Interview: Toby Altman

I discovered the work of Toby Altman in the remarkable online journal The Offending Adam, and he instantly became one of the poets I most admire working today. Those poems were part of his first book, a postmodern tragedy of astonishing formal diversity and ingenuity, Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017). I suggested he and I conduct a two-way interview; Toby kindly offered “appetites” as our central theme, in honor of my 2018 collection of the same name from MadHat Press.

Toby Altman: Let’s start with appetites themselves. What are some of your poetic appetites these days? What are you reading that makes you hungry? What are the virtues of thinking of aesthetics in terms of desire, demands—and what are the pitfalls? Pick and choose whichever question seems most congenial to you.

Alexander Dickow: Interesting that you should frame things in terms of aesthetics as such. Kant draws a pretty clear line between our appetitive desires – to drink or eat, to smooch people, etc. – and the supposedly disinterested relationship established in aesthetic contemplation, and I have to say this distinction feels a bit too cut and dried for me. Creation and consumption of the work of art (and creation especially) seem to me quite tightly linked to our animal desires, and not quite so cleanly disinterested. Sexual tension can be readily channeled into writing. Disinterestedness in part appears to me as a marker of class – the aloof connoisseur as bourgeois art-consumer, as opposed to the more “immediate” pleasures of so-called popular art (or rather, nowadays, what Adorno called mass culture). I think there’s a lot of denial (of the inevitable economic considerations of art production, for example) and desire for social distinction mixed up in these categories of disinterested contemplation and the animal impulse to consume, which is why the snob pretends to value the detached and critical (read: “boring”) film over the latest Marvel production designed for the unwashed masses. I don’t much care about class markers in art appreciation, and I’m just as happy watching Spider-Man as I am discovering an Eric Rohmer film. I read comics and science fiction novels along with literary theory, philosophy and journalism, and I have a particular appreciation for production that gives the lie to expectations about what audiences want, like SF writers who make high demands on their supposedly unsophisticated readership (hint: they’re not unsophisticated, and perfectly able to appreciate experiment).

Hopefully we can circle back to what I’ve been reading lately, which is another question: for the time being, I’ll just mention Henri Droguet, a close friend and poet I’ve read for many years, whose language is delicious: I’ve often described his work as crunchy or chewy; he uses sound in an eminently edible way. Since my translation of his chapbook Clatters in 2015, I’ve been translating more work by Henri.

How about you, Toby: what do you think the relationship between desire and language might be? In other words, I’m reframing your question about aesthetics in terms of literature and the written word. What desires and demands are made in writing or reading, and what are the pitfalls (or advantages) there that are specific to this art, as opposed to painting or music or sculpture, for example?

TA: It’s a tough question, but a good one. I agree, of course, that language is somehow deeply, mysteriously bound up with desire—and that writing itself is one of the many channels through which the libido passes, a tidal zone, that fills and empties as desire rises and falls. I feel unequipped, though, to make any definitive statement about their relationship: as Freud says, somewhere, every dream has its navel, a point beyond which interpretation cannot pass. This feels like one of those points: in part because interpretation itself is a linguistic activity (and so infused with desire). I suspect that there are some limits to the self-reflexive capacities of interpretation: its capacity to read its own desire is blocked by its desire. In other words, the very desire that animates interpretation prevents it from interpreting, naming, that desire. This is a paradox, a delicious and painful paradox. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about in exactly these terms before, but it might explain one of the fundamental impulses of my work: I am always trying to escape from poetry through poetry. It seems to me both a little shameful and a little boring to just…write a poem. I want poems to be at war with themselves, trying to pull themselves out of their own skins. For that reason, I want to be careful to avoid making a definite statement about whether the relationship between language and desire is specific to literature—I would worry about fixing the boundaries of literature precisely. Better, I think, to make those boundaries into zones of contagion and complication, where distinctions that otherwise seem stable and obvious begin to pull apart.

I wonder whether you feel the same way—you are someone who similarly works across several disciplines (poetry, translation, scholarship), and you also work in several languages at once. Do these projects feel separate, do they pull against each other, or are they continuous, harmonious? Which would you prefer?

AD: I’ll have to settle for a perfectly equivocal answer for this question. For to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how my different hats interact, whether there’s resistance, continuity, or harmony, or something else entirely. I value the ability to reinvent oneself as an artist, and this notion certainly plays a huge role in my first scholarly book, Le Poète innombrable, on Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Max Jacob, all poets who were able to channel their inner multitudes in exemplary ways, so to speak. On the other hand, I’ve written many articles with no obvious connection to my poetic writing, and I likewise value variety of thought and approach in my critical work. In translation, likewise, it all depends: contrary to the stupid notion that one should translate artists with whom one has a strong affinity, I’ve found great pride and pleasure in translating artists I have fairly little in common with, such as Gustave Roud, a Swiss neoromantic poet (Air of Solitude followed by Requiem, 2019). But I’ve also translated poets much closer to my own sensibility, like Droguet or Alain Damasio. As for working in multiple languages, I recently framed the relationship in terms of the medieval trope of the wall between lovers, which becomes both an insurmountable obstacle and a means of communication, by tapping. Likewise, French and English for me are both irreducibly separate and also inseparably linked; my poetics communicates by tapping across the wall of linguistic difference. Would you frame things this way, or in a completely different way, with regard to your relationship to early modern poetry? I know your dissertation, “The Shock of the Old: Periodization, Poetics, and Diachronic Exchange between the Renaissance and the Avant-Garde,” built bridges between early modern poets and modern and contemporary poets, and I wonder how you imagine the relationship between these eras, and how you dialogue with the early modern period in your own work.

TA: I think I’d frame it much the same way. My relationship with the early modern goes way back, all the way to the (embarrassing) alleys of adolescence. I think, in a certain way, early modern literature taught me how to be a poet. I think of Paradise Lost, for example, the experience of reading it as a sixteen- or seventeen-year old: what struck me was the grandeur, the expansiveness of the thing. Early modern literature showed me what’s possible in poetry—and, in that respect, I think it set the bar high. In my work, I strive to live up to its example: to write poems, to design projects, that push the outer limits of what poetry is capable of, that take years (and books) to realize. Right now, for instance, I’m working on a three-book project about the history, aesthetics, and politics of American architecture. There’s nothing openly early modern about the project, but I doubt I would be writing it if Milton hadn’t empowered me to imagine on a grand scale. My first book, Arcadia, Indiana, is much more explicit in its engagement with the early modern: there I really was trying to revive early modern poetic and theatrical techniques, to transform them into resources for an avant-garde poetics. At stake in such a revival is the paradoxical, complex relationship that the present has with the early modern: it is simultaneously very intimate with the present and very distant, foreign to and woven through our reality. In the scholarly project, I try to describe the temporality of that complex, even paradoxical, double relationship—and to show how thinking with the paradoxes realigns the way we think about some basic issues in poetics scholarship.

I recognize this compulsion to work on a large scale, at the level of a project, for instance, as something between a compulsion and a curse. I wonder if you feel this compulsion: what organizes, motivates, your poetic projects? How do you come to the shape of a book? Here I’d like to circle back to the original question about appetite and have you discuss Appetites, your recent book: how did it come to be a book, what is it as a book, how does it relate to your other books, etc.

AD: My impulse to write about food seems irresistible; Caramboles (2008), my first book, is among other things the French name for the star fruit or carambola, and the novel I’m working on deals with some of the more ghoulish possibilities of reimagining our relationship to food and our body (it’s called The First Supper…). So Appetites was in some sense an unavoidable book, a return to a consistent obsession. To some extent, food and appetites – by which I mean our appetitive desires in an Aristotelian sense, and not just food as such – is also a sujet-paravent, or umbrella topic, that allows me to talk about nearly anything else, much as love was for early modern poets. The 2018 collection began as a series of poems fairly directly about this umbrella topic, at an explicit level, but then branched out, and the book follows a trajectory from our lowest to our highest impulses – from food and sex to love and our desire for the divine. Hence the two Biblical quotations that serve as the book’s epigraph: the epigraph at the bottom of the page, from Qohelet, describes our state of servitude to our appetites, while the one at the top of the page involves our taste for God, if you like. But the book I’m working on now doesn’t involve food at an explicit level, this time (though sex is still there) – it’s called An Attic, and assembles a variety of techniques I’ve developed since the early two thousands in a meditation on time and history – since we may well be coming to the end of it. It involves thinking about the waste of history – the secret trajectories of things that end up in an attic, the remains and remainders of biography, but also the remains and leftovers of language, such as all that material that exceeds and resists meaning-making, from typographical errors to prepositions. I’m interested here in artifacts, in every sense of that word. The kernel of the lyric might be that everything passes; the evanescence of things. But one might also consider that, in another sense, nothing ever passes – everything is inscribed into that which once was, never to be unwritten, whether we can see and understand it or not. Every bauble, every tchotchke we leave behind has its own history and its own path through time, passing from hand to end until it lands in a cardboard box. Does this relate to appetite? I’m sure it does, but rather to an appetite for knowledge and understanding, rather than to our biological appetites.

However much my obsessions return and haunt my work, I also seem incapable of sustaining a book that holds together as a “narrative.” Appetites, like Caramboles to a lesser extent (my 2012 chapbook Trial Balloons is a real pot-pourri/hodgepodge) — anyway, Appetites is also a collection in the purest sense of the term, a recueil, a gathering of dispersed and various materials into an approximate and mobile whole. An Attic is also interested in how organic wholes happen in poetry. There’s a kind of hidden unity in the things that end up in our attics, a coherence that those remains of lives happen to acquire, as if by chance. So, one part of An Attic is also an inquiry into the nature of the collection as such – what makes it disparate and what makes it whole (if anything).

It seems to me, after reading your latest chapbook, that you’re as interested as I am in the relationship between the poetic and the historical. Your interest in Chicago’s architecture is in part motivated by the planned disappearance of certain buildings, their obsolescence or possibly their dated and now-unfashionable nature. You once mentioned that I still worked in a kind of modernist mode, rather than being overtly postmodern, but it seems to me that your recent work also looks back on modernism in a powerful way. Remaining on the subject of appetites, why are you so drawn to these sometimes doomed, sometimes disliked or unappreciated buildings? I don’t want to limit what these buildings mean, as some of them may also be celebrated and valued, but I’m interested in how and why you’ve been lately so drawn to the architectural generally – i.e. spatial forms and spaces of living — and to the architectural monument as such. To put it bluntly – why is all of this food for you?

TA: I started writing about architecture in 2015, I think—just after Northwestern University demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital. The building was a landmark of architectural brutalism, a soviet spaceship that had somehow touched down in the center of Chicago. It was designed by the great (and criminally underappreciated) Chicago architect, Bertrand Goldberg. It was also my birthplace. And at the time the building was demolished I worked at Northwestern. I took this personally: it felt like the institution I depended on to pay my rent and buy my groceries were making war on my own history. But I also came to see this personal loss as, more broadly, a kind of allegory for neoliberalism: the way that neoliberal institutions make war on our habitats and histories—and they do so in the name of progress. Prentice was replaced by an utterly anodyne glass medical research complex, the kind of building that smells like university money, even in photographs.

So I started to write about and through this demolition—and, as I did, I discovered Goldberg as a figure: a fascinating, tragic figure. He was a student at the Bauhaus in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, and had to flee Germany. But he remained committed to Bauhaus ideals throughout his life. He believed that design could transform society—could transform capitalism, make it more humane, responsive to human need. And some of his most famous projects are truly (and practically) transformative. For example, to secure funding for Marina City—that’s the building on the cover of that Wilco album—in the 1960s, he convinced the FHA to change the definition of “family” to include single parent households. But he came to prominence in the 1960s, and his work depended heavily on government funding. In the 1970s and 1980s he was essentially unable to fund his designs. His most famous project from this period, River City, is only 1/12th of what he originally envisioned; he largely funded the project himself. He thus seems to me a kind of representative figure for the artist under capitalism—for the limitations the artist faces working under capitalism.

Beyond my own personal cathexes, I keep returning to figures like Goldberg (and Sullivan) for that reason: they index the both the utopian aspirations of avant-garde art-making and the grinding realities of making art under capitalism. I am interested both in the great beauty of their work and its failure, its inability to transform its own society. That’s one of way saying that, yes, these books are in many ways invested in thinking through both the affordances and failures of modernism in the present. But in turning to an art outside of poetry, I am hoping to think through modernism in terms of its politics, its relationship to capitalism—rather than playing the usual game, affiliating myself with one modernist or another and trashing the others. (Hello, language poetry). Which is not to say that the aesthetics of these buildings don’t matter to me—in both books, I try to use the architect’s design philosophy to guide the way I use the space of the page, from the mobile and repeated blocks of text in my 2018 chapbook Discipline Park to the florid, ornamental concrete poems in Jewel Box (in progress).

I’d like to turn the question back around to you: how do you understand your own relationship to modernism? Do you agree that your work skips over the postmodern and returns to modernism? Do you find that working, at times, outside (or in addition to) the poetic traditions of the United States allows you to develop different or more innovative answers to these questions than poets who work in a single language, single country tradition? Surveying the output of the recent avant-garde, much of the work seems parochial and predictable to me—part of what I love about your work is the way it negotiates past those blockages. How do you do it??

AD: I’m pleased you think I have original answers to the old questions! If I do find some innovative leads, it most definitely has to do with reading and with my inner pantheon. Lautréamont + Rabelais + Max Jacob just doesn’t lead to the same results as H. D. + John Donne + WCW, to put it arithmetically (?). There are certainly Anglophone poets who have meant a great deal to me – Dylan Thomas, Roethke, Wyatt, Riding, Stein, etc. – but the fundamentals are mostly Francophone, for better or for worse. This has a drawback in American poetry: you say Pound, I say Apollinaire is more than tomaytoes and tomahtoes, and my conversations with American poets occasionally end up feeling like a dialogue de sourds – a dialogue between deaf people, as the ridiculous ableist French expression would have it (the expression must have come about before standardized sign languages were in common usage…). You get the idea.

I’ve had other people place my work squarely within postmodernism, in fact; one poet felt my work was something like “a postmodern Ovid.” But if I feel more of an attachment to modernism, I think it’s because I’m still attached to the idea of organic unity; that the elements of a poem should contribute to the meaning of the whole. There are plenty of poets who don’t buy this at all these days, and whose work has a kind of stochastic quality. Bob Grumman used to refer to this as “jump-cut poetry,” and the less accomplished varieties of this can be truly dull and uninteresting, because collage poetics, or poetics of discontinuity more generally, require much more artfulness than most poets are willing or able to provide. Discontinuity is of course also a modernist dream (discontinuity is a dream, not a realized achievement of (post)modern poetics, in my opinion), but postmodernity seems more attached to it as a radical ideal.

On the whole, I’d qualify myself as a skeptical postmodernist – someone who distrusts the idea of historical rupture; who thinks we never leave the past behind, as we do according to a certain modernist mythology. But that’s complicated by the fact that modernists themselves didn’t buy that discourse of rupture either, and ironize consistently about it: when you claim to leave the past behind, it comes back and bites you in the butt, naturally, and the modernists knew it as well as we do. But postmodernity, rather than ironizing about historical rupture and artistic novelty, prefers to discard that mythology entirely. Or so it seems to me.

Let’s end with a question that looks toward the future. What’s next for you?

TA: I like what you say here about your attachment to organic unity. I think that’s a theme in my work too. Though I love Nathaniel Mackey and Robert Duncan, I’m not particularly interested in producing an open-ended serial poem. I like Aristotle’s insistence that a tragedy should be like the body of a medium-sized animal: so that you can understand and survey its structure with a quick twitch of the eye. This might help explain some of my interest in architecture too. If you take architectural aesthetics seriously and use them as a model for one’s poetics, then you kind of have to aim for organic unity: there’s not much use for a serial, incomplete building. Maybe this is the link between our work—certainly, I feel a deep sympathy between our otherwise quite distinct poetics.

I have a couple of projects on the horizon. I’m planning a book on Northerly Island, an artificial island off the coast of Chicago. In Daniel Burnham’s 1903 Plan for Chicago, he called for an archipelago of such islands; Northerly Island was the only one ever built. It was the site of the 1933 World’s Fair. In more recent years, it was the site of a regional airport. After many years trying to close the airport through legal means, Richard M. Daley sent bulldozers in the middle of the night to carve immense X’s in the runway; this was 2005, so he justified this extra-legal action by saying that the airport was a terrorism threat. Now it is the site of a prairie preserve—native grasses on an artificial island. The island seems to me a kind of archeological site, where the various forms and structures of urban power in America are arranged one on top of the other.

AD: My collection in progress, An Attic, also has this kind of archaeological angle, though less anchored in objective history. And lately I’ve been wrestling with another kind of architecture – that of the novel, in The First Supper. Thanks so much for this stimulating conversation, Toby! Keep in touch.

TA: I can’t wait to read those projects! And to keep this conversation going.

Toby Altman is the author of Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017) and several chapbooks, including Every Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg (Except One), winner of the 2018 Ghost Proposal Chapbook Prize. His poems can or will be found in Gulf Coast, jubilat, Lana Turner, and other journals and anthologies. He holds a PhD in English from Northwestern University (PhD dissertation, “The Shock of the Old: Periodization, Poetics, and Diachronic Exchange between the Renaissance and the Avant-Garde”) and an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he is currently a John C. Schupes Fellow in Poetry. He is currently completing a multi-book project on the politics and aesthetics of American architecture, including Discipline Park, on Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital, and Jewel Box, on the banks Louis Sullivan built across the rural midwest.

Alexander Dickow is associate professor of French at Virginia Tech. He is a bilingual poet and translator who works in French and English, and a scholar of modern and contemporary French and Francophone literature and film. His poetic works include Appetites (MadHat Press, 2018), Trial Balloons (Corrupt Press, 2012), Rhapsodie curieuse (Louise Bottu, 2017), and Caramboles (Argol Editions, 2008). His scholarly works include Le Poète innombrable: Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob (Hermann, 2015) and Jacob et le cinéma (Nouvelles Editions Jean-Michel Place, 2017). His translation with Sean T. Reynolds of Air of Solitude followed by Requiem by Gustave Roud is forthcoming from Seagull Books in November 2019. He is currently working on a novel, The First Supper, and a new collection of poems called An Attic.


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