Monday, November 21, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Brandan Griffin

Brandan Griffin is the author of the book Impastoral (Omnidawn, 2022). He has also written a chapbook called Four Concretures (Theaphora Editions), and his poems have been published in Tagvverk, Chicago Review, and Word For/Word.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Impastoral, my first book, is where I learned to type—I mean really type, not just write. I started exploring new ways of spelling words and combining them and creating new ones. I began to actively acknowledge the expressivity of keystrokes and the peculiar visuality of text. Somehow, this brought a new focus, clarity, and range to the questions I had already been asking myself. I could see text as a living thing, or a collection of living things. Suddenly all these worlds opened up through and beyond my own "human" existence.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Well, I think plots are hard, so fiction was out. At the same time, I felt driven to create new minds and worlds, rather than write about existing ones, so non-fiction was out as well.

I first started writing poetry in high school, after I took a three-week workshop/fellowship in Boston through Grub Street. You had to apply for the workshop, and if you got it they also gave you a $300 stipend. I had already been writing bad, out-of-joint fiction, but this got me thinking about poetry too, and established the false expectation that you could make money by being a poet.

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?
Definitely a slow process involving copious notes. I want the poems to be like a machine in the way an organism is like a machine—unpredictable, open to the world, an explosive onslaught of improvisation and decay and phenomena contained by many intricate levels of construction. To at least begin approaching this goal means letting a lot of disparate intuitions accumulate in my head, while also hacking away at the word doc trying to find the right voices and look of letters. It's a slow process that involves research and even literally sketching out the shapes of stanza. Also, my poems keep getting longer and longer. More and more, I'm interested in bringing in as much metaphysical and empirical rigor as I can. I want to connect all the dots, or at least for the dots to be connectable, or for the dots to seem like they could be connected as a world just to the left of ours.

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?

Thinking of each poem as its own lifeform means I want to try something radically new with each one, which at the same time means taking what I've already done/learned, and deepening it or making it more extreme. At least that's my goal! With Impastoral, I reached a juncture where I could sense that all these poem-entities could come together to form an ecosystem, while the next poems were moving in a new direction, becoming more massive and a lot more visual. It was a fold or inflection point that seemed to close off Impastoral and open up the next manuscript.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I haven't done too many readings, but they were fun and I also got really nervous. A lot of the poems I've written that I care most about aren't very easy to read aloud. I feel like I would need to be some sort of creature with 100 mouths all over my body, all reading at the same time but pronouncing words slightly differently. Some of my poems could even veer into sound poetry, but I’m too shy for that, and it’s not really where I think the hearts of these poems lie—though I am inspired by what a lot of sound poets have done with their work on the page. That said, it's fun to try to bring some of these poems to life through my voice, since these poems are all about the excessive vitality and phenomenality of the universe, but I think the poems are just as—if not more—alive on the page, when read privately.

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?
One of my biggest interests is the so-called "emergence" of consciousness. From the beginning, I've always been interested in how art can deform and re-mold human consciousness into modes that open up beyond the norm, beyond human experience, and perhaps even beyond earth. I'm also interested in science, probably for similar reasons. I find that this combination of interests—science, the non-human, and the full range of metaphysical possibility—have continued to push my thinking. I think that poetry has the resources to model emergences of consciousness from networks of interacting agents, in the same way that words emerge from letters. In fact, I'm interested in how beings emerge from other beings, so that consciousness (simply defined as the presence of phenomena) can be seen as existing at every scale of reality. I want to develop a mode of typing that mirrors the ways that beings combine to form larger beings. A poetry that maximally engages with the richness and vitality of its textual medium could model the vitality of a universe composed solely of interacting experiencing agents, similar, for instance, to the cosmos that Whitehead envisions. One possible reason for making poems like this would be to help imagine new ways of relating to our planet, other species, our means of organizing ourselves, and our cosmos.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
For me, it's the creation of worlds/beings at the furthest limits of connection with our world. Closing the loop between conjunction and disjunction, between the imaginable and the (im?)possible. But writers have as many roles as they assign themselves, and every writer should assign themself a different role. That way we each have a job. Poets in particular have complete unfettered license to engage with whatever disciplines and experiences they choose. For me, the whole point is creations of universes that exist in a questionable, intolerable, and beautiful relation to our own, helping us to reassess and reimagine what "we" consider to be "our" "universe"—similar to the use of toy models in physics and philosophy, with the difference that there is no pre-established discipline to impose any rules on that model other than those the poet chooses to engage with. I personally think poets should engage rigorously with science and philosophy so that a close reading of a poem could be just as valuable for a physicist, theoretical biologist, or process philosopher as it is for a literary critic. The limit case, of course, would be poems that are literally testable, so long as they don't consume infinite energy, or poems that are proven to be actual universes appended to our own, or poems that can convince us they are persons.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Since school, I haven't had too much experience with editors, besides giving them an incredibly hard time when we sit down to lay out my poems. I actually love getting into the weeds about character spacing and page layout, and I appreciate their patience and care tremendously. Otherwise, I tend my poems in secrecy and emerge with a mostly finished elephantine poem that is probably overly long but also un-editable.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

"You spelled your name wrong."

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?
It's varied over time, but often it involves slumping into the couch first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee, and cracking open my laptop. Mornings are hard, I have a tough time getting up, but my mind is also less cluttered. I try to write or work on my writing in some way every day. I've always been pretty disciplined about that. But the last year has made that discipline almost impossible because of some really tough events in my personal life, and I think it's important to remember that there is no productivity schedule when it comes to poetry. No one cares how much you write. You can't get fired from poetry. I'm holding my next project very close to my heart and working on it when I can.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Scientific articles, theoretical biology, philosophy, animal videos, perhaps even going outside. The internet. Nothing is better than trolling the internet looking for the weird new thing or the weird old thing, like when I first discovered Gauss PDF or Troll Thread or any number of online zines or any poet from the past 100 years or 800 years whose book I ordered from McNally Jackson or frantically read on Project Gutenberg on my lunch break.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Warm sweet swamp smell.

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?
Sure—experimental metal, electronic minimalism, jazz, sample-heavy rap with indistinct mumbling, noise music. Science fiction. Video games! (Like Everything, or Proteus, but lots of others too. Sometimes I even find myself imagining a game I’d like to make, and then say well I can’t make a video game, but how could that become a poem?) And then other forms of writing like analytic philosophy of mind that makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Deleuze, Whitehead, Harraway, Barad. Certain contemporary monists lesser known in the poetry world like Gregg Rosenberg, Chris Fields, Karl Friston. Neuroscience, theoretical biology. Anything anyone has ever written about panpsychism. The writings of the saints and theologians. Depictions of angels and bodhisattvas. Any death-positive, afterlife-forward writings.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In my conversation with Anastasios Karnazes (up at Blue Arrangements) I made a list of most of the writers I’ve encountered so far who use spelling in an interesting way. But for now I just want to say that Leslie Scalapino has been huge for me. This is for a lot of reasons. One is just that she writes really good images. She collages them and isolates certain surface effects that make things appear in your mind with a kind of glistening clarity. More abstractly, she is interested in getting into deep, specific analysis of time and space in order to create sympathy among people and creatures, while also undermining normalized social relations. She talks openly about her theoretical goals within her poems, without simplifying or compromising, while at the same time reinventing syntax to embody those goals. She weds intuition and reason. A lot of times, writing can be broken down into writing about (i.e. discursive writing that says exactly what it means), and writing as (i.e. “slant” writing that embodies its topic rather than actually saying it). Scalapino’s writing is both as and about, which makes it difficult but also wonderful.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Make a pop-up book. Make a video game. Understand fonts.

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?
Retired physicist writing about consciousness.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I think 1) writing has always felt like it has the most capacity to express ideas, or at least to provide the most direct contact with ideas, 2) books, kind of like video games, directly use your mind to create their world. Writing seems to rely more heavily on actively structuring your phenomena in order to exist, as compared to movies or images, which go on playing or hanging on the wall regardless of your attention. I say writing is also similar to video games because games are static until you enter them and start moving and doing things. They are about what you can do once you’re in them, and I think poetry is somewhat similar. What do you do with the poem while you’re in it? 3) Writing is the easiest art form to get up and running! You don’t need a whole crew or a lot of supplies, just a word doc.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book - Courtship of Lapwings by Maggie O'Sullivan

Movie - After Life by Hirokazu Koreeda

19 - What are you currently working on?
I lost my brother last year. He was 18 and his death has devastated my family. I want to think beyond death as annihilation and poetry as an emotional reaction to that annihilation. I want to write something that sees the world as an ecology of souls, where souls are the world and what holds the world together. Individuality, memory, and personal connection are—at some reductive physical level of explanation—temporary phenomena, they are thermodynamically lossy and eventually unsustainable, but I want to write towards some further level where those things are recovered, where that which emerges (say, your love for the loved one) is just as real as that which it emerges from (say, a series of events in which repeated interactions between two organisms lead to resonant brain functions), where the dead and living and the yet-to-be born coexist—where unity, multiplicity, individuality, and the impersonal phase into and out of one another, and the afterlife and reincarnation, nothingness and everythingness, devastating loss and eternal presence, are all thinkable in the same breath. I see this as widening the kind of typing and thinking I talked about in some of the earlier questions. I’m not ready to talk about exactly what sort of poem/book this all amounts to, but this is where I’m trying to go, as huge and vague as it sounds.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

No comments: