Mónica de la Torre on Corporatese and the Oppression of Fancy Chairs
Poets on Life and Craft
For this third installment in a monthly series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler talks to Mónica de la Torre. She is the author of six books of poetry, including The Happy End/All Welcome (Ugly Duckling Presse) and Feliz año nuevo, a volume of selected poetry translated into Spanish by Cristián Gómez (Luces de Gálibo) forthcoming in the spring of 2017. Born and raised in Mexico City, she writes about art and is a contributing editor to BOMB Magazine. She teaches in the Literary Arts program at Brown University.
Peter Mishler: Your new collection of poems The Happy End/All Welcome is in response to an art installation by Martin Kippenberger entitled The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” which is “an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs within a soccer field flanked by grandstands which references a giant job fair held by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma in Kafka’s unfinished Amerika.”
What originally drew you to Kippenberger’s installation? What qualities of this installation suggested to you that it might be able to sustain a longer written work?
Mónica de la Torre: It was a part of his 2009 retrospective at MoMA, The Problem Perspective. I was at the show with my mother. I mention this because I’ve noticed that when she visits me my relationship to time shifts a bit. Everything slows down; I allow myself to be a sort of tourist in the city. I’m not rushing from one place to another, not checking off items on my to-do list. So I guess this makes me more open to exterior stimuli. Upon seeing the installation I turned to my mom and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to write dialogues for each of the pairs of chairs?” What kind of job interview would take place in facing lifeguard chairs? Or in astronaut chairs spinning around a sculpture of a fried egg? Little did I know what I was setting myself up for.
The installation appears random and chaotic; there’s no apparent logic to the wild pairings of chairs and tables set up as for the job interview that many townspeople, including Karl Rossmann, the protagonist of Kafka’s Amerika, have with the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. I was drawn to the installation’s chaos, imaginativeness, and layers, and also to the fact that it allows viewers to identify with many of its components. We recognize certain chairs, types of desks, and bring our own associations to them. Since the job fair in Amerika is set within a soccer field, there’s a parallel with sports culture as well. I admire how Kippenberger riffs off notions of competitiveness, performativity, and one-upmanship, which are not foreign to the poetry world.
Later I found out that Kippenberger had actually commissioned chapbooks from his writer friends and associates, requesting from them exactly what I was imagining I would do. I figured it was fair game not to read these chapbooks (in part, because I don’t know German), since Kippenberger never read Amerika—his take on Kafka’s book was completely based on hearsay.
In general, I also feel an affinity toward something that Kippenberger’s art does—each work of his embodies a distinct position regarding the art-making process, a different approach to labor. It’s as if he were interested not only in creating discrete works, but also different artist personae for each type of work. Similarly, I’ve never been interested in committing to a single mode of literary output, or in finding a voice or style that’s recognized as my own, in part because I’m always aware of each mode or style’s limitations. I’m more interested in exploring multiple modes than in pledging allegiance to one of them. I’m as skeptical of dogma as I am of branding. The Happy End of Kafka’s “Amerika” is inherently polyphonic and dialogic, and though it took me a few years to embark on my own project fully, the set of issues the installation deals with are the ones I wanted to explore at the time.
PM: Do you find yourself creating purposeful conditions for yourself in order to move in a new direction with a new collection? What is it like for you as a poet to start fresh on new writing?
MDLT: I don’t deliberately set out to try different approaches “for the sake of variety,” though, from the get-go, I push myself to be open to explore where any given project might lead me. Perhaps this stance does end up defining my work. If everything I do is relatively anomalous, then nothing is utterly anomalous, since anomaly has become a characteristic trait. I wonder what would happen if I actually set out to repeat myself? That’d be interesting.
My favorite part of a new project is the beginning, before I’ve realized what it could become. Once I’m committed to it, I immerse myself, go down the rabbit hole, and get lost. I then must distance myself before I have clarity again. I’ve rarely not needed to interrupt myself. The process is slow and agonizing—a form of strategic procrastination—but it’s ultimately beneficial since by the time I’m done with something I’ve approached it from many different angles and I’ve exhausted its possibilities.
PM: I’m interested in your use of a more “traditional” metrical poetic line in this work, as well as other instances where there is a prosaic and corporate, ad-copy-like coldness to to the writing. Could you discuss the value of both the poetic and the prosaic in this work?
MDLT: The more poetic poems are my spin on the lyric. A poet dealing with “emotion recollected in tranquility” would have to be sitting down in, at least, a moderately pleasant setting with a decent view, don’t you think? Impossible to engage in such pursuit while squeezing next to a manspreader in a crowded subway or dodging the oversize bags of a tactically oblivious person. It’s a funny thing, our relationship to the body when engaging in mental activities—our physical self becomes a hindrance of sorts.
I wanted to research the chairs in the installation and imagine what it’d be like to sit in—they all embody ideals related to taste, interior design, and ergonomics. Some of them Kippenberger had made for him, others he found in flea markets. A third category pertains to 20th-century design classics by Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Harry Bertoia, Arne Jacobsen (his classic Egg Chair)… the list goes on. I couldn’t recognize all of them. In any case, at some point I decided to forget about identifying them. I had my own chairs to sit in and a new inventory to contribute, since in the middle of writing the book, in 2014, I had the good fortune of being invited by the Lannan Foundation to do a residency in Marfa. The house I got was minimal and had some iconic furniture in it. After a few days, it dawned on me that I’d been sitting on an Eames chair. And that the chair where I dumped my clothes every night was a Rietveld—it could have easily been represented in the installation. I’d looked at pictures of the Kippenberger so many times, but I’d failed to notice that there’s a Donald Judd chair smack in the middle of it. Being in Marfa, I could sit in plenty of Judd chairs if I wanted. The Judd Foundation had lots of the same chairs that were in the installation, and so did Marfa Book Company—I spotted this wacky Gehry armchair there that I’d seen in a picture. It was unreal.
All of the more poetic poems—with line breaks and discernible patterns—were written in Marfa, in a state of almost complete quietude. It’s as close as I could get to the lyric. (I didn’t seek to write any poems in meter, so whatever happened formally was accidental. I did play with other types of patterns, though.) In terms of the book’s architecture, these poems would provide respite from the prosier material around them, which tackles employment in more overt forms, by emulating questionnaires, interviews, tests, etc. If in the lyric poems there are hardly any found texts, the prosier material is often appropriated and signals a more conceptual or procedural approach.
PM: In a podcast interview with Charles Bernstein you speak about procedural writing and collage as a way to “shatter subjectivity.” Is this the case with this new work?
MDLT: I must have meant was that I was interested in “shattering subjectivity” as a way of exposing a subject’s multiplicity. This is not say that a subject’s complexity cannot be represented via one cohesive modality only (the lyric, say). Of course it can and often is. It’s just that I’m more drawn to the polyvocal than to the univocal.
PM: Kippenberger imagined a happy ending to Kafka’s Amerika. What is the happy end of your book?
MDLT: The Nature Theater of Oklahoma promises everyone jobs. Whether this is a scam or not is left open, since Kafka never finished the novel. The happy ending in my book goes back to the dream of universal employment in a meta-literary way. I employed all sorts of materials in it: found texts, treasured quotes, one-offs that I would have discarded otherwise, and recycled stuff that I’d written for purposes other than my book (such as blurbs, which one has to write to participate in the poetic economy and often take so much time). I even hired a ghostwriter whose work went beyond anything I could have hoped for. I also put to use errors and typos, following the malapropism in Kippenberger’s title. Everything is welcome; all approaches are redeemed.
PM: When I think about the characters I imagine in the book, many of them endure the absurdity of corporate culture we’re all familiar with. I am curious about the tension between the “universal employment” of various languages and voices in the book and the inequality and unpleasantness inherent in how corporate culture operates in real life.
MDLT: It’s the big question at the core of the book. I take materials coming from a culture that is per force stratified, unequal, and often cynical in its goals—and whose discourse is nothing if not blatantly euphemistic—in order to turn it on its head. Not unlike the job fair scene in Amerika, I intend to highlight the ridiculousness of bureaucracy, which isn’t hard to do: bureaucracy involves standardization of the various and mutable by definition, and therefore the creation of categories that always already are insufficient, which in turn inevitably leads to more bureaucratization, and so on.
So the idea was to détourne some of the very means through which corporate culture coerces us. Take ergonomics, for instance. Herman Miller bills the ubiquitous Aeron chair not as an office chair but as a “performance work chair.” Sexy, no? Its tagline is: “The revolution in ergonomics that’s become a design icon.” I can’t resist the perverse incongruity of the word revolution in there, when the chair’s design is the very embodiment of a preemptive intent to placate revolutionary drives by having people actually enjoy sitting endlessly at their desks!
In one of my poems the concept of la perruque appears. Michel de Certeau writes about it in The Practice of Everyday Life. It’s a diversionary practice consisting of appearing to be working for an employer when one is working for oneself, and/or of taking advantage of the employer’s resources for personal use. De Certeau’s book is from 1980. He couldn’t have predicted the scale of la perruque in the 21st century, with people spending hours on social media when they’re supposedly at work. So, to your question, the difference between corporate culture as it exists IRL and the way it’s depicted in my book is that I try to subvert it through satire and focus on non-deliverables as opposed to deliverables, to use project management language. That might explain the oddity of some of the positions available: i.e., for a prospective chain smoker or a furniture tester.
PM: I’m intrigued by final lines of the book: “…this was made but it / wasn’t written. // The next one up is in made-up tongues.”
MDLT: The last lines in the book are a nod to David Bowie’s Low. I wrote that last poem after he’d passed away. I heard Phillip Glass say at a talk that he and Bowie made music, not write it. I took the statement as a comment on a compositional method that focuses on assembling and manipulating materials more than writing from scratch. The comment on “the next one up” applies both to the following track on Bowie’s album (“Warszawa”) and the next project I’m working on. I struggle with endings. Pointing to what’s next was my way of (not) closing the book.