Tan Lin is a poet, professor of English and creative writing at New Jersey City University and author of the books Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe, BlipSoak01 and Heath (Plagiarism/Outsource). His latest book, Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking, uses its form to escape the notions, conventions and structures of the traditional reading experience. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [download and show notes] [iTunes link]
I read Seven Controlled Vocabularies sequentially, front cover then the pages in the order they were bound, then the back cover, but it does seem I could have read in any order I wanted. Is there an optimal reading strategy for this book?
No, I think it’s about dispersing reading into a number of different environments. One of them, of course, is to do with bibliographic controls that establish various genres, like architecture or film. Also, it connects to online reading practices. People have argued — I think Nicholas Carr most recently — that online reading is much more distracted, conversions of information into short-term working memory and then into long-term memory are disrupted. The book is designed, in some sense, for a kind of skimming. Once you insert pictures into a book, I think you’re in a different sort of textual environment. The book is supposed to open up and free a little bit of space around linear reading practices.
I know this is a huge question to get into, but what is the prime way you’ve made it prompt readers to get around their usual, deeply, deeply, deeply ingrained reading practices?
Maybe the deeply ingrained reading practices have to do with how people read books. But on the other hand, you’re always free to skim, to highlight, to jump around in a book. Again, in an online environment, these things are multiplied exponentially. This book plays with those notions. In some ways, it’s about translating a book into a different kind of reading environment. Part of it has to do with social networking. Part of it has to do with the commodification of attention, perhaps. Part of it has to do with basic online reading practices. There doesn’t seem to be an ideal way to read this. Maybe there’s a distracted skimming going on throughout the book that’s encouraged, but also the insertion of, say, bibliographic controls — oh, this is about architecture, or, oh, this is about poetry, or this is about photography — those help to stabilize the reading practices.
Indeed, I’m right now turning to the page with all the Library of Congress data. It’s not in the usual place one would look for it, but there’s a whole lot of headings of what the book is supposedly about. How many of them do you think people would find intuitively apply to the book? One of the headings is “China — poetry,” and you call that into question in the book itself.
That also appears on the cover. It’s complicated, because when we were doing the book with Wesleyan, they wanted barcode information on the back, they wanted titling information. Of course, the cover that gets reproduced for all their promotional material is the physical back cover, which is functioning for them as a title page. But when we laid the book out, we laid it out as a spread. It was more like a painting. Then we just wrapped that cover around the physical object. The distinction between a physical front cover and a physical back cover and this sort of conceptual front and back cover are being fudged a little bit here. In reference to this Library of Congress stuff and this stuff about China, I just decided that colors how one reads a book. SO much of a reading of a book is colored or controlled by how it’s packaged, how it’s sold, how it’s categorized. Is this poetry? Does this appear in the Wesleyan poetry series, or is it kind of literary nonfiction? A lot of the book, in that sense, has been read before we even got to the book.
I wanted to highlight those elements that are just as important, in some ways, as a title, in terms of determining particular reading practices and how one goes about reading a book. The other thing I was thinking about was cookbooks. I love to read cookbooks. Cookbooks usually have pictures of food in them, so I though, well, why shouldn’t a poetry book have lots of images in it? After all, it traffics in imagery per se, so why not be fairly literal about that? But again, imagery affects particular reading practices, and it’s very much part of the set of bibliographic controls or the general reading environment that affects how we go about reading textual material. Or not reading it, in this case. One of the things you’re highlighting is that people might just flip through this and read a little bit here, a little bit there, not read a lot of it.
Looking at the whole Library of Congress stuff on the front cover, we do see number one is “China — poetry,” number two “Mass media — language,” number three “Wives — family relationships,” number four, “Literary form — data processing,” five, “Poetry — theraputic use.” Is there a hierarchy here?
No, I would say it’s non-hierarchical. The book, in some ways, is about my coming to New York and wanting to become a writer. I remember living at the Pickwick Arms hotel — some of this is true; a lot of this material is also sampled. The book is, in some sense, an autobiographical novel. It’s about, for me, growing up Chinese in southeastern Ohio, although a lot of that material is deleted. It’s just not in the book, but I see it as the background to the book, so I wanted to highlight that. If you actually were to try and find it in the book, it’s kind of not there. It’s sort of outside the book.
A lot of the titling apparatus and the bibliographical, paratextual information is designed to suggest all these other things outside the book per se that have a role in authoring the book but are nowhere inside the book. Wives are typically ignored as co-authors, although they play a very active role in generating material, helping to read the book. They’re authors, and my wife is included here. Incidentally, the thing about the Macy’s smart mob scene, that’s just material taken from the newspaper, loosely rewritten. It’s really somebody else’s story; it’s not really mine. It’s fictionalized.
How applicable would you say is the old cliché, which was the first to come to my mind when you said all that, the tip of the iceberg? You spend a lot of your time figuring out what sort of paratextual iceberg tip to include in this book.
I tried to included everything I could. In that sense, it was about putting everything, including the kitchen sink, into a book. I wanted to try to be as inclusive as possible. For me, inclusive meant touching on all the various genres, like architecture, photography and painting. But I kept thinking of Rem Koolhaas: he describes as Chinese shopping mall, and the Chinese people didn’t like going to shopping malls. The mall went bust, but the back alleyway proved very useful. A number of merchants took over that space and converted it into a different place, a completely unprogrammed use of the so-called shopping mall in this small rural area in China. They just completely took it over and used it for their own ends.
In some sense I was thinking about. “Can I create a book that you can’t really tell if it’s poetry or literary criticism, kind of a generic reading space that can be reinhabited by other people?” In some sense, that was what I was after too. We’re highly sensitive to labels now. People prefer to wear Calvin Klein briefs as opposed to K-Mart underwear. The distinctions now between poetry and advertising and film and MTV videos has all been eroded, in some sense. I was interested in getting in that generic space. It’s heavily commodified, but I was still interested in that space as a place for a little bit of freedom to read as one pleases.
This is getting marketed as a book of poetry, but as you said, there are elements of an autobiographical book of a certain type. What with the idea of sampling other texts and making autobiographical works or otherwise out of those reaching fairly common currency these days — it’s gotten into the forefront of the mainstream literary conversation — is this a book that could have as easily been put out into the world not as poetry, but as autobiography, or as some other sort of product?
I thought so, and I thought, in some ways, the only container for it would be a novel. But poetry has been so readily absorbed into various aesthetic practices within the art world to describe any sort of medial crossing. In that sense, poetry is perhaps much more inclusive a term than a word like “novel.” Just the insertion of so many visuals — I kind of see the book as a librarian’s book of a coffee table book. In that sense, it’s more expansive. I really did want to think of the book as appealing outside or beyond just the specialized poetry market. Most of my earlier books were received within just the poetry realm. I wanted to play with ideas about, “How could this sort of category of poetry be expanded into other spaces?”
What do you think is the most powerful way this book gets out of that, to the extent that it does escape the poetry realm?
I’m not sure it has, really. This is a funny thing. When I wrote BlipSoak, I tried to write a book — you know, I come out of a language poetry movement that’s premised on issues of difficulty, so I tried to write a book that would be deeply relaxing, like yoga or meditation. But of course, the only people who found it pleasurable were the people from the experimental poetry world. It’s hard to predict these things. I tell everyone this book is designed so that it can be read quickly; it’s modular; it’s mostly short, inconsequential, anecdotal chapters; it’s very, very easy to read. But I often talk to people and they come up and say, “Oh, I found your book quite difficult.” I thought I was trying to make it relatively easy and accessible and appeal to a slightly different audience. As I said, I was hoping librarians would put this on their coffee tables.
This raises something I find especially fascinating: what do you think is, then, getting in the way of the easy reading, of the relaxing reading of this book? When they hear this interview, they’ll go back to it, and surely, if they approach it in the way you suggest, it can be easily read. What do you think is causing them to come up against the wall with it nonetheless?
I think it’s the idea of the printed book. Although, as I say, you read cookbooks very differently than coffee-table books. People maybe come to think about this as a book that should be a linear experience. When they get this, it’s kind of a distracted reading environment. Maybe that’s what causes it? I’m not sure. In some ways, what I was trying to do was create a poetry book that didn’t have to be read in that sort of linear, chronological, highly attentive way that something that could be skimmed, speed-read, evenly glanced at, experienced, in a way that was different than the way you approached the book, which was to read it chronologically. Maybe that’s what’s at work here. Maybe if people looked at this book and said, “Hmm. Well, I shouldn’t read it like a book at all. I should read it in the way I read things online.”
Again, I’m reminded of this Nicholas Carr book, although I don’t really agree with a lot of things he says: when you’re reading online, you read a little bit and then jump to another thing. You never really finish anything. Maybe the book has to be read more in that way, as opposed to what one brings: certain expectations about how one would read a printed book. This is, in some ways, about translating a printed book into an online reading environment, which privileges communications and information transfer perhaps more than what we consider literary writing per se.
I think about a book like the classic cookbook you reference in the title, The Joy of Cooking, a book that, in the same way, you’re better off using it piece by piece than reading the whole thing chronologically and sequentially, which would be, in the case of The Joy of Cooking, a pretty punishing experience.
Exactly. It would be hard to read that as a novel, although it is kind of a novel about a family’s history.
There isn’t much mention of that book itself in your book.
I spun off a long story about The Joy, and it’s appearing in a book called The Appendix. It’s already appeared in two places: an interview in BOMB magazine with Katherine Sanders, and then I took it out of that interview and repackaged it as a short story in BOMB’s literary supplement. It’s just hit the stands now. The notion that the paratextual matter that surrounds a book and is contained within it — I was really interested in seeing how much material I could push outside the confines or container of a book and make the boundary between what’s inside a book and outside as porous and as permeable as possible. I did this event at the University of Pennsylvania called EDIT, a bunch of graduate students who re-editioned Seven Controlled Vocabularies. Now we’re at fifteen different editions. There’s an appendix, there’s a book of blurbs, there are five dual-language editions, Chinese-English and various transcriptions of those. The publication, in some sense, didn’t mark the end of the book; it just marked the beginning of reshuffling of information within the book into other different formats, then redistribution within social network formats. The book is just what might be called an utterance within a larger communications system.
We should emphasize that nor was this the first iteration of Seven Controlled Vocabularies, the Wesleyan Press artifact I now hold in my hand. This is an evolution of an edition your originally put out on Lulu, correct?
I did it on Lulu in 2005. It had been solicited by a small press called Faux Press, run out of Massachusetts, three years before. Like a lot of small press books, there was not sufficient funding, so it didn’t get printed. I just released it as a free PDF download, and I think it was $11.95 or something like that on Lulu. It’s had a speckled publication history, and I a wanted that publication history to be a part of the finished book. Usually publication is seen as something that stabilizes a book, just as a title stabilizes a book for future reference, for archiving, for bibliographic control. But I wanted publication to destabilize the status of the book as a physical object.
I want to ask you about whether you envision Seven Controlled Vocabularies as having an endpoint, when this work is finally completed, in its last phase. But first I want to get to the bottom of whether you can identify an earliest point in the creation of this work. What’s the seed? How far back do you have to go to find the beginning of this project?
I was working on a book on Andy Warhol’s printed matter, and I was at the Getty on a seven- or eight-month research stint. I met someone at the Getty who works in the information science area. Because they’re so interested in cataloging information, they developed what they called the “Object ID” system, a controlled vocabulary system for categorizing objects cross-institutionally and cross-platform, a way for museums to talk to each other about objects that might carry different names. It’s a way form them to stabilize their classification systems. I thought it would be interesting to try to apply this to literature, again for a number of different reasons.
Books are increasingly being seen not as books but as data entries or information entities within a larger information structure. I thought this could be applied to the various genres of a book, regarded as bibliographic controls: architecture or painting or film. In some sense, we’re really talking about information categories. A book is, in some sense, a way of sorting information and these categories are just ways of cataloging information. In that sense, reading is just a subset of some larger informational sorting system; in this case, it’s a bibliographic sorting system.
When did you first get taken with the idea of controlled vocabularies themselves? And for the listener as well, perhaps we should define what you consider to be controlled vocabularies.
The controlled vocabulary is just a systematic way of limiting the terms you use to describe an object, so that it’s very clear when you’re accessing or addressing something that you’re all talking about the same thing. If something is called a tabouret in France but a stool here, there needs to be a way for these institutions to talk about these various items. You can set up a controlled vocabulary system so all these linked terms are put together, and so that when you say this, you know you’re referencing the same thing. It’s a way of tagging, within the museum context particularly, images or photographs. This is a way for people to talk, again, cross-institutionally.
And a way for a human to communicate with a machine, and vice versa.
Yes, exactly. There are a lot of machine reading protocols embedded in Seven Controlled Vocabularies. There are a lot of metadata tags that seem to be capturing text in the book, but how they’re related to the text is a little bit unclear. When you look at images online now, a lot of them carry metadata tags that are invisible to you and me; they’re programmed into the image. And resolutions shift across different platforms. These are not really visible to us when we’re looking. There’s a lot of embedded information in the visual images that we see. Seven Controlled Vocabularies is a little bit about that embedded structure. It’s a textual structure, because it’s all coding languages beneath the visual.
This is a similarity between Seven Controlled Vocabularies and our online, internet, perhaps Nicholas Carr-described reading experience. How close do you think a book, such as this one, can get to the online reading experience? Is that desirable to achieve, or does it in the end become a synthesis between the two? Is it replicable, do you think, in a printed text?
That’s a really good question, and I’m not really sure. I think certain reading practices carry over from one medium to another. To qualify, no, I don’t think reading a book duplicates exactly an online reading experience. I read everything now online, basically; I don’t really read the newspaper in hard copy. Most of the text I read is experienced digitally, on the computer. Almost everything I write is born digital now. I think some of these practices, in terms of how I read online, have now altered the way I read a book. Seven Controlled Vocabularies is really about that translation into a book form of other kinds of reading practices. But I wouldn’t say it really is mimetic of actual online reading experiences. I would say certain reading practices from those platforms show up in an artifactual or residual way. I don’t know if that helps.
It does. I want to get an idea as well of your own experience. You say the majority of the reading you do now being in a digital form has gone back around and affected what it’s like for you to read a book that was designed for purely printed matter. I want to know how it’s affected that. How is your experience of reading a book different now than it would’ve been in, say, the late seventies, when you set some of the autobiographical pieces in the book?
Again, really complicated question. When I pick up the hard copy of the paper, I seem to read it differently. I don’t even read it as carefully as I did. I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. I sort of skim it much more quickly than I ever did before, although the newspaper, in some ways, was designed for skimming too. Within the notion of reading a newspaper online, I seem to be skimming the paper even more. The online reading experience seems to have heightened skimming practices for me within a book format.
But as I mentioned earlier, people have always flipped through the pages, skimmed ahead, oriented visually to a book, not read large sections. That’s one of the great things about a book: it gives you the freedom, that kind of reading environment, to do that, in a way you weren’t able to do if you were forced to listen to someone reading. You couldn’t ask the speaker in a room, “Hey, could you skip ahead to page 47 in your lecture?” You’d actually have to sit there and listen. Sure, you could daydream, but in a book you can control your content more. In an online environment, it seems to me the idea or the ability to skip ahead is increased even more.
What’s your relationship like with time-fixed media, with durational media? It sounds like you prefer the non-durational stuff, the media that takes as much time as you want to spend in the quantities you want to spend it, in the order you want to spend it.
Oh, that’s a really good question. I’m trying to theorize this; I can’t even really think about how I would answer this. I want the chronology of reading, the actual time of reading, and in some sense to be in the reading experience. That’s why, with the title, I put “2004” in. Initially, the book was just called The Joy of Cooking. We inserted a lot of things. It was supposed to be published in 2004, so when it came out with Wesleyan, I inserted the “2004” in the title. I’m not positive about this, but I would like the chronos of reading itself, as a practice, in front of something, to somehow be registered within the confines of the book, either as a series of temporal markers — I mean, reading typically creates the illusion, once you’ve entered it, that you’re in a different kind of temporal realm. It’s a space that the book creates, in terms of a plot or fiction. You forget yourself and enter that space. I really wanted always this kind of outside material constraints of reading in real time to be a part of the book itself.
But it’s not so easy to do. Part of this has to do, I think, with throwing the interiorized experience of being inside a book constantly outwards to the material constraints that have to do with organizing a book as a reading device. All these bibliographic control structures that dictate things like genre, for example, really do control how you read a book. It became interesting for me to say, “Can you forget this is a book of poetry and can you maybe read this like a coffee-table book or a cookbook or something, in a modular way?” Then you’re aware of the time it takes to read something. As you said about The Joy of Cooking, that would be a torturous read to read it straight through. You read the book in a very time-based way, i.e., you’ve got to make something for dinner tonight. You’re going to read it, and it’s got to be fairly quick, and you make a meal like that. I’m very interested in those sorts of time constraints or chronologies entering the book itself.
I have a lot of conversations on this show and in life and think about this a lot: the effects of genre on literature. I often bemoan that it causes more problems than it solves, that it’s mostly a marketing device that constrains what can be done in text. Would it be accurate to say that you believe that sort of phenomenon goes well beyond genre? It goes to all the conventions — physical, organization, what have you — about a book? This is all limiting to what might be possible with text?
Yes, and I think you’re right to highlight the marketing element. The book has to be packaged as poetry or melodrama or sci-fi. It facilitates sales. Here, the sort of bibliographic control you get in a library, which makes it easier to access and preserve for posterity, coincides in some odd way with marketing trends and the increasing commodification of the literary sphere. Genre in that sense is very much a marketing took.
It’s more than that, I think, but it’s also a social agreement that allows a certain number of people to talk about something in a coherent way. You have a book in a poetry series and all the poets will look at it and think about it as a sort of community. It fosters a communal or social space. Genres are very complicated, how they’re integrated within a textual apparatus. In some ways, Seven Controlled Vocabularies was about blurring those genres in order to create a more communal and open reading space that’s not just confined to the poetry world.
This issue of being confined to the poetry world — this is a book I read and took as a strike, if you like, against a lot of the conventions and genres that hold text back, that hold various forms of literature back. But how do you get a book that is billed as poetry outside the world of contemporary poets? That’s kind of the million-dollar question, isn’t it?
I think you have to satisfy some sort of desire in a reading public for a particular kind of material. I find it very hard to think outside of that. In some sense, poetry now allows you to do these sorts of cross-generic works that are perhaps not really possible in what I would call mainstream fiction. Again, the label of poetry here turns out to be both enabling and a kind of handicap.
I’m going to bring this back to what’s going on — the idea of sampling texts has been around for a while, and the idea of using different organizational forms than have traditionally been used has been around for a while, but I had David Shields on the show recently, who’s written that book Reality Hunger.
I followed that, actually.
First, let me get your take on how this has entered the mainstream. Is it in a way you find interesting, or is it old hat to you?
I find his premises very interesting, and I think they’re usefully aired. I remember reading an interview with him saying he was so surprised that it got picked up by a major publisher, which I think was Knopf in this case. He just expressed great surprise; he thought this would a be a small-press thing, maybe something with Dalkey Archive. How that occurred, I don’t know. It’s puzzling. He was puzzled himself. There’s that level of puzzlement. On the other end, a lot of the things he’s talking about in terms of the hunger for reality, this crossover into reality-based networks — here I kept thinking about reality television, too, where there’s a great deal of reader participation. You have basically short forms of writing that inflect with short attention spans within, for me, mainly technologically determined online environments. All that sort of stuff is extremely useful as it’s played out in a mainstream arena. Not only in terms of its critical reception, but also just in the fact of its publication with a major press.
Having said that, I would also say that a lot of the issues he’s raised have been endemic in what a friend of mine says are books that don’t sell very much: the whole realm of experimental fiction from the 1950s and on. Much of these things have been explicit and talked about in all sorts of ways before this book, but they never really entered the mainstream moment. Yes, it’s an interesting moment that those issues, which were once confined to a smaller audience — Fiction Collective Two are now sort of being talked about in a more mainstream arena. Maybe what’s happened here is, just the sort of technological remediation of the book as a form has enabled this to enter the mainstream. I may be wrong. That’s just a thought about how this is happening. Why did it happen? David Shields was kind of puzzled. “Why did Knopf pick this up?” What enabled it to happen? What do you think?
It’s something I’m excited to see — it’s simply self-serving — because I like to read this stuff. I think to myself, “Maybe this will bring more of it along,” whether this is motivated technologically or by some other force or maybe by reader boredom with the structures for reading that already exist. Whatever’s causing it, I like what it’s producing. It seems to me you would find this to be a positive development, given the goals implicit in a book like Seven Controlled Vocabularies.
Yes, I’m very happy about it. I’m glad the book came out, and I’m glad he’s talking about these things. It’s created a much larger forum, I think, for the framing of what we call literary writing today. I find that extremely useful. I think that, whenever you open up communications about these issues, I think it’s healthy for production.
I want to get back to an issue you mentioned earlier, which is writing in a way that makes it relaxing, like meditation or yoga. First, how is that achieved?
For me, it just meant creating text that was short-form, that touched on personal, anecdotal things, that was kind funny, sort of minor and inconsequential, that sort of thing. That, for me, translates into a kind of relaxation. It mirrors so much content that I read. I love reading celebrity gossip and that sort of thing. I just feel like it’s interesting to think about what the lines between so much of the textual stuff that one reads can be brought closer to the literature category. Normally these are sort of oppositional.
I was interested in relaxation as a way of easing the boundary between what’s considered discrete literary and high literary production and other forms of literary production. Reading restaurant reviews on Yelp, for example, some of them are extremely well-crafted. I thought. “Huh. Why can’t that be a form of literature too? Why does there have to be such a clear boundary between these two things?” Relaxation in that sense also has to do with genre distinctions and their loosening.
I like that you mention celebrity gossip in terms of relaxing texts, because that is a type of text you do see people slip into the reading of for extended periods: you see someone sitting by the pool at some resort going through stack after stack of thick magazines of celebrity gossip, and you think it’s sort of a trance-like state.
Some person suggested that reading celebrity gossip is the equivalent of Marxist religion for the masses. Maybe that is the pre-eminent mode of textual absorption today. No one’s quantified this, but certainly it’s a large percentage.
What is the element you can extract from texts like celebrity gossip magazines and then use for your own ends? What is the element you take and re-appropriate?
I think it’s just the amount of material necessary to determine a particular amount of attention on the reader’s part. Jonathan Beller wrote a very interesting book called The Cinematic Mode of Production, all about how our attention has now been commodified. We used to produce steel hoops and stuff, but now what we produce is this commodity known as attention, and it’s being sold and marketed and disseminated by places like Google, where every time we go to look at something, someone’s getting a click-through pay. In that sense, the book is about creating a minimal enclosure for capturing a reader’s attention.
This makes me think of a complaint I often have about certain films or books, especially more popular novels. I sometimes feel they are terrified that I’m going to put them down or turn them off and thus fight so very unappealingly hard to keep and hold my attention when I would’ve given it freely anyway. It seems like a book like Seven Controlled Vocabularies doesn’t care as much, and I find that appealing. Is it accurate to say the book cares less?
Yes. A really sort of interesting and nice thing about a book is your ability to put it down and walk off into your living room and do something else and then come back to it. The book, in that way, is supposed to integrate more with your ambient environment, and again, the chronology of things you’re doing while you’re reading. The reference to the cookbook is apt, because when you’re reading a cookbook, you’re reading it very instrumentally, as a how-to guide to make something on your kitchen counter. You’re reading, you’re going out of it, you’re coming back to it. In some ways, I would like Seven Controlled Vocabularies to function in that sort of way. Yeah, put it down. Go somewhere else. Do something else. Go watch TV. Read your e-mail.
Do you consider it a danger, then, that, in the book’s lack of active bids for a reader’s attention, that it might not get read at all?
Yes, that’s a great danger. The flip side to reading practices is non-reading, and the book is very much about that sort of absence, the frames for non-reading that always surround textual material. One can always decide to put down a book. Normally, that frames the entire book, seen as a thing with two covers. I wanted to see if I could insert the non-reading practices within the book itself and create very large tracts of time where you actually just didn’t read the book, you put it down and you left, and you came back and finished it later. Or you didn’t even finish it at all, so it was more or less chronologically open as — again, I don’t even think of it as a book. I just think of it as a general reading environment with anecdotal material, often taken from the newspaper, or content from some other source filtered in. Maybe you pay attention to it or maybe you don’t. Perhaps there’s a possibility for some sort of affective connection with this material, even if it’s glanced skimmingly or fleetingly. One didn’t expect to get so affectively attuned to something. Maybe it happened and, “Ah, that was kind of a nice feeling,” and then you left, then you came back.
Are these points at which the reader can put the book down for a while — perhaps is even encouraged to put the book down for a while — are these deliberately inserted in certain areas of the text, or have you just created an environment where those points arrive at different times for different readers?
I think maybe the breaks between the chapters. There are also invisible breaks between the captions and the body text. It’s not clear if the body text is functioning as a photographic caption for a sort of metadata container of vice versa. There’s a kind of slipping there that’s taking place. I can’t even remember most of the captions and where I got them; most of them are sort of metadata tags, so they’re sort of dispersed throughout the text and you can’t really connect them specifically to the text, in many cases. Those are the points where one is more likely to slip out of the text. But maybe people don’t even read them, which is just fine too, because that’s a form of slipping out of the text.
I was hearing one interview you did earlier about the book and about your work where the interviewer asked you something about whether you thought it was acceptable to be boring. You said that it was, and that kind of surprised him, or at least he acted surprised. I do want to get your idea of what it is to be boring. Can a book be boring, or is that simply a function of the reader and their approach to a book?
Again, very complicated question. I think boredom is just a way of describing a threshold within which the attention can operate. If something boring, people will just sort of ignore it. I wanted to see if I could push the interest-boredom threshold as close as possible to boredom and still retain readers’ interests. Does that make any sense? I really didn’t want to create some sort of elaborate, highly dramatic or melodramatic kind of narrative.
I wanted just to create loosely anecdotal, mildly entertaining, just interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention, just enough to keep the communication system going. This literature is all about continuing. If you stop reading, the literary project in some ways is stopped. I really wanted to foreground that moment when reading might stop, or gets very close to stopping. As I said, it occurs perhaps in the captions and metadata tags, but it also occurs just in terms of the content itself, which is kind of superficial and a little boring and uninteresting, a little flat and self-reflexive.
There are some effects we should talk about, as far as the context within the book. You just flip through it, you can see the content looks completely different from section to section. There’s some pages where there aren’t many lines at all, some where the meaning is unclear, some where it looks more standard. For example, the autobiographical sections. I have to imagine — tell me if this is something you’ve seen — for a reader who doesn’t want to pay a lot of attention to photos and captions, they will get to the autobiographical paragraphs and read that kind of like a thriller novel because, compared to everything else in the book, it does seem like much more of an active attention-grab.
That’s why it got packaged within the novel section, because the novel section is the most linear and absorptive. It’s a story of growing up and becoming an adult for me. It’s a mini-bildungsroman within the book itself. Perhaps there are no pictures in that section; I’m not even sure now. Maybe it’s mostly textual.
It is mostly text; maybe all text. Were the autobiographical elements present from the beginning in this project?
Yes. In some ways, the piece centers on the autobiographical and then the absence of the autobiographical. I really did want to write a book about, “Who is this person in there authoring the book? There is a person in there, isn’t there? But where, exactly?” There had to be some hints that there was somebody in there, perhaps someone could ascribe to an author or an author function. Just a little bit. It’s like that movie by Jean-Luc Godard, Sauve qui peut. I remember reading a review, maybe it was Pauline Kael, saying, “Oh, this is not really about a life. It’s kind of about the outside of a life or what the life could’ve been.” In a way, Seven Controlled Vocabularies is an attempt to do that with autobiographical or memoiresque ficiton. But it attempts to convert the memoir into a modular struture. Or a fortune cookie.
We’ve mentioned this concept of ambient text. When I first came across you using a phrase like that in some interview somewhere, I immediately latched onto it. It lines up with things I already like: ambient music being another current with that same name, or ambient video. How does ambient text relate to that wider movement?
For me, the ambiance is a mode of absorption. A lot of this is just colored by, I came out of this language poetry movement premised on difficulty, non-lyric, things that have not to do with memorization or the expression of a self or a voice. Ambiance was, for me, a way of dealing in a sort of avant-garde or experimental context with some of these ideas, and to diffuse them, simply because I thought the aesthetic autonomy that was promulgated from within seemed, in some ways, slightly outmoded, in that, really, so much that we experience to day has to do with ease of absorption, labeling things.
We live in a very administered world, and I wanted literature not to set itself apart from that but to somehow inhabit that space, create a space within that for some resistance or some resonance or some way of moving around it. This is the sort of Rem Koolhaas: you have an architectural space, but it got deprogrammed by the people who actually used it after the fact. He advocates for all these non-programmable architecture spaces where you might have a school and a mental hospital in a shopping mall. All those things could be combined in a non-programmed space. But architects don’t generally want to do that; they want to use a building in very, very specific ways that are outlined in advance
As far as your move from the poetry of difficulty to the ambiance you’re working with now, was that a sudden break, or was it a long time coming?
I tried to do it with BlipSoak. It was a long time ago. I had tried to never repeat myself. I thought Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe was actually quite an easy book, but I was at dinner parties and people would come up to me and say, “I read your book and didn’t understand a word of it.” I was like, “Oh. Hmm. Must do something about that.” I thought, “I’ll write a book that’s deeply relaxing at the synaptic level, like yoga or meditation. Can I write a book that’s meditational?” The germ of an ambient literature starts with BlipSoak, a sampled book. I was really into IDM and minimalist ambient house musics, and I was writing about that sort of stuff. I wanted something that could be soothing, relaxing. In BlipSoak I just endlessly sampled: there’s a lot of Charles Resnick, Laura Riding, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson. It’s just sampled in there, sometimes slightly rewritten. I didn’t want there to be a shock of montage you would get in a T.S. Eliot “Waste Land” poem; I wanted it to be effortless and float and soak over you.
Has this been a constant in your career? Someone comes up to you at a party and says, “That was so hard to read” and you don’t expect that? You always think it’s going to be easy and people say it’s hard? Was it ever thus?
Yes, always. Whenever you go to a room and say you write poetry, they walk away instantly. They don’t even tell you it’s difficult; they just walk away. Poetry, within the realms I function in, is a very specialized discourse. I think that’s a good thing: it allows for a certain depth and theoretical interrogation. On another hand, it points to the isolation and disconnection from other reading practices, communities, maybe even the oral traditions. All these things get written out when you’re dealing with a very specialized group of poets writing within the specific and now very much institutionalized environment.
A lot of poets work within an academic institution, and certainly the institutionalization of things like language poetry very much connected to institutional branding and MFA programs and things like that. Mark McGurl has written about MFA fiction programs as related to the development of American fiction. This book, of course, hasn’t been written for the poetry world, but the book is useful in thinking about the sorts of institutional contexts for the production of poetry in the postwar period.
You say Seven Controlled Vocabularies not been written for the poetry world, but I want to get an idea of how the poetry world reacts to this sort of project, to a projects that has qualities of ambient text, that is made to be easily read, to be not read in certain parts, to be sometimes bored by. What does the academic poetry world think of something like this?
Again, I’m being a bit disingenuous. I come out of that poetry world, so most of the reception is within the poetry world, the expanded poetry world and also the academic poetry world, which is a smaller subset of that. The reception of the book, so far as I can tell, is almost strictly within that realm. In that sense, the book is thoroughly lodged within the various branding devices that have to do with production and reading and dissemination of poetry today. Very, very hard to get outside that. Very, very difficult. I’m not sure how it would be done.
There are a number of oral traditions: in Hawaii, indigenous languages are used within the development of the poetry traditions, but Seven Controlled Vocabularies seems very much not part of oral traditions. It’s much more concerned with textual dissemination traditions within online environments.
I’ve read word about another project of yours, what’s been called an “ambient novel,” Our Feelings are Made by Hand. Is this a real project?
Yes, and it’s more or less finished. It’s a slightly longer, more discursive version of Seven Controlled Vocabularies, but it’s much more autobiographical. It’s much more like a memoir. Most of that material has also been sampled. There, I was more explicit about taking material from the newspaper or magazines and then loosely rewriting it as if it had happened to me. That has a much more complicated history of ethnicity in it, in that I often talk about relatives. I make up a half-Chinese aunt who lives and runs a cheap motel in Washington state. I needed pictures, so I went to the flea market and tried to find pictures of Asians, but of course there aren’t very many pictures of Asians in a flea market. I just stuck in whatever pictures I could get of people who looked vaguely Asian.
The whole verification process in the construction of memoir and identity is much more up for grabs. That book is very much about growing up Chinese-American in America, and one of the things you notice is, you don’t have access to a lot of the stories. You don’t have access to genealogies. My parents weren’t able to bring over family albums and stuff, so I don’t really know what my grandfather looked like. That novel is centered on autobiography, though it’s invented, mostly, and how one creates a sense of identity in the United States.
What, to a reader of memoirs, a reader of more mainstream autobiographical fiction, will be more striking about this book?
Perhaps that it’s more self-referential, that it’s about, “Oh, well ,there isn’t really a true memoir here. It’s just cobbled out of other peoples’ stories.” That, “Oh, he’s supposedly writing a memoir, but did any of this really happen to him? It seems completely fabricated. ”I think it heightens the self-constructed nature of identity, with a specific ethnic inflection.
It seems the stage is set more for this sort of thing than ever. This sounds like good timing, in other words.
I don’t know about that. I’ve been working on that book for, gosh, ten years now. It’s taken me such a long time. I’d never written a novel before, so I asked a friend, “How long should it be?” He said, “Oh, a novel should be about 70,000 words, minimum.” So as soon as I got to that point, I just stopped. I just didn’t know how to write a novel, or whatever a novel might be. Maybe it’s a memoir. I don’t really know.
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