by Thomas Fink and Leila Rosner
Thomas Fink: What motivates your frequent staging of a disjunction between a poem’s title and the apparent thematic drift of the text itself? Some examples that come to mind in some more strange meteorites (Meritage P and i.e. P, 2017) are: “the/ glazed ambiguity/ of the moon” (12), “a few old beads & beds” (13), “fortuitous breadcrumbs” (82), “Suspicious Looking Tupperware” (104), and “clusters of titanium oxide” (110).
Mark Young: Interestingly enough, I wasn’t aware that the link—or lack of it—between title & body of some—many?—of my poems might in any way be remarkable until I read The first thing to note is that the body of a typical Mark Young poem often bears no relationship to the title.
They’re the opening lines of an essay by Javant Biarujia that appeared in Cordite magazine in May last year. (http://cordite.org.au/essays/thirty-six-views-of-the-parallax/). It was also the first time I realized that some people have trouble with this apparent disconnect. Now here you are bringing it up again.
The roots can be found in a number of sequences over the years where I have used externally-sourced titles as a starting point for the separate pieces & then used their overall title to bundle the poems. A couple — Genji Monogatari & Betabet — were in the work you selected from for Pelican Dreaming. A couple more —terracotta worriers (a take on The Art of War) & The Holy Sonnets unDonne—were included in The Codicils. Some of the later Series Magritte poems also avail themselves of this methodology. The title of the painting or the chapter heading or the letter of the alphabet is the found text used as the starting point, the sliver from which all else proceeds, thought not necessarily in a straight line.
A quote from Stochastic Acts: the search string as poetry, a talk given in mid-2011 & later reprinted as an essay by Angel House Press: The sliver of text is a technique I’m also using in the series of A line from . . . poems I’ve been working on for the last few years, but in these poems there is no attempt to remain true to the source or nature of the original quote. Nor do my geographies necessarily have anything to do with the place they’re named after. Random names—Google Maps have a lot to answer for—random quotes, random extracts, put together in what I hope is a poetic fashion, to point out the inherent weirdness & contradictory nature of the eco- & info-capitalist world we’re living in, a world where so little makes sense that we might as well be living somewhere else altogether.
The last few lines of that statement are still the basis of my work, & my titles fall in line, in behind though out in front. I still consider the title as part of the poem, but not necessarily as a descriptor or a place-setter which, it appears, most people expect a title to be. For me a title is sometimes a starting place, sometimes a statement about the starting place, e.g. the A line from . . . trope, or, sometimes, a line or words left over from the poem which, rather than lose, I have stuck at the top of the poem like a Groucho Marx mustache. & sometimes it’s just a random phrase picked in passing to use as a boutonnière.
Fink: Let’s focus on “the inherent weirdness & contradictory nature of the… info-capitalist world”—that is, Web 2.0. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poetry of Ley Lines (gradient books, 2016), where images, tropes, and abstract observations on this subject appear in numerous poems:
fiction films grow out of the oral
tradition of storytelling. Learn how
to become more sophisticated
completely without dialogue. We’re
facing some server issues here. (“A line from David Mamet” 8)
Of course, “server” is a highly ambiguous signifier. Here is an example in which the Web 2.0 presence, set up by the sentence, “Each random passer-/ by is living a life as vivid &// complex as our own,” is more sustained:
originally sprang from the issue
of Quaker clothing, now sleep in
shelters or cheap motels, find
examples of memes making
headway in China today. Each
node in the network is one of our
Facebook friends. All donations
will go to keep us streaming. (“A line from William Gibson” 11)
While all but intransigent luddites would agree that internet culture has made our access to information, varieties of cultural production, and aspects of community more efficient and, in some ways, greater, I surmise that you note the “headway” that “memes” are “making” in contemporary China, the plethora of “Facebook friends,” and the “donations” that manipulate us “to keep… streaming” with irony, with discomfort. And “the software shows how/ the behavior of touchstones/ can be conceptualized” (“A line from Gary Snyder” 31) is hardly uniformly good news. Indeed, “A line from Ralph Hotere” supplies an odd sense of relief:
Ideas are developed in
several formats, not all of
them online readable or
able to be represented by
a single app. Things get
lost in translation. The work
should speak for itself. An
empty chair is not a riddle. (39)
As you look back on these excerpts and the poems from which they spring, I wonder whether you find a particular stance or set of attitudes toward Web 2.0 that elaborates on the passage from “Stochastic Acts” that you cited. For example, does the rhetoric of Web 2.0 require parody because it undermines the precision and/or potential of imaginative language? Are references to Web 2.0 in Ley Lines and in your recent work in general intended as a critique of an impact inherent in Web 2.0 technology, or a negative effect due to its corporate and technocratic purveyors, or the idea that the technology and ethos elicit tendencies in most end users that would probably emerge regardless of what “platforms” are available?
Young: Let me step aside from your questions a moment, step back in time. The Luddites were not opposed to technology: their concern was that the introduction of new machinery was a plan to make their skill base redundant. In that sense, then, I’m a quasi-Luddite. I’m not opposed to the technology, nor do I think that the creation of the Web had any sinister motive attached to it; but I do think that its continued organic evolution has, & will have, a frightening & on-going effect on humanity’s cognitive & reasoning skills. But there’s no single machine I can disable to prevent the spread of the dark side, so I resort to poetry.
My feeling is that the Web was originally — & naively — intended for “intelligent people” to use, that the “information space” that Berners-Lee conceived would be approached with a reasonably pure intent: instead, much of it has ended up as a potential cash cow for those who wish to be rich, a catwalk for those wishing to be famous, a playground for dumb fucks. That’s what Web 2.0 has turned into, at an ever-increasing rate of knots. The last option you proffer, that “the idea that the technology and ethos elicit tendencies in most end users that would probably emerge regardless of what ‘platforms’ are available,” is the one that comes closest to my beliefs.
By that I mean that the Web reflects the world in which it exists. It feeds on it — & in return is fed upon — in a symbiotic relationship. & the world is currently a sad & sorry place. There’s a continuous dumbing down of things. I imagine that the curriculum you’re currently using includes many things that you would have learnt at a far earlier stage of your educational life. In the sciences it’s even more pronounced. Nowadays, nobody fails at school any more; instead they’re given meaningless grades. Teachers don’t teach but give students the exams in advance & then instruct them how to answer them. Students don’t need to learn anything any more, just how to look things up on the net. & they’re ignorant that the ability to differentiate between real truth & factoid is one of the things they haven’t been given the tools for. In this environment, it’s not surprising that things like Facebook or Instagram or Twitter flourish. But you can live without them, in both senses of without.
I have a totally catholic attitude towards the Web. I think it’s full of shit, but I still use it to find things out. I think it’s narcissistic & nasty, bigoted & bullying, absurd & abusive—but they’re the things that make it such a rich source of material. As I said above, it reflects the world. So, if you think the world’s absurd, & you want to demonstrate that, then why not use the hymnal that the world sings from as your guidebook.
(& an aside. Everytime I think about the dumbing down of the world, I think of C. M. Kornbluth’s 1951 short story, The Marching Morons. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/51233)
Leila Rosner: In “Die Tagebücher (The Diaries) von Franz Kafka,” you note the “comments on / &/or quotes from / the tagebücher of / Goethe” and then note the diary that “Leaps back / & forth. 1912, 2015, 1794” (Lithic Typology [gradient books, 2016] 21). 1912 is the year that Kafka released his novella “The Metamorphosis” and 1794 is the year that Goethe released “The Metamorphosis of Plants.” What does 2015 mean to you in this poem? What does the correlation of the titles of Kafka’s and Goethe’s works—and in fact, the juxtaposition of the two authors—signify for you?
Young: Okay, a few corrections & clarifications. Firstly the dates. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis wasn’t published until 1914, was written the previous year. There’s a line in K.’s diary for 10.21.13: “I keep thinking of the black beetle, but will not write.” Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants was published in 1790. So I hadn’t intended any correlation. & despite having gone through my blogs a decade or so ago & gathered enough poems for a couple of collections, Episodes & Calligraphies, that were included in the body of work Tom drew on when he did his selection for Pelican Dreaming, I still found another several hundred poems from the time that were essentially unpublished that I’ve since drawn upon, sometimes in a revised format.
“Die Tagebücher…” was written in 2005, changed to 2015 for its much more recent revival. However, I’m delighted that you found these links between Goethe & Kafka in your reading of the poem. I’ve always believed a poem finds its final form as an entity in the collaboration between reader & writer.
There are a number of musicians, writers, & artists who have influenced the mosaic that is me. I can remember singing Erlkönig — words by Goethe, music by Schubert — in my German class at high school sixty years ago. Faust is an archetypal figure, & Goethe’s Faust is a classical rendition of him. One of my books is called Falsely Goethe. Kafka’s The Trial & The Metamorphosis were de rigeur reading during my late teens. Both writers are included in my A line from trope. A reading of the references to Goethe in Kafka’s diaries produces the impression that Kafka was actually in love with Goethe. I don’t think my reverence for either ever went that far.
Back to the last part of your question. A diary is generally regarded as a linear thing: one writes in it, if not always every day, at least in sequence. I was struck during my reading that Kafka was writing in his 1912 diaries about what Goethe was doing in 1794, & that I, in the 21st Century, was reading about what both of them were doing; that time isn’t always linear because it is possible for three non-contemporaneous events to share the same moment, & that time doesn’t always, as it were, keep time.
Over time, time has influenced my work in three main ways, four if you count the earliest poems which were, in the main linear. The first diversion was the ficcione, a term purloined from Jorge Luis Borges — who also wrote a seminal essay on time, or the lack of it, entitled A New Refutation of Time, available as a PDF from a number of sources. These ficciones range in size from short poems — collected in At Trotsky’s Funeral — to a novella, The Allegrezza Ficcione. They tend to be linear, historically correct but speculative, about things that could quite easily have happened amongst the occurrances of the various times they are set in, in line with:
A Philosophy of Ficciones
The history of
history is one
of spaces, some
empty, some filled,
but every one ready
to be re-written.
The second & third methodologies, mentioned in my answer to the first question, overlap. They are essentially the same, a response to a prompt, differentiated by the size of the prompt. One is written in response to a historical sequence — Genji, John Donne, Sun Tzu — & deliberately attempts to assimilate within the work things that have happened between the time of the original & the present, so that the final is presented as a work that could have been written at any time between then & now, is still being written, is able to move both forwards & back, is always in flux. It is a deconstruction of the original text.
The other, in contrast, is a construction built upon a small piece of text. It ignores time. Nothing is considered metachronistic; anything can be juxtaposed against any other thing. These poems, as I’ve written elsewhere, come from “(a) need to describe the world the way I see it, only the entire is too horrific these days to be able to do so on a grand scale. So I break off little pieces & write about them, & there are an awful lot of little pieces.”
Rosner: “Meanwhile at the British Museum” appears to refer to the tedious and external struggle to find meaning in the past to develop a present and future that is fulfilling. The lofty task of recreating the famed “Bard of Avon” and “delicately harvesting / the epithelials” (Bricolage 42) suggests this. The resulting lot that we end up with after the experiment (Queen Elizabeth, Marlowe, Lennon and McCartney) is unexpected. Is there a particular rationale for this unexpected outcome?
Young: One of the things we haven’t touched on yet is humor. It’s a major component of my work & is present — overtly or covertly — in a significant proportion of it. Taking the piss out of things is a political act in many circumstances. How else can you deal with the likes of DoNuts T®ump? & it’s not just politics that makes itself a target. Literary criticism, history, religion, sport — the list is endless.
So . . .The poem is about effort expended on futility that could have been better utilized elsewhere. Who really gives a fuck about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Okay, possibly a few million people. But does it change the value of the plays, or their insight, or their majesty. I think that the attempted delegation of their creation is likely to be a class thing. “Oh, my dear, how could you possibly think it was the son of a common glovemaker who wrote those plays? Can’t you sense the nobility of the blood flowing in the author’s veins?”
Up until now, the various claims have relied on stylistic studies & programs, first manual & then digital. Now we have techniques available to extract DNA, to use that DNA to clone a cell line, to use those cloned cells to create embryos. Lots of valid & worthwhile reasons to use those techniques for the benefit of humanity, to combat disease or starvation. But in this absurd world, we are just as likely to use the techniques to give somebody a better butt, or whiter teeth, or bigger muscles for playing sport. Or clone Shakespeare. After all, his DNA hasn’t been trapped in a mosquito trapped in amber for millennia.
& the output? There have been a number of people put forward as being the author or amongst the authors of Shakespeare’s plays. Queen Elizabeth was briefly on the list, Marlowe is still up there. To take things to a ridiculous conclusion, it’s just as likely to have been Lennon &/or McCartney. & the outcome? Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
Fink: The use of humor for political critique that takes “the piss out of things” is abundantly evident in your recent books. “Archival Footage” (some more strange meteorites 34-36) tells fantastic tales about U.S. Secretaries of State and uses Koi as a motif.
“A line from Donald Trump” begins Ley Lines, and it features “The First Emperor of Qin” sporting a “headpiece of/ human flesh as a show of his/ glory” (7). This brief poem soon arrives at an allusion to the “line” that, bizarrely, probably helped Trump to an Electoral College win:
Scaly warts cover the few
exposed portions of his body.
I have sex dreams about random
people, he said. I will build a
great wall to keep them out. (7)
In “A Patriot’s Tale,” the sounding of an alarm about “fervor” during “certain times” has a more serious tone than the poems I’ve just mentioned. The speaker, “a/ reluctant pedestrian on someone// else’s treadmill,” is immersed in an extremely polluted environment:
The granaries are choked with
fervor. Dust spills & spreads,
excludes the sky, occludes the
light. A virtual night I walk &
talk through, articulated limbs
but un-articulated fears. (some more strange meteorites 58)
The notion of “dust” excluding the sky conveys a great deal about ecological devastation.
Though I’m not entirely sure about what “Archival Footage” is up to with its uproarious “koi” reiterations, I find that your political poetry often underscores how individual and sometimes collective psychological flaws—for example, in the case of the current occupant of the U.S. White House, narcissistic personality disorder—have a major impact on policy development, power relations, and increases in what opponents of Reagan in the eighties called “the misery index.” How do you think about the various purposes, dynamics, and potential effects of your political poems?
Young: I’ve made several starts to answer this question, have been dissatisfied with all of them. I’ve looked at responses I’ve made to similar questions in other arenas at other times, come away depressed because so little — if anything — has improved in the world at large. Which means that any attempts I’ve made, be they poetic or physical activism, have generally had minimal effect. Still, to quote one of those really old farts I despise, hope springs eternal. So, I hope that when I write what might be construed as political poetry it will have some effect, but at heart I know I’m preaching to the converted.
I came back to writing around the turn of the century, to be confronted not that long after with 9/11. It changed a lot of things, laid bare a lot of things. Not least the fact that the then U.S. President—a position for so long looked on as equivalent to being the de facto leader of the free world—was shown to be an inept idiot more suited to playing a character in a piece of Commedia dell’arte. “(The terrorists) never stop thinking of ways to harm our country, & neither do we.”
Somewhere in that nexus of politics & repetitive TV reportage & unauthorized foreign interventions & the growth of search engines, a budding Commedia del mondo as it were, the shapings of my subsequent poetry took place.
a product of
sign, his eyes
so close to-
Bush was a convenient peg to hang a lot of humor—or anger disguised as humor—on, but though it tilted my dualistic view of the States, it didn’t destroy it. Plus Bush had a reasonable team around him, &, of course,
as there are koi
in the Secretary of
State’s water feature,
we are winning the
war against Terror.”
That above ends a poem called “the other side of the duality,” is one of a number of poems I’ve recently extracted “from the archives” & collected as “Bush Tucker,” a section in a scheduled “miscellany.” I have no idea how the inhabitants of the water feature itself came about, but I do know it was run through Leevi Lehto’s Google Poetry Generator the next day, to spawn that plethora of koi that seem to delight you.
Then Obama prevailed & returned hope to the mix. In the eight years of his administration, the only political thing I wrote was a factual piece for Big Bridge. Obama offered up a chance for a return to goodness & quality of actions. For us in the wider world, the dream was reborn, but it was — so obvious in retrospect — a dream not shared by the Senate & the House of Reps.
After Obama, Trump. & Trump is the epitome of cupidity surrounded by fawning &/or familial sycophants, most of them incapable of telling the truth, in positions totally unsuited to their area of expertise, & totally incapable of running a country. Not even good at their primary activity, lying to the country. It behooves us all to take them down, to throw projectiles of all shapes & sizes at them. Which obviously includes poetry.
Fink: Your work of the last eighteen years has often featured language examining itself, its own possibilities and impossibilities. Here is a parody of an English composition textbook that begins “A line from Hillary Rodham Clinton,” the last poem in Ley Lines:
Putting the thesis at the end
of the paragraph is an effective
way of reducing drag & wear
on the equipment needed to
conduct an inventory of the
20th century. (60)
In “A line from Oliver Tambo,” “Our dictionary result pages” give us “seven hundred of the most/ common words in Japanese/ that use conductive heating/ elements”—sure they do!—and we learn that the context for a particular signifier seemingly has no limit, though there is something fishy and smelly about this:
whatever people say it means.
There is no vocabulary set
aside for it, just an in situ in-
stallation in an old fish market. (Ley Lines 10).
And according to the last sentence of “A line from Kurt Schwitters,” “Nothing, in any material, can/ prevent an explosion of synonyms” (Ley Lines 16). The question is whether the “explosion” entails a rich multiplicity or a devastation.
You’ve said in an earlier response that you use humor to deflate aspects of literary criticism, much of which is bolstered by theory, but are there particular philosophers or critical theorists who have influenced your sense of metalinguistic inquiry, or did the poets and other literati get there first? And what has this kind of meta-exploration done for you (or to you) as a poetic practitioner?
Young: The “poets & other literati,” along with a smorgasbord of painters, musicians, & movie personnel, got there first. It’s what we grow up with that are the major shapers of direction — unless, of course, you have an epiphany on the road to Tarsus later on, & not many of us do. You learn form by singing hymns in the school assembly, nuance by acting in school plays, the power of emotion by playing in the school orchestra. & all that before you’ve even contemplated writing a poem. The only philosopher who interested me early on was Karl Marx.
The beginning of the shift, the drift, the move to any sort of examination of language, started with the collaborations I did with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen. Jukka, in amongst dazzling musical & artistic endeavors, also ran computer programs that reduced sentences to sets of random letters, or rewrote blocks of text stochastically so they were re-presented as something else, but they had a sense about them, plus the opportunity to take them up in further reiterations. Which I did, at first running reasonably straight text inside or outside the original J-KP patterns, either as contrast or complement.
My use of Google as a poetic aid dates from this time, though it was equally likely that Lycos or altavista or some other since-deceased search engine was also used in those days. Google was the source of snippets of text that were eminently usable as poem fodder, but with that text came underlying information, & searches in that same area extended the information. So, depending on the area you were currently exploring, there were large swathes of data about a plethora or subjects — computing & philosophy & sport & entomology & etymology et al. At the time of writing an individual poem, some of it would turn into a cul-de-sac which meant retracing your steps & starting again, but, overall, the searching & the repetition of the search results meant you garnered a large amount of data on a lot of subjects which you couldn’t help but absorb. You may not often use, refer to, or appropriate that osmotic knowledge, but it’s there & may be unconsciously used at times.
Additionally, if one writes about Magritte or uses his work as a source for a significant sequence of poems, you can’t avoid Foucault. Hegel, & to a lesser extent, Derrida & Lacan, instructed my take on Genji Monogatari. So, yes, there are philosophers who have created platforms on which I sometimes write. & Derrida, of course, is the primary proponent of bricolage which, more than anything else, is the term I would use to best describe my poetry.
Critical theorists occupy a much, much lower position on the pantry shelves, ever since somebody took umbrage to my using articles at the end of lines. Not helped by coming across things like Margo deMello’s statement in her book Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing: “In terms of poetics and the act of actually reading these poems as poems, neither the lens of the twentieth-century modernist confessional poetic self or the bricolagic postmodern poetic self is adequate.”
Fink: Whoever objected to your use of articles at the end of lines either hasn’t read or can’t appreciate William Carlos Williams or Robert Creeley.
Rosner: In “Sinkhole Swallows Jumbo Jets and more,” the items being consumed by the sinkhole seem random in nature:
… an Italian
lingerie giant announced
plans to launch next-gen
battery technology &
caused a giant sinkhole
to open up & swallow
part of the Australian
shoreline, a Florida man,
Mount Everest, four
Boeing 747 jumbo jets, plus
a well-trafficked swathe
of Hollywood Boulevard.
(Lithic Typology 54)
Are these items random or are they connected in some way— for example, as objects reflecting the ethos of globalization?
Young: Ah, Leila, closed questions are fine in an interrogation, but I don’t want to end this exchange with a No & another no. Or, maybe, a maybe. So, some fleshing out.
The items included in a list in a poem lose their randomness by being included, by being part of a poem, by being part of a particular person’s poem. If you incorporate things around you to use, then the very fact that they are close at hand means they are not really random. A news hour on TV jumps all over the place, with disparate stories, but they cohere into a single entity by reason of time, region, & presenters. They further cohere but also diverge by the politics of the channel: the same news on Fox & CNN tell totally different versions of the same stories. Take lines from each broadcaster’s newsnight & create separate centos. These resulting poems may or may not allow the reader some insight into the ideology of their source, may or may not end up having anything at all to do with ideology or politics.
I would not describe myself as a political being—I’m not out there demonstrating, or promoting a particular party or a particular cause—but I cannot help being concerned about the humanitarian crises with which the world is awash these days & the failure to do much about them. I believe we are forgetting our humanity or losing track of it in a time of demagogues, of failed saints, of competing voice assistants, of social media, of pox vopuli. I believe the Kurds deserve their own country. Now how’s that for a non sequitur?
In the early 2000s, when blogging was ubiquitous & meaningful, Tom Beckett posted, as open invitation, a number of questions on his blog seeking answers as to why people write poetry. One of them was “Do you believe that a poet has any special sort of social responsibility?”
My response: “Yes. I believe all poetry to be political. & social. They reflect our views, our stance on life, no matter what we are writing about. Maybe not overtly so, but given the opportunity we should speak out. We should not subjugate what we believe to be right when we write.”