Brandon Downing’s works range from the cinema-inspired poems of Dark Brandon (2005) to the collaged visual poems of Lake Antiquity (2009) and film-poems screened at readings and posted online. Downing’s poems take pleasure in odd juxtapositions of sound and image, in accidents of translation, and in the materiality of printed matter. Downing’s lines may assume the appearance of a caption or masquerade as subtitles. Whether pasted or projected, the line is central to Downing's experiments with redirected language, translation, and collage, experiments that—however wild and weird—test the possibilities of poetry.
For the film-poems, most no longer than a few minutes, Downing edits film clips, overlays a catchy tune, and inserts subtitles that may visually register as translation but playfully fail at mediating screen action and soundtrack. The demands of professional subtitling (condense dialog, fit text to space of frame and time of action) serve, perhaps, as generative constraints. Critic Carrie Rickey characterizes the art of subtitling as “condensing sonnets into haiku.” In the case of Downing, the art of subtitling might be described as condensing sonnets into riddles.
Downing’s film-poems fracture and reassemble the conventions of narrative cinema. A Narrative (2010) features George Oppen reading from a poem on the dissatisfactions of storytelling. “Ouroboros / Whose tail is in his mouth” is one image of the machinery of narrative, “Digested / And digesting.” Oppen wonders “whether or not we are lost / And choke on words.” Oppen’s deliberate delivery serves as voiceover for a sequence from the 1942 film Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Johnny Weissmuller clambers across New York City rooftops and finally escapes his pursuers by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. A film’s voiceover typically serves as narrative bridge, but it is the temptation of narrative bridges—the padding of gaps—that Oppen mistrusts. In Downing’s “narrative,” Oppen’s slow voice inflects the Hollywood chase scene with melancholy.
While Downing’s cinema-inspired poems and film-poems engage both the shimmer and the silliness of screen objects, Downing’s collaged visual poems employ late 19th and early 20th-century printed materials, from manuals and magazines to menus and patterns. Nearly two hundred of Downing’s visual poems are collected in Lake Antiquity. Some poems do not use text but are constructed entirely of pictorial fragments. Most pages of Lake Antiquity, however, feature collaged texts arranged as lineated poems; instead of the surround of white space associated with poems on the page, there is a surround of visual noise that might include images, diagrams, or even another text. In the lineated poems, the razored outline of each found phrase results in a halo of white space, each poetic line thereby registering—materially—its former life on another page, in another narrative.
In the following interview, Downing discusses the influence of film on his writing practice; his attempts to impose a poetics on experimental manipulations of film, sound, and language; and tropes of translation.
Your film-poems collage film clips, sound tracks, and subtitles. As a way of introducing the film-poems to Asymptote readers, could you talk about your process of constructing the various elements: moving image, sound, and captions.
Sure. I have a somewhat extensive background in the visual arts, media design, and filmmaking. For many years, I’ve been toying with different projects that could push those vectors into the work I’m doing with language. I’m also an encyclopedic listener and viewer—it’s kind of sad and behavioral—and I’d spent much of 2001–2006 cataloging and “ripping” footage from films, obscure shows, public access TV, infomercials, and other marginal media, as a means toward writing a composite book of poetry and “cinema studies” that was published in 2005 as Dark Brandon. In that book, I kind of deranged myself into the conceit that a reader, if they watched one of the entitled movies or shows in real time while going through the poems (which I had also written “live”), might be able to interpolate some fraction of my physical body, as a sort of reverse inference, projected in relief by the content onscreen. Whatever. But, more importantly, Dark Brandon had to be read: the action by definition was happening apart from the screen. It wasn’t watching: it was reading. The work itself also felt a little formal in retrospect, so I started to wonder about the other side of that mechanic . . . what would it be like to make video pieces that rearranged narrative movie scenes to have the refractory, allusive connectedness of poetry? That could somehow foreground the written word in a naturalistic way; that could swoon with and react to music, and the music’s faith with the language, without the procedural heaviness that attended the writing of the poems in Dark Brandon.
These ideas were all happening around 2004, 2005. Dark Brandon had come out and, during some of the readings to promote the book, I’d perform in front of a screen that would be playing the title at hand, sped up or slowed down digitally, depending on a poem’s duration. A simple move, sure, but it brought me back into digital film editing.
Anyway, the book, like poetry books do, had come and gone, and it was time to get onto new work. I was sitting on this huge data-mound of captured digital scenes, a capable little home editing suite with some sound production software, and I started playing around with my wide delta of video clips. I was also obsessively watching Bollywood musicals from the 1950s and 1960s. I have hundreds of them on DVD, and borrowed and swapped regularly with a good friend who had thousands: movies that just swooned with the syrupy relationship between language and dance and music and crazed melodrama. And such good songs. I wanted to capture this same energy and poetic illogic, maybe even flip it further along its bizarre continuum. Make it dirty and flirty. Some of my first efforts were just simply ripping musical sequences and other interludes from these movies and re-subtitling them to see what happened, maybe throwing in old wrestling footage or something; my viewing habits had made me one-third fluent in “movie Hindi,” or so it seemed, and I had a lot of procedural fun with subtitles. Soon I was switching more easily between ridiculous misreading, honest translation, homophony, and parallel narrative. I dove into overlapping voices. I started messing with the music and dialogue as well, distorting it, changing speeds, adding digital filler and instrumentation.
Having a “third track” come into play—another source, another film, another narrative direction—which started to give the words more ways to pivot out of the initial audiovisual punch-lines. I made plenty of mistakes, tonal shifts that weren’t yet right, but within a year or so I was excitedly showing the pieces at readings and events. It didn’t always come off, but heck, it was new.
I had also for years been close friends with the writers who ended up forming the Flarf Collective, while at the same time shying away from actually writing any Flarf poetry per se (although I wrote a Flarf play). I love Flarf’s ridiculous combinatory poetics, dumb exhibitions of self-belief, and heroic fragmentation of “one’s tone.” Eventually I realized that what I was trying to do with video was basically the same thing. While I was helping the Flarf Collective plan the first Flarf festival in New York back in 2006 (we also produced a second festival in 2008), I was asked to put a program of these shorts together, and for whatever reason the audience response was tremendous. I was totally encouraged, and really ramped up the editing and production, until I was making a new piece every few weeks, and eventually made the first volume of the Dark Brandon DVDs at the end of 2006. By 2008 I was showing between fifteen and thirty minutes of new edited-together pieces each month at a reading series some new friends had started out in Ridgewood, Queens, Poetry Time at Space Space, as a way of kicking off each month’s program. As a format, it stuck, and over the three years of the series I made somewhere between 150 and 200 discrete pieces. Some of them were thirty-second interludes, others were more involved, and many probably aren’t even worth showing today, but the rapid nature of their composition meant that the styles and approaches for these evolved rapidly—the toolbox swelled—and after being screened, the pieces were just as rapidly cast off to try something newer. This was tremendous, stressful fun.
Let’s talk about your use of subtitles. Subtitles are most often encountered when watching foreign films; the experience of reading a text across the bottom of a moving image registers as “translation” but, in the case of your film-poems, there’s often a startling misfit between sound and written text. Your subtitles parallel but do not translate the sound track. In Fu Xin De Ren, the subtitles strike me as homophonic translations, right?
Around the time I made the first Fu Xin De Ren, in 2009, I had machine- and book-translated so much Hindi that I was beginning to feel a bit restricted by it as a language that was “free” for me to play in. It felt like I was lurking too close to real meaning and associations with Hindi, which, for what I was up to, was a no-no. I decided to start working in other language traditions, like Mandarin, which seemed like an apt new direction, as I was sitting on a huge stack of early Chinese and Taiwanese rock and roll and torch songs, courtesy of a close friend and omnivorous world music scholar, poet-cartoonist-DJ Gary Sullivan. I’d been categorically logging and capturing segments from the masterful Italian horror film director Mario Bava, and for some reason a few key scenes from Baron Blood seemed to really resonate with the lyrics to the theme song for an obscure Taiwanese melodrama from 1969, Fu Xin De Ren, sung by Yao Su Rong (a goddess). Of course, the resonance was with what I imagined these lyrics said, and I set about implanting my version of the song—a great love song—into this manic scene from Baron Blood where a young medium uses a fire ceremony to summon the spirit of a 16th-century witch who’d been burned at the stake. In the song, the disembodied spirit seems to wistfully sing the lyrics of the repeating phrase,
ai ni ye shen, hen ni ye shenwhich some ridiculous force inside me translated, based on sound and feeling, as: “I need a shower, I need a shower,” a refrain that became a bridge between the song and the film, and signaled the tone I was trying to achieve: a mix of sex and death, hygiene and loss. Basically, my favorite things. There was life in it. I suppose that’s one of the core things animating my process with subtitles. The lines are obviously not what the soundtrack’s saying (well, usually not) but they sound so alike, and work such a furious counterpoint to the beat of the image, that the subtitles seem to become a functional system of their own. With the first Fu Xin De Ren, there are also snippets of the original English from the Bava film that I also edited into the video, translated those into Chinese characters and words that had a homophonic relation in reverse. And, while I’m no linguist, I always try to have my “translations” adhere to the structural integrity of the source.
Several years later, around 2012, I came across another version of the song that I liked even better, warped it, added some digital instrumentation, rewrote many of the earlier subtitles, and paired it with a great mountain-searching scene from Arnold Frank’s silent German classic, The Holy Mountain (1926). Fu Xin De Ren (II) remains one of my favorite of all the works.
What about your wonderfully evocative trilogy that begins with Sólo por tu amor (2011)? The subtitles are your own lines?
What I call the Ecuador Trilogy—Sólo por tu amor, Apostemos que mi caso, and Si tú me olvidas, all featuring early recordings of the great Andean songstress Carlotta Jaramillo—is a bit different than the Fu Xin De Ren works. I have decent Spanish skills, and could just about translate the lyrics to the three songs unassisted, in real time. It felt natural to come in from another angle here. First off, there’s a reason I chose the film of H. G. Wells’s Things to Come (1936)—the “poorly-colorized-in-the-90s version” —as the primary visuals. I have always found its “future” chapter to be eerily prophetic about the coming devastation of World War II and the boring sameness of its Fascism; perhaps unsurprising, given where and when it was made, but still, tonally, it’s remarkable science fiction. The imagery within the songs have a parallel “going off to war” spirit, but are sung by a truly ferocious individual.
The off quality in the computer-generated color also underscores how white of a movie this is. All the foregrounded characters are white, all goodness in dress and architecture and technology is represented as white, and yet here, bubbling underneath the image, is rough-edged, frenetic Carlotta Jaramillo, the musical mother of her country, singing of the enduring divide between the wealthy, hispanified, “white” lowlands of Ecuador and her own people, the indios of the Andes, whom she addresses as negrita, ombrita; the natives, the morenas. In this trilogy, many of the subtitles are correctly translated from the Spanish, but often reflect little slippages in their English, as if I were not an accomplished English speaker and couldn’t get the wording and punctuation quite right; other times, I will use a form of homophony, not by conforming my English to what I think the Spanish text sounds like, but rather by “mishearing” the Spanish as Spanish. An example that comes to mind is in Si Tú Me Olvidas, with the line
Si tú me olvidas, blanca azucena (If you forget me, white mountain lily) which I intentionally misheard as
Si tú me olvidas, blanca su cena (If you forget me, white is your supper) It might not look like much but it means a lot in context. I did similar smears, translating morena as “savage” instead of as “native” or “brown," as a means up ramping up the whiteness-brownness conflict I wanted the three pieces to embody. At the same time, I wanted my translations to have the same syllabic meter and pitch as the original song lyrics; for them to be faithful to the Spanish for long stretches, so that the effect, when I did layer in a homophonic or poetic phrase, would punch a higher register.
In a wonderful blog post for Harriet, you talk about “closed captioning for poets.” Do you also use subtitles as a generative tool? Can you say more about your “toolbox”—specifically in relation to the film-poems?
So perhaps these two different sets of works (Fu Xin De Ren I and II, and the Ecuador Trilogy), by their differences, get at segments of the “toolbox” I’m trying to use with language and subtitles in the works. Indeed, that toolbox was built up from a lifetime of constantly watching my television with the closed-caption feature on (what a universe of mistakes and mishearings were ushered in by that simple little contraption), along with marathon viewings of 3/$10 DVDs of foreign movies, Bollywood musicals in particular, to see how much the language can be stretched and stressed when subtitles go wrong. I see tremendous potential beauty in those slippages.
I often read your subtitles as lines of a poem, with the cut of a frame functioning like a line break. Are you making poems-as-subtitles?
I certainly view the subtitles themselves as poetry, but poems that have little or no value without the visual scenes and the contradictory audio that they are trying to mediate, if that makes any sense. The mechanics of the poetry happening here only attain value when they can successfully join the often ill-fitting components together. I’m always trying to underscore those relationships with tight and rhythmic cutting of sounds and scenes, which you read thoughtfully as “line breaks.” And indeed they may be so. For me, when the work projects the convincing illusion of a real system, in other words, then the lines are succeeding as poetry. They become a necessary part of the engine: the engine.
The film-poems demand looking, listening, and reading, but the visual frames, sound, and subtitles often unfold at different rhythms. The time of reading is not keyed to the time of looking. How are you working with cinematic time versus the time of a poem, or the time of reading?
In order for what I’m trying to do to come more into focus, I am always tweaking with duration; it can be something so simple as speeding up or slowing down the images so that cuts can happen where I’d like them to, or dropping the soundtrack to a different speed or pitch to get more into the desired tone. Those are what I think as physical changes to the materials. But by imposing this simple poetics onto the act of re-editing and manipulation, I’m also introducing a sense of narrative time—repetition, echo, refrain—onto film forms that traditionally head in only one direction, forward; at least, that’s true for the visual materials I’ve chosen up to now. As a song repeats a verse, or the subtitles repeat a phrase, the film has inevitably moved onto some new visual place. These act like little time-travels. There are others. Sometimes I’ll repeat shots or visual sequences, or use video effects to make flipped or mirrored scenes, on the occasion when I want to have the footage exert effects similar to the structure of a song I’ve chosen to incorporate. It’s all stemming from the idea of making the words—not the image—the motivating force at hand. Time does that to you.
Because you juxtapose film clips and soundtracks from different historical and cultural frameworks, and then add what visually registers as subtitles, the film-poems are playing with practices of translations, or at least with images of translation.
I think the key word here is “playing,” as these works emerged from what is very much a playground for me. Sometimes, to be honest, I have taken on a set of ridiculous parameters—wildly incompatible combinations of movie, image, and linguistic approach—simply to see if I could somehow make them cohere. The contortions I put myself and the materials through in order to do so have often been the most rewarding experiences. That’s what feels like poetry. It helps me reach a certain fitness of mind, I guess I would also say.
That’s not to say that I’m not willfully exploring, poking at, and echoing the tropes of translation at the mass-culture level that I was raised in. The stabs at Spanish-language learning and multiculturalism in the children’s television shows Sesame Street and Electric Company. The incredibly loose approach to English-language dubbing in a cookie-cutter martial arts movie. The global cultural failure of the cheap space operas that came out by the dozen in the wake of Star Wars. The serious foreign-language documentary dragged to uncharted waters by questionable word choices on the part of its American translators. Not to mention the life education I’ve received from always watching my television with the closed captioning enabled. These are all watermarks that are easy to make out for me.
I’m less certain about which aspects of the self I’m imposing onto these projects. To exert control over every element of these video pieces—the sound, and how it plays out, the footage, the language—is to express real power. I am their translator, so to speak, and I often think about how the translator holds the ultimate power over the work at hand. Hell, the act of viewing itself—and reading—is already an incredibly powerful mode of translation.
Your question also makes me think of a conversation I was having just this weekend with my great friend Eugene Ostashevsky (quite a ferocious poet and translator in his own right). We were both moaning that, while translation and the poetics of translation are attaining a new primacy in the United States—which is to be celebrated, sure—it also seems as if the translations themselves are sounding more and more American; and not just in the rendering of the language, but even in their embrace of themes. The implication is disturbing, as if the greater exterior world of contemporary experimental poetry had to be filtered through the tics and textual approaches of American English in order to resonate. What happened to the wide world of otherness?
Perhaps it was inevitable, this reaching-toward-the-comfortable that Western culture’s been building towards since the Church determined the Bible didn’t have to be in Latin. The mysterious thing must become, in the end, our thing. I’ve always taken that thought to heart. All my work in collage, in film manipulation, involves me standing in front of works that previously stood perfectly well on their own, and breaking them down into elements for reuse; this is certainly a very American trait. I would suspect that’s why I’m always trying to make the resulting works reflect at least a bit of that alien-ness that drew me to them in the first place. I’m not sure that sensation is always as pronounced as I’d like it to be.
In your film-poem A Narrative (2010), you remix a recording of George Oppen reading from his long poem “A Narrative.” Your collaged narrative accompanies clips of Johnny Weissmuller, as Tarzan, clambering across New York rooftops. You seem to be playing with the narrative function of the voice-over in film.
George Oppen’s one of my favorite-ever poets: he has his own little sector in me. There’s this movement in his reading voice, too: sacred, irrefutable, and warmly severe. Affably, he forces your senses in a certain direction. I’ve made several works over the years with collages of Oppen’s poetry recordings as a motivating force, but the chase scene from Tarzan’s New York Adventure is perhaps the most successfully thought-through. I was trying to make the video an expressive allegory of Oppen’s own biography. Perhaps Tarzan’s left-to-right jog-and-vine from the cop squads across the rooftops of Manhattan—Tarzan in a big-shouldered business suit, pure wilderness in the metropolis—stands for Oppen’s own fear of his country later in life, with the McCarthyists and the HUAC in the 1950s attacking him for his work in the 1930s as a dedicated communist and labor activist. A fear of being hunted down for an earlier existence that led him to abandon the United States, and poetry, for more than a decade. I wanted this piece to animate who George Oppen is to me. I wanted Tarzan’s suicidal dive into the East River from the Brooklyn Bridge, voiced over by Oppen’s line, from This Is Which (1965),
Some of the young men
Have become aware of the Indianto be an embodiment of Oppen’s decisive action when he feared the country was taking a turn toward the evil of sameness: move to Mexico and throw it away. He was one of poetry’s great rebels.
Oppen also wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge in his poetry, this incredible construction that dominated his boyhood in New York City. I guess I also wanted to make a piece that fellow Oppen-nerds like me could watch, making out the jumbling of favorite lines and their weird intersections with the actions onscreen, each populating the other.
You use the recorded voices of poets in other works. For example, in The Old Lens (for Jackson Mac Low), you collage an early 20th-century film clip of a street scene with phrases from two of Jackson Mac Low poems, read by the poet.
The story with Jackson is a bit different. A few summers ago, as part of a celebration of the posthumous publishing of Jackson’s 154 Forties, Counterpath Press took on a fun project of having a bevy of poets and writers record themselves reading all 154 of Mac Low’s poems in the book. I was among those asked, and had a great time reading #132 on camera. These poems are also incredible works of collage in their own right, so I thought I should flip the exercise on its side and do something of my own with Jackson’s lines, recombining them in a way I thought he’d like. I have many fond memories of Jackson; he and his partner Anne Tardos were some of my favorite people to talk with when I had first moved to New York full-time. The antic street-scene of Lower Manhattan in the 1900s, shot on a hand-wound camera in an oddly bronze patina, using a lot of distortive glass effects held before the camera, is a visual translation of the way Jackson’s poetry has always made me feel: dizzy in the presence of the ancients.
Speaking of the voice of poets, Das Blaue Licht (2012) features Daniel Tiffany reading from Privado with images from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1932 film of the same name and a very eerie reprocessing of Schubert’s last symphony. What prompted this work? Was it a collaborative effort?
Daniel’s been a friend for years now. I followed his critical writing for years like a fan-boy, and then the books of poetry started coming. Recent books of poetry like Privado and "Neptune Park" are particularly filmic to me, where their deeply calibrated tone and rhythmic shifts key as tightly-focused “edits.” When he found out we were going to be doing a reading together in the Bay Area several years back, he suggested we do a collaborative piece, and while that’s typically not my thing, I had a feeling that with Daniel it could work, and he seemed excited by the prospect, so I took it on. We’d shared a few laughs in the past about German silent films, and when I brought up Leni Riefenstahl’s insane mountain-climbing chase scene from Das Blaue Licht, and all its associated weird, Nibelungen-style treasure moments, he laughed and agreed on the choice. I imagined the visuals as a steady-but-loopy sequence, focused on mountain-girl Leni’s journey up the vertical cliffs, and ending with her and her pursuer coming upon the story’s terminal treasure, thinking that it might resonate with this very military, march-song cadence that’s foregrounded all over Privado, and which Daniel wanted to incorporate from the beginning.
I did the initial edits, making a cut of scenes from the film, narrowing the action down, and matching it to the highly attenuated—slowed to hell—Schubert fragment. And then Daniel took my initial edit and began to feather in lines and snippets from Privado. The entire collaboration was pulled off remotely. Daniel had the biggest challenge, I’d say. He had, in essence, to collage his own poetry to fit a vessel I’d already made. We had an active back and forth to refine the timing: I eliminated a sequence here and there on his direction, tightened and stretched shot durations, but I never got involved with how he was using his language. I wanted him to completely do his thing. I also wanted the live performance to be a complete surprise to me.
Daniel must have rehearsed his in- and out-points to exhaustion; where I was able to complete my side of the work alone with all the studio time I needed, he had to bring it all together in the round, before an audience. But it went off great. So, short version, while the piece was definitely a collaboration, Daniel took on the larger task, once I issued the edited video to him, of shoehorning his poems from Privado, torqued enough already, into my existing cut.
The piece that exists online today is something that Daniel went back and re-recorded in the studio after the initial performance, but to my memory it’s largely the same one he recited live at the theater. I think it turned out great.
Let’s return to your early work. Dark Brandon is the title of a book of poems as well as the title of a DVD collection of collaged video shorts. Some of the DVD chapters include embarrassingly bad poetry readings; the shorts seem to be poking fun at the mannerisms of “poetic language.” Having only recently read your wonderful rant on the overuse of the term “poetry," in Volta, I now look back on the Dark Brandon shorts as visual rants about so-called poetic imagery.
As I mentioned, when I finished the manuscript of the book that became Dark Brandon, I was sitting on a huge pile of archived media that I’d cycled through as "live" source material while I was writing the poems; I thought a nice reversal of that methodology would be to re-edit a lot of that video content so that it could be perceived as poetry. The first two or three years of those exercises became a two-disc set, Dark Brandon: The Filmi. And though they share the same name, and emerged as sort of procedural mirrors of each other, I wouldn’t call the two Dark Brandons siblings. Now, those discs are about two hours of material, and there are quite a few things going on there, but I would agree with you that the pieces in the collection are largely different from the later works, and for a host of reasons.
I think the early experiments of the first couple of years were about the labor of developing what felt like a new, recombinant form; early manipulations of the footage were more about creating a poetic feeling—a dreamy manipulation of the footage, emphasis on repetition, disjunction, warped sound—rather than a functioning poetics, maybe? The work was frequently more an aggregation of effects and treatments, and purposefully fragmented. It looked cool. I was trying to figure things out. I should also say that the book Dark Brandon has a running tone of moody satire, both at the self-seriousness of poets and of our poetries, held against the easy ridicule and dismissal of poetry in wider culture. I think some of that voice continued into the videos.
At the time I had also been obsessed for five or six years with this obscure public access poetry show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN 67, baby!) that had aired in the 1980s, Poetry 88 (later, Poetry Live) and for some reason was still being rebroadcast at 2:30am every Friday morning. I’m slightly embarrassed to say I would often stay up late enough to watch it live. I was so into the show that, at least when the technology arrived, I Tivo’d and archived every episode that ever aired; I still have the discs. And sure, the poetry was usually really bad, and I would cringe as I watched it. But the readers could be exhilarating. It was like they were so thrilled with having a camera turned on them in a TV studio in Midtown, they’d read in a mode that fit the format: pure, thundering self-belief. Oh, man. I was so hooked I even befriended the show’s former host, Robert Bailey, and would chat with him on the phone about his frequent readers, several who had become personal heroes. He was a hero, too: as show-runner and host, he managed to read his own work for at least seven to eight minutes of every twenty-four minute show, poems that are formally tortured, lethally tin-eared, and, well, really accessible. (Yes, I’ve also collaged his poetry into videos.) I reached the point where, having been invited to do a reading, I would frequently cue up a video projector, darken the room, and project some favorite Poetry 88 clips instead. Curators actually began to get a little pissed off with me, but I was obsessed. The Dark Brandon: The Filmi DVDs are laced with these archival recordings. Those public access poets are, I don’t know, the moral compass of the work or something. Also: you’re right. I also love making fun of poetry, and poets.
That aside, I’d say Dark Brandon: The Filmi also contains legit, early attempts at the “subtitles” works, along with other experiments with voiceovers, overdubbing, etc. It was a case of developing the toolbox for the work that followed.
There are some visual collages in Dark Brandon but in 2009 you came out with Lake Antiquity, a collection of some 200 collaged visual poems. Do you read from Lake Antiquity and, if so, do you read without projecting the visual page? How necessary are the scissored lines, the varied typography, and the source materials to voicing the poem? Is the visual collage simply a machine for generating a sequence of words called “poem” or is each poem a material object that cannot be separated from its physical form?
Lake Antiquity is an entirely different ball of wax. While the works on paper collected in that monograph were often composed in a parallel timeframe with the experimental videos, they’re the product of independent methodologies. It feels like I’ve been working on Lake Antiquity my whole life. These collages were happening alongside my earliest serious poems, in the mid-1990s; the physical work of selection and cutting was something I try to dedicate myself to for at least a few months of the year, every year, while doing traditional long-hand writing the rest of the time. I’ve always had a divided practice like that going on.
I will say that when I read those collages in public, ninety percent of the time I insist that they be projected; it’s kind of an awkward dynamic for an audience to follow, to be honest, and the audience might as well be watching a tennis match—look at the screen, look at the reader—but I’ve persisted with it for going on twenty years now. I feel the image is necessary for people to see-hear the work the “right” way. The entire experiment evolved from the physical act of “breaking apart” books and other publications—which felt dangerous enough already—until this breaking apart became the necessary poetic. The voice of Lake Antiquity is by its nature broken-apart, kind of bodiless, switching genders and temporality from fragment to fragment. In terms of pronouns alone, the language is a wreck. But by looking at the pictorial image of the poem, the viewer-reader can’t help but see language that’s been built up from small and smaller units and forced together. Massaged enough, it might even cohere.
I guess the challenge I was seeking out was: how much can I tear the architecture of literature apart before “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” can’t put it back together again, you know? At what level can the language be broken up before it can’t be reconstituted? When is it bereft of meaning entirely? I like to think that all the gluing, blade-work and re-composition, does create a voice that spans across the works. With a real Frankenstein sound.
Aligned with that “foreground” thinking, I tried to exert a careful visual counterpoint as I visually laid the pieces out. Where backgrounds aren’t just backgrounds, but spaces that activate in particular ways when set behind and against the texts-at-work here. Working professionally in graphic design over the last fifteen years has also made me exquisitely aware of the visual field of a page-spread, and in Lake Antiquity I tried to bring that experience to bear on its pictorial landscape. I also think that you can torque certain pictorial fragments together, that are entirely without language, and legitimately describe the way they react with each other as poetry.
So, in answer to your question: no. To me, these collages can’t be separated from their materiality, not ever. And yet I willfully called them “POEMS 1996–2008” on the book’s overleaf. Aren’t these more than poems? No, never. Poems are the ultimate expressions of structural integrity. The thing behind the things.
I am interested in how you are experimenting with the page in Lake Antiquity. What are your thoughts on the relationship of line to the material support of the poem, whether that support is the page of another book as in “Common Errors in Writing and Speaking” or the support is a sequence of film as in A Narrative?
That’s a good question. As you might imagine, Lake Antiquity was not conceived in any way near the order that it was rendered. The book is a stack of different narratives, pamphlets, and “books.” A book about the author Isak Dinesen; a goofy NASA manual; a portfolio of ghostly fragments floating on Pantone Color Cards; fracturing of historic teaching materials. And so on. Pagination and sequence are a nasty concern for poets as it is, and in the case of turning this project into a book, the challenge was even more acute, as the individual pieces were very much concerned with projecting the “book-ness” of their origins, often with page numbers, different aspect ratios, things like that. But to be honest I really didn’t beat myself up too much about it. In order to fake some sense of coherence, I decided to let the graphic design lead the way, and devised an oversized, slightly squared-off format for the overall book. Working along the wide-open spread, there were often sections where it made visual sense to put four or eight works into a single spread. Other instances would happen when the page number printed on one of the collages would clash with the stated number on the page of the monograph. Usually I was okay with that, but there were a couple of places where I digitally removed a page number or an artifact from the collage for a less jarring effect. But this was literally about the only time anything “digital” ever happened in the process of designing the book, outside of color correction and dust removal, that sort of thing. Lake Antiquity has always been very much an “analog” project, focused on the intense labor and action required by the collaged form of writing. Burning through the razor blades, so to speak.