The Futura 89+ series features interviews with artists, writers, activists, architects, filmmakers, scientists and entrepreneurs who were born in or after 1989. In this issue, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets interview Andrew Durbin.
We first worked together early this year, when you read at the opening of the inaugural 89plus exhibition “Poetry will be made by all!”, co-curated with Kenneth Goldsmith and hosted by the LUMA Foundation in Zurich. You performed the recent fragment “Track Star,” which examines the social significance of the simple tracksuit. Where do you think poets are placed on the social scale and what role does their physical appearance play? Can a poet be taken seriously regardless of how they dress? How do you choose your own clothes?
Poets are pretty obscure—and, by the nature of the system we publish and work in, fairly “low” on the social scale. Whatever that means. Ultimately, I’m not interested in all the talk about obscurity and whether or not poetry is dead. For one, it doesn’t seem to be very true, especially when you look at the huge popularity of alt lit poets like Mira Gonzalez and Steve Roggenbuck. Poetry sustains itself around the world in different ways and to different purposes. That it doesn’t so much matter in terms of “driving traffic” on the web or sales in the United States or Western Europe is irrelevant. I don’t think poets generally think of themselves as fashionable, which is a bit of shame, but sometimes poets end up icons—of style, personality and character—anyway.
At the 89plus exhibition, you performed your amazing work, “You are my Ducati,” which cleverly deconstructs the pop song “Ride,” by Ciara, initially contextualizing it within the history of the Italian motorcycle brand and then interweaving it with your own imagined scenarios. It’s addictive to listen to. What was your writing process?
I’m always influenced by what my friends are saying, listening to or talking about. I don’t have any ideas of my own—I just borrow from what people around me are saying. I had a friend who was struggling with addiction and for a few weeks while he was high he kept texting me odd phrases from pop songs, including Ciara’s line “You are my Ducati.” I suppose writing that poem was one way of coming to understand what my friend was thinking about. Drugs—like the pop music and politics discussed in the poem—engender hallucinatory responses to environment, present and historical, and I wanted to capture that. I wrote the poem in sections, as ideas came to me, in a Word document. Eventually I accumulated about thirty pages of material (found language, quotes, paragraphs, lines, poems), which I then cut down and shaped—later with the help of Lucy Ives at Triple Canopy—into the poem it is now.
You’ve said that you prefer print books for poetry compilations. Why?
I like physical objects, especially books, because they have a different, slower relationship to information distribution than web-based publishing. I don’t necessarily prefer them over publishing on the internet, I’m merely suspicious of the broader, widespread injunction to migrate all things to the web because it often ignores the ecological and ideological complexities of the internet: on the one hand, how your computer consumes energy; on the other, how it becomes complicit in profiling you as a reader-writer-artist-consumer for major corporations like Amazon and Facebook—and for surveillance agencies like the NSA. I think we can have both and use both for different purposes. I’m in no way opposed to publishing on the web or using social media (I rely on—and like—both), but I am hesitant to follow the common “wisdom” that holds print dead. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, books remain important to me because they are fairly static objects that don’t require a power source, which is an important feature considering the possible futures that lie ahead of us, which will likely be marked by dramatic shifts in how energy is consumed and distributed under climactic duress. When the lights go out, the book doesn’t go out, too. But that isn’t to say that print isn’t highly problematic (who prints and who gets printed, both groups being mostly white men). And because of print’s stodgy attitude about who is authenticated as a “writer” (again, mostly white men), many of the most interesting things right now are happening online.
You’ve said that many poetry websites are ten years behind what net artists are doing. What are net artists doing and what kind of platform do they need to publish their work?
Ten years is generous, really. Net artists, unlike poets for the most part, are trained in the programs that allow for sophisticated web-based (or web-oriented?) projects. Their advantage is that they know how to work with the web, how to publish on it with a sense of design, and that’s what has made them better poets for the internet. Cory Arcangel is now a great novelist. Deanna Havas’ Template Jams (2013) is one of the best book of poetry I’ve read in awhile. It’s a difference of sensibility, too. Even when artists use common platforms for publishing their work, like Tumblr, things just come out different, less beholden to some common poetic tropes you see on the pages of the New Yorker, Poetry magazine, etc. Juliana Huxtable’s Tumblr and the poetry she’s published there (in relation to her images and reblogs) is just so far ahead of what I hear at poetry readings around New York. It responds to our climate, forgoing the hermetic air characteristic of too much poetry today, in a way that reminds me constantly that poetry is a medium that can have real currency right now.
You’ve very active on Twitter, and your updates seem to be fragments of poetic phrases, or various musings on pop culture. What is Twitter for you? A diary? A publishing platform? A conversation? A self portrait? A notebook for ideas? Or something else entirely?
I’m so terrible at Twitter. I’m not sure what I’m doing—it’s something like a diary. With everything else I try to take time, to edit, but with Twitter I don’t have to because nobody really cares. I like the freedom of the continuous feed that constantly buries everything. I also love to go back to friends’ Twitter feeds and scroll back, way back, and read some of the early AM drunk tweets for inspiration. Those are the moments when you really learn what your friends are like, when it’s 4:43 am on a Saturday night in the middle of February and they are on Twitter.
Poets don’t think of themselves as fashionable, which is a bit of shame.
You have said that the selfie is, at its heart, poetry. Can you talk a little about this? Do you take selfies? Do you share your selfies with people other than yourself?
In my essay “Selfie Poetics,” I try to address some of the concerns John Kelsey recently raised about the selfie (he called it our “finest and final hallucination”) by interpreting it through poetry. Using the dictionary shorthand for the poetic—which is characterized as “an imaginative or sensitively emotional style of expression”—and Wordsworth’s definition of the poem as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” I wanted to define the selfie as a poetic object. I can’t imagine an object more sensitive, more expressive, more reflective, more confessional than the selfie. It is a perverse
realization of Wordsworth’s famous definition (current at the start of an industrial world we now find ourselves in the “bright ruins” of). To take a selfie is to pause, self-reflect, and express your (emotional) self.
For a long time, poetry was a lyrical, narrative, and/or expository exploration of what it meant to be a self, thinking and bodied, present and material (also absent and immaterial). But recent poetics, much of which is centered around the web, is not interested in the self per se. Rather, it is interested in the selfie, in the low- res, singular-but-of-a-feed self whose shelf life lasts as long as you keep your account—and then some.
In your poem, “Monica Majoli” you write about your thoughts at an Art Fair. Do poetry and art mingle? Or is poetry art? Or is art poetry?
The distinction between the two doesn’t really matter except in those instances where poetry becomes bad art or art becomes bad poetry—two things that happen a lot because both seem “easy” to people. Then you kind of want to push everyone back into his or her respective fields. I think poetry isn’t taken seriously enough by the art world (until fairly recently) or by “mass culture,” but I’m not sure if that’s a problem. It seems to me that poetry and art are coupled and have been so for a long time. It just seems to have taken people awhile to remember that.
How did poetry come to you or how did you come to poetry?
I came to poetry while I was living in a fairly desolate part of South Carolina, remote from any nearby cities or bucolic fields and mountains. The only thing for me to do was poetry. I have never felt very good at it—and most of my poetry is actually a way of avoiding poetry altogether, but that has kept it compelling to me.
What are your unrealized projects?
I want to write an erotic novella about fisting—a sex act I’ve always been a little freaked out by. But I think that erotics is squarely about what freaks us out the most, so fisting as a subject makes sense for me to write about. Ideally, it’d be illustrated with a friend—and maybe come out as a limited edition art book. I have no idea how to write it yet. But in general I’m very interested in the form of the novel. I’m currently writing one about art and fanaticism called Blonde Summer. While it’s been challenging to work in a more direct, extended narrative, I want to figure out how to expand the narrative density of the form beyond the page, into spatial design and atmospherics. Can a room be a novel? Can a window?
Can’t imagine an object more sensitive and confessional than the selfie.
What will change everything?
What is your favorite brand? Is your consumption influenced by the potential ripple effects of its online visibility?
I’m pretty disturbed by the neoliberal rhetoric of branding that is now pretty common in how we talk about art and artists, poets and poetry. I don’t like the idea of having a “favorite brand” (or of thinking of people in terms of brands) because I don’t want to endorse corporate culture and its attendant practices of labor oppression, exploitation and disenfranchisement. There is a certain extent to which that rhetoric reflects an internal simplification of discourse within the art world, one that is more congenial to the corporate and moneyed interests that require a reduction of criticality to harmless banality, and I think it’s actually our responsibility (artists, writers, curators) to continuously question those vocabularies, career narratives, and how they are established and who enforces them. That said: I love Nike and Adidas.
How do you think that the Internet has influenced your generation’s relationship to sexuality?
I guess the internet has made people more curious about anal sex. That’s always a good thing from my perspective.
When did you have or use your first computer?
My family got a computer with internet access in the mid-1990s. (I never bothered with the computer before that, though we had one.) I wasn’t sure what to do with the internet until my mother directed me to my first website, the National Zoo’s Panda Cam, a crude site that refreshed an image of the Zoo’s pandas every thirty seconds. As everyone knows, pandas don’t move very much, so it was really the dumbest thing to watch, but I became so addicted—and it led me to other interactive cams and chatrooms. It took me a long to realize that the Internet could be for anything else, actually. I thought it was just a way to talk to people around the world. Eventually, when I got my own computer a few years later, I discovered other cam sites, and I got very into webcamming for men. With MySpace and early social networks, it became much easier to meet men IRL, too, but in a covert way since it was still very taboo to be gay in South Carolina.
Did the computer or does the computer change the way you work?
I wouldn’t know because I only use my laptop to work. If anything, my writing changes depending on how I use the computer to write it. I used to write exclusively in Word, but increasingly I write emails or little notes on my iPhone to myself, which I later piece together into a poem or an essay or fiction, whatever it happens to be. Working in Word, my writing is more linear. I’ve started to experiment a bit with Photoshop and InDesign to see how a text might be shaped and integrated with other visual media. That obviously shifts my concerns, too.
Do politics and poetry mingle?
They are so intrinsically linked I can’t really talk about one without talking about the other. For me, poetry is a space in which alternative and radical politics can be explored and expressed in ways that don’t necessarily have to conform to the formal standards of critical or political theory. That’s one of its best aspects: that it can invent and revise political vocabularies—and political imaginaries—in ways that other art forms or discourses can’t.
The future is …
Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat Books, 2014). His writing has appeared in The Boston Review, Mousse, The New Inquiry, Triple Canopy and elsewhere. He co-edits Wonder, curates the talk series at the Poetry Project, and lives in New York.
Images: Frank Benson, iChiaroscuro. Courtesy of DISimages.