Saturday, August 28, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Christophe Casamassima

Christophe Casamassima is the author of the Proteus Cycle: the Proteus (Moria Books), Joys: A catalogue of disappointments (BlazeVOX), and Ore (twentythreebooks), as well as disparate titles like UNTILTED (Moria Books), Being/Time/Being (Xerolage), and Some Nets (BlazeVOX). He is the editor of Furniture Press, which awards the annual Furniture Press Poetry Prize, and is the Director of Literary & Performative Arts at the Towson Arts Collective. He may sometimes be seen as a faculty member of the English Department at Towson University in Baltimore.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Well, naturally it was my first book, the Proteus, published by William Allegrezza's Moria Books ( Who doesn't reel at the first instant someone tells you that they're putting their faith in an incredibly long experimental work? My most recent, Ore, which will be available from twentythreebooks ( in February 2010, was truly a turning point for me; this is the one that completely changed my (writing) life. I was in a creative slump after writing the Proteus, then Joys: A catalogue of Disappointments (BlazeVOX) (, because it seemed inevitable that I would "run out" of writing. When Karen, my fiance, and I went camping last April, I brought along Olson's Collected. After reading for a bit, I suddenly caught wind that the lines that somehow, across poems, made more sense when taken out of their context and "mashed" with lines from other poems. You can call this pastiche or collage, and when I started writing the first poem, the light came flooding back. It took about 7 months to complete the work, which is comprised of 100 centos. This is quite an extraordinary work of appropriation. What feels different now, after having spent so much time working in the mode of appropriation is, sadly, that I've got this notion that continuing to write new strings of words/lines/poems seems facetious, superficial, fake. This is a personal quandry, and not to question the aesthetic of just about every living human poet here. But, for my own sake, it seems best to work in this Roman mode, of stealing and mashing and mxing, like a DJ. I have become a remixer, and this is my current quest. How does it feel different? I was creating strings of sounds according to their musical qualities; now I'm searching for the sounds that already exist. In the meantime, I'm finishing up a project called "Some Nets," or 4 long poems using lines from numerous sources. One is even an ABC acrostic of some of my influences.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing poetry in the 5th grade, a silly rhyme about how my friend Lenny would lend me a penny. When I reached college I began writing more aweful verse about how depressed I was, you know, lots of suidical imagery and relationship woes. When I finished at the New School in NYC I basically made it through without really caring anymore about writing - it seemed so fashionable to ride on people's coattails and mimic their favorite writers. I was looking for a new sound. I moved to Baltimore to persue a teaching career, dropped out of that, then dropped out of two MA programs. But it was actually listening to experimental music that got me back on track, folks on labels likes Touch Recordings, cci, Barooni, Mego, etc. There was something that I always had in my head, my whole life through, that noise that could be made savory, that adults always criticized me for (I once hooked up a short wave radio to my stereo system at my parents house and listened to the military bleeps and clonks for hours, neighbors coming by thinking there was some air raid or something!) This is the point that I finally see how meaning is arbitrary, and that one can manipulate such sounds and essenses to their own devices. Words had this effect on me too.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Well, drafts are the extent of my writing. I don't do too much "drafting" or editing even because, while I'm writing, a sound or rhythm permeates my consciousness. If I don't find it, I don't write. When I do find it, it is, in essence, perfect. It's like knowing exactly what the painting will look like even before one begins to paint. But this is not wholly true. I do write how de Kooning paints, this constant overwriting. This doesn't mean that I delete; it merely means I move around, expand, interfere. I work from the middle of the poem outwards. I begin by finding a sound, a line, I like, then working around the page until the rhythm is complete. I liken it to starting with a 4/4 beat, then adding syncopated elements so that, in the end, the phrase is the same except that it has been refined, or occluded, down to its atomic level. The music of Autechre is an aural equivalent. The process is quite slow; but if the sound is there, I just go with it, and it ends when it says "end."

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
From the very beginning, it is a sound. Actually, it is a line. I'm a percussionist. Have been since I was a child. Poetry is music, it begins at music. And this music must have the best color and rhythm. It also begins when a simple idea becomes convoluted. That is, when I "mishear" or "misread" a particular phrase or bit of conversation. What is best now is to revise what I said previously about having foregone meaning: what I actually mean, if you can believe it (it will evolve as time goes on), is that when one thing becomes many, a phrase and its misinterpretations... by putting them side by side we suddenly have what I like to call a dichotomy. In my poetry, the act of writing is not to capture the best way to communicate an idea; on the other hand, it is the inevitability of having been confounded by such dichotomies that we're never sure what's right or wrong, what has been stated and what has been imagined. Like these answers here, my aesthetic changes, it is the only thing that changes, so that I may capture all sides of things. The book: I haven't written a short poem in years. The serial is the only necessity for me. It comes from the pain and persistence of trying to say all sides of things, without taking sides, without preferring or priveledging one over another.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I prefer public readings to writing for the public, yes. It's not necessarily a part of my creative process; that is relegated to me, books, sounds: I read a great deal, steal a great deal. I never ask for advice or comments on my writing from other writers. I just don't trust it. I've yet to meet someone who can be completely objective with my work. Honestly, I've yet to seek out that kind of commitment! My public performances are instances where I can practice the writing in space, to attract a great deal of attention from my audience, and, hopefully, to encounter the possibility of listening to my audience's interpretations. I'm not saying I take it to heart or seek advice or change my processes thereafter, but it is only human of me to be a little curious, a little egotistical, a little high-minded!

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
There are absolutely no questions to answer. It is more like the answer, my answer to having been confounded all this time by how little we are saying when we talk to each other, how we can say so much trifling bullshit but never really say anything. Perhaps that is my writing, this trying to stay as close to nothing as possible by saying it over and over again, by manipulating it to the point of disjunction and fractal. Hence the appropriation: I believe that there is too much noise in the world, too much nothing in this world that amounts to dollar store bookbins. My writing is not writing, that is misleading. I merely take it apart and put it all back together. Disjointed. Can you say that is a theoretical concern? Maybe there are questions, questions like, "Who is listening to poetry?" "Who cares if another writer says something else?" This is not my concern. But it is.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Simply: to make sure that the language continues to evolve, that we are made aware that language is a living thing, not so much delicate, but easily manipulable and malleable, and that we should all take advantage of it by using the old to forms to reach the new. This is evolution. And that is a poet's job. But I must make the distinction between writing poetry, writing fiction, talking, etc. Poets are the real lifeblood of this language. Their poems do more to show, not what to say, but how to say it. Culture: I don't think really that a culture can exist in the 21st century. Culture means exactly what it means on the petri dish. All I see, in America at least, is stagnation, distration, convenience. Where is out Lenny Bruce? Our Charles Bukowski? We are evolving towards sedentary livelihoods, we're nothing but livestock. Poets, by fucking the language, to stir up as much trouble as possible... that is their role. But is that role being fulfilled? Not when it it fashionable. Not when it is part of an exclusive stream of circle jerking, priviledged "rock stars" who care nothing about it, but merely feed off it.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Never have. My editors have given me absolute leeway, and that's how I like it. As petty as I am sometimes, just seeing page numbers around my poems gives me the chills! BUT... the editor is your first and foremost audience, the person who interprets the work as a collection. So one must work closely, as a collaboration. If your editor is a good one, they will ultimately see just how and why your book should be made public. Creating a book means creating a physical interpretation. And that is the highest and most pertinent honor.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Hands down, from Charles Bukowski:
if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
It's like fucking on a hangover: ain't gonna happen.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Well, waking up for one, usually. I have no routines. When the rhythm comes, everything else has to be put down, including life. Because once it's gone, it's gone forever.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I think I answered that in the first question. Usually I keep from writing for a long time, let my subconsciousness, my dreams, tell me when I'm ready. For instance, when I begin dreaming in verse, in poems, I know the stake has been pulled from the well. It's time to write. And when the urge to write comes, you must submit. You can't force yourself to do it. It's not a train that runs on time. No... you sit there hoping the train will come, but are so afraid to move away, to take a piss or get a drink of water for fear you may miss it. That's the writing life. It is a burden!

12 - What was your most recent Hallowe'en costume?
Honestly? I can't remember. What did I do this year? I always feign from putting on a costume. Always. God, this year, what did we do? I just can't remember!

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I am an avid musician, I play the drums and other percussion. I also am an avid phonographer. I take my microphones and mixers everywhere I go to capture the sounds of life around me. If you check out, you'll get, in essence, how nature plays itself without worrying to much about instrument and composition. If it were only that easy for us! But now I know that we all have the potential to compose music: no, I don't mean an opera or sonata... What I mean is, if you go out into the world, and listen very carefully to the arrangement of nature... the wind in the trees, the traffic, a crowd... and consciously begin to compose some sort of understanding of it, to know how to recognize the relationship all the parts play in the composition, then you are a musician. This is how I write, even from reading. It's pure consciousness.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
If it were not for Ulysses, I could have never written my first two books. The wealth of interplay and language in such books... such as this can never be understood without attempting to "answer" it in writing. The only way for me to have understood this book was to have written alongside it. I don't think anything has come close, nothing has inspired me more.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Move to the mountains with my wife-to-be. I'm from NYC, and everything about it just reeks of cliche. The only thing that'll make me more at ease in this world is fending for me and my family in foreign terrain. If life doesn't make you sit up and pay attention, then what's it worth?

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
This idea that I'd be anything else is insane. If I were not a writer, that would only mean that writing would not yet have been invented. And that means that I'd have been the one to invent it. As facetious as that sounds, it's true. But music, also, is equally important. I'd be destroying computers and mixers and effects pedals and radios and televisions if it were not for writing.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think it's genetic, like music is. My father used to sleep with a radio beneath his pillow and bug my mom, because he couldn't get away from the need to satiate the rhythms in his head. My father lost that, and I fear if I didn't do the same, feed the addiction I mean, I would lose it too, and feel at a complete loss. It is, after all, a life, and not a supplement. I don't think I have anything to say. Really. But being able to use language, to really manipulate its sounds and measures... this is why I write. Pure curiosity.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
In the middle of Finnegan's Wake and Gravity's Rainbow. Last book I finished were two by Richard Brautigan: In Watermelon Sugar and Trout fishing in America, two classics of surrealism, I think. Films, God, so many great films... The last great film I saw... Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. If I aspire to anything, with words, it is this.

19 - What are you currently working on?
A book called Some Nets. The first part, A Menagerie for Louis and Ezra, is a series of fake terza rima stanzas, each middle line containing a line from Zukofsky's "A" that has the word, or variation of the word "horse," surrounded by two lines from the Cantos, where each succesive first line of the terza rima must contain one word from the previous. The second part is a series of 108 couplets, or haikus minus one line, using lines from Gary Snyder. This is called "Maa Laa," the Buddhist prayer beads, which contain 108 beads. The next part is "End Lines." I take all the last words of Wallace Stevens' lines in "Harmonium" and create skinny poems, similar to those by Robert Creeley, depending upon the punctuation (or lack thereof) following these words. And the last part is "26rd," a series of poems that contain equal amounts of lines as the letters that spell the names of poets which make up the acrostic, one for each letter of the alphabet.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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