(FEATURE) “It’s pretty utopian!” A conversation with Marie Buck, Mau Baiocco and Maria Sledmere pt.2
In the second half of a two-part conversation (read part one here), 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 continues the 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.
Mau: I'm really interested in how you go for documentaries in Unsolved Mysteries, there are so many types! You have the TV series Unsolved Mysteries but also the ACT UP film United in Anger or the experimental autopsy film The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes. I'm struck by how you draw your sense of documentary poetics from films, not from other poems. Are there any documentary references that I'm missing, whether from films or poetry?
Marie: I definitely went on a bit of a documentary kick as I was writing. I wish I knew how to make documentaries. If I could be funded to do anything I'd just go around and take people’s life stories and record them. I guess the book is already very explicit about this, but watching the show Unsolved Mysteries it really does seem sad that the only reason we have records of many of the people featured in the show is because they were murdered.
I was trying to teach a bit of documentary this semester and have read just a little bit about it — it’s a new interest. I know it would be very naive to suggest that documentary gives you unmediated access to the past: footage in documentaries is obviously highly mediated. And I imagine that claims that documentaries represent truth are irritating to people who think a lot about documentaries. But! I do think that documentary has some sort of inextricable relationship with the idea of truth, maybe like poetry does with individual emotion or the soul or something like that — like, working in this art form, you can interrogate these popular and historical frameworks for understanding the art form, but you can never fully get away from them.
I was teaching this week and I assigned my students this show How To With John Wilson, this new HBO show. It's little clips of New York –– it's very New York heavy so it kind of makes me nostalgic for pre-pandemic New York –– but it's set up as an instruction guide, with each episode having a title like 'How to Make Small Talk.' I'm…not describing it particularly well, but in my class we're trying to think 'what would this be in writing?', 'could this even be sustained writing?' The humor of the show depends on having this voiceover that's often correlated with what is being shown on the screen. Part of what's funny about the show is these awkward social interactions — and you couldn't get that in writing, and it's absolutely true that if you were to try to get that in writing it would involve describing someone's face for a full paragraph to get at the particularity of the uncomfortable look that they're giving. In that moment their uncomfortable face would become the focus of the piece or writing. But the documentary can capture the face in three seconds without focusing on it, can let something important stay spatially in the background. I’m not sure you can do that in poetry or fiction. In poetry the form implies a speaker who bears some kind of relationship with the author. You can fuck with that but it's built into the form and the reader will always register the fucking-with as a gesture. It’s sort of baked in that you're getting the author's view of something through the poem, that you’re brought inside someone’s head in a lyric poem. In documentary, it seems like the default assumption is that you’re getting an only-modestly-mediated picture of the world. If you’re writing, you can't have a piece of writing that is like describing someone's face and not have it be from the author's perspective, like not have the author or the speaker commenting in some way, whereas in documentary film you're able to show things with 'no comment', basically. That seemed interesting to me, and even though you're watching a doc and it’s clearly thousands and thousands of hours' worth of footage that's been edited into a twenty minutes – it's incredibly sculpted – the documentary show definitely plays on, or hinges on, the fact, in the case of How To With John Wilson, individual clips do seem to just be unmediated footage of guys on the street who John has put his camera on. Anyway…
Mau: No that's good! One of the things that it seemed to me poetry could do in Unsolved Mysteries is getting the different documentaries to speak to each other? So I'm thinking of your poem 'Kari Lynn Nixon' and the amazing way it collides the premise of the episode on the missing/runaway girl with the AIDS activism happening in United in Anger. In the poem she's 'too big for this rural town' and ends up fleeing to 'loving chosen families and / fuck up and / fall in love with people'; a social world that is also contemporaneous with the militancy and open love displayed in ACT UP politics. The poem is also great at deflating this encounter with reality (Kari Lynn Nixon is found dead), but holding it out as a poignant sliver of how a better world could have been (& still could?) be constructed. Maybe one of the things poetry does is allow you to identify with these characters and allow you to imagine other histories and other political possibilities, but also look unflinchingly at what did happen. Was this a difficult thing to do as you were writing Unsolved Mysteries? Was it easier to do with some people on the show than others?
Marie: I guess I picked the ones where it was easy. I wanted to make sure to treat these people in the show respectfully, and there's something that's obviously a bit disrespectful about imagining what they wanted, or their ideas. I mean, the book is based on the show, and it feels like the show has metabolised their lives into pop culture in some way. And I’m hoping that the book, in contrast with the sensationalism of the show, feels memorialising? But the book still takes a lot of license with the dead.
Can we jump back to the internet poetry/flarf topic for a second? Mulling on this: I feel like something has fundamentally changed in the past decade or so vs. the sixties up to the aughts or so. Up to the 2000s you have a sort of trope that ran through a lot of art wherein the speaker or the protagonist observes some kind of disfunction or goofiness or fakeness in the world, and then they're kind of above it and commenting on it? I recently watched this movie, My Dinner with Andre, from 1981. Wallace Shawn is in it, and it's directed by Louis Malle, this director I talk about in the book, as well actually. The movie has a sort of naturalistic, low-budget vibe; it’s set in New York and it's almost semi-biographical — like Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are acting, but they're acting their own lives, and it's just the two of them sitting in a restaurant talking back and forth. It’s a really great film; I found it incredibly charming stylistically and also like that it returns to the Wallace Shawn character’s money troubles over and over again. But anyway: Andre Gregory’s character talks mostly about these more ‘authentic’ experiences he’s had outside of New York. And in this movie the people in New York are kind of fake and bourgeois and bad. Andre Gregory’s character feels alienated from them; he has more authentic experiences outside the country. Western culture as a whole is presented as fake and mediated and bad. When I was watching the movie, I was like 'oh this is such a crystallisation of this culture coming out of countercultural moment in the sixties'. And there are obviously a million varying iterations of this, but it does seem like a pretty straight line from art about feeling alienated from a very homogenous mainstream culture in the early 60s, to the counterculture proper in the late 60s, to a sort of possibly-spiritual, anti-consumer vibe in the 70s into the 80s…and the continued decline of actual political discourse or organization in the 90s, so that we get, like, AdBusters and Kill Your TV bumper stickers as a naïve, earnest progressive politics and then at the same time, a lot of interesting culture that is also just entirely irony-poisoned. I feel like something shifted with the financial crisis plus the Occupy moment, and interesting art now tends to operate along different vectors, with more solidarity. Less ‘the protagonist plus the informed viewer being alienated from the mainstream’ – though I do love many older iterations of that – and more ‘all of us looking at this meme feel the same targeted political rage and are laughing through it and there are more of us than there are of them’. This leaves the poetry of the earlier internet, which often has this sort of distance to it, and irony toward the world and to its own scraped language, positioned fairly awkwardly. It feels to me like one of the last historical iterations of an imaginary where everyone thought of themselves as oppositional to — hmm, I feel it's related to what Mark Fisher calls the 'Big Other', where everyone imagines that other people are doing this giant gray cloud and they can see through it and other people can't or something. The writing has this de facto criticality embedded within it and it feels like that moment fell away really sharply, I don’t know. Certainly in the U.S. since the Trump presidency it feels like the mood is intense earnestness and possible collectivity as opposed to this countercultural 'other people buy into it and I don't' kind of idea.
Maria: And the fact that Trump sort of speaks flarf, or that as soon as [he came to power] there were all these self-published Amazon books sort of marketed as flarf versions of Trump speeches — that felt like the most capitalist realist sort of mobius strip. I was thinking of this genre that’s like the apex of this noughties obsession with reality TV being the constructed reality show. I've never actually watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians [although did a Kardashian-related SPAM/Glasgow International collaboration once] but I imagine it's a bit like that. Or in the UK we have this show called Made in Chelsea which is basically these upper-class Londoners and they reconstruct things that have happened in their dating lives, and it's meant to be things that happened but they then (re)perform. All they talk about is dating but they talk about it in this sincere way, and it's kind of boring but totally seductive — or at least was at some point in the early 2010s. This spills over into real life and some of [the characters/actors] will get abuse in the street for cheating on so and so, and it’s like a kind of strange cultural dead end but this was really big in like 2012 or something?
Marie: That's something I was trying to get at, exactly! But I think you've said it more succinctly than me: that there's a type of art where your disidentifying with it is the presumption, and even liking it is supposed to be silly, but you like it 'ironically' and other people don't or something? I feel like I watched TV shows in that mode, mostly reality shows from 2004-2010 or so. And flarf is of course super interesting and doing a lot more than my summation here would suggest, really — but I do feel like it sits in awkward relationship to this cultural shift.
Maria: And then sometimes it got really dark, like with Love Island or Terrace House where there were suicides and stuff coming out of it. In the UK there's the Jeremy Kyle Show which was such a poverty porn type of show, the host would just give working class people a constant, moralised bollocking. It was so cringe, voyeuristic and paternalist, but also so banal and normalised! There was this really strange moment in [culture], and I think with SPAM we've always been interested in exactly what you're talking about: what kind of collectivity do we have? It's not exactly a return to subjectivity that is uncomplicated, but it's sort of how do we learn lessons formally and experimentally from these movements but also more importantly — what are the politics of this? We don't have to talk about Kenneth Goldsmith or anything, but that idea of who gets to disregard their subjectivity and do this? Also the politics of appropriation...
Marie: Yeah, I sort of feel with that moment of people pulling their subjectivity out of it — how did that get settled on rather than any notion of solidarity or collectivity? I feel like there's other ways of thinking about it: a self that isn't the liberal version of the self — a self oriented toward others, toward collective action. The thing that I find perpetually the most intriguing are these brief moments where people band together to demand something. To me that's what's most intriguing: how does that happen? Obviously there’s also plenty of fighting and negotiation and strife within social movements; I realise it’s not magic. But those moments where it does kind of all gel fuel more political activity, and I do like to think about what’s happening there.
Mau: I'm really interested in the erotics of this! Like how sex comes up in the book, because it is something that all these reality shows seem to organise themselves around — like attaining an erotic object or fulfillment. In Unsolved Mysteries it's so much more expansive than those images fed to us by culture, like the book can imagine sex way beyond these situations of scarcity. It's so amazing how it is imagining sex with basically everyone except the rich, and I'm wondering about this expansive sense of the erotic, where people meet, fuck, talk, exchange, organise, etc?
Marie: It's pretty utopian! In some ways I realise it's problematic and there's many negative experiences in sex and bad things to say about it, violence, etc. But I feel like in the book sex is exclusively utopian, and a space of connection in the interstices of capitalism, when there's a lack of that kind of collective action we’re talking about. When we can't have some other larger social change, then what are the kind of gaps in our lives within capitalism that allow for connection? Most of the sex in the book is not found within a domestic life, it's sort of interspersed with friendship and other social arrangements. A joy in people to keep us going, pending a bigger overhaul of the social system.
Maria: Yeah it's in a 'Dream in Which You're Ineffectively Surveilled' when you imagine that 'our sexual desires satisfied we begin to imagine more desire', and that idea of erotic surplus is super interesting to me in relationship to post-capitalist desire. It makes me think of the Sophie Lewis quote which I keep using for everything but I feel kind of nails it: 'it is my view that one of the many crimes of capitalism’s terraformers –– besides incubating coronaviruses by destroying biodiversity –– is their theft of untold proletarian sex hours via the imposition of work, and the concomitant disappearance from history of gigawatts of cumulative erotic bliss'. That's why I love how sex appears in the book in vignettes and it's often inside other forms of working through, like it would occur alongside lovers having conversations about a book. It's kind of like learning? Like meaning worked through in that relation. I suppose maybe we can talk here about dreams, emerging from intimacy in the book? Like that is another utopian gesture for me, and the pandemic has got people talking about dreams a lot. The book explicitly talks about dreams at several points. I was recently at this event where Jackie Wang said she was politically opposed to lucid dreaming because it implies this sort of reflexive autonomy — in the realm of dreams you'd have to progress yourself, hit targets, etc [laughter]. In 'Take My Glasses Off' you begin, 'The world is like a lucid dream, if you notice you can affect the scene with your will', and like even the title is this willful blurring of things — which is cool to think with the documentary form which covers more crystalline representation and then you can have what's affective and blurry, I'm thinking of how memory and time changes things. Like in Stranger Things, the show aiming to be this high-definition redoing of the 80s without much of a sense of history beyond cultural artefacts, just trying to reproduce a kind of smooth nostalgia which feels uncritical to me? Pleasurable in certain ways, but what you're doing is very different and more interesting. Also thinking about other dream poets as well like Bernadette Mayer, or Anna Gurton-Wachter, and also small talk like what you were saying earlier about How To: dreams being a kind of way of being in that gap or deferral until we can get to what we want to get to. Dreams and fucking and stuff are ways of working through these complicated demands and desires in a language that is resistant to capital. Are dreams an effective form of temporal sabotage? What kind of collectivities can dreams nourish or ignite?
Marie: Hmm, yes. I’m not sure what dreams can do, but it is just wild that they exist. For some reason I'm very moved by reading accounts of dreams that are old? I guess while I was writing I was also reading David Wojnarowicz's diaries, which sometimes involve dreams. I love that dreams are so ephemeral — if you don't write them down immediately they disappear, and they're gone. You have both how ephemeral the dream itself is, and then with Wojnarowicz you have the luck that this recorded dream has made it into print. But there are many people for whom that is not the case — many people who keep diaries and make bad or very very good art and it’s now dead and out of circulation. I find that the more involved I am with art stuff the more I notice how all of it feels very lossy. When I was young I had some notion of literature as being timeless, but when you're making things or are around people who are making things, it becomes clear that none of this is timeless; the idea of ‘literature’ is dependent on things being kept in print. And it’s often so arbitrary, what is kept in print and what isn’t. It’s sad. But when you do get something that has been maintained and saved –– and it's not even thoughts from Wojnarowicz’s brain but from his dream brain from forty or thirty years ago –– that feels very moving to me, the movement of brain to page and the fact that it's been maintained for long enough that we are able to take it in.
Maria: That really resonates, especially the idea that reading about dreams gives me as a reader permission to attend to my own readings more seriously? Or the play of them, it's not about 'reading' the dream so much but giving it attention. Maybe there's an interesting relationship between the ephemerality of the dream and the archival impulse needed to save it, and the idea of the lossy compressed or distorted version that is interpreted in the act of writing down, and that's similar to the other sorts of documentation. Maybe there's a question here, you have this line in 'Ars Poetica' that says 'maybe poems have always been about remembering', and it reminds me of this bit in The Bell Jar where the annoying doctor boyfriend is like, a poem is ‘just a piece of dust’, and maybe something like the permanence of the ephemeral, or that weird paradox in poetry. I'm thinking that you're in some sort of lineage here with Peter Gizzi, that kind of elegiac writing –– his titles like 'Speech Acts for Dying World' –– how does a poem work as a kind of archival speech act? What does that activate?
Marie: In my head when I was writing it, I wanted Unsolved Mysteries to hold on to some sort of space beyond life. I'm very not-woo, but I kept thinking 'what if this book was like a spell?' My friend Joey Yearous-Algozin has a book coming out that is a long meditation set amidst environmental collapse. The stance of the book seems to me to be something like, 'we know this is going to happen, we can’t overcome it, so how do we put ourselves into a meaningful stupor as we die?’ I’m a bit more hopeful, maybe, but not much.
Maria: In the [eco] theory debates you’ve got on the one hand Roy Scranton’s Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene (2015) and then Andreas Malm’s more recent How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2021): this constant tension around what acceptance and action, even insurrection, might mean and somewhere in the middle the ancient question of what does poetry do? I was listening to an interview with Alice Notley recently where she’s saying how she was writing about global warming back in the early nineties and no one listened to her, and that there’s this idea of telepathy almost where through a lyric mode of attention you’re reading patterns and emergences in the world that others don’t notice. So maybe there’s something ecological about igniting things in certain contexts and the scales we can move between in poems. I guess I have a question here about impossibility and failure. All week I’ve been thinking about the opening poem of Unsolved Mysteries, ‘The Dead’. Weirdly this is the week where Jeff Bezos [Amazon CEO] actually stepped down from his role, but you’ve got this motif of a ‘bloodied Jeff Bezos’ throughout the collection. I don’t know if you know the UK poet Verity Spott but they have these hex poems from the early 2010s, around the time of austerity and the coalition government hiking tuition fees, and they would direct these hex poems at the individual MPs who voted in favour of these essentially necropolitical measures. Recently Verity was talking about this as a kind of ‘magical thinking’ based on impossibility and knowledge of a certain kind of failure: it’s not good praxis to actually want the hex to work, but the act of doing the hex in the moment is an important kind of stoking. So do you have any thoughts on impossibility and failure within your own poetics?
Marie: I actually got a book by Verity in the mail the other day, I’m really excited to read it. To some extent I feel like I am interested in some sort of afterworld or something. Like I realise why some people are into religion: it can’t just be like this is the end and I’m going to die and there’s no reckoning about what you’ve done in your life? Also in some ways I feel like the excessive and discursive cruelty of the Trump government has shaped the mood — with someone like education secretary Betsy DeVos, she is from this very wealthy family and you’re just like why are you going out of your way to do terrible things to education? You have all the money in the world, just like go do your thing [Maria interjects - get back on your cruise ship!], like why are you pretending to be in government? And the excessive cruelty of that level of ruling class: surely you should go to hell, there should be something to avenge this? I was raised Catholic, have not been religious at all for decades, but I can understand that idea or desire for justice, the idea that all of this would be accounted for in some way. All the figures that incur violence in the speaker’s fantasies (as opposed to in Unsolved Mysteries episodes) in the book are the worst of the worst; I don’t know exactly what to say about that. I feel like there’s a real tendency within political discourse to find ways of making people feel guilty for the relatively good things that they have and while it’s obviously useful to not take things for granted and be aware of the various fucked-up circumstances of others, I feel like guilt as a way of inducing political activism is not useful. I’m much more interested in solidarity; coalitional politics; everyone standing to get better working and life conditions by standing together. I feel like the vast majority of people should want better things! A three-day work week...there are so many things to be angry about and I don’t think that anger should be turned on anyone else who works for a living, even if they make significantly more money than you. I don’t even want tech bros to be the subject of rage — tech bros also work incredibly long hours and it’s good that there are recent unionising efforts in tech! Anyway, I picked uncontroversial targets in the book — Bezos, the Walton family — evil figures a lot of people can unite against, and who unequivocally deserve hexing, damnation etc.
Mau: There is like this really lovely thing throughout the book where you sort of imagine the afterlife, not just in the terms of will there be justice, but also a lot of curiosity and desire to know and document and keep the living threads of interactions with others. There’s this thing about Unsolved Mysteries, where the afterlife is imaginable from this life, involving many of the same parts but less alienated. It’s like this impulse to memorialise and continue isn’t simply based on affects around guilt, but acknowledging a gigantic surplus of curiosity and learning and interrogating ourselves — which I'm really fascinated about! Probably the part that touched me most in the book was the poem [‘There Are Not a Lot of Universes in Which Time Travel Is Possible’ where you talk about Mark Fisher, Mohamed Bouazizi, your teacher Kathryne Lindberg and the way you write about their deaths, their suicides, it’s so generous — it’s not trying to set things right or be judgmental or write from guilt, it’s actually about trying to embrace a curiosity and a desire to carry on things, even if death or some senses of political failure interrupts it. I’m wondering about that space and curiosity that drives the book and drives wanting to set things right.
Marie: I guess I feel a lot of historical curiosity, in the documentaries and in being able to situate oneself historically in a larger expanse. I feel a lot of respect for lifelong leftists of various sorts — I generally have spurts of being active and then burn out; I very much admire the people who have really stuck it out. Currently, I show up to stuff, but I’m not really active or organising organising and there are people who have seen such an incredible amount of defeat — it can really take a mental toll on those who have been doing a lot of work on the left for decades.
Maria: So many of these big questions apply to many different moments for our generation, and I guess are heightened during the pandemic when organising and activism become even more difficult and of course necessary. We were wondering from your point of view what’s going on in New York right now in terms of poetry scenes, activism and social spaces, and how have you seen things change in the years you’ve been in the city?
Marie: I’m in DSA, Democratic Socialists of America. I haven’t been active with it since the pandemic started, but DSA is huge and inspiring. I was kind of in awe when I first started going to things: I was used to activist spaces essentially being subcultural — vegan, all black clothes, punk vibes, etc. But DSA doesn’t feel like that. Like my first impression was, this feels really normie, but that’s good! This is a mass of people from many walks of life, who don’t necessarily otherwise know each other socially, and that feels good.
Mau: I’m wondering about what sorts of writing you want to see in the socialist movement. I’m thinking about your work in Social Text and there’s a lot of interest in workers’ inquiries, this huge rise in websites & magazines like Prolit, Protean, Rosa, even DSA chapters putting out poetry magazines. It’s so very exciting and you’re a part of that. I’m just thinking about what would you like to see in the future of socialist writing, what are the most exciting things you can imagine?
Marie: Ha, if I could imagine them I would definitely write them down. It’s exciting that it now feels like a very expansive category. I like the idea that people can make a lot of work that is politically inflected but without necessarily having a moral behind it; you can make things that are about your feelings or other aspects of life, that are deeply interested in experimental forms, that are not particularly translucent, and you can have all of this work be politically inflected because we’re in a moment where there’s so much discourse and participation in social movements that all of writing will be necessarily political and we don’t have to force it. Now it feels like it’s totally opened up; you don’t have to write a political poem; you can just make something and because we’re in this moment, it is going to be political.
Maria: Yeah I like this essay you have on a Brandon Brown poem and how it’s political by dint of its affect and attention, and it was such a relief to hear it put like that. And maybe it’s also about the spaces where the poems are presented; I feel like in the last couple of years we can talk quite openly about more mainstream literary spaces about communism and socialism in a way that can foreground demands for things more explicitly.
Mau: Would you like to do the quick fire round, like in those Vogue 73 questions videos — but don’t worry we don’t have so many! Maria, shall we just ask them?
Maria: Okay, shall we just take turns. Do you wanna start?
Mau: Okay you start.
Maria: You start!
Mau: Ugh indecisive geminis. Question one: any good lockdown survival rituals?
Marie: I was making pies for awhile. I guess cat-petting, mainly?
Maria: I feel like having a cat ticks so many lockdown boxes [accidental Zoom pun]. I’m forever staring longingly at people’s cats on webcam. In the first lockdown there was this cat that would always follow me home and miaow at my door, when I let it inside it was like the first warm mammalian thing I’d held in months…Hm. What’s your biggest poetry vice?
Marie: I have a lot of trouble with punctuation!
Mau: What have you been reading nonstop lately?
Marie: Thulani Davis’s Nothing But the Music; Raven Leilani’s Luster. I have read very few books in the pandemic, actually, which is weird.
Maria: What’s the least evil social media platform?
Marie: Instagram because people’s faces and their pets are pretty good.
Mau: What’s your favourite thing to snack on or drink?
Marie: Popcorn with butter and sriracha melted and put on it and then nutritional yeast.
Maria: What does it mean in a poem to live forever?
Marie: Oh, ideally just yeah, keep going! Til someday...yeah...some sort of afterlife.
Mau: Final one, are you working on any new projects or poems?
Marie: Just like barely, I was working on some sort of diary type thing before Covid and I was reading Bernadette Mayer and Lewis Warsh’s Piece of Cake [Maria interjects – I love that book] –– it’s so good –– so I was thinking about that and I put it down for a long time out of pure depression and the pandemic and now I’m thinking about maybe picking that back up again.
Maria: Yeah I’m interested in what happens with the diary as a poetics. The potential excess…
Marie: I feel like a diary is hard because it can go on forever. You can just keep documenting.
Let’s Memorialize the Dead Even More. Marie Buck's Unsolved Mysteries drifted into my conscience at the nadir of the pandemic, and I read it over and over again amid a planet-wide catastrophe that was scarcely imaginable a year ago. If I can draw something valuable from this book in these circumstances it is the reassurance of a partisan telling of the histories of the present and of the future: that the victors and makers of the world we live in do not have the final say, that revolutionary justice covers even the domain of the dead. The opening poem in Unsolved Mysteries fantasises our taking of Jeff Bezos's money, but for what? So that we can 'document ourselves and our pets, all our affections, our quotidian habits', or see how 'our texts fit together to create new versions of our mouths'. These are speculative leaps into the modes of life which should go on forever, where both the ephemeral matter of dailiness and the significant events or life and death are subjected to a radical flattening, or de-hierarchisation. What is socialist form if not our capacity to dream into being such inversions? Everyday pleasures are reinvented in Unsolved Mysteries' documentary gaze, rescued from capitalist instrumentality and the possibility that their ends might just be further moments in the reproduction of a system which denies fulfilment at much greater scales than it creates or allows them.
I do not want to freight Unsolved Mysteries with the notion that it is making a breakthrough where other writing has failed. It is, after all, just poetry, but it is poetry that is earnest in its desire for revolution and transparent that the reason for wanting this is to see people lead lives free from unnecessary harm. It is an important move, both for revolutionary tactics and aesthetics, that the 'no-place' of utopia can vanish into the 'no-place' of everyday life, with panoramic avenues leading from one to the other. The cast of both the TV series Unsolved Mysteries and Buck's poetic rewriting of it are all real-life working class people, anonymous until they disappear mysteriously or meet a grisly death. As Buck writes in the poem 'Documentation', 'the price the working classes can pay to be memorialized is a horrific death', and to document, narrativise, speculate, theorise and organise become movements against 'our deaths really registering mostly the fact that we kept doing our jobs and did not throw sand in the gears.'
The poems in Unsolved Mysteries refuse the easy gestures of heroism and martyrdom, instead opting to insist on the openness of social becomings. 'Kari Lynn Nixon' sets us in 1987, where the questions 'Did she run away / or was she kidnapped? / Is she still alive? / What was her relationship with her family like, / and does it suggest she would never have run away?' dovetail into the possible escapes of fucking up to 'fall in love with people / and make weird art, catching the tail end of the “downtown scene”'; being confused with the faces and hairstyles of the activists in the ACT UP documentary United in Anger; skipping a frame to the present and petting a lover's cat. The characters that the TV series sensationalises are enlisted into the multitudes they could have continued to live within: when the poem moves into their deaths, it does so with a sense of the real lateral movement with and among people, between the living and the dead. This is not the language of the current explosion of true crime Netflix series and podcasts, where the boundaries which mark one out as dead or missing are raised to the level of a titillating formal principle. Instead of incapacitating grief or unknowing, Unsolved Mysteries is concerned with communication, potential identifications and missed connections, where the promise of a life does not cease upon the individual death but instead proliferates, transforming what remains ongoing around it.
Perhaps what I'm getting at here is that the book sustains a generous thinking of comradeship that is playfully expansive, taking in people we usually wouldn't recognise or imagine as political agents. It also takes stock of the pleasures of mediation, the Lucky Pierre figure ('the conduit for thinking / about how hot it is be a conduit') and even the death drive: my favourite poem in the collection is 'There Are Not a Lot of Universes in Which Time Travel Is Possible', where political failure, suicidality and the desirous work of documentation work in concert to imagine a spectral body that is 'collectively saved' so that we can:
animate together, swapping in and out of it, watching events unfold, channelling their rage into this anchor-body that could move in the world if it wanted to, or rest, undead, and watch things get better and worse, better and worse, watch suffering and death, watch joy, in patterns that at least are different than those we might’ve expected, suggesting the possibility of better patterns yet to come.
In the recently published final Mark Fisher lectures, Postcapitalist Desire (2021), he speculates that capitalism might not have a telos, that at best capitalism generates purposiveness without purpose. Fisher seizes on this structure as expressing the central idea of postcapitalist desire: the purposive-yet-purposelessness of late capitalism is 'flat' with the structure of desire. There is no site or circuit of desire— its mechanisms of drive and deferral, the construction of its impossible objects — that exists beyond or above those of capital, that capital itself can be thought of as a libidinal structure on the same level. We cannot appeal to desire to imagine what is outside of it, so what can be done? Fisher imagines we can traverse the circuitous terrain of desire towards forms of jouissance discovered in collective struggle and action; not the liberation of desire but working through it, working with it. It's his anti-capitalist accelerationism, and something similiar is happening in the play of desire at all the levels in Unsolved Mysteries: from 'Dream in Which You Are Ineffectively Surveilled' where 'the abundance of our writing and talking is what interferes with the government’s ability to surveil us. The more we write and talk the better', to the Katamari imagining of poetry as a perfect mnemonic device, or the pleasures of the threesome and dating at cemeteries: 'we the living are all mingling with the other dead; we’re / all sleeping in a pile with the non-rich'.
It's not surprising that this book is full of generative surpluses, the dead leaping into life and back out of it again, the erotics of abundance. What is surprising is perhaps that Marie Buck has found a way to generate such affordances from an old and absolutely not prestige TV series (it's an old trick of theirs, as their previous book collages material from the 80s sitcom Family Ties), while also leaping beyond the source material's constraints into a meditation on many of the key difficulties confronting our lives in opposition to capitalism. Shifting from verse to prose, essay to lyric, bathos to anger, the book feels as much a concerted attempt to strafe the unconscious terrain of capitalism as much as a 'poetry' book. Maybe it is a poetry book for a moment where the oncoming planetary crises force us to reinvent art as a technique of struggle. Maybe it is a sample of the great documentaries to come.
Unsolved Mysteries is out now and available to order from Segue/Small Press Distribution.
This is part two; you can read part one of the interview here.
Image Credit: Marie Buck
Outro: Mau Baiocco