. And what if my catchphrase sounds a lot like a McDonald’s catchphrase – not just in content, but in form?
Forms mean something. The medium is the message. Forms carry and embed themselves in the meanings a speaker/artist/advertiser is trying to convey. Forms and meanings have a symbiotic relationship. Forms carry meaning even if they don’t contain the contents of that meaning. Forms mean something.
I want to propose one thing before I move forward: perhaps difficult and boring poetry (the type Alt Lit may reject) is, in fact, more democratic than the easy and corporate? What if formally complex poems give the reader his or her personhood back – stops him or her from being programmed, a talking android? A difficult poem has the capacity to make a reader dwell on words (semantically or phonetically) or lines (syntactically). The reader may pull out his or her dictionary, discover a word’s meanings and associations, and then realize that word’s linguistic possibilities. The reader begins to develop a handling of language that is precise. Language and its forms become tools at the reader’s command, not vice versa. The reader speaks for himself or herself again!
After all of this, I have not convinced myself. The talk of forms embodying consumerism, though perhaps valid, mean little when considered in the context of social change. Roggenbuck aims for change and does so outwardly. What does form matter if the language of consumerism is re-appropriated so as to be a means to a good? Can’t you write like an advertiser, but advertise a plant-based diet, for example? If the reader becomes a vegetarian or vegan, then why worry about form? With these questions in mind, I reached out to Roggenbuck for an interview. I asked him if he’d like to speak about the poet’s relationship to consumerism, form, and the poets’ relationship to corporate interests. These questions always need unpacking. One of Roggenbuck’s own poems captures this difficulty in but a few lines. I’ll end my introduction there:
Steve Roggenbuck (1987- ) is an internet poet, video-maker, short story writer, and vegan activist. He has currently published six books, the most definitive being Live My Lief: Selected & New Poems, 2008-2015 (2015). He has performed at over 300 live events across ten countries. He is also the founder of “boost house” (a small poetry press) and “plant liker” (a podcast about plant-based diets).
AA. Your life story is well known: you were born and raised in rural Michigan, you played drums in a death-metal band in high school, and then, while at Central Michigan University, you turned your attention to writing and publishing poetry. You then enrolled in an MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. You didn’t like the program, dropped out, but, while you were there, published your first two collections of poetry, started making videos, and became more vocal about your veganism. In 2012, you traveled and continued to build an internet following. A year later, you moved to Chicago and started boost house press. You’ve since spent your time traveling and doing poetry readings. Also, you’re a Buddhist and you like Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, and Lil B. I’ve read or heard this story a few times now. This is not to say that that’s a bad thing; but, do you find yourself self-mythologizing? Are you in some way fabricating an identity or is this just the way you relate your life-story? Is self-mythologizing is an inevitable part of being a poet of such visibility?
SR. i don’t think i would say my life story is “well known,” but yes i do have most of this info on my website, and certain details from it have come up repeatedly in interviews. i think there have been a few reasons behind my sharing of this information.
in some cases, sharing my story, like the bit about dropping out of my MFA program and touring as a poet, has served to inspire others who are also interested in unconventional life-paths which emphasize artistic practice. for me, art is often about how to live, so discussions of these life-paths are relevant in my opinion. on my Plant Liker podcast, the format is usually Q&A, and so i sometimes get questions from young artists who are interested in how i’ve built an audience, booked tour dates as a poet, or made some money from my art. i don’t necessarily shy away from discussing these things because, after all, we live in a capitalist system where shelter and food cost money, so we are all forced to make money somehow. if possible, i would love to help these artists find ways to keep making art and build support systems for their practice, even in this world which tends to be hostile to artists. telling my story helps illustrate one real-life path that i personally took.
i also find that, for me, the person behind the art is important to some degree. i want to know and trust the person whose art and ideas i’m feeding myself with. that trust doesn’t necessarily need to come from hearing every detail of their life story, but i do think that art is sometimes about finding and connecting with like-minded people. if i read someone’s funny poem in a literary journal, i might be more interested in looking up further writing by that person if their byline mentions that they’re a vegan or a socialist too, or something else that suggests to me that we have similar values. you could maybe view this process as “branding,” name-dropping these terms in a first impression like that, but i think calling it “branding” might cheapen what is in this case actually a very positive thing. i want to make it easier for people with similar values to find my work, because that’s who i think my work can usually help the most, and that’s who i most want to build community with.
AA. Journalists and critics frequently mention that you take a lot of your inspiration from the internet. One poem may read quickly (like Tweets); another may advertise the personal (like Facebook or Instagram); another may contain lots of “jump cuts” (like gifs); another may be extremely catchy (like the stock music you find on YouTube videos). To me, the forms that emerge from the internet are inextricably linked to forms found in advertising. It’s no wonder retail stores now post their advertisements on Youtube before they’re even advertised on television. While your poems don’t endorse capitalist interests, do you worry that the form or rhetoric of your poetry does?
SR. the influence of capitalism is hard to escape, and i’m not going to claim that my work has totally evaded that influence. i’ve become much more aware of this issue in the past couple years, but it’s still difficult to know where all your impulses are coming from when you’re working from your heart as an artist. so, it’s an interesting question for sure.
but i also think it’s important to remember that many of the ideas and forms that corporations utilize, they did not invent; they merely appropriated them. corporations are always trying to insert themselves into processes that are at least partly biological: they exploit and distort our inborn drives for food, sex, safety, etc. they also try to associate themselves with anything that is already popular. the language of advertising is constantly evolving as it continually appropriates youth culture, especially african american vernacular english (AAVE).
when discussing the internet forms themselves and their relationship to capitalism, of course it’s important to acknowledge that social media has transformed the way corporations advertise, and that the social media platforms themselves are huge corporations. but it’s also important to recognize that these tools have transformed anti-capitalist and anti-oppressive struggle in amazing ways, too.
twitter has been a medium through which news can effectively be spread, even when mainstream media refuses to cover it. two of the most visible hashtags used for political organizing have been #Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter, but there are countless more which have been used to connect activists and empower people to resist. queer culture has also exploded on social networks, especially on tumblr: queer kids who are isolated in their hometowns can now find community online, be affirmed in their identity, and find sources that further educate and radicalize them.
thinking about the politics of artistic form can be interesting; i remember an anthology called The Politics of Poetic Form (edited by Charles Bernstein) which i read back in college and which i remember liking. but sometimes i find arguments about the meaning of form to be a little impressionistic. for example, you said you think internet forms are “inextricably linked” to the forms of advertising. but what does it precisely mean for them to be “linked,” and is it even problematic if they are?
the bottom line for me is that corporations use internet forms because they are effective forms through which to grab and hold people’s attention. as an artist and poet, i also want to grab and hold people’s attention. how is your poetry going to transform someone, or even just help them laugh, if they aren’t reading or hearing your words at all?
AA. I frequently come across statements like “Alt Lit writers can’t write” or “Alt Lit writers lack craft” or “Alt Lit is hyper-lyrical.” The verity of these statements doesn’t concern me. What does is that they eschew any critical engagement with the formal aspects of your poetry and, also, any attempt at uncovering your “poetic.” In one poem, you do say that a poem is simply something the poet loves, i.e. that poetry is intuitive. Nevertheless, there are formal techniques that you use repeatedly: lowercase letters, visual rhyming, typographical experimentation, mispelling, play with punctuation, the cliché, repetition. Do you consciously use these techniques? What do you find in them?
SR. there may be several different functions served by the lowercase letters, misspellings, improper punctuation, and cliches in my poetry, but there’s at least one main function they all help in serving: they make it clear that i don’t want to appeal to respectability. i want people to read my poetry because they actually like it or feel moved by it, not because it’s earned the respect of gatekeepers and institutions.
the boldest misspelling i’ve ever published was on the cover of my fourth poetry collection. i used the incorrect form of “you’re” in the actual title of the book: “IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASSHOLE.” i’ve seen so many times when someone posted a picture of themself with the book on social media, and the first comment is someone correcting the spelling: *you’re.
the thing is, it’s really easy to follow conventions, to spell correctly and to use proper punctuation. in my opinion, it’s boring. and yet, people are judged every day for having “bad grammar” or whatever. it’s a form of pretentiousness and judgment that i just don’t respect at all. i feel like poetry and art are spaces where you should be able to follow your heart and do what you feel. the rules that teachers and editors come up with can be so arbitrary and stifling sometimes. i had an idea once to go through a prescriptive grammar handbook, and make a point to systematically break every single rule in the handbook in my poems. maybe i should still do that…
AA. Does the act of creation matter to you more than the product?
SR. what matters most to me is the reader/viewer experiencing the work. creation is sometimes very fun, and it often helps me work through my ideas and feelings, but i wouldn’t find nearly as much purpose in making something that i couldn’t show to anybody else.
AA. Have you come across the term metamodernism? From what I know, its the artistic use of an insincere means to communicate a sincere message. Your videos, for example, tend to begin with some improvisatory dialogue (or monologue) and end with statements akin to “carpe diem.” The dialogue is, for the most part, ironic: you’ll drop the names of celebrities or make a silly comment. The closing statements are usually sincere, but they too are said with some irony or cliché-ness: appreciate life, appreciate nature, appreciate your friends. Do the terms ironic and sincere apply to the relationship you have to your work? Is metamodernism something you connect with?
SR. i do think most explanations of “post-irony,” “post-postmodernism,” and “metamodernism” are relevant to my work, but i don’t like how calculated those terms make the process sound. when i’m creating, i’m not consciously thinking, “ok, i’m going to use an ironic means to communicate a sincere message” or anything like that. it’s a much more intuitive process. i think the term “playfulness” is more helpful, because it captures the attitude behind the work, speaking in goofy voices, mixing jokes into heart-felt messages, and sort of undermining your own seriousness, while still communicating an overall warmth and positive intent.
AA. In my opinion, your poetry doesn’t always do well when it has to stand on its own. They, instead, get a lot more weight when they are in multi-media type contexts. In your videos, for example, you have the linguistic, the visual, and the musical. Your choice of music is especially powerful: usually post rock. But the whole formula feels a little unbalanced. I see it in Lil B too. His lyrics do absolutely nothing for me when alone; but, in the context of a Clams Casino beat, they sometimes do. The cliché or unpoetic gains weight only because it has a more serious and formally exploratory (though this can’t always be said about post-rock) art to lean on. Do the words of your poems, alone, matter? Or is it about the “total art”? If it is about the latter, does the imbalance of artistic seriousness matter at all?
SR. i don’t have a great answer for this, but definitely my videos have seemed to have a bigger impact on most people than my written work. i’ve said before that i’m not actually sure whether the videos “are poems” or not. they are simply what happened when a poet started making youtube videos. maybe poetry is only a piece of what’s happening in the videos, maybe it is “applied poetry.” the categorization of the work can be interesting to discuss but it is ultimately not of critical importance to me.
AA. What does all this talk of poetic form matter when your message is positive? You promote veganism in your “Plant Liker” podcast. You promoted less-visible poets in your “Read Poetry and Eventually Die” podcast. You publish poets through Boost House. You are supportive of the LGBTQ community. You’re encouraging. You communicate with the people who reach out to you. Do the details of your poetic really matter? Do “high-caliber” aesthetics matter when you visibly promote change?
SR. i’d never assert that the questions about the implications of form are totally irrelevant; they are interesting and may have real consequences. but i do think there are other actions we can take that are often more important in terms of leaving the world a better place than we found it. i do think sometimes criticism can focus on nit-picky details of poetics, but if the poet is raising money for oppressed people or putting their body on the line standing with striking workers, that probably has more impact in most cases. i’m not claiming a moral high-ground in any of these places. i try to use my platform responsibly, but there is still a lot more i could do in terms of political organizing too.
After contacting Leo Mercer, I soon realized that the method by which I had been conducting these 5 Questions interviews would, this time, not work. The way Leo communicated was too free, too untethered, to suite the hyper-formulaic interview style I had been using. Now, how could I conduct an interview (and conform to the constraints of the interview-form) that would not seem affected? How could I get Leo to answer my questions critically, but naturally? I didn’t know, so I articulated the issue to Leo via e-mail:
The next day I received a reply. Leo’s answer was to the point. It came to me via Twitter:
Friday, September 30, 2016
Maybe DMs’re the answer?
They’re character constraintless, but somehow seem to want quicker thoughts
Between Friday, September 30 and Sunday, October 9, Leo and I carried on a dialogue that touched upon the various theoretical and formal aspects of his poetry. For me, the dialogue was both cathartic and enlightening. For one, the DM [direct message] format forced me, as Leo had expected, to think and write quickly. I had to suppress my inclination to dwell—and to dwell excessively (as I tend to do)—on the particulars of a thought or phrase. The result was effective: the dialogue, though at times “abstract,” felt something closer to a conversation between two interested acquaintances: free-form and mutually sympathetic.
The more interesting result of our conversation was a new appreciation for what may be called “internet poetry.” To put it bluntly, I was and am skeptical of it. Doesn’t poetry in the context of Facebook or Twitter lose the defiant, the jarring, the progressive quality that makes it so interesting? But – Leo’s poems undoubtedly have a draw to them. How is that? I found myself reading them daily, enjoying them, but not knowing why. I was open with Leo about my feeling:
Thursday, September 29, 2016
I’m very happy to hear from you! It’s great that you’re up for the interview. In the past, my process has simply involved (a) writing five questions in a word document, (b) receiving the answers a few weeks later. But, now that I’ve received your e-mail, perhaps this process will be a bit too…conventional for us. It might be better to be less monolithic about it – to open things up a bit. By “it,” I mean the interview form; the display of an interview; the syntax, punctuation, and spelling of an interview. Maybe to find an interview method that matches your poetic.
So towards a redefinition of the interview (?)…
The interview below is both the product of this collaboration and an attempted answer to the mysterious allure of Leo’s twitter poems.
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
I find your poems quite compelling – compelling, but for reasons I can’t seem to fully grasp. I message you, in part, to satisfy this mystery and, in part, to ask you if you’d be interested in a sort of collaboration.
Now that our DM conversation came to a close, a final question needed answering: How are we to present the relatively free-form style of our dialogue? Should we present our messages as they are or should we edit them into something more coherent? Leo and I agreed on the latter. And so, what you read below is a DM conversation re-visited, edited, re-shaped, so as to better represent our poetic and literary positions. That being the case, all misspellings, ungrammatical sentences, and undeveloped trains of thought are not mistakes, but conscious inclusions. To give some sense of the immediacy or quickness of our conversation, I have organized our conversation by date (though not necessarily in chronological order), rather than by theme (as I usually do). I have also interspersed the interview with screenshots. These photos, I hope, will intimate the proper context and the proper mood of our conversation. I hope the result is sympathetic.
Leo Mercer is a poet, writer, playwright, and essayist based in Manchester, England. His poetry—well-known in certain circles—is heavily influenced by the culture, forms, and jargon of the internet. He is an Oxford alumnus. You can find his work here: www.leoemercer.com and https://twitter.com/leoepoems
(Saturday, October 8, 2016)
AA. When I scroll through your 1,800+ tweets, I’m always surprised by the variety and breadth of your poetry. I am not, here, referring to your subject matter (though that is true—everything from George Villiers to chihuahuas), but to your technique and form. You begin, for example, by writing poetry that is conventional in its spelling and then (as you mature poetically) introduce misspellings. At one point, you experiment quite a lot with hashtags. Another where links and usernames interest you. Sometimes you attach photographs to your poems. To study your oeuvre, then, is to study you “working through” a variety of poetic interests / possibilities. Your essays on “Internet Poetics”—Poetweets (2014), Free Spelling and the Textual Vernacular (2014), the three-part Notes Towards a Character Based Poetics (2015), and The Sound of Poetry (2015)—show you addressing these poetic interests directly and critically. So I ask, first, how did you come to poetry and, second, how did poetry become the means by which you could develop and work through certain literary and / or non-literary ideas?
(Sunday, October 9, 2016)
LM. I think initially I began writing as a purely nonphilosophical pursuit: I’d been studying philosophy/religion for several years, and as that became more problematic to me, writing offered a sort of creative antithesis to philosophy/religion. But then, as time’s gone on, it’s becoming an increasing middle-ground, where I get to explore big questions that are on my mind, but using those creative techniques to explore my thoughts and attitudes, as opposed to trying to argue for them in a rigorous way. Except that the questions that my poems make me ask have changed: they’re not about metaphysics/epistemology, more about society/life/language/history. More worldly I guess.
(Thursday, September 29, 2016)
AA. So, let’s start by taking one of your poetweets (can I call them that? – I take the term from your essay “Poetweet: On the Prospects of Twitter for Poetry”). I scroll down at random and pick this one:
The spelling is immediately striking. Then – next – a sort of tension in the poem: a tension between the constraints of the Twitter form (140 characters) and an effect of poetic freedom. I am reminded of the dictum “no freedom without constraint.” The poem’s line breaks, its elisions (“th” not “the”), the simplification in line 9 (“nite” for “night”) all contribute to that sense of poetic freedom I speak about. But, again, only because of the tweet’s formal constraints. Twitter even squares off each tweet for you – both character limit and visual space are clearly defined. Poetry, generally, lives off the tension between form and freedom. The Twitter form makes this tension particularly compact, visible. Do you consciously strive for this effect of freedom? Do you think it comes out because of the constraints prescribed by the Twitter form?
(Friday, September 30, 2016)
LM. Id completely forgotten that poem you quoted haha
the one thing that strikes me the most is how i was already beginning to use anagrams as a technique there
the idea being that what end-rhyme is to sound, end-anagrams can be to the eye
or not just anagrams (thing/night; road,doar), but echoing letters (tired/drive, home/me, return/nite)
I don’t thing I’ve really seen poets using anagrams as a source of poetic technique/pleasure/meaning
I think, re form/freedom, the biggest freedom is creating your own forms/techniques/tools. So if you see anagrams havent been used, suddenly thats something to sort of coerce meaning out of.
there’s like a law of diminishing returns for working within existing forms – however much freedom you find, it’s always in a space cluttered with history, which somehow prevents you from saying what youd otherwise say. i dont knwo whether thats cos of the form itself makes you want to say somethings, or the history of the form makes you say a historical cliche in it. but i think you have to (read: i want to) make your own forms. But to articulate the least-articulated truths about your existence, im pretty sure you need to find new forms, just like in science you have to discover the equipment before the equipment discovers the truths.
*breathes for pause and response* haha
(Saturday, October 1, 2016)
AA. Your discussion of anagrams and echoing letters is getting very close to what it is I’m doing in my dissertation. In my case, I’m looking at how these two techniques become conduits for hidden / esoteric meanings. Have you read the poem “Be-Earthed” by the jazz musician Sun Ra:
Those who are be-earthed
They are phonetically birthed in their berth;
They are placed in
In their place
Their place is their prace/praise/glory/fame…name.
Now Ge is one of the symbolical names of earth,
And since that can be considered as a basic-equation form;
We might as well consider that Ge’s is earth’s
And Ge’s us is Earth’s us.
Ra is aiming for a few things, here: (1) pleasure; (2) beauty; (3) and, most importantly, education. Language for him is “locked” and “corrupted” – and, through these sorts of linguistic tricks, he is able to re-vitalize language and unlock some hidden meaning. It’s seems like pleasure and beauty are at the heart of your work too. This poem, here, for example – about the anteater – is just hilarious:
Do you feel language is stale / locked and, so, in desperate need of play? Is the pleasure / beauty / comedy of this poem an end in itself or – like Sun Ra – the means by which to get at some higher meaning?
(Saturday, October 1, 2016)
LM. so much to say, so little order in my head wit which to say iut 😛
pleasure – beautiy – education = all things i also feel like id want to aspire to
and i do have a constant internal monologue to the effect of “ugh all these people are using language stalely, where can i have fun”
i find it difficult to say “need of play”, need is a difficult word. but, for me atvl, theres i think two annoyingly contradictory impulses.
1) “want of play” – SO bored with language (/life) desperate to find some fun to have in it, some way to be different and break its homogenising effects (Proper Spelling, Proper Grammar, Propernesses etc), to not be the same as everyoen else, to notice something newish, literally to do whatever it occurs to me to do in the moment it occurs to me (which is why tweeting is helpful, releasing moments of spontaneous poem as opposed to the final draf – theres something hedonistic about this, immediate poetic gratification.. perhaps me writing poems is sort of the least hedonsitic hedonism imaginable :p :p).
2) The desire to find elements of language that are still in flux and are dynamic, and tie them to saying What I Want To Say / My Understanding Of The World.
So in a sense, you want to have fun with language. But you also want to be really serious with it
It’s like going skiing just so you can have a photo of you midair skis snow sun and share that
I dont think this *needs to happen* – the worlds not going to end if it doesnt – but i find myself really like really really wanting to do this
Also this connects with the thing about esotericism, which I dont really aspire to. I dont think language has any inner meanings which I want to reveal to the world. I see it more as something I can imbue with my own meanings.
maybe the more i go on, the more i feel i dont really have any particular message. Its more i want to create a linguistic model of what life is now. A body of letters/words that you read and you feel Yes-this-is-a-purer-form-of-the-language-we-were-using-then and-the-thoughts-we-were-feeling-then and-what-was-actually-happening. To sort of zoom out. Its less about saying *something* and more about just actually being able to look into a mirror and see what exactly the world has made you into and put that on the page.
So like, if i want to talk about The World Is Changing, and creating a crumbling-language type effect
Or evoke the way science goes down to the minutaie of things and rebuilds them up from its basic components, then beginning with words as sequences of letters – letters being the sort of dna of language – i can do that
But then not just massive world cosmic processes, but trying to echo both deep mental processes, of break down, confusion, desire but also nervousness, cuteness, horniness, being-in-hysterics-ness- all of these internal realities can be created by the way you play with the letters that make up the world
Letting the world speak for itself almost – if you think it, say it, because its at least pyschologically true .- I keep thinking that the best poetry’ll be one that, like a scientific hypothesis which can account for all the relevant data, is a way of using language that can contain all the ways that language (in its current internety chaos and dynamism) is being used. Most poetry is nightmarishly dry because it has no way of including the vast crazy beauty chaos of language as it spontaneously erupts online
(On which note I should really really emphasize I dont think my poems are there yet AT ALL. Im just doing a public display of play :p.)
(Monday, October 3, 2016)
AA. So, just to clarify, your poems are attempts at what you call a “Powerful Beautiful linguistic model.” Is this art for art’s sake? Are they self-contained art pieces that are beautiful without reference to the external world? To me, they don’t feel like they are. Although you may not have a particular message, there is a sense of a “world outside the poem.” And your poetic language seems to aim at a more “authentic” mode of articulating the external world. Purer? Authentic? On the other hand, you also refer to the “metamorphosing” of the world and of a “zoomed-out-perspective.” To me, that’s a sort of fictionalizing of the world. How do you synthesize this authentic / pure articulation of reality (an articulation without any particular meaning) with this metamorphosing / zoomed-out-perspective?
(Monday, 3 October, 2016)
First off I often feel like I can’t reduce my aims to one thing. Whenever I encounter something new I love (roughly three times a day) I think THATS WHAT I WANNA DO
But the person I always often comeback to as a model is Steve Reich, and I think his model probably is the stablest model for me too (so much so that it worries me – i think now ive recognized him as a model i feel the need to find a way to unmodel him)
His works do seem SO PURE. As art, they work on their own terms. They don’t need an outside world. They’re just.. internally perfect.
At the same time, he gets to them by taking the basic elements of the tradition he most knows (classical music) and applying the basic processes of nonclassical influences (medieval, African, balinese, Jewish musics) alojg with cutting edge technological innovations (tape, video). The result is a music that is Artistically Pure as an end product, but the means to creating it are full of deep wide fresh worldly encounters.
Applied to poetry, this means going back down into the cauldron of language, hypothesizing what the basic elements of it are (letters, punctuation), applying new technologies (social media forms and, who knows, my current flirt, emojis etc), and trying to apply linguistic processes from outside my immediate tradition (medieval, Internet language, dialect, and I should probably look out for more and weirder)
The ultimate effect, in the poetry that I will hopefully be able to create in the end of this process (I currently see my Twitter account as just a public video of Me Swimming In The Mighty Cauldron of Language), is artistically internally coherent and Art in its own right, but will only have been arrived at through the deep engagement with the world around me. Which is what I think the art that affects me does best – so worldly that it’s postworldly sorta thing. And maybe that says something about what sort of life i want to lead too.
What i mean by “the zoomed out perspective” is just never latching onto he immediate gimmick, but always looking for the more fundamental opening that the gimmick allows. A hashtag in my poem would make me feel gimmically sick, but that opening up to a new meaningful function of non-traditional characters in a poem is exciting – *we have more letters/characters available for our poetry than ever before why arent we using this hm”*. A tweet in itself is a gimmick, but that opening up to a character-by-character poetics is potentially powerful
Trying to latch onto the bigger trends, the more tectonic shifts, in the language-earth
(Monday, 3 October, 2016)
AA. When I read your poetry, I do, genuinely, feel the purity of your language. Your language feels closer to my own thoughts / consciousness, i.e. the faculty that both experiences the world (purely) and shapes the world (fictionally). To read poetry of this sort is, you’d imagine, comforting (maybe that’s not the right word…harmonious?). But, I also get a strong sense of being “jarred” or “jolted,” as though my mind has momentarily malfunctioned. Here’s the one you did just a few hours ago:
So, I add a third thing to the equation: (1) pure / authentic language; (2) metamorphosing, fictionalizing; (3) a jolting, a difficulty. Thoughts?
(Monday, 3 October, 2016)
LM. Re: jolting and difficulty. I think my poems now are too difficult because I have no control. I’m like a baby realising it can talk, and currently just blahnlabanlahakanahaing. As I get poeticallyolder, what I say will be more controlled and less difficult. (I think this – my sense that my poetry isnt there at all yet, that its wildly bad in comparison to what i hope is coming – is something im weirdly proud of. Its hard to get yourself into a place of notknowing, to be happy chilled with that. Its easy to get yourself into a place of received knowledge and feel secure in that (though tbf once you realise its easy, its hard to want to do it anymore!). The instability of my current writing – knowing i dont know how to do something but that as far as i can tell, no one else does too, so im not just ahead of the game but im playing a game no one knows ahbout but also might just.. Not be agame after all. .)
At the same time your right – there’s the glitchiness and jarringness, which is often good. At the moment I’m not doing it controlledly enough, but that being a poetic technique – those (tch)s for example – is the right track. So much of this is about coming up with my own poetic tool bag after having used a more traditional contemporary English toolbag that I now find dull and limiting for so long.
I think the difficultly I am happy to have is the difficultly learning a new language, but which opens up when you’re inside it. I want to create a language within a language that it is worthwhile for people to learn.
I guess at this point I start getting into questions that really confuse me like “wait so r u just saying you wanna brand yourself” haha – if (u get this pretty clearly form people like sam riviere and steve roggenbuck) poetry is just a form of marketing, then a) ugh and b) what do i wanna market. But maybe this goes back to what i was saying before. i dont think i want to market anything. I dont think i have the confidence in any aspiration to market anything. i just want to be honest. Theres taht c s lewis’ quote about ‘we read to know we are not alone’, and that sense of trying to look into a mirror and see what the world has made me into it and share because the world is making similar things of other people..
I feel like Steve’s now marketing a ggrand, and defiitely noble, vision of life which he wants to persuade you to aspire to . but i just want to be a mirror, and to say that, before you start aspiring to something, be able to know who you honestly are first (which of course id ont know.. Which is why poetry has to be thought-full at the same time as artistic). But then maybe that just becomes confusingly circular – my marketing pitch is that im just offering an honest product aghaghagagm hm.
(Also, its not true what i said about steve, his work includes powerful look-in-the-mirror-statements such as when he saysin his characteristic vocie that he’s sure that we can achieve for free the happiness that corporations are trying to sell us )
another things to add is about how this is all part of the play you mentioned. writing stops being about A Higher Pursuit, the Elevated Part of Yourself, the Deep Purpose Of Life. it becomes about processing the entirety of your life.. trying to include all the things that youve been taught to exclude.. all of life, all teh edges you may have written off as insignificant, become deeply human and significant and talkableabout. if you enjoy it, its worth writing about it.
procrastinaton (in the sense of “5 hrs on the internet just disappeared, where to??”) is particularly important to me here as an idea. processing your procrastination is everything – the sense that when you procrastiante, jumping uniquely from thing to thing across the endlessness of the internet, your actually seeing yourself in a sort of mirror, the mirror of the choices you made, the things you wanted to find in the world of currently findable possibilities. your attentuon was SO absorbed in the pursuit of finding yourself and your loves during that time (whoever says we have less attention span just doesnt realise the recalibration of attention! ). and then working out how you can create an art-document of what you encountered, snapshotly, of what you encountereed, perhaps. your full life. no filters :p I find so much english poetry is a filtering of life in the nostalgic-higher-beautiful-life-filter, basically no better than high culture instagram. playing with language, playing with life tho :p
(Tuesday, October 4, 2016)
AA. How do you imagine yourself developing this language? In some sense it has to be formulaic, especially if you want your poetic language to be “learnable.” Do you have some sort of method to your poetic playfulness? Are these all things you’re still trying to figure out, i.e. how to become an “adult” with language? Does becoming a poetic adult mean having a poetic method, form, language, developed? Do you have rules or is it intuitive?
(Tuesday, 4 October, 2016)
LM. In terms of methods and stuff. I don’t really know. I constantly have self-rules in my head, and then break them. My first year of tweets, as evidenced in that Poetweet manifesto thing crap, was premised on using language Properly and Calmly in a languageworld that was chaotic. My rule there was strongly never to mispell. Then I started breaking that rule and that became the basis for the next year of writing, exploring the power of mispellings. But I had a very strong rule never to use emojis because emojis were stupid and couldn’t be part of a poem. And here I am now trying to work out how they can accompany and contrast the meaning of poem, add a sort of visual rhythm, be a sort of perfectly-sized letter-size mini-illustration etc. So I think I’m still playing endlessly, and hopefully at some point I’ll feel ready to take all I’ve learnt – a thousand different ways of ordering characters – and order them into something shareable.
This is actually one of my favourite emoji ones so far, the way that the emojis i think really become part of the language, adding to it, offsetting the rhythm, adding emotion and stuff. I can’t quite articulate what I like about it (tho also i dont know if i like the second half but still)
I think it will be learnable when it works. I think I can already explain to people the basic elements of Why this is beautiful. Finding the spelling of the word Beautiful beautiful, and then the mispellings of it beaueatuaetiful baetuatfiul beatiful etc, stumbling across a historical spelling of “bewtiful” somewhere, a typo of it a beautifuil. And finding double letters beaufiul. And random letter quirks. The cool random difficult lele in ruleless. Etc etc. Having favourite letters of the alphabet (for me, im in love with j i atm), Those are things that weve never been taught to find astonishing in language but which really are. Thinking about hiphop and the devleopment of rhyme there, from supersimple end rhymes to full scale eminem brilliance, the way that something considered a bit trite (rhyme) becomes a vehicle for intense virtuosity and expressiveness, i think that is the same power that an anagram pushed to its limits can come to have. So having visual poetry which is as tightly letter-patterned as an eminem rap is sound-patterened.
By which I mean to say: I think if I can find things beautiful that have been underappreciated, explain and demonstrate that to people, then people will learn the basic rules of my language and be able to read a variety of performances in it. But each time I put into words what I’m doing (from Poetweets -> Free Spelling –> Character-Based Poetics –> *now*) the rules of the project seem to be getting more fundamentally weirdcool. I think I’m becoming vague now, and not quite answering your question sharply! – Perhaps what it is is that ive not arrived at the full blown realisation about what language is, from which everything im doing and will do makes sense. One of my fave lines from my nonfreespelt poems was ‘language was the early viral social network’ or something like that – i think this is something to with the premise of seeing language for what it is. I think to write good poetry u have to really understand what your material is, what it can do and what it cant do, how film and music eg is better than u at lots of things. If i was in a silicon business i shouldnt start having graphene dreams maybe.
I think as poets we deify language, improperly. To love something, to know how to use it properly, yoiu have to be honest aboiut what it is, not to be in fantasy abotu it, to realise the fundametnal contingency of the thing, adn work with that, accepting the allwayschangingness of stuff.
(Tuesday, 4 October, 2016)
AA. There are lots of similarities, here, to the chapter of my dissertation I’m currently work on. Take a look at the poem “Embarkation for Cythera” by Lorenzo Thomas, if you get the chance. The poem presents a typical mythical pattern: a creation story, a fall, and then a reclamation of a past Edenic state. The fall comes with the imposition of “written language” on an “oral culture.” Then, finally, the reclamation of that oral culture in the dance hall (where music is being played) of the final stanza. Lorenzo Thomas and a lot of the other writers around him blur the line between music / orality / aurality and written language. I know your poetry reaches beyond the linguistic – you work with emoticons and so enter a more visual space – but, do you feel any connection to music / orality / aurality at all?
(Tuesday, 4 October, 2016)
LM. Interesting. In terms of reclaiming an oral culture from a written one. I think one thing I’m working towards is actually the extreme opposite in a sense: as opposed to blurring the boundaries between music and written language, I want to intensify the difference, creating written works that can’t be read aloud (by difficult mispellings, unreadable punctuations, possibly emojis – I’m not sure where this fits into concrete poetry, maybe I’m more interested in playing with the black on a page and a lot of conceptual poetry is more interested in the white, I dont know haha) and spoken word that can’t be notated into written language as we know it (using intense audio editing, introducing sounds that just aren’t notatable – I’m still very new to this, but it’s something I’m really aspiring to).
Recognizing the differences between written language and spoken language, it’s started to feel like most poetry blurs it disgustingly. To take most contemporary English poetry, it seems to be the worst of both: the poem seems incapable of passionate musical performance, and is meant for its written form. But its written form is just as a recording of that bland aural performance, with nothing pagely-creative done to it. If the page and the recording are two ways of transcribing language, then I’d want there to be a distinct art of both, not a vague unintense blurring of the two.
I guess I’m not nostalgic towards an oral past, but aspirational to a future in which each mundane element (paper and audio recording alike) is developed to a meaningful artistic degree in its own right
On the note about these works for the page and works for the audio, the only person I know who I really feel is doing this (probably with a different intellectual framework, but in general the only person I feel is one step ahead of me in the things I’m concerned with) is Steve Roggenbuck, whose page poetry is full of typos and general unspeakables, and whose video poetry is intensely edited, each right for their own medium, well measured and with a powerful meaningfulness.
(Wednesday, October 5, 2016)
AA. As I was reading your essay “Free Spelling and the Textual Vernacular” – which has a lot in common with what you’ve been talking about here – I was struck by the sensitivity you have to the minute. Your work functions, or gains its potency, from an Imagist-type focusing of energy. The 140-character tweet of course. But also your free spelling. The reader is encouraged to dwell, not on words, but on letters. On the most minute components of our language. As you say, this is facilitated by focusing on the visual rather than the oral. The oral seems to do the opposite: the reader dwells on a vague sense of sound and rhythm and the actual words of the poem are secondary to its phonetic sense.
In your essay, you use the example of the word “night.” You manipulate the word and write it “nighght.” For the reader/critic to understand the manipulation, s/he must, (1) dwell on the word; (2) try to evaluate its effectiveness. The second step requires an understanding of the “essence” of nighttime, so that we can say, “Yes, the addition of a ‘gh’ reflects the essential properties of night: darkness and density. Yes, ‘nighght’ properly mirrors, visually, the essential properties of night. Yes, ‘nighght’ is a more visually true representation of night than even our standard ‘night.’” I know you use the phrase “zoomed-out-perspective,” but the process seems the opposite: to “zoom-in” past accidentals to essences. Past words even to letters. And past letters to REAL essences. To me, this focus on the minute is not only poetic, but also spiritual and moral. We get into questions like: “What is the essence of night? What is nightness? or, the ‘is-ness’ of night?” Those are questions of a philosophical and religious sort. In a social context, the questions become: “What is the essence of person x? Can I look beyond her/his accidental / experiential qualities and see her / his essence?” Your poetry seems to encourage this sort of moral / spiritual sensitivity. Do you want your poetry to have this sort of applicability? Or would you rather it remain in the realm of the literary? I understand Steve Roggenbuck’s work as explicitly “spiritual.” I’m not sure if that’s the right word – but, it’s something moral, something sensitive, human, earthly, life/live-ly. Is this true of your work?
(Saturday, October 8, 2016)
LM. I definitely agree with the emphasis on the minutiae. If in normal poems words make their letters invisible, I want to make them a source of power in their own right – more than anything because I need my writing to get its energy from somewhere. Using words is like plugging into the normal power system, where everyone is trying to get power from the same source. But then if you realise your sitting on a coalmine of your own that no one knew about, you can get loss of energy for yourself – (btw I really like this analogy for what words are. If a word is like the ground, the letters are two billion (made up fact) years of energy-full material history compressed into a power source waiting to burnt and released. This isn’t an environmental metaphor – I think the equivalent of solar power would be Roggenbucks videos. The realisation that something we’ve had forever [sun, verbal language] can now be harnessed/recorded like never before and begin a whole new beautiful energetic clean tradition of power/poetry, whereas my written poetry (and in a sense Steves own written stuff) is more about a creative destruction of the linguistic materials were sitting right on already bahaha.
At the same time I think the opposite – in the image of the poems I eventually want to write, I want the impact to be on the macro and immediate, and independent of letter-by-letter analysis.
Youcan already see from a distance that there’s something aesthetic about this – problem is there’s no words yet. What I want at the moment is to have patterning as clear as that from a distance, but which when you read linearly also has meaning. You can see my attempts at this in most of my poem one – take the one I just did about Mozart and couscous. There’s lots of letter patterninga already, meaning the letters used in a word on one line are very close to the ones in the next.
The connections are too subtle / letter based to be so significant in sound-poetry but visually are much more compelling. If I can extend this letter play to a whole poem, so you see the patterns from zoomed out but then, zoomed in, it’s intelligible – then I think that will be The Thing. It will have an emotional Hit on the reader that will add a sort of power to the reading itself.
This is one of my favourite Twitter accounts. The maker of the bot which creates this calls it Ambient Sound. I think for me it’s Ambient Spelling, using letters to create a thoroughly relaxing sound, a sort of extended onamatpeaieia that is equivalent to Brian enoey ambient music. I think what I mean is poetry that, zoomed out, has that immediate visual zoomedout noncognitive emotion, akin to the pure sound of sound poetry. But adding to this actual complex beautiful / freespelt zoomedin words, so that the poetry says something as well as creates an experiential response-feeling
You’re right about Steve Rs work. I think he’s got a much clearer sense of what he wants to say than I do, but if you see his earlier stuff, it was less clear and sharp and moral than his current stuff. I think that is the ideal: you develop your style to something weird distinctive and noticeable, so it’s ready for you to say the things you care about when you know what they are. I definitely want my stuff to be that eventually, though I don’t know what mine will be saying at the moment – I expect it will be more realist than motivational as SR, more focused on trying to make sense of the world I as an individual live in, deal with the coexistence of fundamental differences, troubling desires, and articulate real contemporary life, as these are things I tend to be stuck thinking about. If SR is aspiring to a New Keats status then maybe I’m more Wordsworth perhaps or Eliot. I guess in the same way as I feel my style is being worked out right now, my philosophies also. I definitely think of poetry as philosophy by other means. The aim will be to mature style and substance at exactly the same moment.
One thing I love about starting with letters in poetry is the fact that so many languages share the same alphabet
I did some poems past year that spelt English as if they were a sequence of various European languages
And I really want to develop that more sophisticatedly
Again, that’s a case of marrying the stylistic question – how to spell English to evoke other European countries – with nonpoetic questions such as massive political questions like the nature of Europe, EU etc. Each stylistic exploration has accompanying philosophical ones, and the ideal is to mature them at the same time, in service of each other
I remember thinking a while ago that the two cornerstones of contemporary young internety feeling are yolo and fomo. Steves got yolo covered with his motivational ethical slant on yolo – you only live once so make it spiritually beautiful and ethically effective – whereas I feel fomo obsessively. I can’t ever quite get over that there is so much im missing out on, so many realms of human experience that are beyond / outside me, that every choice / action / no action I take is killing a billion couldhavebeens – but hey lets use that feeling of massive excludedness to make you want a v deep an exploration of allthatwhichyouarenot as possible, to try to get above fundamental differences that seperate things and people. I feel that might come to be close to the message I feel most.
I first encountered Loïs Cordelia’s work in Darren J.N. Middleton’s Rastafari and the Arts (2015). Her painting of Black Uhuru was one of the most arresting illustrations featured in the study. Loïs Cordelia paints Ducky Simpson, Puma Jones, and Michael Rose in bright green, yellow, and red, respectively. They press their bodies to each other in an act of intimacy and their gazes—directed outward—invite the observer to join their close coterie. The painting is more than just an exercise in similitude; it captures a mood. Loïs Cordelia expresses the ideas, the same cadence and rhythm, of songs like “Solidarity” and “Time to Unite.” The painting is both sensitive and affective.
These two qualities appear again—this time in verbal form—in an interview (included as an appendix) featured in Rastafari and the Arts. In her answer to a question concerning the influence of Rastafari on her art, Loïs Cordelia gives a very personal account of her “love affair with roots reggae.” Reggae enraptured her, Loïs Cordelia writes, because of its message of the unity of all people as well as its capacity to kindle in her “the spirit of rebellion.” Her appraisal of this constructive-destructive duality reaches at the very heart of Rastafari. And, with such sensitive knowledge, Rastafari’s mood, essence, spirit incarnates itself in the very materials of her art.
After I featured Black Uhuru (2011) in my interview with Darren J.N. Middleton, I reached out to Loïs Cordelia. She kindly agreed to a similar interview. Busy schedules inhibited us from meeting in person, so an e-mail interview has, thus far, taken the place of a live one. I hope that this will change sometime soon.
I organize my e-mail interview the way I did the one with Middleton: five questions on themes various enough to serve as a “very short introduction” to the interviewee’s work. The questions may seem disparate, but, I hope, some reading and analogical thinking will turn variety into a coherent web of ideas.
Loïs Cordelia is an artist based in Ipswich, England. She works in cut-paper, acrylics, and mixed media. Her methods are diverse: at times she energetically speed-paints and, at others, she painstakingly uses a scalpel to create intricate paper cuts. Her work has been published in journals, books, and music albums in Great Britain, America, Germany, and Austria. She is beyond prolific. Examples of her work can be found on her personal website: http://www.loiscordelia.com. On her “events blog,” you can find a schedule of her upcoming live demos, workshops, talks, and publications: http://www.loiscordelia.com/blog
Artwork Portfolio & Blog: http://www.LoisCordelia.com
AA. As I familiarize myself with your oeuvre, I get the sense that there is an overarching theme to your work: interconnectedness. You use the term in relation to your scalpel paper-cut “Gaze of the Green Man” (April 2015). “The fragile interconnectedness of Nature” not only seems to apply to the paper-cut’s subject, but also (more broadly) to the nature of your very aesthetics. Your oeuvre is an (inter)connected web of methods (speed-painting, paper cutting), styles (portraiture, life drawing, cartography), and subjects (music, history, myth). You’re a “person of many parts,” to use the outdated idiom. Could you tell us, first, how you came to the visual arts and, second, how the visual arts became the means by which you could involve your various influences?
LC. Firstly, Alex, many thanks for your glowing words of introduction and your thoughtfully worded interview text. I always enjoy the challenge of responding to such interesting questions, because it makes me stop and query every aspect of my own creative process.
Yes, all things are connected. As an artist, I consider part of my role is to open people’s eyes to the extraordinary parallels that link every level of reality, because this is the basis of creativity, not to accept things simply at face value, but to go deeper. To quote John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”.
As a child growing up in school, I rarely questioned the modern scientific mindset, with its emphasis on logical, linear thoughts, tending to dismiss interconnectedness in all but its most obvious forms. In evolving to become an artist, I have had to re-train my brain to think sideways, diagonally, cyclically, back-to-front, in loops and spirals, and beyond the confines of conventional thinking. Every artist runs the risk of being labelled ‘crazy’, but the more I delve into looking-glass land and logic, the more I consider this term a compliment.
As you mention in your question, an intricately perforated paper-cut design is perhaps one of the clearest symbolic representations of interconnectedness. My paper-cuts often consist of a ‘web’ of paper strands, each one painstakingly cut out using a surgical scalpel blade. I inch my way down either side of pencil lines, and often have to hold my breath to keep my hand steady and avoid breaking a crucial structural strand. This makes me think of many parallels: the web of biodiversity, the Internet, the human brain – each with a mindboggling complexity of links.
On the subject of the brain, I saw a brilliant and very funny post a few weeks ago, circulating on one of the social media sites, which likened the brain of a creative person to a computer with several thousand tabs open simultaneously, all the time. This made me laugh, because I could wholly relate. The point is that these thousands of tabs are also interlinked, often in spirals and loops, and nested one inside another.
When links are broken, we swiftly notice the disruptive consequences. I am particularly fascinated by the theory of six degrees of separation, suggesting that everyone and everything on the planet can be connected to anyone or anything else by six or fewer steps. The more we tune in to this, the smaller the world becomes and the more familiar everything seems, because we acknowledge our shared ancestry, DNA, life experience, heritage, culture, spiritual principles, linguistic roots, anxieties, problems and so on.
Networking is everything. Nothing and noone can exist in isolation. With every passing day that connects me with more people and more ideas, I am grateful, because it shows me how important networking is – in particular to a freelance artist.
I defy the age old stereotype of the artist who labours in solitude, shut away from the world. Of course, every artist must spend periods of their life alone, practising, experimenting, researching, but prolonged isolation is unhealthy and not conducive to a successful career. For this reason, I perform live art demonstrations in public almost every week, engaging passers-by in conversation, listening, sharing anecdotes and inspiration, challenging people to think in fresh ways by introducing them to unusual approaches, and all the time I continue painting or paper-cutting or sculpting. I go into auto-pilot. My ego steps aside and I no longer feel self-conscious. I’m engaged in human interaction, and so the creative process simply flows. Many people tell me I’m brave to do so, but this is how I work best. Even when I work alone at home in my studio, I deliberately immerse myself in music, audiobooks or poetry, for the same reason.
Engaging complete strangers in unlikely conversations about art and philosophy has not always come so naturally to me. As a child, I spent most of my time alone, endlessly drawing. At first, I drew mostly from imagination: animals, horses, and mythical creatures. Later, about the age of ten, I began to draw increasingly from direct observation, creating accurate pencil and pen studies of museum specimens and natural forms, as well as realistic portraits from life sittings. I reconstructed ‘artist’s impressions’ of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures based on studies of fossil remains and skeletal structure. In this way, I became a skilled draughtsman at a young age, and no matter how far I shift away from photorealism towards creative expression, I still place great value on drawing skills. Being able to capture a likeness with minimal strokes and accurately judge complex relationships of different angles in a large composition is a great boost to confidence when painting live in public. When teaching art workshops, I always encourage people to loosen up, work from the shoulder, measure with their eyes and spend at least as much time looking at their subject matter as they do at their painting along the way, rather than spending hours meticulously sketching out the basis of a picture. I believe this is the surest way of improving drawing skills.
I continued formal study of art only as far as A-level (Northgate High School, Ipswich, 2001). I owe a debt of gratitude to my A-level Art teacher, Mr Dan Emery, who first encouraged me to let go my obsession with black and white drawing and evolve into colour, hence I began painting. My ‘art education’ since then has taken the form of working part-time as a personal studio assistant to artist and illustrator Jan Pienkowski (born 1936, Warsaw), most famous for his children’s books, the Meg and Mog series and pioneering pop-up titles, including Haunted House. Working so closely with Jan in his beautiful, spacious west London studio has exposed me to new art mediums and styles, and given me an insight on the book publishing industry, but above all it has introduced me to Jan’s radical, refreshing and often wonderfully eccentric philosophy towards art. What impressed me most was his carefree attitude to so-called ‘mistakes’. Jan welcomes these as unexpected gifts that offer him a different way of seeing things. Genius!
In short, the visual arts have become far more to me than my career. They are my passion, the way I express myself best and the means by which I combine all my diverse influences.
AA. Your work seems to convey more than just a technical proficiency. In a work like “Sioux” (July 2014), you aim for more than similitude. You seem to want to convey an essence, to capture and express the person or the soul of your subject. In “He Who Laughs Last” (April 2014), you go so far as to make a triple portrait in order to capture the multi-faceted personality of Lenny Henry. It feels—if I may—spiritual, even sacramental. Is there a spiritual dimension to your work? If so, could you speak a bit about it?
LC. In an ideal world, my artwork would exist entirely in a spiritual dimension and would be infinitely fluid in form – rather as I envision things in my mind. In my understanding, I equate spirit with movement, freedom and life, hence, most of my work is concerned with evoking a fleeting impression of spirit and pinning it down just long enough to capture its essence, without confining it too rigidly. Physical form can only contain spirit as long as it remains flexible enough to do so. The moment it loses this fluidity, it becomes a lifeless fossil, a brittle relic. I will speak further of the importance of movement in answer to question three.
My spiritual journey has been an intense one, at times lonely, at times euphoric. Looking back, I can relate each step of it to the archetypal mythic journey, which suddenly brings every painful episode, every ‘triumph’, every ‘failure’ into meaningful perspective in the wider context of the soul’s development.
My early upbringing was not religious. Indeed, religion was practically a subject of taboo, and so it sparked in me an intense curiosity. I remember being fascinated by words such as ‘infinite’ and ‘ultimate’. I explored science, seeking answers to the infinite question mark that floated in my mind, encountering astrophysics, black holes and quantum mechanics along the way. But I longed to explore beyond the boundaries of four dimensional space-time and the physical universe.
I began exploring religion, delving into various scriptures and traditions, being deeply influenced by a few in particular: Christian, Islamic, Sufi, Rastafarian, Hindu, before broadening into comparative religion and mythology, immersing myself in the poetry of Rumi, Ibn Arabi, Hildegard of Bingen, St John of the Cross and others. In the course of exciting adventures and forays into second hand bookshops and little known territories of the library during my first year at the University of Edinburgh, I encountered the works of Paramahansa Yogananda, Rudolf Steiner and Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov, whose combined teachings still form the basis of my spiritual worldview. Ultimately, I defy being labelled and steer clear of divisive language as much as possible, avoiding such terms as ‘religion’, which appears to be a western concept that has been at best awkwardly applied to eastern traditions, preferring to speak of a ‘spiritual path’ or ‘tradition’.
I have no religion, other than Nature. In this sense, a lot of my artwork draws upon the ancient, timeless symbols and figures of the Pagan path: the Wanderer between Worlds, the Green Man, the World Tree, the Sun, Moon and Stars, magic, dance, faeries, ferns, and native flora and fauna. These are often combined and fused with powerful symbols of biblical imagery, largely influenced by my long love affair with the Rastafarian tradition: the crazed prophet, the Angel, the lion, the roots, the vine, the Christ, the Crown of Thorns, and the Tree of Life. My third major influence and source of symbolic imagery is Hindu spirituality, including four-armed Shiva Nataraj (Lord of the Dance), and Lord Krishna with his consort Radha. Such symbols are like seeds, dropped into the fertile ground of my imagination over many years and allowed to grow, evolving, fusing, entwining with others to take on ever new forms.
I am most interested in themes that speak of hope: rebirth, metamorphosis, transformation, transfiguration, evolution, because this is the uplifting message I wish my work to convey.
AA. Movement, energy, or dynamism is a distinctive feature of your art. On the level of method, you do a lot of speed painting demos. On the level of line, you often use jagged and curvilinear strokes or contours. In “Tennyson Down – Isle of Wight” (October 2012) and “Sand Dunes at West Wittering” (2014), the dynamism of the subject matter has an obvious cause: the wind. But, in other paintings, the source of its movement is unclear – it seems to emanate either from the person him/herself or, perhaps, from the dynamic impression you have of your subject. Can you explain what accounts for the energy, dynamism, or movement that is so characteristic of your work?
LC. Movement links together all the apparently diverse mediums of my artistic expression. As I’ve mentioned, it also evokes my dynamic perception of spirit as striving to reach beyond the confines of physical form.
My so-called ‘speed-painting’ technique involves painting with acrylics on a large scale, launching in with a large brush, and working from my shoulder as opposed to my wrist to produce huge sweeping arcs of movement. I rarely take more than an hour or two at most to complete a painting or portrait, because I am keen to preserve the raw energy that fuelled the first few seconds or minutes. Life drawing and sketching, capturing the likeness of a live model, often within a space of a few minutes, is another excellent discipline, which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to improve their drawing skills. I often quote Leonardo da Vinci: “Art is never finished. It is only abandoned.” An artwork that is truly ‘finished’ seems to lose something, weighed down by obsession with detail and perfection. Less is more.
Similarly, with my paper-cuts, a swift, energetic sketch forms the basis of a very precise design that may take many hours to cut out, yet it is that raw energy that remains manifest on completion. In the case of my sculptures, the initial ‘sketch’ takes a bit longer to execute, being composed of wire, bent into shape with pliers and twisted together for strength, but the principle is the same: the emphasis is always on evoking movement. The figures in my work tend to dance, often with dramatic gestures and outstretched limbs. They are typically elongated, striving to reach beyond their physical limitations into spiritual dimensions. They represent the eternal longing of spirit for freedom of expression.
Movement is fundamental to life itself, whether in the flow of blood circulation or water, the economy, electricity, traffic, or conversation. Without fluency, life grinds to a halt and stagnation sets in. On the subject of movement, I will leave you with two favourite quotations of Friedrich Nietzsche: “I would never believe in a god who didn’t know how to dance”, and, similarly, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
AA. Soon, the fourth volume of “BirdBook: Poems and Illustrations Celebrating British Birds” (2016) will feature a paper-cut of yours on its cover. You often work with the illustrator and writer Jan Pienkowski. You’ve studied Arabic, you’ve started a website that matches reggae lyrics to biblical scripture (Words of Wisdom), you have a “quotations” page on your website, and works like “For what is it to die” (July 2011) and “Manisha” (December 2015) incorporate the written word. You are obviously very attuned to the relationship between the visual and the linguistic. Do you use the written word solely as visual decoration, or is it something more powerful or inspirational?
LC. I have always been fascinated by words and language, and specifically, as you mention, the relationship between the visual and the linguistic. It is true that a picture can paint a thousand words, but a single word can also evoke a thousand images.
The meaning of words is important to me, most especially in the context of names. From the moment I discovered in early childhood that people’s names had meanings, I began intensively studying name dictionaries. I found out that my own first name ‘Lois’ is derived from the old Teutonic, meaning ‘warrior maiden’, and that my middle name ‘Cordelia’ (which I now use in my artist name) means ‘warm-hearted’, hence, ‘warm-hearted warrior maiden’ – I like the balance that this implies: the strength and determination of the warrior spirit, coupled with gentleness. I find that both are important in my work: being fearless and confident, yet sensitive, loving and dedicated.
A few years on from this etymological discovery, I had moved on to studying dinosaurs, and then trees, and, once again, I was most intrigued by the array of exotic sounding scientific names, which I gradually learned were derived mostly from Greek and Latin. Having a German mother and an English father meant that I grew up more or less bilingual, which no doubt gave me a head start in dealing with the unique challenges of languages. Over a period of ten years or so, at high school, sixth form and university, as well as in my own time, I studied French, Latin, Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Amharic, Sanskrit and Arabic. In the end, I had to narrow down my choice to one, and opted for Arabic as my degree subject. Being a perfectionist, I loved the patterns of grammar, and always wanted to compose perfectly grammatical sentences. At university, the walls of my student digs were covered in handwritten Arabic verb tables, and very pretty they looked, too.
The visual aspect of language appeals to me more than any other. Most of the languages I studied involved non-Roman alphabets, which gave me fascinating glimpses into how pronunciation and meaning can be conveyed through widely varying visual forms. Foreign scripts appeared mysterious, seductive, playful, almost mystical, until patient study revealed comparable meanings to our familiar Roman alphabet. This taught me a lot about the ways that language can be visually appealing, and set me thinking about the characters of different typefaces, fonts, styles of calligraphy and handwriting. To this day, I love writing and sending handwritten snail-mails, most often to my fiance in the timeless spirit of love letters, and often adorn and decorate both cards and envelopes with fancy scripts. Meanwhile, though I rarely use other languages for communication, their visual character still manifests in my artwork, most notably the cascading fluent lines and rhythms of Arabic script.
I have deep respect for the written word, and yet I treat it with caution. Ideas seem to have a dangerous degree of assumed validity stamped upon them the moment they are ‘set in stone’ in the form of writing. The obvious example is the minefield of religious scripture and dogma, the literal interpretations thereof, and the horrific consequences. I wonder when, if ever, the sacredness of the spoken word will be re-established. It is humbling to realise that our ancient ancestors memorised entire epic narratives, reciting them by heart and passing them on from generation to generation.
Language is also a living thing. It evolves and changes with time. I have great admiration for writers who use words creatively and playfully, and have had the great pleasure and privilege of collaborating with a number of skilful writers, creating illustrations inspired by their texts. I would not call myself a writer, though I enjoy the challenge of speaking articulately about visual art.
AA. “Pig Geswyk” (2016) is now on display in Ipswich as part of Pigs Gone Wild 2016. “Pig Geswyk” even has its own Twitter account. How important is integrating or sharing your art with the community? Does an audience matter? And, finally, what can your audience expect from you in the coming months?
LC. Creating art live in public is a crucial aspect of my work, and I often create some of my best pieces in this context. Having an audience, whether in the form of casual passers-by and visitors or a sit-down audience at an art club demonstration who watch from start to completion, turns visual art into a performance art. It means that I have no excuse: I have to simply launch in, which swiftly eliminates the fear of making a start on a blank canvas. The adrenaline kicks in and no doubt sharpens my thinking. A live audience offers instant feedback, critique and encouragement, which can be a valuable boost to confidence. Best of all, I have the opportunity to engage in conversation, learn, share, and inspire others to have a go themselves.
I am very proud of my pig, Pig-Geswyk. She has become my first public art, to be installed in the centre of my hometown of Ipswich for a period of ten weeks this Summer, along with 38 other pigs, as part of the Pigs Gone Wild art trail. The pigs have brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to Ipswich since the trail opened at the end of June, and it has been heartwarming to see families and individuals going to visit each pig. I chose the name Pig-geswyk in reference to the Medieval name of Ipswich, Gippeswyk (‘Place of the River Gipping’). I depicted two of my favourite iconic local townscapes on the larger-than-life fibreglass model pig: the elegant facade of the Elizabethan Christchurch Mansion on one side and the stylish contemporary Waterfront on the other.
In the spirit of my live speed-acrylics demonstrations, I completed the entire painting of my pig within the space of two days, working live in public at a busy cafe in Ipswich town centre, talking with dozens of visitors of all ages while I painted. I loved every minute, and made many friends over those two days. The pig trail finishes this Friday 2nd September, and it will be sad to see them all go, though I am delighted to have been asked to perform a live speed-painting demonstration at the grand pig auction evening on 22nd September – it will be very exciting to witness the auction.
As for what to expect in the coming months, I am always working behind the scenes on any number of projects, as well as continually striving to innovate in all my practices. Not wishing to spoil any surprises, I won’t say too much. At the present time, I am very busy creating a set of magical themed cut-paper illustrations for a children’s fairytale story, to be published in Austria later this year. As soon as I’ve completed those, I will be focusing on another project which is likewise very close to my heart, though in a different way: creating a series of haunting, uplifting, atmospheric visuals to accompany a song dedicated to refugee children, in the form of a music video.
You are welcome to browse my website and blog, drop by at my live art demonstrations and other public events, attend my art workshops, follow me on social media, and get in touch to discuss commissions.
Many thanks for your interest in my work and I look forward to hearing from you!
Lois Cordelia, Ipswich, UK, August 2016
My review of Darren J. N. Middleton’s Rastafari and the Arts: An Introduction (2015) recently saw publication in the Oxonian Review (31.2). The review put me in touch with the book’s author. After a warm correspondence, he kindly agreed to a short interview. The five questions I ask loosely cover the central topics of Rastafari and the Arts. His answers, written via e-mail, are incredibly fascinating! He covers everything from the rise of Rastafari in the 1930s and the Jamaicans in the English East Midlands in the 1980s to the power of dub-poetry in the time of brexit.
Darren J. N. Middleton is Professor of Religion and Director of the Master of Liberal Arts Program at Texas Christian University, USA. He was born and raised in Nottingham and educated at the Universities of Manchester, Oxford, and Glasgow. He has taught in Memphis and Fort Worth. He has published ten books and a number of articles on both religion and art. An edited volume on “Rastafari Livity” is currently in the works. His personal website: http://darrenjnmiddleton.com
AA. I will begin with a personal question. As you mention, Rastafari has a particular capacity to be “symbiotic.” Folks in Senegal mix Rastafari and Islam; in Japan, Rastafari and Zen Buddhism; in Israel, Rastafari and Judaism. Ethiopian Orthodox Rastas and secular Rastas are widespread. How did you discover Rastafari and, as a Christian, how has Rastafari informed, influenced, or contributed to your beliefs?
DJNM. Thank you for your interest in my work, Alex, and for your five questions, which have inspired me to ponder some things anew. Very generally, I was born and raised in a part of the English East Midlands that included many neighbourhood Jamaicans. Many Jamaicans settled here in the post Second World War economic boom. Their children were born later, in the 1960s, and many of them became my friends and schoolmates. The Rastafari religious movement, which surfaced in Jamaica in the 1930s and then in the UK in the early-to-mid 1970s, was part of my council housing estate’s atmosphere and action. I grew up and came to voice around Rastas, to cut a long story short, and the words and sounds of these women and men of deep, abiding faith soon seeped into my suggestible soul through cultural osmosis. Reggae music was my life’s soundtrack: Aswad, Janet Kay, Dennis Brown, Eek-a-Mouse, Burning Spear, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Black Uhuru. For me, a bookish coal miner’s son, reggae music stimulated so many questions: How do Rastas read the Bible? Who is the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah? Why is His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie referenced so frequently? What is Babylon? Is “livity” synonymous with “spirituality”? Are black people the true Israelites? Is Africa “home”? My Rastafari friends spun riddims and parsed patois, especially Iyaric or “dread talk,” and many appeared happy to indulge my curiosity, to reason with me, and to help me “overstand,” in the language of the Rastafari. Truth is, I have been trying to overstand ever since! I never took a course on Rasta during my university years. Yet I have journeyed to Jamaica, Japan, West Africa, and the USA – all in search of the varieties of Rastafari experience. Any overstanding I possess – if “possess” is the right word here – is down to the many, kindhearted sistren and bredren who invited me to “sit in the dust” and talk with them about God, life, and meaning.
I wasn’t raised Christian. I converted when I turned 17 or 18, and then a dear friend of mine helped me to plug into a local Baptist church. I found and made friends with several Jamaicans in this congregation, and a few of them made it possible for me to experience extended, inexpensive stays in Jamaica. I admired the Baptist church’s non-conformist tradition, and I often wondered why Jamaican Baptists could not see a reflection of their own face, as it were, in Rastafari’s prophetic desire to chant down Babylon via its own biblically-grounded non-conformism. Although I eventually trained for the Christian ministry, I followed my American girlfriend to Memphis, Tennessee, where I landed my first teaching tour of duty shortly after finishing my doctorate on the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis. I was ordained in the USA, and I served one church as its theologian-in-residence, but the nature of my present post at TCU, which I took up in 1998, obliged me to focus on academe. Rastafari friends, and I have so many around the globe, have informed my Christian discipleship – I converted to Catholicism a few years ago now – in at least three ways. First, Rastas have helped me appreciate the Bible’s complexity: the way it sometimes speaks with more than one voice on a single issue (theodicy, for instance); how one ignores scripture’s preferential option for the poor at one’s peril; and, how the Good Book invites interpretive freeplay and doctrinal development rather than shuts down debate and sponsors Final Truth. Rastas are avid readers of the Bible. And they are vigorous debaters. Wherever two or three Rastas gather to read and discuss the Bible, there one finds disagreement(s); and that’s as it should I be, I suspect! I admire the Rasta reverence for scripture, then, and I have found myself quite moved over the years by the Rastafari’s insistence that the Bible upholds God’s concern for social justice as the hallmark of genuine spirituality. Sometimes I have allowed myself to become mired in arcane theological debates, as though “orthodoxy” represents Christianity’s Alpha and Omega, but then I have heard Rasta, especially Rasta reggae, and its call to concentrate on “orthopraxis” has made demands on my soul – again, that’s as it should be! Second, the Rastafari emphasis on “livity,” on how spirituality may best be understood as a way of life, a manner of being-in-the-world as a child of Jah rather than the recitation of a stolid creed on a rote month of Sundays, has challenged me to see Christian discipleship as something active, vibrant, and evolving. Third, I think Rastafari’s many artistic dimensions, some of which I address in the book, have helped me rejoice in the way music or literature or painting can be a visible sign of an invisible grace. I am quite happy to admit that Rastafari has refined my Catholic Christian sense of the link between aesthetics and sacramentalism.
AA. In “Rastafari and the Arts: An Introduction” (2015), there is a sense that Rastafari is going through a process of “liberalization.” The Reggae Compassionate Act—in spite of some controversy—seems to have marked an important step away from the sexism and homophobia often present in Jamaican music and Rastafari. These changes are undoubtedly positive. But, is there some fear that liberalization is the halfway house to secularization and atheism? I think of the current “crisis” in the Anglican Church, as church attendance plummets and conversions increase.
DJNM. I am sure what you describe is possible and plausible, because we know that liberalization in Christian circles has led some believers – in other centuries as well as our own – to experience a faith crisis, even deconversion. Do Rastafari deconvert? I am sure some do. Snoop did. But seriously, there’s little or no work on such falling away from the Rastafari faith, so my reflections are limited and limiting; as we move into the movement’s ninth and tenth decades, I think scholars will start to investigate and then analyse such things. I feel certain that Rasta will continue to reconfigure itself. And the process of becoming Rasta, as Charles Price’s recent work shows, will come to involve and mean so many things: improved gender relations, qualified Christologies, reimagining herbal fidelity, revised notions of Blackness, and the movement’s branding. I suspect that some kind of “secular Rasta livity,” an observably “progressive Rastafari” in and for the new millennium, will emerge in the next fifteen years or so, but I would struggle to see this trend as an unwise, negative, or worrying move. It’s what I would expect of a faith that’s largely acephalous, idiosyncratic, and given to constructing local theologies. At the present time, though, it seems that scholars and cultural critics have their hands full trying to account for other occurrences, such as the movement’s need for centralization; the Rastafari’s development of end-of-life rituals and liturgies; and, the phenomenon of “mansion-hopping,” where mansion-hopping entails the existential shift from, say, membership in the Bobo Shanti mansion to membership in the School of Vision.
AA. There is a great scene in the movie “Rockers” (1978) where Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace walks his brand new Honda motorbike to (what seems to be) a record shop. The yard is filled with colourful paintings, some of Haile Selassie and others of Marcus Garvey. Jah Wise, one of the Rastas there, proceeds to paint a Lion of Judah on the gas tank of Horsemouth’s motorbike. In your book, you discuss artworks by Ras Terms, Lois Cordelia, Marcus Wilson, and Ejay Khan. Can you speak a bit about the history of the visual arts and, perhaps, the importance of the “visual” in Rastafari? The images associated with Rastafari—the Lion of Judah, a ganja leaf, ites, green, and gold, to name a few—are incredibly pervasive.
DJNM. The Rastafari are no strangers to the visual, in all its many forms, and yet they’ve often struggled to secure proper recognition for their imaginative endeavors. Drawings and carvings of figures like His Imperial Majesty, Garvey, and others (Leonard Howell, the Prophet Gad, Prince Emmanuel Edwards, etc) have been around since the early 1950s, and these days there’s a robust tourist trade in such items, yet many of the first Rastafari painters and handicraft makers were outsiders to the official art world, shunned for two basic reasons: they were, for the most part, self-taught or untrained, hence seemingly unsophisticated, and they depicted subjects and themes (Selassie’s divinity, Garvey’s racial exceptionalism) often deemed too wayward or errant for conservative artistic or theological audiences. 1980 changed everything. It was the year that Jamaica’s National Gallery devoted a section to “intuitive” painting and sculpture. Several Rastas were among the featured artists. And some of them became famous: Albert Artwell, Deloris Anglin, Ivan Henry Baugh, Everald Brown, Samuel Elisha Brown, Leonard Daley, Ras Dizzy, Ras Daniel Hartman, Allan Zion Johnson, Jah Lloyd, Bongo Silly, and others. Subsequent exhibitions devoted to this work – colourful and creative renditions of Rastafari theology in mixed media (murals, oil-drum-lid painting, etc) – appeared in Germany, where there’s an impressive Rastafari presence, in the same year, 1980, and again in 1991. Readers interested in knowing a bit more about this history would do well to locate Wolfgang Bender’s Rastafarian Art, which is a lavishly illustrated and decidedly instructive book on the subject. I am pleased to say that more and more museums around the world, including the Smithsonian, have taken turns to display Rastafari art in various exhibitions throughout the last sixteen years.
Generally, “the visual” became important in and for the Rastafari because it first served as an example – another example is music, naturally – of the reclamation of a self and a cultural agency denied by Babylon. It still serves this function. Rastafari is a way of rebuilding blackness as well as fortifying Afrocentric creativity; and Rastafari intuitive art is a broad, democratic way of documenting as well as expressing black Rastafari theology without feeling bound to the dictates, edicts, or canons of received wisdom/authority. Such art celebrates Africa, not the West, and the Earth’s Rightful Ruler, not the false and corrupt leaders of the world.
I should say that the Rastafari art featured in my book derives from outsiders as well as insiders, folk who were generous with their time and their images. Readers can see their images, and a few more besides, on my personal website. One of my favourites is Ras Terms “SpaceNTime,” which the band Ishence used as album art cover. This artwork squeezes so many symbols and images into a painting – red, greens, and golds; dreadlocks; undetonated Italian bombs; the African continent; the constellation of Leo, and so on – designed to accentuate Selassie’s cosmic rule, his Lordship over space and time.
AA. In your book, you discuss the history of Reggae as well as the rise of Dancehall in the mid-1980s. I often hear a distinction made between “conscious” Roots Reggae and the “slackness” of Dancehall. Do you think these categories are fabricated by music critics? Are these categories too divisive or does Dancehall truly promote the materialist culture that Rastafari decries?
DJNM. I think the categories have been discussed by music critics and scholars alike. They seem real, certainly true of a specific time, which is to say the period of the mid-to-late 1980s and into the 1990s. I do know that when I hosted “Jah Music,” a radio show on WEVL FM 90 (Memphis) in the early 1990s, I was inundated with requests for Mad Cobra, Shabba Ranks, and other early dancehall artists. The punched-up riddims were infectious, I admit, but I struggled with the lyrics, which seemed to glorify guns, objectify women, and extol hypermasculinity. But my listeners loved it! These days, insightful academics like Carolyn Cooper have a way of appreciating dancehall music as fostering black female empowerment. Dancehall creates the space for black women to own and perform their bodies, in life as well as on the floor, and although Cooper has her critics, those who read her work are seldom unmoved.
One final thought: I suspect that the aforementioned categories promote a tidy binary that’s unhelpful in today’s reggae music scene. The New Roots era, ushered in by the likes of Chronixx and Protoje, is a vibe where lyrics marked by spiritual uplift commingle with the latest dancehall riddims to create an arresting, fresh word and sound. Two recent albums that symbolize this trend of conscious dancehall, for want of a better description, are Makonnen’s Rockers Revolution (see the video for “Red Eye”) and Rseenal Di Artillary’s Aluta Continua X Vitória é Certa. Both artists appeared on our university’s campus this past April, playing to a packed and appreciative audience. Shabba Ranks’s Trailer Load A Girls is in our rear view mirror, so it seems, and up ahead, blazing a trail, is the New Reggae Generation of Makonnen, Rseenal, and others, like Iyah Gift.
AA. My academic interest lies in Modernist poetry. In my review, I mention that Rastas have a “historical sensibility”: a strong sense of the “presentness of the past.” The concept seems Modernist and, in particular, (T.S.) Eliotic. Recently, Modernist scholarship has begun to “open up”: an increasing number of non-British, non-Male, non-White writers are becoming “canonized.” Is there any sense that dub poets like Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Benjamin Zephaniah are consciously influenced, participating, or contributing to the “History of Literature” (with capital letters)? Or do they avidly avoid or reject canonized writers and traditional modes of writing?
DJNM. I think there was a time when the writers you mention felt little or no anxiety of influence from the poets and writers of yesteryear, although I do recall that Zephaniah once assembled a very creative drama for British TV, something he called Dread Poets Society, and I remember thinking at the time that this was an innovative way for a modern, Black British poet to engage his foremothers and forefathers in the form. This said, I think Zephaniah’s always wanted to perform and write for the people around him, ordinary people, and not worry about anything beyond the sound and sense that he prefers. I find him endlessly fascinating. And quite timely. If you’ll permit me a political aside, which nonetheless illustrates the “historical sensibility” idea that you note, last week I found myself flipping to the chapter on Zephaniah in my book, shortly after the Brexit result was announced, and reading again his poem “The British (serves 60 million),” which was penned several years ago. This playful yet serious poem remains for me, the no-longer-able-to-vote-ex-pat-that-I-am, a clarion call to the cultural otherness of the Britain I know and love. I have read a lot of LKJ and Muta, and I’ve seen them perform many times; it seems that both work with an abiding sense of what’s gone before, in Caribbean as well as English verse, without losing sight of what’s important to them: Garveyism, African unity, social justice, and how black lives matter. They are not T. S. Eliot, nor were meant to be; yet do I marvel at how Jah, or something akin to Jah, calls to these black men and bids them sing.