On Apocalyptic Poetry
Brandon Brown and Claire Marie Stancek in Conversation
In 2017, we (Claire Marie Stancek and Brandon Brown) corresponded with each other on the occasion of two new books: Stancek’s debut Mouths (Noemi) and Brown’s slim volume of poems, The Good Life (Big Lucks). In the meantime, we each saw a new book into the world: Brown’s The Four Seasons (Wonder) and Stancek’s Oil Spell (Omnidawn). We initiated this discussion in the spirit of friendship and mutual admiration, having both been readers of each other’s works and living for the most part in the same place, the east Bay Area of California. This experiment in correspondence was fruitful and provocative, leading us both into surprise, tangent, soft epiphany, about our own writing and each other’s. We are both students, in many senses, and our correspondence included the delight of sharing something we’ve learned as well as the pleasure of discovery. A series of e-mails over a season, two seasons, when we could find the spiritual and literal air to breathe led to this excerpted text, which we share with you—in the spirit in which it was originally made.
Brandon Brown: This may seem like a weird place to start, but I thought we could maybe begin our interview by talking about the end of the world. I was struck by Lyn Hejinian’s characterization of how an activist politics is at work (and play) in the text. In her blurb, she writes, “Activist art demands that we challenge the reliability of common sense.” The poems in Mouths seem to do all sorts of things and move in so many directions, including revolutionary politics. But I also sense an apocalypticism there, a material and embodied experience of the world ending.
Claire Marie Stancek: I love that you’ve started with the end. The spiraling sense of disjunction into which your question threw me perhaps speaks to how I understand apocalyptic forces working in Mouths, which involves wrenching time out of time, interrupting the end with the beginning, imagining graveyards weirdly awash with wet and disorderly life, or fantasizing about how a dance floor compresses not just sweating bodies, but also time. The apocalypse of the work comes through thematically, in fantasies of flesh-eating roses or moth swarms.
But even something like allusion can work apocalyptically: citation evokes a simultaneity of voices, a babble that reveals the lie of time. A promiscuity of reference in this book—from “canonical” writers like John Milton and John Keats, to contemporary poets like Lisa Robertson, Etel Adnan, Craig Santos Perez, you(!), to rappers and singers like Drake, CHVRCHES, and Rihanna, to friends and people I love—performs, in an obvious way, this sense of apocalyptic simultaneity.
I love your implicit suggestion here, in drawing together the question of apocalypse and the question of activism, that writing (singing) at and from the end of the world is in some sense always already an activist politics. And maybe that’s what I’m trying to get at, in talking about citation as apocalyptic: what feels most important at the end of the world is community.
BB: Can I do a 180 and go back to the beginning [ha ha]? Now that we’ve started with the end . . . I’d like to ask you about the beginning of Mouths. I’m thinking of how you describe the book as of a “world without time.” I read that “without” as both locating the book outside or after time, as well as staging a refusal of time’s violent logics. I’m also thinking of your emphasis on the song emerging from some bleak place, or some no-place (utopia). could you talk about how you devised, and/or realized the formal structure of the book, its sequences and various shapes?
CMS: Mouths begins by interrupting itself, with a poem which comes before the title page and the forward progression represented by page numbers. I imagine those hissing and clicking words, linked by the consonantal rhyme sound “ssst,” as proleptic harbingers of the swarms to come later. They are insects and pestilence, but their wreaking happens only in the ear. Their logic is sound not sense. Sound’s body is sound itself.
It’s strange to imagine myself devising or realizing the formal structure of this book. I guess I wish I could meet the book, rather than exert authorial power or expertise over it. Sometimes I think of the various forms in Mouths—lament, pastiche, definition, essay, epitaph, curse, fragment, among others—as bodies the poems find, inhabit, and make uncomfortable; that they itch in, sweat through, discard. As though the poems in this book were wicked spirits, jinn, forces of dissatisfaction or longing or loss tearing over the remains of language, slapping corpses into posthumous life, animating swamps or polluted mud by breathing out thick stale bubbles. Forms aren’t final in this book. Or, forms are final and that’s precisely the problem.
BB: I really love how you write “One of the most urgent questions in Mouths is, how should one be or act or sing at the end of the world?” This is a crucial question for me as well, one which I indulge, hypertrophize, doubt, ask and re-ask, censor, deny, exaggerate, perform, repress. I think it is the one theme that makes all of the eccentric and sometimes idiotic study that I do coherent: the imminence of the end and the demands and desires of the present for me and my people. (I use the word “idiotic” to mean that the study is intuitive and based in chance more than it is traditional or professional.)
I am actually interested in the question of the good life, which I know risks being tediously classical. But whenever people talk about antiquity’s obsession with eudaimonism or happiness I’m like yeah and why is that so bad lol. There’s something of the bad antiquated asceticism to me in certain of our cynicisms and the misanthropy that I read in a lot of poetry, which I can appreciate from a distance or as rhetoric but don’t want to embody and don’t find particularly useful for my own politics.
I’ve always been intrigued by Nietzsche’s essay on the “epigonal,” which has reinforced my sense that everybody has always felt epigonal. What I mean is that while it definitely 1,000 percent seems like it is the end of the world . . . I must admit I sort of suspect that it has felt like the end of some kind of world almost all the time for almost everyone. I mean, I guess the biological fact of death suggests that the end of the world is always around the corner. But I think the stakes are high, inasmuch as the way that I try to avoid nihilism is by investing something called “the future” with something like meaning. Although the way I think of that is in terms of the present. I believe in a future I think, as whatever it is that administrates our concupiscence in the present. Even the idea that we are epigones seems like it could come from the future, and maybe it is a quite long future after all. Just one without fish in the ocean? ugh. But it’s a little like how Spinoza talks about hope and despair in
“What I mean is that while it definitely 1,000 percent seems like it is the end of the world.”
CMS: I love what you say about doubting the very question that preoccupies you. That tension between belief and doubt—or the simultaneity of the two—seems right for considering what you call contemporary cynicism and misanthropy. Both to its erotics and to its less assimilable elements. What if poetry is actually one of the world’s beautiful evils? What if poetry is actually bad for you?
I’m also interested in “evil” as a category given to behavior that can’t be reconciled with normative capitalism, in that way it feels like a source of great creative and revolutionary possibility. This does feel bound up with cynicism, but a cynicism out of which I want to squeeze some positive possibility. Like the politics of affirming pleasure at the end of the world, I guess?
But even while I do feel, how to put it—beguiled?—by cynicism and misanthropy, at the same time I’m with you in desiring the good life. Maybe this is too easy, but I’m tempted to say that I don’t really believe in the difference between the two. What if positive creativity and negative creativity are the same force? This is something I’ve been trying to write about in another manuscript, the idea of god being good and evil, or of something like satan being part of something like god. I love Milton’s tightness of phrase when Satan inverts providence, saying, “Evil be thou my Good.” I wonder what you make of this? It seems like this idea is at work in “One Fine Day.” I can’t help but read the speaker’s insistence that his beautifully piping friends are not evil as somehow glib, because the pages are soaked in gore, as you say, by virtue of being soaked at all, whether in blood or in ink’s stain (I hear Blake’s introduction to the songs of innocence here, “And I stain’d the water clear”). “One Fine Day” woke me up to “the good life” as a moral category as well as an aesthetic one: living well and living well are unnerving homonyms in a way, strange twins, how beauty in this poem bends so near to being “a wretched human being,” or maybe more interestingly, how wretchedness is actually delicious. Part of me thinks that poetry, like life, is everything at once, good and evil.
But thinking about this poem and homonyms and, let’s call it, wretchedness’s sibilance? I wonder if you could talk more about the slipperiness of ears in this poem. That’s a gross way of putting it, but I want to evoke what seems erotic about sonic and conceptual slipperiness, (like Keats’s slippery blisses, so hot and so gross at the same time), especially as it gestures towards, like, radical conceptual inclusivity?
“What if positive creativity and negative creativity are the same force?”
BB: Essentially all I can do is agree with you, that there is deliciousness in wretchedness, that the desire for the good life (whatever that is) is in some way a desire for good, and evil, and good which is evil and evil which is good. I don’t mean to be flirtatiously contemporary or something like that about this, like I think these are things worth our study. I appreciate when people think about these things. Like I appreciate that people have asked at a large scale “is it ok to punch a Nazi?” These seem to me like good omens, responding to the appearance of very not-good signs in society.
I wrote this poem “One Fine Day” to think through some of these things. It’s a poem which I have funny feelings about. I always think of it as fairly polemical, not a mode I always write in, and some of its message reads to me as practically Christian, which is odd in the sense that I’m not, although a lot of Christian art is really important to me. Like, I dunno, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Aretha Franklin. But then I thought, well, pop music itself so often enacts the future in the present, wildly trying to administer our wants in a way that we can’t recognize or refer ourselves to except by instinct and reaction (dancing/fucking/the “earworm”/singing along at the top of our lungs.) So in the way that so much of pop music signals a deferred paradise; “One Fine Day” makes that deferral its catchy thesis.
The poem? I dunno. Just rereading it it strikes me as angry and sad, and I wrote it during this very intense and difficult summer here where a lot of poets who I would see at readings were being called out as rapists, abusers, creeps I don’t know if we knew each other then or what your own relation to that time might be or have been if anything. In any event, I think that extreme emotional duress explains to some extent the misdirected anger at the canon of fine flautists as well as the (to me) bizarre idea that there’s some kind of literal spiritual redemption (“my name is in the book”) that could still be tendered in the idea of a community of music-makers. I guess now I feel like both more and less cynical about that idea. I’m not sure about the ears except that I think in this poem they have their mirror in the asshole, another perforation in the skin which conjugates pleasure, pain, suppression and ejection, consequence and innovation.
One, I am really curious about how you think of your poetry work alongside your scholarship. But let me stop there for a second. What I mean is how you conceptualize, if you do, the space or place of writing poems and the space or place of study. If you want to talk about academia, that’s cool of course! But I’m not entirely asking you a professional question, or a question about profession or vocation—or vocation only in a slightly lofty sense.
I’m not a professional student or scholar, but my writing is inseparable from my practice as a student of various things. My reading has always been erratic, eclectic and eccentric, partly because I have a private commitment to error, instinct, and intuition which often fails me. Also I read almost anything my friends love and tell me to read. But sometimes I am more intentional about it, and usually if I’m being really intentional about study it’s because I’m about to write a poem or a book. So I’m wondering what that’s like generally for you.
CMS: Like you, I feel as though my “creative” and “scholarly” writing are inseparable, that they spring from the same place, so much so that even identifying them as separate entities feels arbitrary. Both of these goblins drink from the same dew, to use a Dickinsonian image. I wanted there to be something rapacious about citation in
Maybe this was the fantasy of writing in the form that Lisa Robertson invented. I couldn’t get away from this form—it ate my poem, “Where.” Robertson’s original, in Cinema of the Present, but also in earlier books, reveals language as a machine, the alphabet’s obdurate logic, running underneath the whole poem. Paradoxically, the more machinelike and inevitable the poem becomes, the more pathos I feel radiating from its metallic spokes. Like in a lot of electronic music, when the computer or machine speaks.
I love your line affirming your “private commitment to error, instinct, and intuition,” can I chime in with the deepest yes? That commitment is exactly what I was trying to perform and celebrate through the false etymologies in the definition poems in
Maybe my intentionality of study is through this practice and poetics of “error, instinct, and intuition,” rather than a method more formal. The politics is anti-authoritarian, with an expansive definition of authoritarianism that includes under suspicion its most benign forms: pedagogy, the canon, rigor. I wanted to think about directionless direction, disorganization, chaos, as a source from which creation might spring.
“Paradoxically, the more machinelike and inevitable the poem becomes, the more pathos I feel radiating from its metallic spokes. Like in a lot of electronic music, when the computer or machine speaks.”
BB: I think something could be said for how each of us, all of us, are trying to come to grips with what a poet’s life is right now (I sort of read some of the lines in “Repetition” as, if not thematizing, then at least hearkening, to the drab and brutal “repetitiveness” of the obligation to wage labor and the scene of its unfolding but I totally admit I might be projecting lol.) Generally speaking it takes a lot of money to be a practicing maudit and most forms of wage labor preclude openly practicing witchcraft, abjection, everyday damnation, you know the normal stuff poets do.
I guess I would say that reading the poems in The Good Life will give you a broad map of what my attentions were for a couple of years (Aristotle, eco-catastrophe zines, popular music), and also make it painfully obvious that I was really reading a
Speaking of splitting bodies, I wonder if we could talk a little more about pop music. It’s an obvious thing perhaps, in that you and I both like it and think about it and it informs our work in similar and then vastly different ways. So it might be boring, but again maybe not. Well, “wretchedness’s sibilance,” no? But I also think there’s some way in which your book discovers something about pop, or reveals something for us that we might not always think about when we’re listening to pop music, which is its relationship to memory. “Let us hold everything that ruin left us.” I think that the commitment to memory and duration, and even patience, recurs in your book in a way that shows us the fucking problem that we are really facing. “Let us occupy” followed by “Let us hold together & wait.” Both at once, impossibly coinciding. Well, something like that. Does this make any sense?
CMS: I agree with you that one way music functions in Mouths is as a melancholic echo, resounding after original experience has already passed—that’s my reading of Drake, at least/especially in Take Care & Nothing Was The Same. But in poems like “half light,” I was more interested in beginning in that melancholic twilight, then transforming half light into an interstitial zone between and across time, where something like simultaneity might be possible. The violet shades that twilight brings to life might be ghosts, or the flickering anticipations that futurity casts upon the present. I wanted the voices and times to happen together, to be together. What are the conditions for community—maybe that’s the question I was most obsessed with when writing the book. One version of your “irruption of the future in the present” is prolepsis, right? But another is sacrament, spill, spell, divination, and all of these together.
For me, pop music is devotional, both in the sense of being addressed to a beloved one or many, and in the sense of being addressed to god, having special access to the divine. That’s something music has that poetry can only strive for—I mean, I so wish we could dance all night to poems. I loved your litany of instinct and reaction, “dancing/fucking/the ‘earworm’/singing along at the top of our lungs,” and I’m wondering how many of these poetry makes possible, how desperately I want all of them for poetry. They are intrinsically part of pop music. The way the song rearranges us according to its ecstasies—how I’ll be in one mood, then a song will come on, and I’m completely, overwhelmingly taken over by another mood. Music is like drugs, but what music and drugs hold in common is their capacity to drag down heaven into this fleshly realm.
BB: Maybe we could conclude by discussing your “Coda.” Like any good coda, I read it as doing the work of bringing certain things together from the rest of the book (in that the pieces feel [somewhat differently] citational, that the vocabulary is extremely deliberate, your particular way of looking and listening in the here and now which becomes perpendicular with the history of syllables we mouth but also pointing outside. Its anaphora isn’t unfamiliar but is more intense and emphatic.
CMS: I see the final poems in Mouths as more openly ritualistic, chantlike, performative pieces with more and more demonstrative and extravagant way of expressing emotion, which comes through in the anaphora which you mention. I am interested in Adela Pinch’s discussion of emotional extravagance, her definition of sentimentality as a confrontation between the personal and the conventional. Feelings promiscuously travel outside the bounds of the self (
What I love about Pinch’s reading, though, is how it locates the possibility for shared feeling in language that might seem at first to be hackneyed or clichéd. That’s where anaphora meets, in my mind, with chant or spell: through its repeated quality, language can create a communal space, can make something happen. “Let us address ourselves to the currents” embodies the current time into a physical current that pulls as it moves, that imagines bodies together in space. I was looking in these final poems for a way to express my own experiences of depression and loss in a way that refused the isolation I was feeling. I looked for situations and places that make affect collective: a graveyard, a war, a garden, an ocean. The ritual gives a structure for feelings and states that cannot come any closer, and maybe that’s as close as we can come.