Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Conversation with M. Magnus, author of Verb Sap (Narrow House)

Interview with M. Magnus

Magus Magnus' Verb Sap came out from Narrow House of Baltimore in autumn of 2008. Despite an unshakeable sense of the primacy of the written word, M. has done extensive exploration of the ways poetry can be performed off the page, with three projects ongoing during the year of Verb Sap's publication: "MMm… Utterance," an online radio show on blogtalkradio featuring readings from his work; Chan-Magnus Poetics Theatre, his work in both traditional Poet's Theatre and "poetics theatre" with director Enoch Chan; and "Verb Sap Recitative," his collaboration with flutist Jennifer Lapple. M's own approach to "poetics theatre" comes after his experience in organizing the Spring 2007 Yockadot Poetics Theatre Festival, which showcased contemporary writers and performers involved in this developing genre; he continues as director of the Yockadot Poetics Theatre Project, based in Alexandria, Virginia, where he lives and writes. He and his wife, George Washington University epidemiologist Manya Magnus, have two children: their daughter Hero, age eight, and son Gryphon, about to turn three.

Christophe Casamassima: Let's begin here, where we left off, on the blank space before this letter, these letters…

The thing – the action rather – that strikes me as curious and extraordinary and charitable about your poems is the way you deliver your lines when you're reading to an audience. There's something of it that's straight Pythonism: "wink wink, say no more, nudge nudge…" In other words, you recite your lines, stick your neck out as if one may come along and cut it off, knowing no one will/can, itching for that response from somewhere in the ether – "Ah! You've got me!" I can't say it simply except that when you call out to us (recite is a rusty term) you also put out your hand as if in expectation of, what? An echo. It's those questions, the worm at the end of a fishing line:

And worst it haunt beefed worth it, after all,
Worst it haunt beefed worthless,
After the sunroofs and the doorways and the sprung
After the novas, after the teachings, after the
skirmishes that
traffic along the floodlight-
And this, and snidely mostly mordancy?

(Backtracking Prufrock)

And it's those questions that cannot be answered (I think of the simple queries to my first-year students, and the pristine, generous response of silences in chorus), except that your answer is always a line's illusion of itself, echoed rickety, slightly altered. What is the question's importance? Is it inherent? Intuition? Suspicion?

M. Magnus: Well then, these are questions to myself, but with the trust that if they are thrust outwards away from myself and into audience and ether, there can be resonance with what anyone might ask of themselves, or might never ask of themselves-of reaching, of grasping, of missing.

It might be a matter of voice as the gesturing hand; clutch air and end up with an empty fist, then - after suppinating the wrist - relax and open fingers, there sits the dove on the palm: a moment of communication. But what it means, who knows? It's back in the hat soon enough, and no one's more suspicious of the trick than myself.

I believe in the guidance I heard long ago - again, this was a talking dove that once really sat in my hand, and shat in my hand, before flying off - that if you want answers, you need to ask the right questions. What are the right questions? It was even bigger than that: the promise was that any problem could be solved, any answer supplied, if one asks the right question.

So can poetry be supplied, if one asks the poetic question? If in reading aloud, I use my voice in a performative manner, and reach with it, am I reflecting the voice of the writing? Am I reflecting?

All this in the language of sleep, of dreamland, where there might be recognizable roots in some common ancestral lexicon - wait, this is actually English, and it makes complete sense if you could only regain the syntactical logic of the dream - a message fraught with meaning and importance - but when one tries to convey it with words, words, words, there seems to be above all only gesture speaking.

CC: “…gesture speaking” – like sign language? It’s like at the movies – we can tell how truly meaningful and expressive a film is if we can still understand it with the sound turned off. Herzog’s words exactly – “cinema is the language of illiterates,” or something of that nature.

There’s an element of illiteracy in your work – the words convey nothing but this gesture of pointing towards and dislocating the letters in the words around them: the evolution (dissolution?) from meaning to sound to gesture to blur to echo, away from definition, close to scrutiny, with the sound turned off – not what is found after dusting the muck off the letters but what one chooses to wipe away, to scrutinize, as I see it.

But how does one learn in “Verb Sap,” your newest book? Traditionally, repetition is the rote of learning – but repetition in your book is, I think, and with Stein in mind, insistence – you insist we watch it change and keep up with change. Reading, in that respect, moves away from reader to sentry. Tell me a little about the meanings of your words (they’re no longer ours!) Are they prisoner to Webster’s chains? or do they “sound in space” for illiterates like me? What is your mode or habit of construction or composition?

MM: "Sentry," I like that; especially, as I have to take exception to "illiterate," Herzog notwithstanding.

Although I do want to turn words into gestures, I don't want them to be... dumb. I want the gesture to speak aloud-it has a great deal to do with sound-and while the sentry deals only with signs, the signaling calls for a higher, more sophisticated, literacy. Presumably, the sentry's there to guard the position at risk of life and limb, and ready to threaten the same if threatened. Then again, there we're getting to insistence, as you say-and I agree.

So what's being insisted upon?

I make the distinction because intention has to be qualified, when so many writers and artists despair of the possibilities of language and intend only disruption, afraid and embarrassed to own any sense beyond that-yet, in spite of themselves, that intended disruption is itself an act of expression recognizable in its signs and signaling, and one so often humdrum, lacking in insight and the hoped-for shock value, and dated despite association with innovative forms and avant-garde traditions. Unless it's Alfred Jarry, who needs a writer who'd trade laurels for the dunce cap of illiteracy? The exception works because Pere Ubu speaks. And when that happens you can throw crown and dunce cap into the fire.

Of course, for creative construction in art and life, I believe in creative destruction to clear the foundations; with the iconic as an acknowledged aesthetic value, iconoclastic means are necessary; and through the negation of signs-through the dislocation and dissolution of signing, and designing-there can be a signaling and, ultimately, a-signifying.

"Understand-it ALWAYS makes sense. Sense can't be avoided. If it first seems to be non-sense, wait: roots will reveal themselves." Richard Foreman's dictum became a tagline for Yockadot, and my own work in poetics theatre in recent years, and certainly applies to these questions regarding Verb Sap as well.

A recent article indicates a scientific take on this: "The Shakespeared Brain" by Philip Davis. Davis did cognitive studies on a small student population using electroencephalographs measuring brain waves during the reading of three types of phrases: 1) those of normal English syntax; 2) those of Shakespeare's poetic, shifting syntax, and 3) those Davis characterized as nonsensical syntax.

Favorite examples of Shakespeare's syntax were the use of easily recognizable words shifted in semantically relevant, but unusual, manner to a different part of speech-as in nouns to verbs, "He childed as I fathered" (Lear), and "to lip a wanton in a secure couch" (Othello), which also has an adjective turned into a noun, with its use of "wanton."

His examples of each type of line were as follows: A) Normal, B) Shakespeare, C) Nonsense, because both semantics and syntax are out of whack, while in Shakespeare syntax is disrupted yet favors semantics.

A) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, deified me indeed.
(B) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, godded me indeed.
(C) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, charcoaled me indeed.
His findings: the Shakespearean phrases produces the greatest amount of brain activity on the EEG, and were therefore more "stimulating," and enriching. The science has its technical details, but basically the brains responded to C-type lines differently than A-types, yet without positive excitation.
It is my contention that this represents a merely Elizabethan literacy in his students. Aficionados of Richard Foreman, or poetics theatre, or a vast array of contemporary avant-garde poetry—also aficionados of portmanteau words, of James Joyce and Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, if we want to go back-would perhaps have quite different brain responses to the so-called nonsense lines, unfairly characterized by Davis as gibberish. I'd declare that to be a more sophisticated literacy, to take pleasure in the apparent nonsense-learning to listen in that way-immediately to be able to make the connections, and to sense new links, metaphors, symbologies, in the disrupted syntax and semantics.
That's the way to get around the problem of language, communication, and oppressive, dominant power-serving, linguistic structures.
Indirection, underlying themes, insistent rhythms and repetitions, shifts, persistent syntactical means towards meaning-not the denial, but the renewal, of meaning. Drip, drab, English liberated from its dictionaries, from any authority outside of the dream and its illogical import.
Still, left with an uneasy call to unpack that "illogic" in its relation to words-and literacy, and illiteracy. Literacy and litarchy.
CC: You're saying that learning comes not from assigned or prescribed or institutionalized meaning (what we're force-fed in school, on TV, at home) but from a contextualized (absorbed?) understanding of one's immediate surroundings. If, for example, one were to read a thing described as "language poetry" the whole of her existence, then her brain would automatically assign pleasure value to those particular sounds - and, lo and behold, they would not be called (as made distinct from prescribed English codes) "gibberish" but poetry. Your work, moving beyond this standard absorption (and this is the curriculum of poetry taught in schools, poetry that is safe and sound and experiential) wakes us in a state of critical commitment. What I mean is, the sound and sense of the amalgam of your words force us to see beyond learning and meaning towards a frontier of how learning takes shape and how meaning becomes meaningful. In your process(es) of writing, does this "critical companion" sit on your shoulder? or is there something more theatrical about the outcomes of your writing? Ultimately what I want to know is, are your poems a circus of words or a "catalogue of disappointments"?

MM: yes, a circus of words, a catalogue of disappointments, and what's more, a neuromancy of signifiers... that might catapult these considerations along a matter-busting vector (if it matters)...

"immediate surroundings" are the loci congruent to phenomenologies-wonderful depths, surfaces, and textures for perceiving and being able to pass onward/ forward the poetic. And yet, beyond phenomenon, there's-the edge.

I do have a little devil on my shoulder, comparable to the "critical companion," and also perhaps to the daimon: yet it might have me accept flaws more than anything. And if there is theater in the writing and its performance, it is the theatricality behind the ritual, and therefore at the service of creating states, foremost in myself. I find certain recognizable, practiced, deliberately-attainable states not only conducive for writing, but the only correct states for (my) writing. To pass, the writing must pass through these critical states, then again and again, for polish.

These creative states are spiritual in nature, and acts of creation are magickal (from Kandinsky's advancing triangle in Concerning the Spiritual in Art to Rimbaud's "Alchemy of the Word," you'll find my circumstantial evidence for this pomp); at bottom, I believe poetry is irreducible to intellect or a set of skills or forms (or patterns, perhaps, would be the term, to correlate it to concepts of intelligence, esp, in A.I. where "pattern recognition" is a key function).

It's there at the edge, with newness in the leap

CC: Is there any hope for poetry? Anything meaningful you want to pass on to our next generation of scribes?

MM: This last question came on election eve November 4, 2008, and I'm answering it the next day, a question that centers on the subject of hope, after an election which revealed the practical power behind the rhetorical flourish of that word; so of course I'm positive about hope for poetry (and I considered my earlier answers quite positive about future possibilities as well), even more so when the experimental and avant-garde side of poetry is all about accessing the power behind our words, renewing the power of our over-used words and phrases (often through indirection, and disruption of sense, of the old sense of things, as well as of our habitual senses).

The great politician gives substance-and often style-to the necessary rhetoric of his or her age; the role of poetry, from a very different position in society and culture, is to push to the edge of what can be said and what's already been said, also to dig to uncover what could and should be thought from all that has yet to be thought-all of which later might form the rhetoric of another age, for good or for ill.

Formal considerations and obstacles of the day perpetually await to ambush the neophyte riding blissfully, ignorantly, on inspiration (the poetic being always accessible to those who open themselves up to it); yet poetry itself-all art-is irreducible, and being so, anything's possible. Every poet has the chance to open up the possibilities of language, and access meaning-even in the split of syntactic and semantic structures. Maybe it's even more than a chance: maybe it's a choice.