This conversation picks up where Round 1 left off. You’ll find an introduction and bio, as well as much conversation around Place’s novel Dies: A Sentence.
LH: You ended our last discussion with a comment about wanting a language that is “so thick with sound and sense that you can see right through it to the pent little hearts within…” a sentiment I understand completely. For me I want the text to be giving but so firm I can hang it from two Firs and drift of an afternoon. And yet have that give, that netted quality. Is this a quality that can cohabit with “story” in the traditional sense of the word??
VP: Story has a weft and web of its own, don’t you think? More than one, if tradition is any gauge. So yes, within whatever version of story you choose (saga, legend, fairy tale, romance, with or without capitalization, detective, discursive or short), good words will out. Of course, you may mean prose versus poetry or something that coddles a narrative. Still, I don’t think there’s a competition in the conjoining, but rather a kind of ballet between sound, sight, and sense. In the best ballet, there’s the engagement of all elements, parts wedded to parts in piled confusion. I suspect here I’m just cheating off Yeats.
LH: You say that there is no split between consciousness and the sack of skin it comes in, which leads me to believe that you see no split in language then, or the sentence, and the body that crafts it…or time and the handling of it? Or is that too literal? And if so, what happens to narrative? Is there a continuous engagement with denouement?
VP: Part of my thesis would seem to include that there can be no being overly literal, just as there can be no being overly conceptual, given one is the other. It’s a trivial point, in many ways, because it’s both true and doomed to distinction. Without delving into the abyss between language and living, we can note the gape, while agreeing that it’s immaterial for our ragged purposes. What can’t be said, can’t. This makes for desire. Desire makes for form, form is narrative. Denouement is another form of narrative desire, though mostly pleases as a party favor, not unlike the period at the end of the sentence.
(Contrarily, Stein said commas are slavish, and they are, but we Americans adore our service economy.)
(N.b.: You left out the body that reads it, or hears it, or chucks it across the room and decides to order in.)
LH: Do you see your text as architectural?
VP: Yes — a henge.
LH: What was the last text that knocked you out?
VP: Patrick Greaney sent me a copy of his translation of Heimrad Baecker’s /transcript/, to be published by Dalkey Achieves; it’s a collection of language about the language of National Socialism, conceived and presented as concrete poetry. It’s documentation and citation at the highest degree, sparing nothing including nothing * itself. If I may, I really liked /Lemon Hound/, and have been commending it promiscuously as a terrific example of honest homage. I’ve also been going through loaves of Pound lately, using slices for a song lyrics for a visual/sound project I’m doing with Stephanie Taylor, and reading a lot of aesthetic/art theory for the conceptual poetry book that Rob Fitterman and I are writing for Ugly Duckling Presse. Though the last absolute knockout was probably Golding’s translation of Ovid, which changes everything.
LH: Can you tell me about the text, “A Parable, I suppose,” in a recent edition of Western Humanities Review. Is this part of Medusa?
VP: No, it’s from the work I’m now working on — The Gates. The section excerpted there was a rough draft of a small portion of the beginning; the book itself is a gluttonous abomination.
LH: A gluttonous abomination??
VP: It can absorb almost anything without belching; pure hubris on my part to think I could take on The Gates unscathed. The form is suicidal in its consumptions — Rodin never finished his, Ghiberti’s took twenty-seven years to complete. Though there is some comfort in knowing one is engaged in failure.
LH: When is Medusa coming out? Is it conceptual? You said previously that you spent ten years writing that. Can you tell me about it?
VP: Medusa’s just in from the printer. Conceptual, yes, perhaps even post-conceptual. Some appropriated bits, chunks of narrative, some poesy. Ur-conceptual in the sense that it began as a documentation project, where I logged thought-shards for 41 days, then built off these broken bits. I had a neuron’s belief in impulse, receptors, and emplasticity. I wrote the first draft in a year or so, then worked on the words. The final manuscript was well over 600 pages long, and it took some time to find a publisher both willing and able to handle her.
VP: If by narrative you mean the narrative of the entire oeuvre (as Joyce announces his at the end of Portrait of An Artist and Christian Bok sets out his in his ‘pataphysics treatise), perhaps. The Steinean trajectory would be the word to the sentence to the paragraph. I think I might be working backwards in this: the paragraph (Medusa) to the sentence (Dies) to the word (Gates). Image would be next, the point at which language is. “Ur-conceptual” because, like everyone else, I yearn for the primal. The birth of consciousness, the birth of self aware of self. It’s terribly romantic.
LH: Is there a project you yearn to do but can’t quite fathom?
VP: I would truly like to write a sonnet crown of holocausts.
There is a larger notion buzzing the very back of my brain that I’ve no form for as yet, but I think I can discern a bit of shadow. Something grasping, something about something I’m frightened of.
LH: The thought of writing a crown of holocausts frightens me—do you mean in the sense of facing the abject? Or facing one’s fears? Or facing the impossible as a literary practice?
VP: An Internet woman?
LH: Yes, I’m thinking about women and space, women and the way we inhabit space. Women’s intellectual discourse, where and how we encounter it. Is there a woman that you read daily then, a woman who offers commentary, who is involved in a political, poetical, public discourse that you connect with?
VP: Like a woman, I confess most of my best exchanges are privatest. I am lucky enough to have very clever friends scattered about who are ongoing correspondants in ongoing conversations; there’s a steady stream of smartness publically coming from them, but there’s also a great willingness not to know or to probe that is more easily explored via email. There’s your blog, of course, and some others, but I’ve found a funny gendered inclination towards (or alee) public serialized pontification and free-ranging authority. I enjoy it myself, an occupational tic, perhaps.
Did you want me to name names?
LH: No names necessary. This is perhaps just me coming to terms with the absolute genderedness of public space. No wonder women write so much…in private. The idea of the feminist boot camp appeals. I would like see women making grand philosophical and political statements in public, and have them batted down and have to defend and joust. Is this why academic women are so appealing? I wanted to say sexy but I’m not sure that’s it…you are a fan of Simone de Beauvoir though, and other thinking women. Does their publicness come into the picture for you?
VP: Sexy is exactly it. I adore that photo of de Beauvoir nude, fixing her hair in the mirror. If there is an ethical obligation, it would include the obligation of public pronouncement, and the utter willingness to show one’s backside.
LH: I know you have a press, which might be the answer to the following question, but perhaps you can address that in the mix. Do you think about community when you write? Or, is writing a kind of social praxis for you? Is it political?
VP: No. I hate community. Community breeds lynch mobs and Hallmark cards. Writing is ethical, which is the smallest unit of the political.
LH: This is a question I asked here on LH recently about compassion fatigue really, and the responsibility of artists to see… Does seeing the problems really make one pessimistic? How to look without getting burned out? Is it better to tune out? What do we do with all this information? Is it useful to know that there are 191 million global migrants. On the other hand what does business see when it looks at a floating island of garbage? Sometimes just picking up one piece is a start, no? Isn’t optimism confronting things head on?
VP: These are perspective choices in a pro-choice world. I feel sans choice, or sous chose, I suppose. As you know, I am a criminal appellate attorney; I work for the defense, representing indigent felony sex offenders and sexually violent predators. Poor rapists and child molesters. I do not feel that either my vocation or avocation is about compassion or optimism or even the sanctity of utter damnation. I am by turns confitor and conspirator, guilty as any good bystander. I want to be burnt, out and in, to have seared into my consciousness the consciousnesses surrounding me; I worship at the altar of Sisyphus, and consider myself lucky at that. The beauty of humanity is its feeble insistence on the possibility of transcendence—to pick up one piece of garbage is a ridiculous prayer, made more marvelous by its utter inconsequence. Head on, face first.
LH: I hear you about perspectives, and I guess that’s partly what I’m getting at here. I always remember the story of the man who started picking up garbage in the Don Valley in Toronto. One day on his walk he bent down and picked a piece up. The next time he picked up another. Then he started to make note of what he was taking out. Then he got a cart. Then others took notice, and so on. I hear you, absolutely, but that story above always gives me hope.
VP: This is why the Canadians are better people than we are. Here’s a joke that’s in Medusa, which I love: The CIA, FBI, and LAPD are each bragging that they’re the best law enforcement agency in the world. As a test, the President releases a rabbit in the forest, and tells them to go find it. The CIA goes out first, investigates the terrain, interrogates the other animals, takes some infrared photos, scans all satellites, pays off a snitch, etc. Returns nine months later, saying, “Mr. President, sorry to say, there’s no such thing as rabbits.” So the FBI goes out, sets up an encampment with armored cars, sharpshooters, media center, etc., waits a week, then sets fire to the forest, burning deer, bear, moose, squirrels, birds and bobcats—and one rabbit. FBI hauls the burnt bunny back and says, “We’re sorry about your rabbit, Mr. President, but the motherfucker had it coming.” Finally, the LAPD rolls out. Five minutes later they come back dragging a beat-up bloody racoon, who’s yelling, “OK! OK! I’m a rabbit!”
VP: Yes to all. This gets into the conflation of enactment and embodiment, demonstrated by the de Beauvoir nude and the allegorical nature of writing itself, or at least writing that’s worth talking about.
LH: The other way in which your text reminds me of LR is the sheer beauty of it. The way you connect words–you mentioned lacing earlier. What I wonder is if beauty is a way to offer solace when there is so little real solace. I mean so much poetry or “fiction” in the mainstream sense of the word seems so delusional because it wants to console. LR suggests at points that the delusional space is perhaps the most ethical…
VP: I don’t believe in delusion, but do believe in beauty, and its ethical imparative*. Though I consider beauty, as I’ve written elsewhere, to be a verb.
LH: Does your conceptual appetite extend to movies or can you abide Woody Allen? Will you see the new one? And do you have a favorite director?
VP: Not him for conceptualism, though one of my favorite films of all time happens to be “The Sorrow and the Pity.” I’ve a number of directors or director’s films I quite like — Lang’s “M” is a series of perfect mis en scenes, and I can watch “Army of Shadows” and “Elevator to the Gallows” repeatedly. I’ve been on a binge of Ozu mixed with Melville and other Nouvelle Vague gangster films for the past couple of years, and have developed some flabby theory that they’re about the same thing — familial disappointment and uncritical fidelity. I realize my film choices are unutterably fey — Teresa once told me that she didn’t realize that part of being with Vanessa meant never seeing a film in English, or in color. (Or sometimes sound: I also really like Buster Keaton, and much Chaplin — have you seen Monsieur Verdoux? Just great.)
LH: An artist to watch?
VP: Stephanie Taylor, who is merging conceptual writing and conceptual art in excellent and necessary ways; Molly Corey, merging historicity and conceptualism to good effect. There’s more works than specific artists; Mary Kelley’s recent 1968 dryer lint piece was wonderful, I loved Jenny Saville’s Fulcrum painting and Alexandra Grant’s wired words. At the moment, I’m reviewing Gillian Waring’s Pin Ups, quite inspiring as a manifestation of the endlessly looping subject/object — what Rob Fitterman & I are calling the “sobject.”
LH: What about this business of being a writer and having a body—do you train? It’s an odd question, but I wonder how we of the bent over our screen generation will fare physically. We think about the body in text, but what about the daily.
VP: I grew up in a multi-generational military family: a soldier must be equally trained in mind and body. I’m not as disciplined as I ought should be, but do attempt to move all parts on a regular basis, sometimes strenuously.
LH: Humour. Obviously you have a keen sense of irony, a quick wit. How would you have done at court? Versailles, 1782?
VP: If I were Benjamin Franklin, I imagine quite well. If Marie Antoinette, not so hot.