By Rodrigo Toscano and Suzanne Stein
Rodrigo Toscano: Greetings, Suzanne. It is April 4, 2020. I’m in New Orleans, where the COVID-19 death rate is currently the highest of anywhere in the world. People reading this dialogue now, depending on what date in the future they read it, might walk away immediately after having seen the C-word, a dreadful intrusion into our global vocabulary. Who can blame them? I’m of a similar mind. Also, I keep getting alerts on my phone about “live” (online) art and poetry events about to start. I can’t watch any of them. I feel a resistance to signing on to something like that at this moment. That’s my current state of mind. But it does edge out a larger question. Now that in-person readings are dead for some time to come, what does it mean, or rather, what has it always meant, to faithfully attend poetry reading series? Being a regular participant to such events is one of my most cherished memories. The mingling, the face-to-face, the interpersonal joys and perils of it all, I miss. And here in New Orleans, there’s fantastic reading series, and in San Diego too, but in fits and starts. You and Mark Wallace have attended those, and run some, but not as many as you were used to in the Bay Area. What does it mean for you to practice poetry under these new conditions?
Suzanne Stein: Hi, Rodrigo. It’s April 12, 2020. Easter. Anyone who wants to can trace COVID-19 statistics between April 4th and now, so I won’t set any down here. It’s grim. I just finished reading Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, a strange companion for shocking times. I’m thinking about a scene, midway into the novel: the Jesuit missionary, imprisoned in seventeenth century Japan, has just witnessed the beheading of one of the Japanese Christians who have been jailed with him. The execution is one in a series of efforts to persuade the priest to apostatize. In fact, he doesn’t witness the beheading, he hears it, the sound of the samurai’s sword slicing through the air and the lop of the head into the dust. After which the priest hears, as he heard before, the sound of the flies buzzing nearby, the distant sounds of slow movement around the prison on the hot afternoon, and he observes how quietly and how completely nothing has changed in the atmosphere around him. The immediate advent of the online event strikes me that way. Like you, I haven’t felt much like joining one during these terrible weeks either, but the virus is not to blame. I haven’t been as much for readings in recent years as I once was in any case.
But now it’s April 18th. In the U.S., deaths from COVID-19 have doubled since I wrote the paragraph above. I find it absurd to be thinking about myself in relation to poetry community at all. That’s one of the ways I’m responding to where we are now. Life is utterly different for all of us than it was when you and I first started talking about talking about poetry communities. But the question is still pertinent. The whole thing in a nutshell: how central or not is the poetry reading (and de facto a local poetry community) to poetry? Or to oneself as a poet? As to how I’ve been practicing poetry or being a poet (indistinguishable categories) since the start of COVID-19, it isn’t terribly different really than what I’d been doing since moving away from the Bay Area to San Diego. That is, I read books, look at the news, watch screens; I talk to friends—on the phone/FaceTime, in email, on social media—I look at art, I think about art, and sometimes I write. However, this transition to art-in-the-time-of-COVID-19 and my transition to life as a writer outside an urban scene have two specific things in common: a radical shift in my POV and a drastic change in my rate of speed. Both desired, both welcome. What it meant to me at one time to “practice poetry” included the necessity of the reading, that source of all community, all listening, all friendship, all romance, all learning. All incitement to write took place there, every bit of it. I was deep in a Bay Area reading and listening scene for a long time. Then, something turned in me and I began to feel much more of that “interpersonal peril” than the “interpersonal joy” and I started to step back, long before I moved south. My work had begun to feel imperiled. I’d started to lose my sense of my work understanding itself or becoming something specific through the sexy, pressure-cooking scene and instead I started to feel stifled, corralled by community discourse. I didn’t want to, and I couldn’t, keep up with the shifting demands of special interests within the local conversation. It went so fast, at the speed of social media, and I was slowing down. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in these newly slowed-down times.
But what you ask is critical: live or online, once you are outside of the (well, the appropriate term really is) broadcast channels you are used to, what does it mean to participate, how are you part of, what are you a part of, what and who is the poetry for? Outside of the scene you’ve groomed (yourself) in, what then? You and I both moved from our respective scenes around the same time, for not dissimilar reasons (space, time, love, maybe disillusionment?). How do you do it?
Toscano: The 19th of the month of April, indeed, the cruelest month, dragging the weight of our sorrows and anxiety, minute by minute. I get very little break from it. My day job is all about it. I work within the national public health and worker safety community. And much of my afterhours conversations with Stanlyn Brevé (my companion here in New Orleans) are also consumed by it. She’s also in the biz of marshaling resources to those in need, specifically in the performance art community nationwide. I also have to contend with my “private” moments of grief and frustration. Then there’s this dialogue with you, which I truly appreciate because, frankly, I am growing weary of video-visiting with friends. Or I should say, I need time to gather my thoughts, examine them, and then communicate. And you’re right when you point out that you and I were in a similar position five years ago. The combination of a drastic life change sparked by the start of a new relationship coupled by a physical break with a major metropolis reset our psychic clocks. I, too, had already developed a subterranean need to recoup energies before moving, something that wasn’t merely reactive to my environment.
As for the people who have the luxury of working from home right now, many of us feel like we’re under some kind of house arrest. But even this metaphor is problematic in that actual people in prison are now getting sick and dying. But you really nailed the feeling we’re experiencing by retelling a key passage from the novel Silence (perhaps you’ve seen the movie version, The Mission). That we’re in an allegorical mode right now. The flies of death. The sudden glimpses of utter normality, if not beauty, all around. Our movement through this April, is the virus’s movement itself. Its tales are our tales.
I also feel like so many social conventions are dying right now, or are already dead, not least those in the realms of literature-making and literature consumption. Here’s such a one: Let’s call it, the “Career Presentation.” What do I mean? It’s a convention whereby a poet who’s about to read (in person, live) is presented to us as a poetic trajectory that just happens to be manifesting itself in our midst. And because of that expectation, such poets actually write in that pre-packaged nostalgic mode. Whatever is about to happen in our midst has nothing to do whatever with the actual gathering or social context that’s unfolding. Now, I don’t mean to say that the counter to the Career Presentation modality is what we used to call “occasional poetry”. In fact, I’m not proposing any specific countervailing mode right now. But, if that modality starts to die, then I say, no resuscitation. I’m craving something deeply existential to catapult me from my indolence. I am sure that I am one of thousands, if not millions, who will be demanding something deeper from our beloved culturati. Another way of going about poetic doings that I suspect will take a big hit is, let’s call it, “Snooze Style.” What do I mean? Poetics that circumvent or that can’t even feel the quandary or mystery of the communicative moment—one of utterance. I mean, poetics that aren’t interested in the elemental phenomenon of communication itself, but rather, take it for granted. Too many people just bypass that moment and are speedily servicing the demands of their “project.” I loathe that and will be overjoyed to see a lot of it go, too. Again, I need something deeper, or, way way lighter, but this midline level of rendering poetry is, in fact, itself killing poetry (with big prizes in tow). I must say, too, so much of your writing/performance work over the years has precisely been about hunkering down in that moment—one of utterance itself. Works like Tout Va Bien, A Hole in Space, Do Your Own Damn Laundry, and most recently, New Sutras, are very much attuned to keeping the very notion of communication, with anybody, about anything, front and center. I find it to be a perfect anecdote to our chatter-saturated current times. There’s a kind of ritual focus to those works that, at least for me, confers a new kind of readiness unto the world’s mutability. I wonder what you think of my fast and loose thoughts around these matters.
Stein: I’m not taking a long time in answering, I’m just not answering for a long time. It’s May 1st. I’m the opposite of distracted, I am uber-focused on a landscape of the present. My internal present and our external one. So these long silences between responses stand in for the long inner gaze while doing the new daily: so much additional cleaning and washing, of everything that has a skin, i.e., everything. And the masking up to go out, the wiping down before getting in. Once a week, I drive over to my seventy-nine-year-old mom, bringing her the things she needs to eat and be happy. She lives alone. I stand outside her door with my mask on and make her put her mask on and we talk for a few minutes through the screen. As I was driving home again today, I was thinking about this conversation, as I have done every day, and felt a mild distress over the lost parts of it, whatever it was I didn’t write to you yesterday, the day before, or the day before that. We’re stuck with what I’m giving you today. I’m stuck with what I’m giving you today. For me, there’s a kind of desperation in not being able to give, be, or do anything other than what I am in the present, and that’s one of the reasons all those works you name are all marked by a set of time stamps, of one kind or another, and by the direct and foregrounded communication with another, or others. I mean, those works are precisely records of a present. Here’s what I got. And, finally, what’s more interesting (mind-altering, soul-busting,) than that present? I’ve only got what I’ve got.
What you are calling Career Presentation mode perplexed me when I first encountered the poetry reading, in my thirties. What were we there for? I didn’t get it. A lot of my early talk pieces, which risked a lot (they were so unformed, they had no afore-trajectory) came out of this bewilderment and boredom. I learned, eventually, that there were more beguiling performers and less beguiling performers and that the reading was for communicating many things unrelated to what was happening between the gathered us in the now, things like flashing the special signals (which I’ve still not quite learned to read) and the furthering and replication of Career Presentation. Snooze Style…wildly prevalent in the current milieu. I can think of a few wonderful younger poets—J. Gordon Faylor, as just one example—who are willing to lay themselves on the line in the moment, making extraordinary interventions and explorations, doing formally radical work, and their efforts are often invisible across their lateral peer group, laid aside first by the Snooze and second by the CP, both of which are in service to the traffic of the Book. If I could do either, any, of these modes reliably and consistently though, maybe I would? I’d be reliably more…reliable…as…a…Poet. (But that’s like something Mark says to me every day on our neighborhood walk: Who would we be if we lived in that house?)
You and I met when I was conscripted by a mutual acquaintance into one of your collapsible poetic hijinks, a performance of “Clock, Deck, and Movement” at Small Press Traffic. This was a poetic performance activity I could get behind! We had a day and a night to rehearse and a night to perform. You gave us each a deck of handwritten cards and a set of instructions. Where and how to sit, what and when to say. How. On the one hand, you were pulling strings, there was a critical order, but on the other hand, inside of that, it was alive, frightening, collaborative, strange. Strangely, I can’t stop thinking about the boots I was wearing that year, this brown leather slouchy thing that came up midcalf, with barely a heel. They wore out and I’ve never been able to find a replacement. It was San Francisco, the end of 2007. Once again, the world was about to be looking bright and about to collapse. Those two nights, practicing and performing, were thrilling. Fun, noisy, bodily. It still feels fresh. Or what about this: there was that period when you were still in New York and I was still in Oakland, and you were acting as my running coach. You gave me distances and times and sprints and on and off days to track. Do you remember that? That was a poetic intervention and a real collaboration. Also, I destroyed my back with all those sprints! Not your fault! You were three thousand miles away. It took me months to recover.
Either a radical transformation that we cannot foresee is underway, or else nothing at all will change. We’ll get out of the quarantine to shop till we drop. CP and Snooze Style will win. I side with the first future. We are in a different house, big time. I can feel it happening at the atomic level inside my own body and my eyes ache with how big it is when I’m looking out of them. Like you say, we need lightness and air. Plus a real quantum gravitas, no more lines wishing from the attic that our blossoms will bloom into a book of fame.
In this writing to you, I’m either wildly, newly alive in the newly alive and threatening (promising) present, or, I’m sleepwalking, panic-brained, half-baked in this newly alive and promising (threatening) present.
What do you think?
Toscano: The 4th of May. Infection rates diminishing in Orleans Parish. Folks restless as ever, but fortitude and endurance are winning the day. What do I think—on top of that? Something you said: that much of your work is “a set of time stamps,” that they are “records of a present.” Additionally, “that there is nothing other than what we are in the present” and that “I’ve only got what I’ve got.” These bare-bones starting points (or end points) of poetics interest me a great deal. I’m thinking about how intentionality fits into it all. It seems that committing to such a poetics would require a grasp as to why you are committing to it in the first place. I wonder, in your case, what that perspective might be. As for me, as a reader/listener, a participant in word rituals, I can say that the activation of those “time stamps” during a live performance gets me to sense the instability of what we call “time,” in the linear sense. Your performance of Hole in Space in NYC years ago, really had me sensing that instability. And it was a rare sensation, but an invigorating one at that. Instead of overworking some notion of a past or projection of a “future,” that performance seemed to insistently trace the decay rate of the present. And through such alchemizing of time, we come to learn that “the present” is not wholly the present. Discursive prose has a helluva time comprehending that, so maybe we need word rituals to defrock those stabilities, or “realities.” And if we understand it that way, “authors,” might appear as only guides through the wasteland of such “realities,” giving only what they’ve got (when they got it), which is, almost always, next to nothing, but a solid ass next to nothing.
I’m also pondering those boots (and I remember them, thirteen years hence!), what they might represent in your mind. Perhaps it’s about sensing an acute sense of being grounded to the present (of that time). Perhaps it’s about your current aesthetic inclination to create that sensation from scratch. Though I remember, too, certain pairs of shoes from my past, shoes that to this day give off a subterranean, elusive meaning to them. So, perhaps it’s the elusiveness of that memory (of those boots) that’s a time stamping of this present, whatever that is. But to return to the boots as such. Did somebody else wear them after you? Did they end up in a landfill? What’s the level of decomposition of those boots, I wonder.
It’s May 8th, 8:37 p.m. I’m sitting at the edge of Bayou St. John in New Orleans, soft warm breezes blowing, folks picnicking on its shores amid thirty percent unemployment, wondering, literally, now what? (May 13th) I think it’s a superfluous question, as it’s intrinsic to virtually every life matter that we confront. Still, asking it affords you a necessary illusion of control over the circumstances facing us. Should I get up to go now? Should I stay a while longer? Am I really, here, now, or?
Suzanne Stein: Friday, May 22nd, 5:13 p.m.: Mark spent four hours waiting in line at the DMV in newly reopened California half-quarantine. Infection rates are not falling here. They are rising. And yet the state is opening up. Almost forty million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last two months and the American billionaire class has increased its wealth by $434 billion. That’s how things are in the present.
May 23rd, 9:13 a.m., black coffee: You are asking me about intention and commitment, which is partly about intention and commitment to form. Is it, finally, a question about artifice, about my relationship to artifice? I remember walking down 17th or 18th street in San Francisco, fifteen or more years ago, crossing Guerrero Street heading toward a bus stop, and Stacy Doris asking me, “But what about artifice, Suzanne?” I remember I was very impassioned in my answer to her which was a refutation of artifice, but I can’t remember at all what I said or thought. But I must feel and think similarly now, but different. I mean, now I understand my refutation of artifice as a “baked-in” or class position: artifice is luxury. I mean, that’s not always true and it’s not always true for every artist, of course, but I seem now to understand that what I have meant by, “I’ve only got what I’ve got” has a profound relationship to time, and its lack. Time stamped, because, finally, in whatever minimal comforts and extra half-hours I’ve learned to aggregate for myself, I’m a worker. I have precious little time for art and that will be the story of my whole life. Mastery is luxury and, on the one hand, the time stamp has been my way of saying, I give you what I have, please accept it in its poverty. That’s one aspect of my personal “position” relative to the social. Also, and also “baked in,” and positional: there is in me and in my work a spiritual or moral desire in wanting to “presence”… this is going to ring real hollow, but, of “what is.” I don’t mean that whitewashed thing capitalism sells us: “acceptance” hand-painted on a pebble. I mean the kind of open-eyed, wide-hearted taking in of what is there. Once you’re doing that on the regular, I think it becomes more difficult to live selfishly, myopically, separately, as though you are distinct from what is happening in all of the rest of the world. More difficult to assume that you can “select” your causes, politics, and positions off the shelf in the marketplace. Of course, and also: all of this is informed by embodied practices of yoga and breathing meditation, which are (or can be) acute reframings of the experience of time.
I woke up at 5:00 a.m. this morning and was thinking about our conversation here. I was thinking again about Clock, Deck and Movement, its uber-constructedness, and, think of this! Its metronomic quality! It’s…absolute percussion in controlled time. Poetry time, yeah, but also staged time. I am also reflecting on the poem you read two days ago in Edwin Torres’s series (online! there we both were), its percussive naming and encountering of a…pure?…present, which, hilariously enough, you said later was written while distance-listening to a Zoom-meeting-closing mindfulness meditation! Ha ha! And, I am thinking now of your newest book, In Range, those poems with their acute, minute attentions to the world-in-range and to the present. “From there flows not truth / But the possibility of truth.” You said it for me! It could be said that those poems came out of your landing in a new place (New Orleans) with a new organization of time, a slowed-down time, no doubt, from the New York pace you’d been used to. While you were writing those eighty poems in thirty days, in your new town, I was writing some similarly oriented poems in my own new town and new, slowed-down time. Look at how the attentions of our poems presage the disorientation and brake-squealing stoppage of time we are all in now!
Which leads me to your notion of guide. We are each other’s guides. I have been willing to see others as guides, to look to others, and to others’ literatures, to guide me; till now, until this very day and minute, I have not considered myself in (capable of) such a role. Even if, on reflection, I have written and efforted into many works oriented toward forms of guidance! “Follow me, I will follow.” The poet as guide, of course. And yet, also the blind guide.
Time to take a walk. I wish we could walk and talk together. Sending this back to you now.
Toscano: May 23rd, 7:51 p.m. At the Bayou, “heat lightning” flashing in the distance, the temp fluctuating wildly between seventy-five and eighty-five in twenty-minute segments. Strange. Wondrous. Louisiana, and New Orleans, in particular, are crushing “the curve.” Only one hundred-fifteen new (known) cases statewide today, and zero deaths in New Orleans for the fourth straight day. “The blind guide”—nothing better describes our current global state of being. And whatever would be “the seer,” or rather one hundred million “seers,” self-christened pundits/Twitter heads, are continuously projecting their psychic baggage onto the world. And yet, there are real world leaders among us, and serious public servants, plus imaginative artists, and kick ass scientists guiding us to the Next Meeting Place in Transit (NMPT). But what is it about the North American psyche that doesn’t feel this NMPT ninety-five percent of the time? We’re all such damn pushovers! Why can’t we shed this Mount of Eternal Being belief we have about ourselves? We’re part of the world. It’s never been otherwise, and yet, we venerate what’s otherwise (“American Exceptionalism”). Even our best poets riff on that fable of a thousand guises.
8:15 p.m. Exactly four ponderous rain droplets just hit my screen. Now I’m having to scramble home. 8:20, home now: one dim lamp, high southern ceilings, rain pelting our windows, pitch dark outside, lightning flashing incessantly. I think you’re right about your early-to-San Diego poetic works and my recent book, In Range, as both presaging quarantine time as an already-here artifact. That can happen. Something gets written somehow in the future. I’ve seen it many times. Conversely, there’s also books written in the now that manage to put a crowning jewel on some historical time past. Poetics as social time travel, we can call it. And with this understanding, “contemporaneity” (as we noted before) can easily lapse into Snooze Mode. Someone who strictly writes for “today,” in terms of meeting political-cultural demands, risks turning into a careerist hustler. Take for instance, the Latinx (or “POC”) literary managerial class, what use do they have for a book like In Range? It doesn’t service a preset agenda like, say, the trauma of cultural integration, or a nicely packaged American comeuppance story. In other words, it doesn’t slot easily into that Mount of Eternal—neo-liberal afforded—Being. It will be interesting to see if those cultural regimes survive this COVID-19 crises intact. Already, I see signs of them redirecting class (worker-relational) issues back into academic identarian frameworks. What’s badly needed is structural economic transformation in IRL mode. But I digress! For sure, In Range, could not have been written in NYC or San Diego (my city of origin, actually). It intrigues me, it even pleasingly stumps me to think of what I might be writing if I were in SD (and you, what would you be writing from here?). I’m deeply affected by place, almost as much as by ideology. Hell, maybe we could swap houses one day (as long as we get to see you and Mark in person in that exchange.)
Sunday, May 24th, 8:36 p.m. Lanterns on canoes shimmering on calm waters, ducks parading on the dark surface in the direction of Lake Pontchatrain. Next Meeting Place in Transit, nationally, will be about seven to ten days from now, I’m thinking, to see if the Memorial Day revelries caused any spikes in infection. My optimistic prediction is not too many. But for sure, the mega NMPT will be in the late fall/early winter of 2020. If we lapse into a second wave, the hellscape that awaits us will bring even more paradigmatic changes to the way we think of the world. So, really, I think we’re living in a state of historical suspension right now, an aporia, whereby what’s to unfold is so manifestly present, so total, that we can’t even quite sense it yet. And that’s what had me wondering the other night during the post (Zoom)-poetry reading discussion. I felt really out of sorts during that discussion, it’s like I wanted to (politely) tear down any “play of ideas” around what an “effective aesthetic response” might be to the crises. But, are people, as such, constituent of that aporia, or do we attend to it, like you would an oracle? What do you think?
Stein: What world were we in a week ago, when you sent this and when I was poised with my fingertips on the keys to respond, just before four cops conspired, in a moment and over a lifetime, to murder George Floyd, while we all watched it happen over and over and over again on our screens? What virus? I’ve forgotten. Or rather, which virus? It’s plain that the deaths to come are being orchestrated by a nastier strain than can be vaccinated away. Consider: a virus is not a living thing. It has no cells, no desire. Its proliferation in our weakest bodies is a weaponization of lack, of what isn’t there: the lack of care. It’s Monday, June 1st, 2:55 pm. I’m exhausted. I don’t tend toward despair, normally, but today I feel despair. What’s the week been like in New Orleans, I wonder? I’ve been watching the scenes in Minneapolis, Oakland, D.C.; look, even in San Diego the people rise up. Is that what we say? Is this an uprising? Do we know where we are going? Do I reach for a platitude, a slogan, a screed? I’m tired. It’s okay with me that people pour into the street. It’s okay with me that they smash it up. Peaceful protest alone doesn’t work. The “president” cowers in a bunker while the lights go off in the White House. What a metaphor! Send him running naked across that lawn with the dogs after him! Mark and I fought last night, while the sirens and the helicopters drowning out the shouting on the street were going, even here in sleepy San Diego. We fight each other when we are overwhelmed with despair at what unfolds in front of our eyes, again, again, again, etc. We get tired, our rage seeps into the household, we direct our frustration at each other. It doesn’t last long, but the soreness afterwards lingers. This is the global condition, we know that it is. What do I think, what do I think, what do I think…I think it’s gonna get a lot, lot worse before anything gets any better, but can I predict what the “worse” will be? I have ideas. But no, I can’t.
What else do I think? The poetics of contemporaneity, of the past, and of the future, they all seem equally necessary and relevant to me. They are for different purposes, they illuminate different paths. Everything happens at once. Like you say. You and I do face, as so many of our lateral peers now face, and so many of those poets who went before us and certainly our younger counterparts will face this also, a changing of the immediate need, in one type of present, for what literature describes and prescribes and proscribes and subscribes, and how. The demand right now certainly does seem high for writing that can drop into the slot. Can the literary managerial class hang with the unfit, square peg literature? No, but that was always true. And you and me and these friends that we know, reading this thing we are co-writing now, in whatever future-past they are reading it—we never wanted what could drop into the slot! We wanted another language, another literature, another vision, and we got it, and we know that’s how new worlds are made. Right? Ah, who knows. But, you’re shining a light at this thing that is consuming us now, nationally, globally: this problem of identity, of tribalism in all its forms. We are separate bodies, separate skins, separate historical trajectories, all of which can’t be neglected, or avoided, and yet, the harder we press on our distinctions, the further we find ourselves from each other. I wonder. Press hard enough and break on through to the other side? Of this big ol’ mess?
The Zoom poetry event: I realize now that the convo must have gone on well past the moment I dropped off the call. I left abruptly; it was time to start dinner here. Can you say more about what ensued? Meanwhile: I extrapolate from what you say that you experienced a frustration over a, glorification? of the role of the poet? in a time of crisis? May I counter-share that a day or two later I dropped in on another Zoom situation, this time an Artist Talk, by a rather well-known international artist, the subject of which was ostensibly Dropping Out. This is a very popular trope currently in the Art World, made so by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s excellent book about Lee Lozano’s Dropout Piece, an actual dropping out, a fuck-you to the art world, a recognition that concourse in that world is a massive soul-compromise, a lie, and that you should really drop. out. (LL’s often referred to as “crazy,” for dropping out; it’s said that she “couldn’t cut it” in the art world.) So, this talk on Dropping Out, was sponsored by an Arts Organization, deployed via a Webinar, attended by Patrons of the Arts, with questions typed in to the Chat Box and posed to the Artist by the Moderator! I wanted to throw a brick through a window! But here at my desktop, the only window I’d smash would be mine own. Or rather, Mark’s. We live together in his condo. (P.S.: that talk turned out to actually be about how to get cool with producing less, during this downturn. And will artists be able to keep up the doing less. We didn’t get into any realities about actually dropping out, from what, or for why. Though I did drop out of the call early and might have missed that nugget.)
Look, I think we are all struggling to find our way right now. As artists. We are artists and that’s what we are talking about here. We are in a profoundly new world, and it’s been getting new every day for a long time, and the “refresh” is now happening it seems on the daily if not on the minute. We are resolving into wholly new beings every minute! What is literature for? Something we fight with, we wrestle, as we encounter it, is our uncertainty—one to one, I mean each unto oneself—about what the “right” role is, what the “right” role to inhabit ought to be and whether or not it’s okay to be it. Am I an artist? Am I an activist? What kind of citizen am I? Do I have the right to become and to do these things I’m called upon to do? What am I truly called upon to do? And, who am I called upon to do it for? Something I feel I am learning…once again…is that prescriptions don’t work. There’s no one-size-fits-all, there’s no one-size-fits-some. We have to look, one into one, I mean one into oneself, into one’s own soul (to use a figure so roundly, so often, despised! is there a soul in the avant-garde? “Avant-garde”! crying-laughing emoji, from here in this time that is out-of-time) to figure out what on earth is next, how to hold steady, how to do well, how to do and be good. Stay in while dropping out.
What do you think?
Toscano: June 10th, 6:39 p.m. New Orleans moving into phase 2 of re-opening. Our numbers are very good, and reliable. The mayor, Latoya Cantrell, has been stellar throughout this crisis. The people of this city bodied up hard to stall this virus. And now, the protests (among the less contentious, but just as passionate as any in the U.S.) have simmered down. Right now, I’m sitting on the western, shady side of the bayou. A young alligator’s snout is gliding north by northwest, some twenty feet away from me. This morning (in the tub), I sketched out a few thoughts:
The Pandemic is no longer an external event, rather
it is an interiority in search of an externality.
The George Floyd protests are no longer an externality,
they are an internality seeking an externality.
Both the pandemic and the protests form a singularity;
the New Event, as a code, is seeking hosts.
I’m a host, you’re a host, unshielded and waiting. Isolated,
we’re all watching The Code do its thing. Symptoms vary.
That’s what I think, for now. As things both start to gel and ramp up at the same time, I’m starting to see the faint edges of a broader movement taking shape. It’s helpful for me to think of the distinction between internal/personal processing of events and external/wide-social processing. My hopes are that many streams of “activism” (or the desire to activate) will somehow flow into one amalgamated movement where the overall well-being of the working classes, becomes the overarching theme of the next political chapter in this country. But for now, as you can see from that little poem, I’m working on a small set of clues and hunches. I think poets need to commit more to the unknowable-for-now moments in history. Poetry is not punditry. To my way of thinking, it’s more akin to those epidemiological folks who measure trends, who confront incomplete data, but are dead set in sketching out a clearer picture for the wider world.
The points you bring up about dropping out, I think a lot about, though I would (in my case) term it “flanking back.” That is, knowing when (as that’s a measurement too) you’re not positioned very favorably to be on the front lines of confronting power. All parts of the “front” are valuable, all angles are replete with potential. Better a comrade a mile behind us who has their wits about them, than a random rowdy at the front, utterly lost in terms of effective tactics. Yeah, we’re still talking about poetics here. Always! You see, to me, a poet is a person who is seized by poetics at all junctures in the stream of social being. Many people reading this have been tortured by what I call “tab key” poets: people who write prose (but aren’t students of prose!) and tab key their way to verses, and then plaster their “voices” to our ears as “poetry.” Oh yeah, it’s nice being a crank on the edge of a Bayou, a slight breeze from the southeast lowering my surface body temp by two degrees. But another thing you brought up grabbed me. This thing of “fights” between amorous partners while being compressed by the political climate. It happens to everybody, or, everybody who gives a shit about what’s going on. And holy smokes! Under stay-at-home (pandemic) conditions, the potential for flare ups of course increases. But, you see, that’s another thing this moribund social-political predicament is doing: fracturing our ranks. I happen to be acquainted with both of your energies (and a bit of your combined energies) and find it all very complementary toward (drum roll): poetics. The heuristic of externalization-to-internalization (and in reverse) of political roils, might provide a clue here. When the motions from one state to the other are all happening at once, there’s bound to be clashes. So, I am happy to hear about “the fight,” as its movement within movements.
Something else, something I’ll admit. Yup. I didn’t go to a single protest. I’ve been to tons of them in my life (and organized some actually), but not this time. And it wasn’t even about fear of contagion that kept me home, or that I didn’t feel total indignation at the unjust death of George Floyd. I felt it in my gut that I needed to study closely, measure my desire to be on the streets (or not be on them) the interest of re-calibrating my poetics, so that they remain fresh and ready for the next moment just around the corner. That is, assuming (and I assume it) that my poetics is in some way a related “front” for my politics. I’ll be “out there” soon enough. From the middle pack to the front pack and back. But definitely out there, as it always is, in here.
Stein: June 16th. Morning. Yes. I have been struck by all the ways both the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd and the protests have forced a reckoning of internal and external that meets profoundly at the surface of the skin. First the pandemic, stripping most of our external distractions from us, pushing us literally and then also, for some of us anyway, also metaphorically. Nowhere to go but inside. And the reckoning—finally it seems that as a country we will really (will we really?) reckon with the fissure at the core of all of our communities—this reckoning finally with the external circumstance, internalized, racism, in which we are all absorbed and which many of us have been able to refuse to witness. Well, let me put it personally: I’ve always had hovering around the surface of my imagination the idea that I would like to or might someday head into the cave, I mean the monk’s house, for the kind of deep work that can only be done in solitude. To reckon with who I am, in order to emerge more fit to serve. These pandemic weeks have been as close as I’ve come to such a trial, and it ain’t easy! I’ve had too clear a view on my habits of body and mind during these weeks, and my history has surfaced within me in ways that have been painful to view. Not for my mistakes alone, though there are plenty, but to have revealed the subterfuges I’ve applied in order to avoid certain of the more challenging aspects of self-understanding. I won’t unpack them all; I will say that these investigations, pre-protests, were already turning the ground up in a way that made it more possible for me to get and go deeper when facing, again, again, my relationship to and responsibility within the problems of race, of whiteness. I’m a Jew. For the first time in my life, I have been able to understand the particular ways in which I have been unable to understand what white (progressive) people mean when they say whiteness. From that vantage, “white” has been inexplicable to me, while racism, anti-blackness, has not been. I had great difficulty, till now, in understanding why this deep alienation. Jews do not always feel white, on the inside. Those of us who are white on the outside (as of course many Jews are not), we pass. At last, I understand that while my experience in privilege is white, my experience in racism is mixed. And hidden. As you wrote so astutely, under our current conditions: Symptoms vary. Awakening varies. Awakening to what, varies. And of course, the timeline varies too.
Mark and I in our complementary energies occasionally wake up in the middle of the night and start talking. One of us has something on their mind. Last night, that someone was me, and some of what we talked about I’ve filtered through to you in the paragraph above. The deep reckoning that can only be done in dialogue. Like ours, here, too!
Finally: art and artists, poets, poetry, and poetics. I admire and am even envious of your attentiveness to your evolutions as a poet within this framework. This fluidity that is also stability within identity. I forget to value my being in the world as an artist, or rather, my sense of identity therein is unstable. But that’s part and parcel: the instability of identity. If, as you say, “a poet is a person who is seized by poetics at all junctures in the stream of social being,” what is it I seize hold of? I think it’s something other than a poetics. Which would strip me of “poet” but leave me as “person.” I think that’s okay with me. Poetically speaking, right now: I’m nurturing conversations with key interlocutors, like this one with you, which extends on either side of this bit of it we’ve set down here in pixels—I hope with a longer trail ahead than behind. I’ve unearthed a manuscript I was throwing writing into during the same set of years my newest little book, New Sutras, was written. A draft I’d all but forgotten. With dread, I dusted it off, but it will be well worth the time it’ll take to form it into something. Finally, I’m making things with my hands. If I can make a bowl and give you this bowl to pour your soup into, and the bowl feels good in your hand, and you can be nourished by the soup the bowl holds for you—I feel deeply the promise of this utilitarian exchange.
10:46 a.m., still June 16th. Back to you, friend.
Toscano: 5:05 p.m., June 16th. Six feet below sea level in the middle of a cypress swamp forest drained two hundred years ago. My faubourg (“village”) St. John is built on mud, is wobbly, and ravishingly beautiful. Southern Oaks canopy entire streets, blocking out the scorching sun. When it rains, warm rain, the odors that waft in its wake stimulate pores of my being I didn’t know I even had!
But where is “here”? At any given time, place, and for anyone person. For me, here, has been to still be gainfully employed, working directly on the COVID-19 crises. The nationwide community of health and safety officials and activists that I belong to has been working on back-to-work models, industry by industry. This is heavy lifting. And yeah, it’s very rewarding work. But we’re working under the conditions of Anarcho-Tyranny Capitalism. There are two essential forces at work in this country right now. The first is an aggregative and synchronizing force: the ability and will to canalize and aim the best of all efforts in science, public health, workplace groups (unions or otherwise), straight at the pandemic that’s strafing us. The countervailing force is a turbo-entropic force that is fraying, disconnecting, disarticulating the inflows and outflows of knowledge and energies that should be pooled, structured, and set in motion to fight this crisis. This second force is Anarcho-Tyranny, and it is the official (not by name, but implementation) ideology of not only this current presidential regime, but also of industry, the political class, and a sizable portion of the populace, including many cultural workers. I’m so finished with neoliberal frameworks and perspectives, even down to the nooks and crannies of poetics. One of neoliberalism’s specialties is a ramping up everyone’s “profile” (identity-formation prowess). And it now seems that one of the planks of that ideology is the reinforcement of the very belief in whiteness (not the function of whiteness in society per se—big diff). I think the majority of the culturati are now promoting (or giving a pass on) whiteness as such. I was watching a video of a protest marching towards police lines (it was in Oakland, actually) and people started chanting “white allies to the front!” “white allies to the front!” Sound strident? Let’s just translate that into any language and see how that looks: weiße Verbündete an der Front! The protests will come and go, and they will very likely transform “policing” (a flawed expression of Public Safety to begin with) into more equitable and workable forms. I celebrate that! I’m open to any and all ideas. But if “the movement” doesn’t hard shift into issues of poverty and overall well-being of the working classes, what barriers we need removed, what positive economic programs need to be implemented, we’re going to be right back here, in the exact same spot.
These days, I’m working on weird poems. And I mean, weird. Weird, I believe, has a livelier step than any kind of realism poetry right now. I’m committed to being a patient of the times. I can’t imagine acting like a doctor of the social on anything—I mean, at the level of poetics. In the midst of so much social instability as we have now, I believe there’s very few stable (and stabilizing) poetic acts to be had. Of course, there are some poems (newly composed or older ones) that might fit the occasion quite well, even of a rowdy protest. But I’d say most poetic acts aimed at the moment we’re in are skewed. But skewed is okay! A set of skewed poems over time can reveal—and this is bold to claim—possible paths that already reside in the future. And that’s why weird asserting itself in the present has to be tolerated, to my way of thinking. So, I’m committed to weird. Whatever that is, whatever that means.
Rodrigo Toscano is the author of ten books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Charm and the Dread. His previous books include In Range, Explosion Rocks Springfield, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater, To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in over twenty anthologies, including Diasporic Avant Gardes and Best American Poetry. Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. He works for the Labor Institute in conjunction with the United Steelworkers, the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, Communication Workers of America, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and Northwest tribes (Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakima, Nez Perce) working on educational/training projects that involve environmental and labor justice, and health and safety culture transformation. Toscano lives in New Orleans.
Suzanne Stein is the author of New Sutras, The Kim Game, Tout Va Bien, and, in collaboration with the poet Steve Benson, Do Your Own Damn Laundry. Founding editor and for eight years editor-in-chief of SFMOMA’s hybrid art and language digital platform Open Space, she resides in San Diego, California.