“Nothing is transcendent.”

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A Conversation Between Poets Monica McClure and Josef Kaplan

To live sensitively in 2016, on or offline, is often to be brutalized. As Josef Kaplan, the author of Poem Without Suffering says below, “I think we can both agree that life as currently available to huge numbers of people on this planet is a nightmare.” Kaplan’s Poem Without Suffering takes on the US American reality of public shootings and the subsequent collective grief, subjecting it to investigation through a moving book length poem. In this conversation he talks with Monica McClure, author of the acclaimed book of poems Tender Data.

Their conversation sent me back to another text, Bifo Berardi’s Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. Berardi concludes his intro to the book by writing, “Now, the task at hand is to map the wasteland where social imagination has been frozen and submitted to the recombinant corporate imaginary. Only from this cartography can we move forward to discover a new form of activity which, by replacing Art, politics, and therapy with a process of re-activation of sensibility, might help humankind to recognize itself again.”

What follows is a dense conversation about the political psychosphere, the arc of life, and the so-called “risks” involved with writing (Spoiler alert: the only risk is of fucking it up).“

—Ben Fama

I. A BIT OF A BUMMER

MONICA MCCLURE: I keep thinking about how Poem Without Suffering deals with a sequence of events in a backward and sometimes simultaneous manner. The last part of the book describes birth—with several pages spent on the outward passage through the liminal space between amniotic and conscious existence. And the beginning of the book is about abrupt, untimely deaths that show lives stalled out before they’ve even really started. In some ways the book is like a wind-up toy: you crank it backward to move forward. Even the fricatives sputter like the jagged movement of a mechanical soldier. In other ways, the poem spins its wheels in the ditch. 

What interests me about the last part of the book is the conspicuous absence of choice in the matter of being born, especially given the shadow of murder-by-speeding bullet cast in the first few lines (“To have it happen, / but to have it not / be considered / tragedy…”) of Poem Without Suffering. Want to talk about the backward qualities of the poem?

JOSEF KAPLAN: My hope was that it could be a book that actually proceeds through contradiction. I thought the way its narrative would move forward would be through these “impossible” structural gestures, kind of like a trick or illusion. So, yeah, exactly: it starts at the end, with a death, and finishes at the beginning, with a birth—but the way we get there isn’t a reversal. Time doesn’t move backward. We’re always moving forward, but we end up somehow behind where we began.

Also it’s nearly a hundred pages, but because of the shortness of its lines it reads quite fast. It’s a long poem about a brief moment (a bullet being fired out of a gun) that gets described in this slow, expansive way that’s simultaneously experienced very quickly. It’s disorienting, which maybe speaks to how agency gets looked at in the work, where so much of it is described within a chaotic, digressive network of effects.  

It actually reminds me of Tender Data. There’s a very well rendered tension in that book where you have voices struggling to articulate some sense of humanity or control in the face of an environment that constantly demands the forfeiture of both. But in your poems that forfeiture doesn’t just happen at the hands of overt repression, it also happens at the hands of pleasure. There are many horrible things about how we live that we enjoy, actually, because enjoyment can be inconsistent and furtive, but also because this world doesn’t just blackmail us with death or imprisonment or humiliation, it also blackmails us with delight. And that is terrifying. The things we love are in effect one way we are held in misery.

To put it another way: I think we can both agree that life as currently available to huge numbers of people on this planet is a nightmare. And we can know that there’s a real need to dismantle much of the world in order to build a new, just life for ourselves—and we can believe it, and declare it. And I love that. But despite whatever range of things we might work toward in activism or art, maybe we fall short of this total war. I know I do—I know a lot of people who believe these things and fall short. We work jobs, go to the movies, maybe study, recommend restaurants to each other and then pay our taxes. Which I’m not trying to shit on, really, I understand it… I’m just saying that there are also people who don’t understand it. There are people who, for better or worse, pick up a gun or a knife, or strap on a bomb, or drop out of society entirely, because for them this world really is just utterly intolerable. There’s a way that, for some of us, despite how much we may know or feel that this world should end, we still find ways to live in it.

And I don’t think it’s only fear that drives this. I think it’s also because, actually, we can bear the world, and even learn to desire it in certain cases. In a very abstract way, these contrary formal elements of the poem were one attempt to create at least the atmosphere of this problem, because so much of the poem is about complicating discourses around violence and trauma and human thought in the face of atrocity.  

MM: Right. In writing Tender Data, I was aware that it was a rather negative book in that it begged the question, “Why even try?” It’s not fatalistic though. Thus, the tension. Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Psychic states like depression, gender constructions and constrictions, racism, self-loathing, unwitting sexual desire, and consumer addiction are shown as closed circuits within a larger structural prison: the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy through which the speaker moves. But, as you pointed out, there is pleasure in surrender to the things we want not to want. Not just in the sense that many things capitalism offers us can be fun, but in the sense that all the horrifying experiences of our culture allow us to “feel real” by offering contrast to the freedom and well-being we crave and collectively bear in mind as hope. 

The art process for me was about exploring the perverse pleasure in trauma. The persona in my book sometimes has enough and takes revenge—and vengeance is a pleasure—like when she castrates rich bros with horsewhips. But sometimes she is an agent of oppression. She hurts other women and herself as if to draw the poison of violence out of her veins. 

You’ve described the people who, because they’re so conscripted into state and cultural violence, decide to act on their own. They act almost as anti-heroes or vigilantes (an archetype our culture treasures so much, especially when he’s male or masculine) and end up exemplifying as individuals through singular acts our country’s true ethos. They’re the heroes we deserve, like Trump is the president our bully of a country deserves. 

You also write about the slippage between the hero and the villain. For example, the piece you read at the Republican Debate reading organized by Robert Fitterman seemed to inhabit various heroic figures that in their desire to possess, change, or save the world—whether for good or evil—go to the point of ending it. At the same time that they want to create a certain kind of life for others, they take up so much space as to leave others none.

JK: Yes, I’m drawn to those kinds of difficulties. It’s strange and useful to be provoked toward some impasse in our judgement—these ambiguities you describe, in poetry they can be very powerful. They force us to make explicit how and what we think about a work, which in turn draws into focus what in our lives has informed that thinking. There’s maybe a risk there to make poetry pedagogical—it kind of sounds like I’m describing instruction, which is a bit of a bummer. But what I’m trying to imagine is more like a field of dissonance, through which one’s understanding of aesthetics, or politics, or whatever else, is unsettled, is made to face interpretative questions that render insufficient some theories or expectations one may have held up to that point. Not in a cheesy way, like some epiphany or big reveal, but in a way that’s closer to conflict, that really is like, “how do I deal with this?”

II. THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE WRONG

MM: American victims and mass shooters alike are born into a militaristic, unregulated, violent, incarceration-driven society. Their brutal deaths are horrifying but not in the least surprising anymore. I remember a poet saying very Adorno-like at a Q&A at Ugly Duckling Presse some days after the Sandy Hook massacre that we should reexamine how to make art in a world where—and she apologized here for her frankness—little kids are shot in the head inside their schools. I can’t remember the question (or the answer) but I do remember her phrasing. Kids are shot in the head. Your book was going to be called Shoot Kids In The Head. What made you change it? What’s the value of bluntness, if any?

JK: Bluntness is a tool, and like any tool has its uses but is not inherently useful. It depends on what you’re doing with it, how it interacts with other characteristics of the poem and the social reception of those characteristics. “Clarity” is maybe a better term for what I actually value—I like it when poems attempt some kind of internal legibility that gives them the opportunity to be wrong, to fail whatever terms one sets out for them. To mean something, and not just be some scrambled ream of vocabulary or disconnected, facile observations.

I think the working title Shoot Kids in the Head helped clarify this one aspect: the detailed, clinically rendered violence, and the inseparability of that violence from the complete experience of the poem. At first, that seemed important to me, so that the work’s other qualities could exist as a response to this imperative that one must “shoot kids in the head” in order for the poem to begin. Could the poem justify itself against that? But as things went on it became a bit puerile. I credit conversations with friends for helping me see this, because I’m so stubborn and stupid I probably would’ve just stuck with it otherwise.

Poem Without Suffering seems able to imply similar questions around writing and pain, but in a more nuanced, ironic way. I like that it’s somewhat of a riff on that clichéd Nietzsche quote about the abyss staring back—how, in a time we recognize as being largely governed by monstrousness, is it possible to have poetry engage with this monstrousness meaningfully without becoming itself a monster?  

MM: This is an inside joke, but perhaps you can illuminate it for readers. Talk to me about the risks you felt you took in writing this book. What’s at stake?

JK: Yes! That was a conversation we had a couple years ago now, at a bar where you were having a birthday party. We talked about “stakes,” which is such a buzzword in poetry, but one that comes from the justifiably endless debate around what makes a poem meaningful. “Stakes” is a popular shorthand for meaningfulness because it implies loss. If we submit, in some sense, to the experience of the poem, what do we have to lose? What is the poem asking us to give up—our comfort, some set of preconceptions, etc.? 

Meaningfulness hazards the requirement that we change, that these attentions we’ve exposed return to us as something else, something different. That’s what’s at stake: the opportunity to be surprised, to be made to think perversely or in clearer ways about what otherwise might seem familiar, like a poem or a massacre.

The risk is that you fuck it up.  

For Poem Without Suffering, that means maybe that the poem could be sensational and exploitative. But some of it really is exploitative! It’s a poem in part about how “tragedy” gets produced, culturally, and specifically in literature—what kinds of destruction, for example, earn the right to be tragic, and why. For the poem, this required taking this recent sensitive moment, the Sandy Hook massacre, and framing it through art, which is always a disruptive and in some sense manipulative process. But I think it’s an important process nonetheless. It’s important to set those terms for oneself and one’s writing, to expect complex interpretive work on the part of the reader.

Not to minimize the hurt and outrage that would result from failure—that’s real and should be respected. But it’s also real that the specter of failure can be useful, in the same way that loss can be meaningful. It’s helpful to remember that art is not a guarantee. Art is not redemptive in any reliable, obvious way. You have to struggle with it.

MM: We think of a life as having a traditional arc: infancy, youth, adolescence, adulthood middle age, old age. When it completes that arc, regardless of what happens in it, it’s considered to be valuable. Rhetorically, at least. Your poem’s perspective is prodding; it’s like a periscope, inserting itself in bedrooms, wombs, and skulls to study the minutiae of conscious life alongside the movement of objects like bullets and flags and Olympic track stars. Why the scientific focus on the path of a bullet in a book dealing with human loss?

JK: It’s easy to find responses to spectacular moments of violence that attempt to process those moments in a discourse that affirms “popular values” or assumptions about the relationship that violence has to popular culture. So, you know, calls for state-enforced “gun control” or a time of national healing, or religious or humanist appeals. The cold, scientific tone of much of the poem was an effort to decenter that default sentimental language, so that when it does show up in the work it’s hopefully legible as one mode among many. Of course, the language of science isn’t free from ideology or in any way natural or perfectly objective—I’m really just trying to see the event described in a way that’s unexpected, to make it incongruous. It was also maybe a constraint, to see if I could translate the kinds of emotional effects that other, more traditionally romantic language courts into a writing that, on the surface, seems to obscure or efface those effects.

MM: I think your book is largely about the relationship between a mother and a son and how that relationship is an archeological site for scientists and theorists across disciplines. I am obviously not a psychologist, but I think it is interesting that Adam Lanza, who had become increasingly tethered to his mother and isolated from the rest of society, massacred children in the space that first set him on a track for definitive social separation from his mother: Sandy Hook Elementary School. It can be interpreted as a symbolic revenge killing (if you’re a sick poet like we are) on a series of non-consensual separations: from the womb, from the home, from the Imaginary into the Symbolic. Did you think much about what these spaces represent? Or do you not care about representation?

JK: The representation question is interesting to me in the sense that, though the poem is “about” Sandy Hook, in a roundabout way, it’s actually never explicitly mentioned in the text. It’s all inference—details and references that imply a connection. That’s the form the poem gives to Sandy Hook: inference. What that comes to represent for me is how the material fact of the event almost immediately disappears into its interpretation… we think about it via its social effects, even this event which has such a tremendous, frightening existence, that was talked about as this nearly sacred aberration in the social order, with its own transcendent logic.

But nothing is transcendent. Nothing we do or have done to us. It’s all contingent. The maternal exists in the poem in the same way its other ideas do, as a contingency, which is actually maybe comforting.

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III. THE ROBOTS OFTEN LOOK LIKE HUMANS

MM: Back to timeliness. There are moments when death and birth are held side by side and equivocated by sickness and injury, which are the defining experiences of both infancy and old age. Like when a training toilet conjures up a bedpan. The line I’m thinking of is in a section that calls into question the aliveness of organisms compared to objects. It goes:

…one shot through its head or
its abdomen,
maybe while crying
or sleeping, or
shitting its lunch
into a little plastic
toilet built for infants or invalids.

I’m chilled to think of the fragility of biological dependency to which objects are not subject. So when a body is like a piece of skeet or a beer bottle or a target mounted on a ragged tree any time it appears in an unprotected public space, what does it mean to be different or more than an object? You use the pronoun “it” indiscriminately to refer to objects and bodies and assert that bodies can’t die because they have never lived. What must biological, conscious life go through to be substantial enough to be lost? I know you like Sci-Fi movies and in Sci-Fi movies, the machines hardly ever win. In reasserting the superiority of humanity through these narratives (emotional intelligence and human bonds conquer cold scientific fascism), they show just how insecure that humanity is. Maybe there are exceptions you could tell me about.

JK: Insecure is the right word for it. Those sections where the work struggles with what constitutes life or objecthood… they’re specious. They’re not totally without logic or sense, but they’re often muddled. The reasoning is somewhat distressed.

I remember having these conversations right after Sandy Hook, where my friends and I were trying to make sense of the event, and the poles we were working between were, on one hand, the reality that this kind of massacre is only really aberrant with regards to its context: that these were mostly affluent white children being shot. Children are murdered all the time, all over the world, often by us—directly by our government, by the police or the army, or by other outsourced conflicts that support class relations as they stand. So, the “shocking” nature of it and the subsequent dialogue that was encouraged in the public sphere, these things can obscure the means by which that shock is even available to us to begin with, which is wrapped up in our own hegemony as an imperialist power. It was in some ways a privilege to be shocked. But on the other hand, it really is horrific. It is shocking! And in part because of what you’re saying: the fragility of children. Human children are especially vulnerable animals for many years. It’s not a failure of analysis to admit the empathy that engenders.

That’s what I think those elements of the poem are trying to enact: the pull between critique and empathy, amidst this terrifying and complex process by which power determines what lives actually count as such. To refer back to something we were talking about earlier, it’s about trying to represent the difficulty of approaching individual atrocities in a world that is literally built on atrocity, where nothing really escapes the grasp of that violence, without falling into a kind of self-satisfied nihilism—either the cynical, liberal democratic variety or the fire and brimstone, apocalyptic variety.

It’s like in the Terminator movies! Which could be the exception you’re looking for. The franchise is determined by this endless war between humans and robots across time. And one of the primary complications within these narratives (beyond the convolutions of time travel) is the blurring of what, actually, constitutes a robot and what constitutes a human. The robots often look like humans; sometimes a robot literally thinks it’s human; I think at one point John Connor (one of the human protagonists) is saved by a robot implant. He in a sense becomes part robot, even though he’s ultimately still a human. You get the point. Here’s the thing, though: regardless of these entanglements, the terms of the conflict are always totally clear—what the robots stand for is always total annihilation of this planet and all life on it. They’re not even setting up weird robot cities like in the Matrix! They just blow everything up and roll around in tanks looking for humans to kill. The robots’ cause is fucking evil. But where any arrangement of actors stands with regards to that cause can be complicated—it can shift—and it entails certain contradictions that must be dealt with according to their immediate appearance within that set antagonism of humans vs. robots.

In short… it’s difficult.

It’s a difficult world. You know what’s good and what’s evil, but the way those terms manifest can be hard to parse. That’s the kind of difficulty I was hoping to extend to this poem, and through that connect it somewhat to our experience of this world, the real world, which in all honesty is probably not too far off from that of Terminator.

Josef Kaplan lives in Queens. His most recent book is Poem Without Suffering (Wonder, 2015).