One of Canada’s major postmodern poets, Adeena Karasick is the author of seven books of poetry and poetic theory, including Amuse Bouche: Tasty Treats for the Mouth (2009) and The House That Hijack Built (2004). Her poetry, whether on the page, the stage or on the world wide web, is a performative, multi-layered, mind-bending melange of deeply scholarly research and madcap pop cultural detournement. She’s Professor of Global Literature at St. John's University in New York. Future projects include a highly parodic, satirical and ironic video of ‘Poemology’ (from Amuse Bouche), featuring “languaging at the forefront while highlighting the obsessive insanity of (our networked – friended and followed) post-consumerist culture.”
This spring she and bill bissett embark on the Bouche / time Euro-Russki Tour, with stops in London, the Text Festival in Manchester, the Logos Foundation in Belgium, Barcelona, Geneva, Paris and St. Petersburg.
litlive.ca and Karasick chose to carry on the interview via email, which allowed for a lot of playful textual construction, ‘borrowed’ texts from various sources, and of course emoticons. While Karasick self-identifies first as a ‘page poet’, the interview focuses on her parallel evolution as a videopoet.
litlive.ca: Browsing your website, I see that you were studying English in Vancouver back in the mid-eighties – but for some reason, I get the sense that your birth as a poet took place outside of academia. Can you describe how you first became interested in the possibilities of poetics? When did you first test your voice in public (print and performance)? Who were your peers, who was egging you on, feeding your curiosity, critiquing, instructing, guiding you? What was your 'scene'? How does Anerca: A Journal of Postmodern Poetry and Poetics figure into this?
Adeena Karasick: Wow that’s going way back. But what happened was in the mid-eighties I chanced upon Warren Tallman at UBC who ushered me in to a world of poetic madness. There was not a lot going on in Vancouver at this time. TISH was dead, BC Monthly was on permanent hiatus. Writing magazine existed, but no ongoing reading series. In the midst of it all, Warren organized a TISH reunion. So my first experience of literary performance was watching Frank [Davey], George [Bowering], Daphne [Marlatt], Fred [Wah] and Jamie [Reid] … Warren was so drunk he had drenched his introduction and had lost three of the pages … But, I was rapt. Soon after he took it upon himself to ensure I knew every aesthetic lineage, both in Canada and the US and how it all intersected. He created dioramas and drew me extensive graphs and then proceeded to see to it that I personally knew every single important living writer – first, bill [bissett], then barrie (bp[Nichol]) (who gave me my first Gertrude Stein book), and Steve (McCaffery); then Bob Creeley and Allen Ginsberg at Naropa then NY; Robert Duncan in SF, Robyn Blaser & Jess who lived upstairs, Denise Levertov, eventually Charles (Bernstein) – who he said was my astral twin. We would go on road trips and hang with all – and THIS was my education.
When I returned Kedrick [James], Wreford [Miller] and I knew we had to start a magazine. We bought an old offset press, which we kept in Kedrick’s basement and in the spirit of TISH, with Warren as guide, proceeded to fill a literary gap. Divining the name from some Cagean procedure, Anerca (Inuit for breath and poetry) was born. We photocopied it on fluorescent paper and sent it out to everyone on Allen Ginsberg’s mailing list (a mailing list we hand copied out one night while sleeping on his New York East Village cockroach infested floor), and every Canadian writer who we could find the address for. We still have a $50.00 framed check from Margaret Atwood : ) We wanted to publish work that was pushing the boundaries of language, that called attention to himself. We were young and didn’t know a lot. But knew what we liked.
Our aim was to make stuff happen in a time where there was a real lull. I somehow just knew that putting words together, recombining letters was a necessary and politically relevant gesture. I hung out in the between spaces. Between Kootenay School and “downtown” with Gerry Gilbert and Roy Kiyooka. Maxine Gadd. So much time with bill learning about sound and concrete and living poetry every day. Both bp and bill still pervade so much of what I do. From an early age, it was their soundplay, their attention to language on a molecular level; showing me how it is possible to work simultaneously along syntagmatic and diachronic axes – make sense while exceeding it, in any traditional normative narrative way. With bp there was a kinda romance there, where the letters came alive, were saints, foregrounding how there was a holiness inside language and I so connected with that; as with bill, his chanting, humor, where lines / words infinitely trajectoral, spiral, layer upon each other, making you dance with them until you are dizzy, ecstatic and see the world anew. As you know, I continue to perform with and learn from him each day; his continual investigation of language and meaning; voicing the concrete, foregrounding the physicality, materiality of language. Reminding me always how letters are alive; a palace (a plais) to live in.… And also learning very significantly, from Peter Quartermain the lineages of language poets from Pound, Elliot, Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein.
And it’s this messy assemblage, this ragtag assortment of my sisters and brothers that now filter though, haunt all the waking hours between letters and the wide open spaces, the rapturous apertures, syntactic axes of inexorable torment and possibility pulsing through how meaning is constructed, destabilized, with letters as your building blocks.
litlive.ca: Whenever I see you perform (or read your work) I think of the poet as a kind of cyclonic still-point, and all aspects of language whirl around that point like cultural debris torn apart by an irresistible force. There's certainly a 'sense' to your work, but it has something in common with fractals, chaos theory, sudden seismic shifts and the stop-motion movement of plants. It makes me curious about your relationship to culture – mass culture, 'high' culture, culture in general. Are you drawn to the dramatic, the explosive, the violent imagery of war and terrorism by a desire for radical cultural / societal change? Is poetry a way to own or master the head-spinning velocity of mass culture?
A.K.: I firmly believe that there is a direct connection between language and sociopolitical transformation and change. Drawing on all the socio-political lingual aspects of the world is both an attempt to re-present, re-process; to cut into, make a scission, rupture it, defamiliarize it so that you have to renegotiate it / navigate through it again and again, form a shifting axes of influence / perspective.
And I am no more drawn to the explosive language of war than to the language of desire, of art, fashion, deconstructionist or economic discourse, because all language is explosive, a shifting assemblage of subjectivities aligned along shifting axes of influence. It’s a process of asemic / dyssemic bricolage, framing / engaging with all the sacred and vulgar, the luxuriant and the uncontainable and this is a political exercise. And whether it adopts its form or manner or lexicon from a flight manual or a pop song, from the Wittgensteinian Tractatus or a sacred Kabbalistic text, all the memes, letters, swerves curves of the scrolling corollary are invited to the semiotic soiree; where the letters as guests play and engage in a socio-semiotic political arena of frivolity, festivity.
litlive.ca: Part of what makes your poetry compelling and a bit unnerving is the foregrounding of the libidinal subtext of postmodern discourse – your poetry is moist, dappled, slippery, sexy. Among many other things, you introduce this sexual subtext into Kabbalah and the image repertoire of Osama bin Laden, with predictably explosive results. What role does sexuality – and more generally, sensuality, groundedness, rooted-in-the-present-ness – play in your poetics, and in your mission as a feminist poet? As a feminist, do you feel oppressed by the phallocentrism of our civilization(s) – as evidenced in your video imagery of burning towers, spermatazoa, etc.?
A.K.: In part, it’s playing with stereotype and undercutting it, subverting it. One thing that fascinates me is taking language that doesn’t belong in “serious literature” and mashing it up with that which is familiar and sometimes destabilizing. Same goes with the inevitably disturbing in-your-face images or allusions to women’s sexuality, their bodies. In regard to the Osama video, I was interested in playing with the images of women in pop music. The overt and destabilizing sexuality, ridiculous over-the-top antics for attention. And I was thinking about how not only the look of this constructed sexuality, but the sound of pop music tends to nullify all thought; anaesthetizes us – lulls us into a false sense of security, complacency, apathy. So, I thought it was funny to use this structure / frame but say these totally outrageous things: “Forget Dar es Salaam and the Pentagon, Mamamia! Make me explode like Tanzania!”
So this video is not anti-feminist but a kind of a non-violent direct action, creative protest against the construction of post 9/11 consumerist ideology. A lot of my recent work is focused on parody, satire. And if you think about satire as “imitation with a critical difference,” an ironic investigation and comment on how we are so shaped by the media apparatus, our national obsession with celebrity, commodity, technology; how we deal with fear. Yes, some of the work is audacious, subversive, provocative – say taking Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” and playing with that idea of female representation in the media – mashing the fluffiest of pop culture with a whole history of philosophy and aesthetics (Derrida and Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, Benjamin, Marx, Stein, Spinoza, Schwitters…)
So, yes, in lots of the work, there’s this sense of overt sexuality but it explodes ontologically and cuts into the fabric of things; the smooth functioning of the quiet comfortability, or the “homeyness” of our world. Why can’t I appear as a proud Jew cutting a shabbas chicken in a bikini or dress as a Saudi goddess cum bellydancer or supplant my face on top of Beyoncé’s body, or appear as a hot cartoon character? I find it so ironic, how these slippery and delicious re-presentations of women, of sexuality, of desire, of bodies (which mimic the very slipperiness of language itself) are so threatening and unleash such chaos, create unsocialized anarchy.
But, also, it’s important to remember that the letters themselves are all physically enmeshed, engaged in intricate combinatory methods. So, metonymically this language inevitably should be drenched with desire, languing, inevitably is dripping with possibility and that needs to be foregrounded.
litlive.ca: I've seen six of your poetry videos on youtube: Alphabet City (1999), Belles-L’êtres, Mumbai Ya, This is Your Final Nitris - Who's Got the Blues or the Blue Man of Black Rock City, I Got a Crush on Osama, and All The Lingual Ladies (Put A Frame On It) (2010).
What I find in this progression is that at first you experimented with the standard 'music video' format – ie. having the poet acting out or lipsynching the text – but the text itself is not so much in evidence. Then, at a certain point you begin to explore the art of video montage or collage – and then it is no longer the poet, but the poem that is up on the screen. The imaginary has become really imaginary. If Adeena appears in the mix, she might be a cartoon, she might have her face grafted onto Beyoncé's body - she is as much a part of the (visual) text as any other image.
I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the art of making a poetry video (or as Tom Konyves puts it, the 'videopoem'). At what point in your career did you become interested in working with video imagery as an artist (as opposed to simply 'appearing' in a video as a poet)? Are you reaching a point now where it becomes possible to conceive of 'stand-alone' video poems – poems that are composed as video poems from the start, and that are not possible in a purely textual (performed or printed) format? What has this practice taught you or revealed to you, as a poet?
A.K.: Well, I have always been pretty focused on the visual aspect of language – the physicality, materiality of the letters – and was extremely excited from a very early age when I saw Peter Gabriel’s 1980’s ‘Sledghammer’ and something in my brain just exploded. It was exactly where I wanted poetry to go. But not only did I not have the resources (not even sure if I had a computer in those days) but it just wasn’t something people were doing with poetry.
As time progressed and technology advanced, more opportunities for dissemination became possible (ie. Heather Haley’s Vancouver Videopoem Festival in 1999, “Telepoetics” and the Edgewise Electrolit Center, Joe Blades’ Tidal Wave Film Fest in Halifax a few years later 2003). But that was it!
Now there are videopoem festivals worldwide (India, S. Africa, Berlin) – you can load them on youtube, carry them with you on your i-phone, kobo kindle, reader, i-pad; show them at your readings on big screens off a little stick. But most significantly, because of the insane rate of technological advancement, there’s enormous opportunity for intricate and complex visual graphitic variation and trajectory.
So the first, attempt was Alphabet City – I had just moved to New York – living in the heart of the East village squalor; between Avenue B & C; and it was really just a testament to this idea of living IN language. Simply shot with some visual montage.
With Belle L’être, I worked with NY Filmmaker Marianne Shaneen, and it was created for a festival of video and poetry for St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York; whereby they were trying to create more of a conversation between the visual artists and poets here in New York. This was the only one of the bunch which was truly collaborative.
Mumbai Ya – I wrote after a long trip to India and I was really disturbed and fascinated with notions of cultural appropriation; how western culture is so fetishistic regarding all the exotic trappings and how all these “translations” of culture get repurposed and commodified so the video becomes this swirling morass of mimicry and warped fetishization. Shot again in Alphabet City.
A few years later, with the Burning Man video (This IS Your Final Nitrous), I was interesting in pushing the montage a bit further – using more modes of destabilization and defamiliarity, incorporating more formal qualities of disruption, subversion to mirror a little more what was going on within the language …
With I Got a Crush on Osama I was completely consumed with how he had come to be the ultimate symbol of Otherness, of defamiliarity, of all things that are alien. So, caricaturing him, kinda undermined the power of that image, and the insane fear that the gov’t and media here in the US have instilled within us regarding him. And, as he hadn’t put out a video in quite some time, I just wanted to give him some “face time.” : )
And most recently, taking this parodic impetus even farther in Lingual Ladies – but now totally subsumed within a framework of Conceptual Poetry – navigating through how we frame and re-frame language, repurpose art, discourse – Lingual Ladies is a parody or repurposing of Beyoncé’s pop hit “Single Ladies” and kinda acts as an example of and commentary on Conceptual Poetry.
For the past twenty years, my work has been focused on aspects of intralingual post literary construction – whether its videopoems (I Got A Crush on Osama, or This IS Your Final Nitrous) slide projections, homolinguistic, pataphysical translations, or the repurposing of the 50’s style dating etiquette handbook, “The Rules”, its incorporating a post-literate, hyper-generative aesthetics highlighting recycled language, sampling, borrowing, cutting, pasting, mash-up, engaged in an inter-ventive poetics marked by neo-formalized post-consumerist media-enfused transgressive linguistic practices.
The video Lingual Ladies foregrounds the process of hunting and gathering, of assemblage, bricolage, grabbing and cutting and pasting; becomes a kind of cultural translation, a socio-cultural ideological religious mash-up. It draws from the materiality, miasma of cultural / intellectual archive – and aims to de-hierarchize or problematize, interrogate that distinction between a kind of philosophical / high art discourse and the “lowbrow” seeming banality of pop culture.
Along with a “repurposed” Beyoncé, it features cameos from the texts or likeness of Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, the Italian and Russian Futurists, Marx, Derrida, Levinas, Benjamin, bp Nichol, Spinoza, Helene Cixous, Hannah Arendt, all floating through the boppy mistranslation of a pop song.
Basically this is a rallying cry for the women of Conceptual Poetry to "put their pens up", TO WRITE and be engaged / participate in a vital act of cultural translation, a memetic translation. And if a meme, a unit of cultural info virally replicating itself through language, “make a text of radical memes”.
I wanted the video to be highly parodic in nature, satirical and ironic. And, if you really think about it, parody is not merely a “send-up” or spoof, generated to mock but rather as a jumping off point, to comment on cultural practice, female representation, intellectualism, meaning-making. It’s satirical in the way that it’s social commentary, incorporating strategies of exaggeration, juxtaposition, fractured comparison, analogy, and highlights certain discordant features of “reality,” art, ideology, the concept of framing –
– how a frame is a bracket / a cutting off and into – is NOT a static enclosure but a kind of calling into, a caress; how a frame is a passage into and out from – a contingent holding pattern from which one can intensely investigate luxuriate or bask in and then let go of … a flux of frames reframed in infinite aims.
Through the making of this it made me really question WHY is it so important or interesting to engage in a process of repurposing or stealing, borrowing shoplifting information – and it just made me really think about how everything is a parasc/tical process, all intertextual and archival; a rewriting, a retranslation of a retranslation; how the page a pageantry of the giddy googler gone rogue mad gatherer & madly gathering, a plucker of fragments of parsed pulse plais plays laced socio-political-lingual culturul shards fractures highlighting how nothing is pure, but contaminated with palimpsested resonance –
So Lingual Ladies – a work of excess and exuberance; writing against resistance enclosure, risk, fear, but with festive frivolity …
litlive.ca: As for the design of the videos: you wrote 'I design every detail, conceive of, hunt for, gather and envision but somebody else actually puts it in the program.'
I'm always interested in artistic process. Can you talk about parallels and differences between how you might construct a poem or text, and how you construct the video image / text flow. Does it grow organically from the original process of constructing a text? Does it introduce something new to the mix?
AK: Well, sometimes it just comes down to the poem wants to be animated. Obviously, off the page there’s so much more possibility in terms of animation, interactivity (in a more foregroundedly visceral way). Process-wise, the poem always comes first: Osama. Burning Man. Mumbai Ya, Belle L’être. And with the exception of Alphabet City they are all published in one book or another … Sometimes I write it and it screams out for attention and wants to be not bound within the confines of a book but wants to be on a big screen with actors and music and big band. For me, usually, the first step is to record it, then work with musicians, composers, organically create some electronic mash up or score. And then I start obsessing on what I want it to look like. How much animation, how much play, how twisted distorted, how foregrounded the language itself should be – how can I push myself farther, try something new. Like with ‘Lingual Ladies’ I have the scrolling text. Ideally, I would love to have an interactive quality embedded where it could hyperlink to other texts, videos, definitions, references, a kind of “pop-up poetry video” where you can click on any word and it will take you to a poetry video, to Penn Sound, ubuweb, to hyperlinked commentary, analysis, a photo, fragments of other poems, essays, quotes, and you, as the reader can crawl inside these counterpointed eruptions; lateral feed nodes ...
Which would take you on an intertextilic journey where every letter, a wriggling insignia of angles, codes, references, concentrated emanations and transmutations – ’cause (according to Kabbalah), every letter or part of a letter implies every other letter, "contains the whole universe and all future creations" – And what’s kinda cool is that if you think about it, temporally, this project (as a kind of electronic Midrashic) harkens back as far as Temple times, the first millennium, yet simultaneously is rooted in this age of technomediatic advancement and as such for me foregrounds how inside a text all is contemporaneous and how there is nothing outside of it / no beginning, end or containment but is this locus of locution where meaning splits, gathers and ever-disseminates; and all that is written and all that is performed, imaged, youtubed, twittered and tagged emerges as one text, a vortext of memes, appellations, inscription and silences.
So, yes there is a lot to explore outside the confines of the book
But whatever else happens, I am of
the people of