Interview with Trisha Low
When Bill Miller, Program Director of George Mason University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, emailed the program asking students to consider taking Ben Doller’s “Conceptual Writing and Ready-Made Texts” as it was a course on which “the never-been-done-before might become a didn’t-get-to-do-it-this-time,” I had a feeling there were well written books (in the Wildean sense that books are well or badly written) to be taught (likely works I had never read before). So I reconsidered my stance and now concern myself with whether or not the “conceptual writing” in front of me is interesting or not. If Low is nothing else, she is most definitely interesting.
Trisha Low’s conceptual piece titled “Confessions” appears in 2011 publication of Against Expressions: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith. Trisha’s project involved recording five Catholic confessionals unbeknown to the priests in which she shared the same story with each priest and received varying and often comical responses. Low transcribed the recording, replacing the name of each participant with a number. Here, you will find an interview with the poet Trisha Low on her work and self-identification as a feminist.
-Michael Stein (M), Trisha Low (T)
M: Can you tell me about the path of Confessions becoming selected for the Against Expression Anthology?
T: People ask me this a lot – I mean, I’m just a little girl-poet who got lucky. Sometimes I say it’s because I sucked Kenny Goldsmith’s cock. And then people say ‘what, really?’ and I say, ‘no, of course not’. The thing about poetry is that it’s a social field – the questions sometimes are ‘do you know such and such’ and ‘how can you not know who and who’. But interactions in this case aren’t just a matter of getting a chapbook published, or getting a thing in an anthology, it’s because community – interpersonal relationships can deeply affect choices in form, performance, vocabulary. So, contemporary poetry and its community a site of disjunction and rupture, a place at which conversations unfold, and the forces of cultural/social location, personal politics and language-function come to a head, manifesting themselves in poetic work that confirms the dialogic nature of poetry. Poetry is social, and sexual, and fraught with the idiosyncrasies of a kind of totally dysfunctional, incestuous family. How many poets do you know who’ve fucked other poets, collaborated with them, created formal divides when they parted ways? Textual innovation can’t be entirely set apart from life-experiences. And there aren’t any stronger life experiences than love, sex, desire (in reading, in feeling out words, & also people). Embodied poetics. Making the field with my body. That’s what I’m interested in.
Kenny Goldsmith’s been a kind of a weird and fabulous uncle figure. It started when I took his Experimental Writing class at Penn as a sophomore – love him much, and learned a lot but of course there were disagreements. This was a final project for that class. When he and Craig were editing the anthology he asked if he could include it and, of course, I said yes. I can’t say enough how generous he was to put my piece in this anthology. He’s been an influence, but also a huge challenge – and hey, it’s the difficult things that get you working towards better, and different kinds of understandings.
M: How does it feel to be included in an anthology alongside Beckett and Burroughs?
T: It’s totally nuts. I don’t necessarily believe in an old-fashioned, (and rather masculinist) cult of ‘genius’ – and, as Nada Gordon said at the Rethinking Poetics conference ‘you can’t ‘rethink poetics’ in the same old stadium of power’, so the anthology includes a wide range of writers and artists whose work I entirely respect, but also resent. And resentment is important because it’s that kind of adolescent pain that can lead to a deeper transformation. I’m a masochist, what can I say? See, you say Beckett and Burroughs, but I’m more interested and excited to be alongside Caroline Bergvall, Kathy Acker. Everyone has different heroes, and I think this anthology, although a teaching tool, and a historicizing one, in a sense, also takes into account emotional, visceral reactions as one of the most primary indicators of value, as opposed to just work that’s been widely and institutionally acclaimed. I guess one thing I really love about it is that the anthology gestures towards a younger generation of writers who are just beginning to explore subversive possibilities within old frameworks, and I think that’s incredibly important. If we want to rethink poetics, we have to also rebel, in whichever ways we each feel best about. For me, rebellion is also to be constrained, to work within the law and disrupt it because of my very adherence to it. But then that could just be my own fucked up little girlishness again. Kenny and Craig are teachers in this book, but they also suggest what students can teach teachers. And that’s what’s incredible about it – it keeps shifting the frame. It reveals the fetishistic investment of the historic literary law in violently policing the voluntary exposure of a whore’s naked body.
M: When you saw your work published in AE, what did you make with of the truncating of the manuscript (essentially whittling down your chapbook to just the confessions)?
T: Actually, Confessions was initially a stand-alone piece – I integrated some other pieces/parts of my writing for the chapbook Gordon Faylor worked with me to publish at gauss.pdf. I guess I don’t have the particular qualms other writers might have about slicing and dicing up existing pieces of work, re-contextualizing them and recycling bits and pieces. I don’t religiously worship any kind of aesthetic (and bodily) whole, because it also suggests to me, the annunciation of the ‘human’ or the ‘poetic object’ as a totality. I like flaws &fragments (Anne Lauterbach). A fragment, is what, in reading, rends about a perfect text. It is a destructive flaw rather than being simply the by-product of violence. Lauterbach wants to reclaim the incomplete fragment as exactly what it is, incomplete, complex, acted upon by many other mediums and constructed, molded, socially, politically, linguistically. Her fragment (and mine) is the female ‘I’, the unchaste, the impure, nothing near the ‘perfect victim’, the revered muse or the chaste virgin, but some fragment of a larger whole someone might try to construct. It is difficult to be a girl because you are only a small part of what people assume you are, more so than men, you are made to be a whole by others. Less voluntarily, more transparently, being a girl is undergoing open heart surgery without the anesthesia. I am acted upon. My poem is acted upon because it is part of my world.
I like mirrors. I want to confound totalizing signs and signifiers. For me, it’s about when you can breathe and when you stop breathing. wanting to breathe and then not wanting to at all. [...] I like how any one text can become another text when there are spaces between them to inhabit, it is what makes it possible to write down history, and what makes it possible for detective novels to operate the way that they do. Reading as remembering, perhaps, but it is reading through things, in others, the Other as not a reflection, but part of the self, moving, not yet murdered, and the spaces press up against your throat. ‘things fit together. we knew that – it is the principle of magic… a poem is never to be judged by itself alone. a poem is never by itself alone. ‘ – Jack Spicer. i try to read and write like that. Poems as one night stands. The ‘I’ as haunted.
M: Do you consider yourself a poet? A poet-prose writer? Do you think artists should steer clear of these conventional terms as much as possible?
T: Genre isn’t particularly interesting to me outside of the fact that I like inhabiting interstitial spaces – it’s my feminist drive to reclaim the outsider statuses that have been so devalued in a larger historical and literary tradition. I bask in thousand year old shame. Sometimes that thousand year old shame is narrative. I like kitschy, corrosive forms that look like they fulfill traditions of genre but expose their fallacies – they are important to me as a new means of parasitic production that lodges itself within the body of the avant-garde tradition, but it can also be read into the poetic practices of existing work (Can we see Pound’s Cantos as part of a tradition of feminized, poorly regarded bricolage, for example?). Wherefore then do all the illuminative points stand when we mirror grotesquely and unassumingly highly regarded works and practices?
M: Another writer included in the anthology is Monica de la Torre, her work while appearing “nonfictional” in form (emails between people on a listserv) was actually “fictive” in the sense that Maria de la Torre made up each character and their email addresses. With Confessions, there is strong emphasis placed on the fact that these conversations actually happened (at least in the intro the piece). Do you feel that the fact that your conversations were recorded pushes your work towards a more “nonfictional” kind of writing?
T: Fiction, non-fiction, we’re back to genre. I’m interested in real things in the performative quote ‘real’ sense of the term. Which is to say, what is ‘authenticity’? Aren’t we just what we project to the world? Aren’t we all, in some ways, entirely artificial because of the constructs within which we’ve been taught to operate? Caroline Bergvall writes that ‘pain is the direct result of a body caught in circuitry’ – i’m interested in investigating and exploring the ways in which people wear masks that they can’t even see. In this age particularly, the body as a symptom rather than the cause of media – think Myspace pages, fashion trends etc. When a dominant power is negated because of its own artificiality. The difference between the dildo and a phallus. Brian McHale sees the implications of a dictated text as being to ‘render the language-machine visible’. Playing off of William Carlos Williams’ definition of a poem as ‘a small (or large) machine made of out words’, McHale speaks of the poem-machine as a submission to the genius of language itself. I want to not simply parody the mechanics of language-in-the-media, but the systematic oppressions, or artistic hierarchies culturally built into such a machine.
Things that are perpetuated in meatspace. Nowadays we are all tainted with viral origins. Even saying that language is performative doesn’t go far enough because it asks the further question of what sort of act is being performed, and just who is performing it. It is not I who speaks, but the virus inside us. And this virus/speech is not an isolated action, but a motivated and directed one – a command. Burroughs – ‘the symptoms of a virus are the attempts of the body to deal with the virus attack. By their symptoms you shall know them… if a virus produces no symptoms, then we have no way of knowing that it exists.’ I want to make work that, deals with the language//body that is symptomatic of language-viruses as they appear in social interactions, in media, making the visible the infection, making it disjunctive and beautiful. The question of ‘truth’, or fiction/non-fiction is irrelevant because reality is only a consensus of the majority.
M: We talked to another poet from AE, Noah Eli Gordon, who has an excerpt from his prose-poem Inbox. While he didn’t take issue with being in an anthology of conceptual writing, he did take issue with “just being labeled a conceptual poet.” It wasn’t the label that bothered him, as much as it was a signifier in the poetry world that he had somehow taken sides, or was part of a smaller crop of conceptual poets. Do you feel comfortable with the title “conceptual poet/writer?”
T: Baby, I’ll be whatever you want me to be.
Do you feel particularly connected to any of the other authors in the anthology?
Vanessa Place is a huge influence because she complicates the relationship between politics/aesthetics/accessibility. I mean, at the end of the day, I identify strongly as a feminist, as someone who wants to make work that is polemic and didactic. I’m drawn to her work because knows the difference between restraint and restraints and chooses the latter quite clearly in the cause of resistance.
Charles Bernstein remains my professor and uh, to be totally sentimental, I can’t really thank him enough for creating the kind of intellectual space for me to develop my own thoughts, albeit entirely informed by his wealth of knowledge. He teaches kind of like this:
from this comic
“snowed in, know what that means.
all social constructs have been dissolved. i’m not your dad any more, i’m just a person.
but i don’t even know what a person is.
you get to decide what words mean now, buddy”
“a person is someone who makes me macaroni.”
He’s also pushed me to realize that it’s what I hate, what i don’t understand that’s most notable – finding out why I feel those things is the most useful tool for thinking about poetry& poetics (like that time in his class I offered to fistfight someone over Robert Creeley).
Caroline Bergvall, too, for manipulating within the frame, Kathy Acker cause she’s the godmother of all the fucked up little punk girls and their art.
M: Would you say your work belongs to a particular movement or group of authors/artists? When I read your work I immediately thought of the Marquis de Sade’s “Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man,” is this too clumsy a comparison?
T: Sade is important to me – but my question is how and why you see Sade in my work, and what that tells me about you? It is the glitch in transmission (and to that end, the reader as glitch in transmission), in reception that is what functions about conceptual poetry, it is the responses it provokes that makes it subversive. Conceptual poetry may look clinical but it is never clean. it is a bloody murder in a rowhouse that’s been boarded up with Plexiglas. You can watch, and react, but you can’t quite touch -
Everyone has gloves on already anyway – ‘the receiver can fill it up with what is already known, that the receiver already thinks’ (Stephanie Young).
But you know, Swinburne writes about Sade – ‘You take yourself to be a great pagan physiologist and philosopher – you are a Christian ascetic bent on earning the salvation of the soul through mortifications of the flesh … Your one knack is to take common things, usual affect, natural pleasures and make them walk on their heads by simple process of reversing … you worship the phallus as those first ascetics worshipped the cross; you seek heaven by the same route they sought theirs’
What I will say about Sade also is that he maintains the traditional Catholic division between the flesh and spirit – which is something I think a lot about, whichever side I’m on, on whichever particular day. I am fickle.
M: Lastly, do you have a working definition of “conceptual writing?” Is it even necessary to classify conceptual writing, or should we be more focused on how conceptual works interplay rather than how specific works don’t fit the definition of conceptual?
T: I think that ‘conceptual writing’ is the broad banner under which many different works, of many different operating systems and purposes are being brought together for the purposes of interplay. Conceptual poems are pretty slutty, they’ll go with many& any different types of classifications. I have a feeling it might actually be about marketing, and ‘branding’, but I’m too little to speak about that. If I had to give a definition, mine would be that conceptual poetry is a masochistic, body and time intensive project, that sees restraints (not restraint) and intention as key to negotiating the most open-ended forum of response. I can’t speak for anyone else.
I wanted to ask how you what you made of your introduction, particularly the line “When finished, she returned home and transcribed the conversations without editing.” Would you describe your process a bit?
You know, I think my project was less of a formalist one than the introduction suggests, particularly since I’m interested in the body as form, and sexual politics are definitely, and always important to me, but I’m not one to negotiate or correct someone’s reading of my work, because their reading of my work, well, is my work.
I certainly tried to edit as least I could, but transcription is also a displacement, and for that displacement to occur you have to make a series of decisions – ellipses or dashes? Numbers or letters? I just came up with a set of rules and followed them.
This project was an exercise in self-exploitation more than anything else.