Brian Howe Interview

Brian Howe is published or forthcoming in: McSweeney's, Octopus Magazine, Fascicle, Soft Targets, MiPo, Melancholia’s Tremulous Dreadlocks, Eratio, GutCult, Word For/ Word and more.

SK: Have you ever made another poet cry?

Brian Howe: I'll tell you three stories. They could very well all be apocryphal, though one might be true.

I once made Tony Tost cry. He was on a seven-day juice fast and I came to his house and blended up some T-Bone steaks, drank them down right in front of him, then bit his beard until he agreed to call me "Mommy."

I once made Gabe Gudding cry. He was feeling sad and I sent him a song by Life Without Buildings, the very pinnacle of "bands who broke up before they had time to tarnish their legacy". The song is called "Sorrow" and it is very beautiful. It makes you feel sad in that way that feels very good.

I once made Billy Collins cry. I came to him as an apparition in a dream, rattling chains and saying in a spooky voice, "I AM THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN POETRY...."

SK: Are you going to make me cry?

Brian Howe: Shut the fuck up you sissy.

(note: The following questions interpreted through profound sobs.)

SK: You said, "...don't resort to clusters of self-negating dangling modifiers like 90% of the 'post-avants.'" Could you elaborate on this?

Brian Howe: Well I run the risk of sounding self-righteous here, but I have a strong aversion to poetic language that strives to be adventurous simply by being obscure. All I mean is that writing sentences with subjects and absent verbs or verbs and absent subjects, or just breaking up language into little fragments for the hell of it, isn't very exciting to me if the language doesn't sparkle with music and portent. This might seem hypocritical when you look at my poetry; I'm willing to acknowledge that. All I can say in my defense is that my poetics is heavily governed by process, and that I'm very concerned with the musicality of the language. But I might well be guilty of the very sin I decry, as is so often the case -- dark mirrors and all that...

SK: Would you please show me a large dangling modifier, yours or anybody else's?

Brian Howe: not safe for work

SK: Do you write much literary critical analysis? I don't think I saw any on your blog Slatherpuss but I did see some cool pictures there and quotes for your upcoming chapbook Guitar Smash from Atlanta's 3rdness press.

Brian Howe: I do dabble in book reviews, although they tend to me more general-readership things than hardcore critical analysis. Book reviews are more time-consuming than music reviews, plus I love books enormously and worry about doing too many book reviews, making books "work" the same way that music now often feels like "work" to me (I write a fuck of a lot of music crit, you have to to make a living at it). I used to review fiction I liked for About.com -- David Foster Wallace, Stephen Millhauser, Richard Price, Nicholson Baker -- but they didn't pay anything besides free books and I had to give it up. I've written exactly one poetry book review, of David Mieklejohn's Effing chap Plots (good book), for GutCult. While it was a fine experience, I decided that I didn't want to write poetry reviews -- I'd rather just write poetry, and anyway, at a certain level the whole nepotistic "I'll review your chap if you review mine" thing seems a bit icky to me. I also write about music-related books for Paste -- I just wrote about an academic study of Japanese hip-hop that was pretty fascinating.

SK: Jon Leon, who's written reviews for Jacket Magazine, gave Guitar Smash a positive review and referred to your writing style as "Science Future" and went on to say your work "pushes the boundaries of what a poem can be by assimilating technology, sampling, and repetition to transcend and skirt categorizations like modern, post, and avant." Tell me about Science Future. The poet is removed from the poem?

Brian Howe: I liked Jon's review; he cut right to the heart of the thing, although I'd expect no less from Jon. He's a sharpie, he is. Science Future is Jon's term so I can't talk about that directly, although the Futurist implications ( i.e. the Italian Futurists) of the book are spot-on. When I began working my current process, F7, which predominantly involves using MS Word's spellchecker to make poems in a variety of ways (but which also uses a lot of other technological mediations -- everything I've published in the past couple years is part of this process), I had lots of lofty ideas about removing the author from the work and creating poems outside of any human agency. In the beginning the poems were very process oriented, governed strictly by serial, chance, and patterned operations, delimited by firm boundaries, and I was probably closer to doing what I thought I was doing then. But I soon came to realize that I was all over the damn poems, regardless of how hard I tried to get out of them, and over time I began to use the process more loosely and intuitively, attempting to craft poems that would be interesting even if you had no knowledge of the concept and honing in on what made the poems interesting -- the tension between the machine's algorithms and my fallible human will. GUITAR SMASH, it should be noted, doesn't use the F7 process at all -- I used it to showcase F7 byproducts that used Google sculpting, online translators, text databases, and the MS Word thesaurus function to make poems. The poems in GUITAR SMASH are some of the most troublesome, anti-poetic works that have emanated from the process, sort of a ground-clearing. The two or three chapbooks and the full length manuscript I'm shopping around now will be more focused.

SK: Who, or what, or which magazines do you feel represent good post-avant and also post-modern work and what is avant garde and post-modernist these days?

Brian Howe: Whoa. I should say that I use terms like "post-avant" with scare quotes; it actually has very little currency to me. So post-avant doesn't have enough currency to define, while postmodern has too much -- every since recorded media made sound preservable and manipulable and communications technolgies advanced to the point where local boundaries became essentially meaningless, we've been sliding headlong into postmodernism, this constant re-configuration of manipulable bits of the past, and it's like the proverbial asking a fish to define water. The avant-garde is also by nature undefinable -- the avant-garde isn't a style (although many mistake it for one). If something can be defined, it's been codified, and the avant-garde by nature cannot be codified. So the avant-garde is any cultural product that disrupts the cultural matrix (this isn't necessarily a politically revolutionary action, it can be purely aesthetic), it can manifest in any form as long as it's not definable by current standards and that it is truly disruptive, not emulating disruptive elements of the past. Publications I like, to answer the other part of your question, include Fascicle, Fence (sometimes), MiPo, Jacket, Soft Targets, No, and many others...

SK: You write music reviews for Pitchfork Media.com. Can I ask if you appreciate 80s music in a way that's somewhat but not entirely ironic and if anyone appreciates 80s music in a way that isn't entirely ironic do you think this person is mentally stable?

Brian Howe: When you say '80s music I'm assuming you mean big-budget synth pop, which I can appreciate for its audacity but am not especially into at the moment (right now I'm mostly drawn to noise / sound art / drone stuff, although in my stereo in heavy rotation you'll find the new Yo La Tengo, White Magic, and Ludacris's Green-Lantern-helmed Pre-Release Therapy mix tape). But I know a great many very intelligent people who loves '80s music in an entirely unironic way, although entirely un-nostalgic is another story. As for myself, I prefer music from the future, unless it's Leonard Cohen.

SK: Why are you more handsome than I am? Your Myspace page is great. What is going on there?

Brian Howe: I can't respond to that fully because I don't know what you look like; therefore, I can't be sure of the validity of your claim. All that's certain is yes, I am very handsome, and if I am in fact more handsome than you, it's likely due to my tight girl jeans and asymmetrical haircut. I only have a Myspace page because some people seem to hate email and only communicate through Myspace, so they can get in touch with me there, but I haven't updated it in a very long time. What's going on is two things -- on one level, I'm always drawn to language of an incantatory nature -- I love the cadences of massed words. That's just text I mined from a database. On another, it's something of a dig at Myspace pages -- everyone lists their interests in film, literature and music in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the herd, and everyone winds up putting down the same stuff, and anyway seeming really flat, as people, as if a list of interests in cultural products can define who someone is. So if you look at a bunch of people's Myspace pages it just starts to look like meaningless babble. I just cut to the chase.

SK: You were part of the MiPOesias Reading Series in early October. Please tell me about your experiences in New York?

Brian Howe: A fairly detailed, if somewhat elliptical, account of my trip to New York can be found here here. Also some pictures here. I should mention that I've gotten really lazy about updating my blog -- I'm sure some of the links are out of date (Behrle's probably changed his domain name five times since I last updated), and that I mainly use it as a record of things I'm doing poetically. I'd like to spend more time posting in depth about various things, but it just doesn't fit into my life right now. In fine though, I love New York City. I try to make it up there at least a couple times a year, and I have a tentative plan to move there by the time I'm 30 (giving me about two and half more years to tie things up in North Carolina). At least this has been my plan, although at the moment I wouldn't dream of leaving for a city -- I'm spending a lot of time with friends I love play music in the country and until that peters out, I'm sitting tight.

SK: Are you a fan of John Giorno? He's the only other person I can think of right now who also did poetic voice modification performances.

Brian Howe: I'm afraid I had to Google John Giorno, but the stuff I'm checking out on Ubu right now seems awfully neat. Thanks for turning me on. If my voice modification performances have a primary influence, it's Steve Reich and the tape loop work he did in the 1960s -- things like "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out." In these pieces Reich takes very simple vocal snippets and brings them, ever so gradually, in and out of phase. He commits other acts of violence and trickery upon them as well. The language becomes completely abstract -- it sheds meaning and becomes pure rhythmic sound, like the ocean, or rain. Yet they remain loaded with meaning, since the samples Reich uses for these pieces are from, respectively, a fire-and-brimstone preacher and a civil rights protester. As I mentioned before I'm interested in incantatory language, not to mention the mystical and unfathomable qualities of repetitive sound, and appropriation and re-use, and fractals and circumscribed chaos; Reich's work combines all these and dovetails directly with my interests. I use a digital sampler for mine, and I'm still working on ways to integrate loops more seamlessly and more meaningfully in my readings.

SK: You have an upcoming reading event in Chapel Hill with Tony Tost and others. Is there a healthy lit scene in Chapel Hill, NC.? Do healthy lit scenes exist? Are you friends with Tony Tost or Gabe Gudding? If I asked either of them for an interview would they punch me in the face? Will you punch me in the face?

Brian Howe: North Carolina is chock-a-block with amazing poets; I feel very lucky to live here. I mean, within an hour's drive I've got Tony Tost and Ken Rumble and Randall Williams and Chris Vitiello and Patrick Herron and Todd Sandvik and Chris Salerno and Tessa Jospeh and on and on and on ... Ken Rumble's Lucifer Poetics email list was crucial in bringing these people together. Lucipo used to be a really tight unit -- it was a listserv, but we were also all friends who had parties and went on reading tours and whatnot. After a period of dispersal and tension, Lucipo is showing signs of being reinvigorated (as a local group of poets, not a national email list) and I couldn't be happier about it. The reading I just organized at Nightlight was almost all Lucipo people. I don't know Gabe very well, to answer that question, but I am friends with Tony -- unfortunately, he was sick the night of the reading and had to cancel. I'm certain neither Gabe nor Tony would punch you in the face if you asked them for interviews; they're both friendly guys. I would also not punch you in the face, unless you tried to touch my earlobes, which I have a thing about. I actually haven't punched anyone in the face since I was in Austria in 2002. It was four in the morning and my friend and I had been drinking absinthe at a bar, we were walking back to the woman we were staying with's apartment, and we simply decided it would be fun to punch each other in the face. There's a picture of me showing off my busted lip and him with a gash under his eye; I can show it to you if you want. We were so young and full of promise, then. At any rate, the reading was filmed and should be on YouTube soon, if you wanna get a look at some crazy NC poets.

SK: Do you ever think poetry is just another show business and calling it anything else is like trying to force a small hat on something with antlers?

Brian Howe: Poetry can be show business, like anything can, if you let it. Sometimes it feels that way, when I'm shopping around chapbooks or arguing with relative strangers on email lists. But sitting in front of the computer in a rapturous stupor, cleaving language into smithereens and working it over with technological mediations, doesn't feel much like show business to me -- it's too beautiful and futile. But come to think of it, trying to force a small hat onto something with antlers seems like a pretty good definition of poetry itself.

SK: What's absinthe like? I haven’t tracked any down and won’t be a confident poet until I do.

Brian Howe: I've had "absinthe" several times, but I still don't know what it's like-- I don't think I've come across any with significant wormwood content. So far in my absinthe experience, the only green fairy I've seen has been my own hungover reflection the next morning. I continue to search half-assedly.

SK: You're a member for the performance panel of The Poetics of Re-use reading/talk that will occur on Sunday, December 17th as part of the In Your Ear reading series, sponsored by DC Poetry. I like Ben Lerner a lot. Especially his hair. My question didn't show up on time.

Brian Howe: I also like Ben Lerner a lot -- his poems are full of content. The "Mean Free Path" series that appeared in Soft Targets #1 was "the tits" (that's something some people say around here to express enthusiasm). I excerpted that section on the Re-Use blog because it so aptly describes my current practice of manifesting a potentially infinite chain of reactions from one source text. I wish I had written that; perhaps Ben Lerner would be willing to part with it for a modest sum. I'm looking forward to this Re-Use thing but it's all very ambiguous right now -- it still isn't clear to me what the actual shape of the thing will be. It doesn't really matter; I'm excited to be doing anything with Adam Good and Buck Downs.

SK: You're in Soft Targets. I'm intimidated. Please say something. Maybe we can stare at each other for the rest of the interview. I need to be held.

Brian Howe: Soft Targets is really fancy, it's the best new print journal I've seen in some time, both in design and content. I'm not just saying that because I have some poems in it. Or am I? Ira's really wailing right now and it's a little hard to think, but oh, here comes the fadeout. By the way, I was going to grow half a mustache for Halloween, but I forgot and shaved a couple days before Halloween, and then I didn't have time to grow half a mustache, so I just wore fake glasses. Should you be intimidated by someone who sets for himself the simple task of growing half a mustache and winds up with just fake glasses? I don't think so Sean.

SK: Is Re-use the echo of an apocalypse that's already happened? For example, when I cut my arm and blood comes out is this just the memory of what happened in the past catching up with itself through an arbitrarily refracted light projected against some far curtain of the universe?

Brian Howe: No, that's just blood coming out of your arm. It might not be verifiably real, but it's what we get. Verifiable existence is too much to ask for anyway, we should be content to simply be perceived, and to leave a residue of the phenomenon behind. (I have said this before, somewhere.) Re-Use is not an apocalypse because nothing is destroyed -- the source remains intact while producing an endless series of transfigurations. Text is not a depleteable resource.

SK: Could you tell me about remixing your poetry? I don't think I've seen that done before.

Brian Howe: It works according to the F7 process I believe I described to you earlier. My "Foreign Letter" series, examples of which can be seen in various journals, worked like this: I constructed a poem called "Foreign Letter" by reordering scraps of text from emails an Austrian correspondent had sent to me over the years. From this text, I extrapolated a series of new texts by corrupting the original in various ways -- by reversing the words, for example, or by substituting letters according to a pattern -- and used my word processor's spellchecker to sculpt them. You can see immediately the sort of ramification that rapidly unfurls, the multiplicity that balloons out at an astonishing rate. Any of these texts can be manipulated, combined, and generally manhandled to produce new texts, and all these branching possibilities reach back to the very first text, which nevertheless seems like a starting point that one has left behind, like a little dock from which you've pushed out into the ocean of language, and which you can no longer make out from beyond the waves. I'm interested in Re-Use, especially of the technological variety, partly because it's shaped up as the dominant emergent art of the modern age -- we see it in postmodern literature and visual art, in hip-hop and electronic music, in DJ sets and noise music. It's everywhere. Anyway, readers can feel free to experiment with the process described above, as long as they are prepared to pay me royalties from any monies accrued via these experiments, which might amount to zero dollars, or negative one.

SK: We’ll Always Have Paris Hilton is an excellent sestina you wrote that was published at McSweeney's. How did you write a sestina? I would be too nervous.

Brian Howe: I got really into sestinas in my early twenties. I used to write them all the time. But what's funny is that for the first couple years that I wrote them, how the ending words actually moved, according to their pattern, didn't manifest to me-- I just sort of memorized the their placements in each stanza, which seemed really arbitrary to me; I had some sort of mental block against seeing the pattern. I don't remember which sestina I was reading when the pattern in all its elegant simplicity finally resolved to me, but I remember feeling edified and quite dense simultaneously. At any rate, the one on McSweeney's was a little different. The first six lines are all captions from photos of Paris Hilton someone had put up on a website. Knitting together the rest was painstaking-- it's all Google-sculpted, but it had to conform to the sestina's demands. Basically I googled each line, then combed the results until I found a section of text that could end with the appropriate word and be the line's counterpart in the next stanza. I did this in a sort of daze, late at night, and the final poem startled me-- frightened me, a little. I didn't like it very much, but it existed and that was my fault, so I had to own it.

SK: How do you feel about Paris Hilton?

Brian Howe: She's an easy metaphor -- an overdrawn one, even. Like school shootings, secretly gay conservatives, baristas with iPods. I don't think of her often.

SK: Should she be president of America?

Brian Howe: Do you mean "should" as in "for the greater good" or as in "would America deserve it"? There's a "yes" and "no" that slot in pretty easily there.

SK: Would you applaud if Dolemite broke Paris Hilton's cunt into something as long and red as my mother's scarf?

Brian Howe: That sounds like your poems. Can I plug your poems in this interview? Sean's interviewing me because I told him I liked his poems, everyone. Like Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, he's bringing sexy back.

SK: Can you do a handstand?

Brian Howe: I can do a headstand, I usually topple when I try to go up on my hands. But I keep trying. It's a lot like poetry.


Blogger Kevin said...

Absinthe will take the fillings out of your teeth. I'm currently working my way through a bottle of Diable Vert, but i've had a nicer one, in Amsterdam. . . .

Thanks for the link, man.

Blogger Derick said...

Jesus. Get a room already boys.

Blogger Kevin said...

A room that's already boys? Interesting...

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