(FEATURE) “It’s pretty utopian!” A conversation with Marie Buck, Mau Baiocco and Maria Sledmere pt.1
In this bumper conversation of two parts, Mau Baiocco and Maria Sledmere touch Zoom base with US poet Marie Buck, in the wake of Unsolved Mysteries, their new collection from Roof Books. What follows is a dialogue on poetry and collage, documentary poetics, post-internet forms, poetry and politics, critique, television and serial poetry, capitalist realism, dreams, poetry and time, historical curiosity, spells, the afterlife and lockdown survival rituals.
For a long time I misheard the lyrics to Julia Holter’s ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ as ‘I can’t sleep, it’s lucidity, so clear’, but of course it’s ‘I can’t swim, it’s lucidity, so clear’. Such is my association with sleep and the sea that I figured to swim was a lucid dream, and my intimacy with that song was a kind of call, a pedalling ongoingness, a pop charm, the whistle I could almost imitate. In Marie Buck’s most recent collection, Unsolved Mysteries (Roof Books, 2020), there’s a poem (‘Take My Glasses Off’) which begins: ‘The world is like a lucid dream’. Noticing a kind of wilful potential in dreams, the speaker ruminates, is a bit like why ‘you become less depressed when involved in political / organizing’. There’s a great essay by Jackie Wang which talks about oceanic feeling and communist affect: the idea that moments and states of expansion and altered consciousness, dissolution of ‘subjective boundaries’, can ‘open up new socialities’. Wang asks: ‘Could the oceanic act as a feeling-in-common that serves as the experiential basis for the co-construction of new worlds?’ Marie Buck’s poetry is always drawing me into this co-construction; maybe less by way of dissolve and more by holding.
Oceanic consciousness implies some kind of rippling or warp, not lucidity. Is the risk of conceptual poetry always a kind of distortion beyond ‘access’, or is this the wrong way of looking altogether? Unsolved Mysteries as a title teases you to stay in the ‘unsolved’ qualities of poetry, while writing in quite direct, intimate and lucid registers. Named after John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer’s American documentary tv show, Buck’s collection sets itself up for the maximalism and intricacies of its namesake (to this date, there are 593 episodes). There is a kind of communist affect at work in these poems whose oceanic quality is perhaps mystery — dwelling in the ‘not knowing’ effected by crisis. Derrida has this concept of mysterium tremendum: a dread-filled mystery before which all we can do is tremble. In The Gift of Death (1992), he writes: ‘What makes us tremble in the mysterium tremendum? It is the gift of infinite love’. The poems of Unsolved Mysteries are poems of gear-shifting intimacy, of expansive fantasy and warmth, of curiosity and mourning, of lust and memory, the mess of dailiness and blood. A mode of attention that can suck all the air from your lungs:
Like with a depressed lover: you do all the same things, but, depending on the exact way they are depressed, maybe suddenly there is, for them and then later for you, no pull, no tension, your dick thrusts into nothing and their body is an empty sky.
(‘Take My Glasses Off’)
Buck’s poems stay in that generative tension where flights of fantasy can suddenly dry into nothing, ‘the scenes feel empty’; poetry is production poised on the erotic knowledge that at some point the magic might fall away, like the relevance sucked from a secret. Have you ever returned to your favourite writing only to face a kind of concrete wall, drained of all colour and longing? The brilliance of Unsolved Mysteries is that tremble between the flush of ordinary and momentous desire and its resolve, co-option or refusal of capitalist realism. In Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009), Mark Fisher writes: ‘Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics’. Buck’s collection is rich in acts of ritual, elaboration, time travel, epiphany, creative adaptation and resistance in the face of surveillance, targeted advertising, political defeat, guilt and apparently cancelled futures. There’s fucking and hexing and lots of reading, description, plenty of citation. Buck uses the serial poem as a curatorial form for staging different encounters with texts, held between bodies, moments, speech acts and dreams — always in time and the act of telling. Their lineage runs from Bernadette Mayer’s journal experiments to David Berman’s devastating, plain-spoken classic, Actual Air (1999), Frank O’Hara’s Personism and the visceral, magical dexterity of the Verity Spott hex poem. The residues of late capitalism are shared with the reader through a discursive poetics that’s aware of itself, but not to the point of postmodern abyss or cynical detachment. There’s a genuine attempt to connect, to stage processes of coming to thought or relation. The voracious, hypertextual appetite of flarf is held in a documentary lyric of intimacy and stumbling, shimmering responsiveness.
Flarf poetry at its worst risks bad appropriation, not to mention reproducing the ‘ruins and the relics’ that Fisher speaks of; perhaps at its best it ushers in an accelerated sense of infra-consciousness, a celebration of chaos and trash, that protests the linguistic foreclosures of Web 2.0 — the loss of a utopian internet. As Buck puts it, ‘I still love the internet, but it’s dystopian, and the most interesting things on it are increasingly reactive to/critical of the medium itself’. Buck’s work has long engaged with the affordances of a post-internet poetics: that is, work that acknowledges how the internet’s ubiquity in our lives has irrevocably altered the kinds of consciousness, expression and relation that are possible in poetry. Their pamphlet, Life & Style from 2007 –– a year I hold as utopian in my own adolescent forays with the web –– situates what Buck calls ‘a gendered, lyrical subjectivity within the language of Myspace’, a site which ‘narrate[s] the continual collapse of all forms of identity into identities of commodification & commodity consumption’. While Myspace ipseity now seems comparatively benign compared to the extractive, ad-heavy malice of Facebook et al, these poems offer an important early foray into processes of search, collage and hypertextuality. Life & Style sees familiar source poems from the likes of Emily Dickinson and Arthur Rimbaud exchange tongues with the chance dynamics of Myspace content. There is a working through, a kind of ekphrastic attention between voices, affects and texts, which we see in slightly later works such as Rachael Allen’s 4chan Poems (2014). The speaker in Buck’s poetry is always more than spectator: these poems short-circuit or spark the circuits of reproduction they find themselves caught in — there is a kind of demand, attention and summons which conjures ongoingness from pleasure and reciprocity. I think of a stanza from Peter Gizzi’s ‘Speech Acts for a Dying World’: ‘I’m listening and / receiving now / and it feeds me, / I’m always hungry’.
In ‘Bad combinations’, Michael Leong highlights the recurrence of the word ‘popsicle’ in the flarfist canon (they show up in a Kevin Killian poem, ‘Soft Art’, also). I want to linger on a popsicle moment in Unsolved Mysteries because it’s one of the sexiest pieces of literature ever. A poem that imagines lovemaking in a world that is not quite capitalism; a world we can momentarily hold, even in the space of inevitable dissolve. In ‘There Are Not a Lot of Universes in Which Time Travel Is Possible’, possibly Mau and I’s favourite poem in the collection, the speaker writes of an encounter with a potential lover which is premised on ‘going to watch documentaries and eat popsicles’. The ‘prospective lover’ and the speaker hang out in a public swimming pool but don’t quite make it to the fucking. Buck uses the second person to draw us into this state of desiring intensity: ‘your lust then exists in the form of a freeze pop, slushed up in a plastic tube’; the next stanza plunges us in medias res into later, mid-fucking with someone else, where the popsicle is a metaphor for the dissolve made possible by fucking, where ‘the flesh of the fingers itself—the colored ice—melts into your mouth and you’re left without fingers’. Without fingers maybe there is no writing, just this temporary ecstasy in the sweet middle, the slushy part of the poem, the book, which goes far enough to melt you with it. ‘Lyric poetry’, Buck writes in one of their great Poetry Foundation essays, ‘has most traditionally been exactly about performative vulnerability’ — an affective tendency we see in ‘sadboi memes about depression’ and the overshare mode of documenting failure so prevalent among social media vernacular. The popsicle is a kitsch image but also one of nostalgic tenderness: something you buy with 10p of pocket money; it doesn’t fill your stomach but fills your mouth, caresses your tastebuds; there’s a momentary or throwaway pleasure which makes you kind of melancholy when it’s gone. It operates in the mutable value economy of ice and heat, touch and preserve. It could be a metaphor for poetry’s oral fixation, or the way we get ‘stuck’ in poems, to be always hungry but not quite empty.
Unsolved Mysteries questions what possible shelters and tenderness are yet possible in a world of constant dissolve and precarity. Buck talks about a ‘hyperintimacy’, ‘the feeling that the reader is in the role of a close friend or lover or therapist’, ‘communing with the speaker through the medium of the book’. If anxiety is the default mode of our lives in this highly mediated political moment, I’m relieved to find a kind of ‘presentness’ in these poems in which we might catch our breath. With its section arcs of ‘Unsolved Mysteries’, ‘Documentary’ and ‘Desire’, somehow the book stays buoyant in the overwhelm of its data: folding between dreams, immediacy and suspension, where we cultivate our lives towards ‘what / comes next’ (‘Oh’), to dwell in a hypothetical otherwise which could open up how we relate to each other, to the world. Eros offers a curiosity which has us swimming and tending the land, air and sea of each other, to be more-than, to make something tangible of what Zygmunt Bauman would call our ‘liquid lives’, to be entangled, to playfully reimagine the bricolage of relation and sex as the biggest sense of the possible and what’s to come:
I’m picturing the world not being garbage, me and my lover in the non-garbage world feeling not like garbage, grinding our clits against one another’s knees and thighs and worrying about nothing, simply coming up with questions: can I put my hand in you, can I put my hand in your mouth, how many ladybugs are moving through the air around us, which tomato vines smell the strongest, can you fashion a dildo from just anything, let’s make this one garden-themed.
(‘That Optical Illusion Where You Think Someone Else’s Arm Is Your Own, Except Instead the Topic Is the Future’)
Mau Baiocco (London) and Maria Sledmere (Glasgow) crossed the pond with Marie Buck (New York) one Saturday evening in early February, in the late period of Zoom in which to speak between face tiles was to be grateful for being in a space with someone. Initially we spoke of lockdowns and snowstorms and Segue readings. What follows is a transcript of the original conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mau: I don't know how you feel about astrology, we had like a quick question for the end — what's your star sign?
Marie: My sun sign is Cancer, I have a Libra – what's the word for that – something where you have several of your other things the same? Is it a stellium or something like that? I have the Co-Star app despite having zero knowledge, so I can probably answer that question correctly.
Maria: I feel like we have to earn that question (laughs), like it's one of the ones that has to go towards the end. It's weird that so many poets that I think are Cancer are not, like Sophie Robinson says 'it blows my mind that Frank O'Hara is not a Cancer'. He was an Aries.
Marie: An Aries!
Mau: There is like a famous astrological discrepancy where Frank O'Hara wrote poems about being born under a different sign to that under which he was actually born in?
Marie: Oh interesting!
Mau: So it's like, he was actually wrong about his sign. And there are poems about it. The scholars are like, 'there is no way he could have known it was a mistake', like he genuinely believed this.
Maria: NASA should have been studying him a long time ago.
Mau: Ok, so the book Unsolved Mysteries, it's quite different from your previous books, and quite self-consciously different as well? What was it like going from your previous books to this one, what things did you feel were changing?
Marie: I feel like there were two different contexts. One was that I felt a sort of frustration with my own work. I wanted something a bit more direct. With the book before this one, Goodnight Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul, I would find myself explaining my process and my intentions when I was talking to people about it or doing an interview. And, I’m happy with that book and simultaneously wish I had just allowed some of what became meta-text into the book itself. I clearly had a nervousness around stuff! [In Goodnight Marie] I was collaging stuff from the show Family Ties — which was an early/mid-80s sitcom in the U.S. about these hippy parents who had these kids, like one of them is Michael J. Fox's first major role and he's this Republican teenager who's a Reaganite and there's a daughter who is really into shopping, boys and the mall and the mom is this sort of feminist women's lib-type person. So the show was about a sort of processing or metabolising of the sixties and smoothing it into this American narrative that then becomes this goofy family story. (Although the show actually doesn't demonise the sixties as much as other art from that period that operates in the same vein, like the Wonder Years, does.) But anyway, that and some other shows — as well as things from the internet, things overheard on the bus, etc. — are what I was writing through. And I felt like the source texts to [Goodnight Marie] wound up feeling important to me. With Unsolved Mysteries I wanted to make that interest in history more directly present in the work. I kept saying to myself, 'tell people what you mean', even though most of my poetic affiliation has previously been oriented towards an experimental position invested in ideas of fucking around with language in ways that are not particularly 'accessible'.
Maria: That's really interesting because it made me think of – I don't know if this is such a big debate in the US – but in the UK there's this whole thing of 'mainstream poetry' being accessible and anything kind of conceptual and experimental being seen as 'inaccessible' and existing only for a certain (liberal) idea of the bourgeois cultural subject. At a panel recently Rachael Allen was talking about how as a working class poet it’s so offensive to be told her own work can’t be read by a working class person. Maybe there's a difference in the UK around conceptualism? I know you’ve spoken really usefully elsewhere about a lot of conceptualism having potentially dodgy politics. I think your work is a very good example of there not being such a harsh binary [of conceptualism as good/bad]? The idea of the takeaway is interesting to me. And finding ways in! Like your work performs those ways of reading, different ways of reading. Which makes me think about the collage and some of your earlier pamphlets, such as Life & Style [Beard of Bees Press, 2007]. Your work engages with the internet, television, etc. Do you see your work in any kind of ekphrastic tradition? Do you see it as a way of critique as working through? Have you transitioned away from collage or do you still use collage? How are you thinking about different mediums in that sense?
Marie: That's a good question! I almost feel like this is the sort of question I don't have an answer to right now because I haven't written a lot lately. It usually takes me a minute [some time] between projects but I've been thinking: do I start writing more narrative things? Do I start watching TV and pulling stuff off of it again? I don't know. At the moment I seem to be writing about movies, diary-style — something of a pandemic project. I haven't previously thought of my work in an ekphrastic tradition, but I like that idea, and I feel like I mostly collage from things that I like on some level. Like Family Ties, which is a pretty well-written sitcom, and then other sitcoms from the seventies or eighties (which feels like the heyday of that form). I find a lot of the language in them charming; I feel like sitcoms use shorthand a lot. For example, some might refer to the style and aesthetic of hippy things with, say, a quick reference to tofu or some other very thumbnail-type words. The language feels truncated and blunt and metonymic, shoving a lot of associations into 25 minutes of screen time. Something about that is very pleasing to me.
Mau: There is this figure in the book that I'm quite obsessed with, and it's the Katamari ball, this sort of object that is gobbling up stuff all around it. If you play Katamari and you look at the ball it becomes this unbelievably huge collage! I'm also thinking about one of your blogs, on Imposter Syndrome & Depressive Utopias, where you talk about going to museums, picking up books, etc and reading against the academic demands of expertise, like doing straight descriptions. You propose this as sort of a cognitive strike from the academic demand to turn labour into critique. I love how Unsolved Mysteries has all these different forms of attention in it: sometimes it's interpreting, sometimes it's describing, sometimes it's writing out a story. How was it like moving from one form to another within this book? Were there any favourite ones that you found yourself defaulting to?
Marie: Hmm. The writing felt pretty good as I was writing it, which is not always a feeling that I have! My relationship with academia was definitely at one point simply burnout. And I still feel frustration with critique as the way of talking about art in general. When I first started writing a dissertation, I was originally writing on race in William Carlos Williams. There was a lot to say there, but I was also like, 'I don't want to spend years of my life writing about the racist parts of Williams’s work’; I ended up writing on propaganda coming out of social movements and trying to understand how the aesthetic aspects of propaganda work — how people are able to form collective social movements and negotiate the difficulty of movements and texts making claims on behalf of larger groups. So I wrote about the Black Panther newspaper, some early Black Arts movement poetry about Malcolm X, the Women's Liberation Movement, Our Bodies, Ourselves. I felt interested in trying to understand how good political things happen: why they're happening and how they're happening; what is the discursive mode that helps groups of people come together or that facilitates revolutionary activity? How can good agit-prop gather people together around a politics even as this involves a lot of risks? I'm interested in modes that are not necessarily critique of other scholars, too, or at least modes that don’t involve endless differentiation of critical ideas to get to the most radical rhetorical position. (A practice that is propagated by the need for lit reviews and for highlighting one’s own contribution in academia — it makes sense as a byproduct of the tenure system, etc., but like, in life and in thinking and in intellectual community, I feel more interested in agreeing and finding solidarity.) And with regard to objects of study — I feel interested in thinking about how we win.
Maria: Yeah, it's almost like you want something that makes room for desire. I've been thinking about this a lot — like a friend was telling me 'but isn't critique always negative?' and I was thinking of Sara Ahmed and what she says about critique being a generous act of attention or encounter, or citation as a kind of ethical making. While this argument is often made, the actual form of what this critique is remains an open experiment? Recent work by Alexis Pauline Gumbs might be an academic example. Something that I picked out while you were talking about description and descriptive poetics was ambience? I was thinking about your early pamphlet Life & Style which is full of these great Myspace poems, borrowing forms from famous poets like Dickinson, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, etc. It's interesting to me because SPAM is a sort of 'post-internet' publication (a term we might explore later). I'm interested in ambience and temporality in your writing and how has it changed, maybe with how the internet has changed?
Marie: Can you say more about ambience? Like what you mean by saying it?