by hecksinductionhour | August 8, 2012 · 7:40 pm
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Closing Statement at the Pussy Riot Trial
Yekaterina Samutsevich, defendant in the criminal case against the feminist punk group Pussy Riot:
In the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent, express regret for their deeds or enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to voice my thoughts about the reasons behind what has happened to us.
That Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities was clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyayev took over as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of power [in Russia].
Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, the state-controlled corporations, or his menacing police system, or his obedient judiciary system. It may be that the harsh, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; that otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this. Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more persuasive, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power. It was then that it became necessary to make use of the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion, which is historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.
How did he succeed in doing this? After all, we still have a secular state, and any intersection of the religious and political spheres should be dealt with severely by our vigilant and critically minded society, shouldn’t it? Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of the Orthodox aesthetic in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had an aura of lost history, of something that had been crushed and damaged by the Soviet totalitarian regime, and was thus an opposition culture. The authorities decided to appropriate this historical effect of loss and present a new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project that has little to do with a genuine concern for the preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.
It was also fairly logical that the Russian Orthodox Church, given its long mystical ties to power, emerged as the project’s principal exponent in the media. It was decided that, unlike in the Soviet era, when the church opposed, above all, the brutality of the authorities towards history itself, the Russian Orthodox Church should now confront all pernicious manifestations of contemporary mass culture with its concept of diversity and tolerance.
Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national TV channels for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during the difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant and compulsory.
Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture and that of protest culture, thus suggesting to smart people that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.
Perhaps the unpleasant, far-reaching effect from our media intrusion into the cathedral was a surprise to the authorities themselves. At first, they tried to present our performance as a prank pulled by heartless, militant atheists. This was a serious blunder on their part, because by then we were already known as an anti-Putin feminist punk band that carried out their media assaults on the country’s major political symbols.
In the end, considering all the irreversible political and symbolic losses caused by our innocent creativity, the authorities decided to protect the public from us and our nonconformist thinking. Thus ended our complicated punk adventure in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial. Once again, the world sees Russia differently from the way Putin tries to present it at his daily international meetings. Clearly, none of the steps Putin promised to take toward instituting the rule of law have been taken. And his statement that this court will be objective and hand down a fair verdict is yet another deception of the entire country and the international community. That is all. Thank you.
• • • • • •
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Astakhova. Original text in Russian published here. You can view video of the closing statements by Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova here and here (in Russian).
This translation was slightly revised on August 13 for republication elsewhere.
Zoe Strauss is a self-taught photography-based installation artist. She lives and works in Philadelphia where she was born (at Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first), and with the exception of a brief sojourn in Nevada, where she was raised. Strauss comes from a close-knit family. Her parents both worked a variety of jobs before her father, who took the family to Nevada where his family worked in the casino business, took his own life. The family moved back to Philadelphia and in with her grandparents.
Not surprisingly Strauss’s work deals with the chance of people’s lives. Her candid, powerful street portraits have been described by Roberta Smith in the New York Times as “not without tenderness, but their harsh, unblinking force is a bit like a punch in the face. ” The aspect of America that Americans don’t want to see. I first discovered Strauss’s work randomly on Flickr, where she posts almost daily, then I found her blog, and then, quite by accident, I found myself at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia last summer, where her work was shown as a commissioned Ramp Project.
Strauss’s work is striking. In the tradition of Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin she gets into the world of her subjects. She is interested in “how we move around with the choices we are presented with,” specifically those with “limited choices. What do we opt to do,” she asks, “and how does chance play into that? How does luck and other circumstances move us in a variety of directions…” These questions resonate in her photographs, candid, emotionally rich, completely empathetic and unsentimental.
An avid blogger and involved citizen, Strauss recently completed a film project with a group of eight at-risk youth titled If You Break The Skin which you can see a trailer of here . As the New Yorker points out: “This is not America the Beautiful, and Strauss wants us to know it as intimately as she does .” And she generally makes that possible, taking her art out Under the 95 Ramp and selling photocopied prints at the end of the day for $5. each. She has recently been back to Las Vegas, where among other fabulous photos (reminiscent of Alec Soth’s Niagara series on view at the Gagosian recently ) she returned with one of herself riding a grizzly bear. She later explains the origins of that photo. Zoe Strauss and I recently had coffee at Philly Java on 4th & Lombard where she refused to let me buy her a coffee—her independent fuel of choice in her city of choice.
SQ: You are a Philadelphian. You have enormous pride.
ZS: Yes. I love the city. I love it. It’s non-stop.
SQ: How do you interact with the city?
ZS: I lived in a number of different places in the city. I have an active interest in how it was shaped, how it was formed, how it changes and shifts. It’s fascinating to me. I have great affection for it even in the most difficult circumstances. I’m interested in the whole picture.
SQ: So you must know the city, its layers of development, the stories…is there a particular place that interests you?
ZS: It’s wherever I am at the moment. But, in terms of my own interest, I’m interested in how neighborhoods evolve and what it means for the city on the whole and what it means for the United States on the whole… Sometimes literally and sometimes as a metaphor but it’s always interesting how it’s shifting.
ZS: Sometimes tremendously…like right now it’s a very distressing shift. It’s been a very difficult last two or three years.
SQ: In South Philly? In the city?
ZS: Yah, I’ve noticed it in South Philly, Kensington and North Philly especially. All of those places. There is a different level of desperation, a different level of mean-spiritedness that comes back to, very literally, a tension that seems to have literally filtered down from the Bush-Administration. And I know that sounds grandiose, but it really feels like it comes from this specific climate in the United States, and it’s just been boiling down to this…disregard for human life. The need for wealth. A lack of real jobs, of real opportunities. It’s manifested itself as real, not just “oh that’s a shame.” It has impacted real life.
SQ: The implications are more immediate.
ZS: Yes, and I think it’s taken some time to get here. It’s not so slow in some ways. It’s pretty direct, but it’s a climate of fear and suspicion that has steadily grown.
SQ: Okay, well shifting to another kind of fear and suspicion. How do you walk into a scene and walk away with a shot like the one I saw on your blog yesterday?
ZS: Oh, the swastika guy? I love him! I mean how nuts is that?
SQ: How do you walk in to that situation and come away with those images?
ZS: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that. It’s just completely intuitive whether or not this will be a good interaction. I mean you can tell within the first twenty seconds whether this is someone interesting, someone I’ll feel comfortable. There’s just…it’s very immediate.
SQ: So you must have to interact before you take each photo?
ZS: Oh yes. I always ask. If it’s a portrait I always ask. They can pose however they want.
SQ: So you tell them what?
ZS: If I see someone who I think would make an interesting portrait I tell them that, I tell them why if I have a sense of why, sometimes I don’t know and I just say that. We usually talk for a second and it’s usually yes or no, and that’s that. It’s almost always a good interaction.
SQ: Is this why the portraits are so intimate?
ZS: Yes. It’s always a real interaction. It’s never surprising someone. Unless it’s a street scene—I’ll often do photos where someone is striding past an architectural piece, and I often don’t ask those people. Their presence is just movement in the photo not the subject.
If I notice that they’ve seen me, I’ll sometimes say you know, I took a photo, is that okay? If they seem adamant then I’ll chuck it.
SQ: Has anybody ever chased you down? You know—
ZS: With a machete?
ZS: Brandishing it? No. My interactions are generally good. Except once I was in someone’s house and it felt uncomfortable, and I just left.
SQ: Easy enough.
ZS: Yea, and it wasn’t even the interaction it was just a “difficult feeling.”
SQ: My partner and I were talking about this the other day how architecture can be so oppressive, how even a street has a psychology, and sometimes, you can’t put your finger on it, but there is a kind of psychic dis-ease in a random place.
ZS: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s no question, and sometimes it’s intangible, but it makes a big difference. Like in South Philly we have overhead electrical wires and it’s oppressive…if I were ever to move from South Philly that would be why because it’s like you’re literally under a weighty net… And there is all different things that make the feeling of, either the illusion of openness or closure… Once I read in The Moviegoer by Walker Percy about walking and how the “new” houses seemed haunted. Something resonated with me about that.
SQ: The new houses?
ZS: Yes, it’s not about the history it’s about the psychology.
SQ: Interesting. On the other hand, you can take a place that seems totally abandoned, lifeless, and to most people, terrifying, and infuse it with absolute joy…but there’s a lot of weight that goes with the territory of being a social documentarian. Particularly of a place like South Philly where you can feel, in some areas the tension is palpable. And the desperation is really evident block to block. Sometimes it seems you’re in a war zone.
ZS: It’s really block-to-block. My block has in the last couple of become gentrified, but yes, you can go one block and it’s…yes, it’s like Dresden.
SQ: How do you negotiate that?
ZS: That kind of dichotomy is fascinating because we live with it. That’s our lives. It’s not an abstract concept of this block is bad, this block is good; it’s very difficult to see and think about, but we’re all living our lives together at the same time. There’s no separate. People have these perceived ideas that this block is this, and this block is this, but it’s the same fucking block! You’re in the same neighborhood. For their own sanity people have a tendency to compartmentalize because we’re so packed in like this…and sometimes I think that’s healthy and sometimes not. I mean just to get by we don’t have to talk to every neighbor, but you need to know your neighbors and you have to be able to interact with them…
SQ: So, are you friends with everyone you’ve ever photographed?
ZS: Um. Ya. Kind of. Ya. I kind of love all of them. Without exaggeration there’s probably only one or two that I do not have a feeling of affection for…and you can really see it in those photos. They’re a little bit meaner… One guy, years ago, he was just a real racist, beyond the usual…you know working class white people can be sort of racist… I can have affection for someone whose ideology is absolutely abhorrent to me, but sometimes you can feel that someone is just mean-spirited. They are not a good person. Their ideas are like a giant albatross around their necks…you know we all come up with endless theories and ideas to deal with our lives, but the few times I’ve felt like “oh, my god this guy is like excessive” you can really tell in the photo that there’s not a connection.
SQ: Have you ever been terrified?
ZS: If I have I’ve blocked it… No, I haven’t been terrified. I’ve been uncomfortable with things people say, but no. If I felt I was in danger I would just immediately leave. I’ve felt scared, but not with people. Places yes, history yes, but not people.
SQ: Speaking of places…I’m from Vancouver, and I don’t know if you know this, but Vancouver has a very, very big problem in the Downtown East Side. A problem that activists, artists, politicians have been trying for decades to solve. Drug and poverty related.
ZS: I know, I’ve heard of this, and I thought, what? Canada?
SQ: Yes, Canada.
ZS: Seriously, it’s so shocking to me.
SQ: I know.
ZS: Mounties. Maple syrup. Friendliness.
SQ: Well, twenty years on when I go back and see it and know that little has changed. It’s difficult to remain hopeful in the face of such enormous poverty and suffering. How do you remain so hopeful? Do you feel that the work you do has some kind of impact, some kind of healing in your community?
ZS: This is an excellent question. I’m not really liberal in terms of this kind of ideology. I’m the far, far left here. I think you must do this yourself. Someone can’t come into a specific spot and as an outsider—I mean certainly there are a lot of things that can facilitate change and hope—actual daily living conditions for people, that’s important, that’s tangible, that’s a big part of the overall picture. That’s life. But I’ve also come to feel these people who want to come in and “do good,” “save people,” that kind of change cannot happen.
SQ: Liberalism out of context?
ZS: At its absolute worst. It’s a demeaning concept.
ZS: Yes, I mean, needle programs are great, but I think people get some romanticized idea of what they’re doing…they aren’t coming in on white horses to save people, they’re facilitating a daily need. Not, I’m riding in and here you go… I mean shut up you jackass. Are you kidding me? Does that make sense?
ZS: Cause that’s totally how I feel.
SQ: Yes, I totally get it, and it seems as though that’s what you’re saying with the photos. Your photos aren’t portraying some kind of “lifting out,” they’re a kind of witnessing. Like you have two seconds you can choose how to engage with this person. It seems like you find the most strength and dignity in whoever you’re looking at and whatever situation they find themselves dealing with on that particular day.
ZS: I hope so. I’m very optimistic. I’m filled with hope and joy.
SQ: Speaking of hope—who inspires you? Who are your photographic heroines?
ZS: I love a lot of photography but I really feel connected to the WPA photographers. I feel like that was—you know Dorothea Lange—an interesting important moment. I’m fascinated by that idea, the interaction between the photographer and subject is the photographer’s choice in this instance. So many iconic images that come from that period we see without thinking of the choices of the photographer. So in terms of preserving the dignity of the subjects and meeting the needs of the assignment the project was successful in many instances.
SQ: Do you have a favorite Lange photograph?
ZS: The Road West, New Mexico. 1938. No Contest.
ZS: Cindy Sherman…Tina Modotti. I’m a fan of all of them. Even if my own interest is unrelated to their work…they’re working within a very different framework, a patriarchal framework of who decides, you know, the gaze, and so on. I’m just like, go for it, go be your bad self. You really just have to put yourself out there for people to look at. It takes a lot of effort to put yourself out there—and pushing the work past the point where people will look at it. I mean it’s an enormous effort to get past the Jeff Koons set up of what we think art is…
ZS: Are you kidding me?
ZS: We’re post-post-feminist, post, oh, we’ve made it. Like we’re a Virginia Slims ad. Fuck you.
(Just for the record, I’m a radical feminist and I believe that we’re still in the process of creating a feminist movement. I believe the idea that social movements are fixed or static is false and we’re as connected to Seneca Falls as much as we are to Tribe 8…)
SQ: But it seems “you have made it.” What happened? When was the moment for you? Can you take me back?
ZS: The Pew was pretty big. The Pew was a great moment. Things were kind of happening, but the pew set things in motion. It was like Wagnerian Opera. So good! So awesome!
SQ: So did you wake up one morning and think, oh my god I actually do this?
ZS: Yes. Yes, that was before the Pew. That was…
SQ: When was that moment?
ZS: That was the first roll of film.
SQ: Really? When was that first roll?
ZS: That was in 2000.
SQ: Get out!
ZS: It’s true. It’s good.
SQ: Wow. What kind of camera was that?
ZS: It was a Canon Rebel. The low-end automatic and manual, like $195 dollar camera.
SQ: How did that come about?
ZS: I had been thinking about it. I’d been doing other installation work and I wanted to do the 95 project…and wondered how I could do that and when I saw the first photographs I thought it was definitely feasible.
SQ: What did you do with your first roll? Where did you go?
ZS: I just walked around the neighborhood.
SQ: Of course. What kind of installation work were you doing?
ZS: Like two big boats smashing into each other in a parking lot.
ZS: I forced my mom, my siblings to go to 5th and Wharton to go push boats together…
SQ: How did you become an installation artist?
ZS: I felt compelled. I had to do that. I went to college and I was just like, eh. It was too tiring, I had to work full time, and I thought that’s not what I like.
SQ: You wanted to be out in the action?
ZS: I wanted to be making shit.
SQ: So the 95 project was before?
ZS: The 95 project started in 2000. So I thought, pick up a camera…and then I thought about the installation and went for it.
SQ: So that first roll?
ZS: Yah, it was pretty good.
SQ: What was on that first roll? Are any of the photos in your show at Silverstein from that first roll?
ZS: Yes. Yes, it’s a basketball hoop made out of a milk carton. That’s the one that remained.
SQ: That’s great.
ZS: I’ve always been happy with those first ones.
SQ: What about Monique Carbone? That photograph is so haunting.
ZS: Yes, that’s very sad. I’m hoping to meet her mother in the next week.
SQ: The photograph of the Grizzly Bear that’s on your site. Can you tell me about that?
ZS: How great is that? It’s from Circus-Circus in Las Vegas. You go in a booth and you have a million Photoshop options and I was like, my god, I have to get one of these. So I turn the page and there’s the photo of a woman in curlers riding the bear and I thought, that’s the one.
SQ: You’re having a lot of fun.
ZS: Oh, yeah. I’m having fun. I love it.
SQ: When you’re on the street you’re having fun.
ZS: Yes, I’m having fun. I’m not looking for despair; I’m looking for something I love.
SQ: In an interview with Jeff Wall I noticed recently that he said he had begun to think that the idea of subject no longer mattered. What do you think of that?
ZS: Are you kidding me? What are you saying? I have little tolerance for that…not that process, or theory doesn’t matter, but when it comes right down to it, “it” has to be pretty fucking strong to say that the “subject” doesn’t matter, and that the theory and the process are the finished work…that’s not a judgment on his work, but you really have to be on solid footing if you’re going to say the concept is more important. Did you see his show?
SQ: Yes, I know what you mean. I’m a big fan.
ZS: Yes, me too. That piece with the papers blowing in the wind is mind blowing, but to say that the subject…
SQ: Well, yes, I thought so too. And the extent to which the images are reworked and manipulated…
ZS: For me, something gets killed in the process.
SQ: The life gets beaten out in some way.
ZS: I think you can overwork a photograph, or I suppose a poem.
ZS: …but really this is not a value judgment, it’s just not my interest…it gets flattened.
SQ: Speaking of process. How much time to you spend working with an image once you’ve take it? I assume it’s all digital?
ZS: Yes, it’s all digital. Not that much time at all. I color correct it, and sometimes crop, and I’ll clean it up. If there’s dirt, or often I get what look like oily spots, but that’s it.
SQ: What’s your camera of choice?
ZS: It’s a Nikon D70. It’s so good! I might want to get the D200 if I ever get some money…
SQ: Okay, so speaking of money. What’s next? I mean the Whitney, the Silverstein…this is a big moment. That’s a great gallery. I’ve seen some of the greats in that gallery. This is significant.
ZS: I know. It’s a great moment. It’s a great gallery. They have a great sense of history, the sense that photography is still a burgeoning art. That it’s just started! People think vintage photography is the genesis rather than a constant organic process, always reinventing itself. We’re just figuring out this new technology, and I think Silverstein has a great perspective…
ZS: And the show before mine was E. O. Hoppé’s Amerika. It’s really heartening to me to be a part of this big picture.
SQ: So what’s next? Is the show going to tour?
ZS: No, it’s just going to end. And I have no idea what’s next. No plan. None.
SQ: What about a book? Can we expect that soon?
ZS: Actually, someone approached me about that last week. I was like, holy fuck!
SQ: You must be saying that a lot these days.
ZS: OMG. WTF.
I first heard of Vanessa Place and Les Figues in a cab going from JFK to midtown. I was with fellow poet Christan Bok who had much to say about Place, the press, and the upcoming n/oulipo publication (a compendium of the noulipo conference). Then I saw the novel and was smitten. You’ll find a mini-review of it here, alongside Marie-Claire Blais, but I repost some of it by way of an introduction to the interview that follows.
Relative newcomer Vanessa Place, a criminal appellate attorney and co-founder of the magnificent Les Figues Press, offers a 50,000 word, one-sentence novel set in World War I, and often right in the trenches of it. Circumnavigating, diverging, listing, relishing in the feast of language on so many levels…it comes out, as Stein says, and after a while it doesn’t have to come out ugly. This is the price paid for all the experimenting…our “crisis jubilee”….
Dies: A Sentence is a thing of beauty right from the beginning:
The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there’s no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one, O, we’re knee-deep in this one, you and me, we’re practically puppets, making all sorts of fingers dance above us, what do you say, shall we give it another whirl, we can go naked, I suppose, there’s nothing to stop us and everything points in that direction, do you think there will be much music later and of what variety, we’ve that, at least, now that there’s nothing left, though there’s plenty of pieces to be gathered by the wool-coated orphans and their musty mums, they’ll put us in warm wicker baskets, cover us with a cozy blanket of snow, and carry us home…
Difficult to excerpt, but my experience with it so far is really one of waves, small, very distinct movements that blend one into the other. And the language! Check this out:
there was sausage in my veins and roast pork beneath my feet, what’s worst you say, you callous bastard, how can you squat there armlessly stirring a pot of camp stew and feign sudden irony, it’ll get you nowhere, you know, that bit of levity one wears like a rubber nose in the face of cold terror, such weak crooked lenitive proves a man’s uncrutch… (29)
Not since The Waves have I been compelled to read an experimental novel through. Not just to appreciate the concept but to actually read it through…and I am still reading and thinking about what makes conceptual fiction work. And why this one seems to work so well. I’ve made it through to the end, but only because I had to for the sake of discussion. I’m going through again, and it’s a slow, sensual pleasure and a much deserved break from various essays on the boil. Vanessa Place agreed to talk to me via email. Due to time constraints our conversation has taken place over weeks and it isn’t finished either. I offer you round one.
LH: Vanessa, from what I can gather, Dies is your first published novel, but surely you have written fiction before that?
VP: This suggests Dies is fiction, which suggests interesting issues of form and institutional critique. The shortish answer is I had been working on a large project (La Medusa) and wrote Dies between drafts. I spent about 10 years writing Medusa; the first draft of Dies was written in about three months sometime around year four. I then put Dies away, and returned to the bigger monster. I did write a few odds and ends along the way, pieces published as everything from experimental nonfiction to straight poetry, but no sustained work. After finishing my final draft of Medusa, I took Dies out and polished it for Les Figues. Happily, Fiction Collective 2 is publishing Medusa this August.
LH: I should have said “prose” rather than fiction. Is your resistance one of genre, or form?
VP: I have no resistance to form, which would be like having a resistance to red clay, or lead white. Genre’s the thing, foolish thing, oddly stubborn. The most avant-seeming people ask you straight-faced if you are a poet or a fiction writer. I find yes is a very good answer. It reassures the questioner, without solving the question. Rather like answering whether someone is guilty or innocent.
LH: Where did the idea for Dies come from? Was it an idea that morphed, or a project that you proposed and then fulfilled?
VP: Dies was contrapuntal. As noted, I had been working on a very big project composed of very many fragments for a very long time, and wanted a palate-cleanser. The plate-spinning of the larger work immediately suggested its opposite: a single form that falls constantly, though incompletely, apart. The sentence is the basic formal unit of prose, counted as the container of thought. Shortly thereafter, I saw a photograph of a WWI soldier crossing a field who had gotten a leg snagged in some wire, and wondered what it would be like to be suspended in that wait, anticipating the bullet or blast that you cannot escape but can only attempt to negotiate. Death marks, or punctuates, the basic formal unit of human existence; death is the basic human sentence. The formal question becomes how to kill the sentence, how to grope pathetically towards “Death, once dead there’s no more dying then.”
LH: The torn leg is one of the tropes that leads us through the text. It’s a powerful image, and speaks to the obvious disconnect of war and carnage, but also to our investment in compartmentalization I think. Was that something you were thinking about?
VP: Fragments, I suppose, are always on the mind. They can be a bit of a cheat as they too easily serve as synecdoche, but are not a cheat in that they also incant the missing, playing the positive role of negative space. Compartmentalization is a gorgeous device for feigning wholeness, just as warrens create the illusion of connection and at least the potential for movement. Stew is good for food.
LH: “Death marks, or punctuates, the basic formal unit of human existence; death is the basic human sentence…” This is intriguing, and certainly forces one to think of text literally as body. I’m thinking too of Stein’s bumpy ride through the first world war, which one feels here. As one feels the resistance to closure. A resistance that becomes emblematic of a desire to live. Which leads me to ask, is this found text?
VP: That’s a wonderful question; I wish it were, or I wish I’d thought of incorporating found elements within its folds. But aside from the Hugh MacDiarmid poem near the beginning of the book, it’s all my creation. That makes me slavish to that same desire, I think.
LH: I am astounded at the deft way you shift in and out of consciousness. I’m working through the novel and I keep being distracted by my desire to pinpoint transitions. They are so seamless. How did you do that?
VP: I like to listen while I’m talking.
LH: Recently I watched Atonement, which I wasn’t intending to, and to my surprise I found the movie intriguing, particularly the war scenes in which Robbie finds himself wandering in a kind of carnivalesque masquerade. I come back to this notion of literalization, which I’m trying to work through—it comes from Marjorie Perloff and has been a site of interrogation recently by Jennifer Ashton. In any case, your novel takes us through many consciousnesses, which all seem convincing, the language, the cadence of mind but also very tangibly body. Perhaps this is why I was so convinced the text was found. It seemed like a time capsule of this moment. Then the contemporary references started to crop up etc. Is there something about the body and consciousness you wanted to say in particular?
VP: I think I say it more directly in La Medusa, and said so again in my paper for the Conceptual Poetry conference that Marjorie Perloff sponsored: we are embodied in a post-Cartesian sense. There is no split between consciousness and the sack of skin it comes in. Kenny Goldsmith’s nice mention of my paper in Harriet misses precisely this point, as the paper included not only tampon insertion instructions, but an Army marching song and a Yeats poem. Language may be found roaming about or Romanticized, but always falls with an orific splat.
LH: There are several sequences I want to speak of, the Time for one: “Time took a foil from its throat, well, I can’t answer that now can I…” (49). In her introduction to the novel Susan McCabe points out that time is animated here, and further that “hanging over it all is the despondency of the future conditional.” Perhaps this gets at the immediacy of the text, a kind of avant-terrorism (in McCabe’s words) that illuminates as it interrogates the constant creative force of thinking/remembering. It feels very reorienting, and I wonder if that is partly your intention.
VP: Constant reorientation. English is a wonderful bastard tongue, but comes up short in its verb tenses; to remedy this, I gave the future conditional a personality (like Time has its high-heeled personae), and then resorted to enjambing tenses. Time being physically reconstituted space, the enjambment forces a constant shuffle between history and geography, until, with any luck at all, there’s no divide between the two – just like real life. It’s very mimetic in that way.
LH: As you know I’m a big fan of Beckett. Could he have been a figure in Dies?
VP: He could have been its wet-nurse.
LH: I’m marveling at the language, which I’m still surprised to find isn’t found. Your text has the energy, the enjambed imagery of a found and/or sculpted text—flarf or recombined. You talk about reorientation—and yes, it is, but strangely so given the compact and often startling word combinations. It’s like oral/aural crack: “chill and cannonade,” “tinted an ill-augur’d pink,” “our bailiff will gladly comb you for nits and eggs of hate” (40), “we marveled at the knacked welter of our biceps” (66), hard to choose from so many on every page! And then there is the imagery, not just the sound: ”each cage thickly trophied with these thin and brittle scalps” (74), “he tied a length of silk to one of the sparrow’s legs” (13), “a golden turtle with alabaster mail, a mutton-mouthed lion with candlestick paws” (104). Are you a collector of sounds? Is this beadwork? Is this a Panopticon of perspective?
VP: Sounds, yes, not so much collected as petted as they trip through the pats of text. That’s what’s so ineffably lovely about writing, you know, the meat and musical motion of the thing. These examples you’ve picked are nice in that you call them oral while they are aural and textual, and still, I aim for language that begs to be put in the mouth. And I do love the panopticon, almost as much as I love the eyes of flies. But beads are a bother.
LH: “…for it’s a plain truth that color trivializes life…”(30). I loved this section—which goes from grays to granite to pale fingers a “lacquered pumice,” to a meditation on time—one of many—or Hannah Arendt navigating LA freeways?
VP: I want writing that’s so thick with sound and sense that you can see right through it to the pent little hearts within. We are a terrible and puny species. Don’t you think tatting is our grace?
all unhappy families are identical as apricots, and all men idem,
and the stone-centered quiddity of our suffering is what puts the
bread on the butter or the butter on the bread, it’s all very sad,
this bread and butter business, it’s as if we’ve given up dancing
altogether and although I find myself temporarily legless, I keep
my hops up, never say die, that’s what I say, not while there’s
still another limb of lamb, for that’s what hope dines on, and
there is hope, sure as bread pudding, you see how I retreated
there, I saw you wince at the coming shot and so I
recharacterized, I can, you know, nothing’s written in stone, or it
is, but we’re penciled in at best, we’re a sketch-book of emphatic
caprices, a homespun comfort for the quilted set, those happy
many, who damn violence with but a single hand, brightly
ribboned at the wrist, still, a passing paraphilia made Time tarry,
the two struck up an argument on the pleasures of sheet music,
for which the spoiled beauty was a heartless advocate, but Time
sneezed, categorically dismissing the whole encounter as
hoarding and wasting, what was the point, Time clucked, of
keeping track of a tock, it’s a schoolboy’s trick to note the
passing minutia, and the lady, whose nails were bitten to the
quick but to no end, begged to disagree, she said such sweet
sounds were in themselves sweetly spent, whereupon Time
puffed its bejeweled breast and bragged there was no knell that
wouldn’t lisp under his authority, but Time’s rude boast was
duly altered by me, yes, you too, Juan, you’re a genius, don’t let
them tell you any different, well, let’s be honest, we’re both
geniuses, we have that at least, that’ll give us some comfort in
the early fileted light, we’ll go out in a blaze of particulate glory,
I imagine, with an éclat of fat and a frenzy of mythomania,
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.
LH: “I had a neuron’s belief in impulse, receptors, and emplasticity…” Intriguing, but I need more. You are working at a very molecular level here, is the sentence the unit of composition? Are you building a narrative? Why “ur-conceptual”?
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?
LH: Changing the subject entirely…Women and the Internet: is there a woman you read daily?
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 correspondents in ongoing conversations; there’s a steady stream of smartness publicly 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 raccoon, who’s yelling, “OK! OK! I’m a rabbit!”
LH: I’m a fan of Lisa Robertson, as I’ve mentioned, and one of the things I like about her work is the sense of it always being created. The thinking seems to be occurring as one is encountering the text. Your work has a similar quality. Is that something you have identified as a need for you? a necessary quality of text in general?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.
to the corpse I had worn awaythe lips In a stirred anda bright arousingstruggle hopelesshad move
to the corpse Ithe lips In aa brightstrugglehadhad worn awaystirred andarousinghopelessmove
Baum, Erica. Dog Ear. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Press, 2011.
Let me be the judge of that. You should enter this contest because I’m harsh and Les Figues rocks.
2012 Les Figues Press NOS Book Contest—
(NOS = not otherwise specified)
A prize of $1,000 and publication by Les Figues Press will be given for the winning poetry or prose manuscript. Sina Queyras will judge. Submit a manuscript of 64-250 pages with a $25.00 entry fee by September 30th, 2012. Electronic submissions only. All entrants will receive one copy of a Les Figues TrenchArt Series title of their choosing.
Eligible submissions include: poetry, novellas, prose poems, innovative novels, anti-novels, short story collections, lyric essays, hybrids, and all forms not otherwise specified.
Please note: The winning manuscript will be published in a design and format reflective of its content, i.e., it will not be part of the TrenchArt series, with its tall and slim format.
The winning manuscript will be announced in December 2012, with a fall 2013 publication date.
Manuscripts by current and past students of Sina Queyras will not be considered.