At the Algorithmic Rabbit Hole: An Interview with Fady Joudah
Fady, first, let me say that I really enjoy Textu. And I think it is wonderfully in orbit with the questions this issue of Matter considers. (We are collectively asking questions of poetry such as: How is poetry able to respond to neocolonial/ neoliberal pressures? Is poetry able to contest the economic, political, social, and cultural institutions that apply those pressures to individual bodies? Can poetry help disentangle the narratives and values that have been consolidated in order to power inequality? Or, as Lauren Berlant writes in considering literature that aspires to the production of sovereign conditions, is it all just participation in “an environment that can well absorb and even sanction a little spontaneous leisure”? Does any work, any poetic object of resistance, simply get swallowed into Late Capitalism’s ability to commercialize even its own continually imminent demise?)
In Textu, you create a form out of text messages. Composed as text messages, each poem, as the note preceding the collection explains, must “be exactly 160 characters long, specific to text-message parameters.” The poems make use of the language collisions that such brevity, perhaps, encourages. When the poems are punctuated, they are not punctuated for syntactical reasons but for expressive certainty, by exclamation marks. The @ and & symbols do connective work; numbers appear regularly. And in many ways, there appears little artifice, as if the poem does not have time to shape the contours of a persona, or even to designate whose intellectual or imaginative property this is. It seems as if you are trying to affect us, not in the way that poetic affect is tied to emotion, but in a physiological sense, like information is being conveyed to our autonomic nervous system, perhaps directly into a “field of action,” which you mention in a credo you wrote for The Kenyon Review (“In the Name of the Letter, the Spirit, and the Double Helix”). As part of an embedded quiz you write, “Sometimes the poem is permitted to go to a field of action. (T/F).” Is the autonomic the field of action that you refer to?
When I wrote “a poem is permitted to go to a field of action” I was combining William Carlos Williams’ and Robert Duncan’s phrases into one. My intention is not necessarily to celebrate the two statements or both poets. My intention is to highlight the intense canonization that infiltrates so much of our thoughts and turns them into Christmas wrappings. So much of the poetry written today is too visibly under the spell of old masters. But I think you are correct regarding the experience of the autonomic. Of course emotion is a physiologic phenomenon, even if one we have not yet fully mapped, for better and worse, and perhaps emotion is a phenomenon that maps us as we map it, an intrinsic form of resistance. But yes I take what you mean by “autonomic” not only as “visceral” but also as “reflex,” immediacy, or the illusion of immediacy, at neurotransmitter level.
In the second of the two poems titled “Textu” in the book I wrote:
Your spine a river into the forest
can’t tell the neuron for the trees
I light & light
you up with sound profile
threading the image habit
Textu, the book, was composed on cell phone and many of its poems were shared with friends through text messages, as I wrote them. There’s a physiologic equivalent to this experience that cannot be reproduced precisely on the page unless, I imagine, one develops an app for the poems that are programmed to light up your text message on your smartphone. The physiologic here is simultaneously a capitalist phenomenon. I also allude to this idea in the first of the “Textu” poems, in which I address the question of language and diction:
What’s the idea?
No idea is an island
Whoview bin talking 2?
A fistula is an isthmus
Heavenchew an app for it?
We shed light then leave its husk behind
“Light” makes several appearances in Textu, and it is not always the same light. The physiologic phenomenon of the digital age is a significant one and we don’t quite know its full reach yet. I did base my mental or neural rhythm or meter in Textu on the character count. The character count is a direct descendent of the byte and bit, our most cellular basic unit of digital expression today, of manifestation in popular communication. Character count is a foot or an iamb of our time. I am not trying to upend language. I was using means already in heavy usage.
I am reminded of this passage from the Credos: “Could an electropoeticogram (EPG) be a poet’s filiative thumbprint into the world, a fossil record of his or her primary emotions?”
It feels a little like Textu’s form of address is direct dialing to a destination where subjectivity exists prior to identity (identity as socially assigned, as commodifiable category). And maybe that’s like the place friendship leads, to these “primary emotions”? I am considering how you say that many of these poems were actual messages, at least eventually, to others, and that the poems may bear their imprints as well as yours.
What I tried in part to illustrate in the Credos is a problem of reification and reproduction. It seems sometimes even intellectual resistance repeats itself, in new subjective terms, as it says the same things that had been said before through new private lexicon. And the anxiety we have about this echo of “nothing’s new under the sun” is actually a materialist capitalist triumph that cannot un-see our addictive existence to the notion of “measure” and “outcome,” “originality” and “novelty,” a counter-punch existence that fights fire with fire, often the same fire. I am not concerned with making new things or making old things seem new. Perhaps I am concerned with a deep sense of absurdity that is a critical consciousness.
Or perhaps another way to propose this is to return poetry to a public realm, where everything is shared since subjectivity is effaced, downgraded to the subject position. Yes it seems to me that subjectivity has become posture and algorithm today, a Houdini act, but one that does not honor its illusory roots and goes on to believe its own lies. Still this return of poetry to a public shared realm, where “originality” and “canon” are questioned, is also troubled with reproduction. It’s inescapable.
The conversation, too, about politics and poetry has become so predictable that it is mostly a reflex down an algorithm already preset and pre-scripted. You want to talk about political poetry? Show me new questions about political poetry and I’ll show a political poem. To what extent is the so-called political poem in America “political”? For there to be political poetry in America there has to be a true public space for resistance. Otherwise what is mistaken as political is not even civil disobedience but mere intellectual reproduction of old permitted status quo in halls of power. The best poetry, perhaps, and thus the best political poetry is near-invisible in the poetry world.
Isn’t it interesting that even by talking about Textu or by you editing this issue we are performing a “poetic” or literary capitalist act?
Interesting. But excruciating.
You mention returning poetry to a public realm with the intention of disrupting a subjectivity that has been reduced to a generic posture and algorithm. In Textu, in addition to the digital media shorthand and neologisms, you include popular American cultural references (the title “Luke Cool Hand I’m Your Father,” for instance). You use a medical Latinate vocabulary (‘syncope’ rather than ‘fainting’, a tree as ‘kyphotic’ rather than ‘bent’). Do you think of this language as more descriptive, more precisely meaningful, or does this mélange of language point out a kind of glossolalia where our consensual register of language (our media feed, perhaps) is ultimately rhetorical, nonsensical? You even get to language that becomes hermetic, coded I might say (in a sense that includes binary code, even encryption). I think of the poem “A Word in Arabic” which continues:
or leads you to the spring
& brings you back thirsty
You can tile the ocean floor
69 is 78 or 87
I don’t quite understand why these questions of capital/materialism, subject/subject position, etc.—what in the literary world passes as “political”—remains repetitive. And the question repeats itself only concerning certain authors, those who are either “radical” Americans or, for the most part, “ethnic” Americans or Anglophones or Americo-Anglo-phones, smarto-phones too. Again, it is focused through predetermined subject positions. In the age of statistics and VIDAs, quota systems as smoke screen for identitarian voting blocs, I wonder what is the percentage of non-white poets who fall into the category of the “political.” Those who are “developing” are “political” and those who are “developed” are not? Or does “political” mean that we don’t know how to fully see-through the concerned poet who must become “politicized” in order to be understood? That the “political” poet is the poet we don’t really easily relate to in our Americana, so he or she becomes a euphemism for “other,” for marginalization, ethnicity and foreignness—while the implicitly “homegrown” love peace and beauty and the psychological liberation of the self?
How is so-called “political” poetry any different than “confessionalism” which parades itself in all manners, the good, the bad and the ugly, as forms or expressions of submission as well as rebellion? Is the psychological not political? It absolutely is. From William James to Lacan, for example, engaging subjectivity in our modern times at the psychological level of the individualist self is a political act. This political act has become so facile and so cheaply reproduced, often subservient to the larger nationalist aims of system, culture and market that it no longer appears “political.” Yet it is. Because it affirms and reifies and projects into the world an idea of what the “model” American self is about; all that crying about diversity notwithstanding: you like blue jeans and I like black jeans, thus we are plural.
One might do better to examine the author and their work in new ways, neither primarily textual nor primarily contextual, and that, I think, is harder work than most of us can do, and is not compatible with the pace of capitalist production, for art’s sake.
Is the poetry, is your work, merely being absorbed back into this system of reification and reproduction—as perhaps the kinds of questions we’re circling around in are being sucked back? What might the new ways be— to discuss, to approach a work?
What if Textu is seen and discussed as a painting on a canvas, an idea of action painted on a digital screen? It has rapidity to it, an immediacy which, I hope, is not necessarily only of the moment, fleeting, but in conversation with mutli-faceted time. The sequence of the book was largely left intact, in the same blocks as I had written them. This may explain the fluctuation of diction and themes, yet they are all framed in a geometric cohesion of the mind. What if Textu can be seen as an artist in a state of manifesto which, in art, is always in flux.
What if Textu can be seen as a neo-conversation with Shakespeare’s Complete Sonnets? If you read the sonnets in the order in which we have them, back to front or front to back, they illuminate fascinating shifts not only in diction but in consciousness. The self mutates as it travels through its own light and dark. In fact, I began to compose Textu on the heels of two weeks of obsessive readings of the sonnets, where I would cut and paste my favorite lines from them, often not the famous ones, and perform adaptations on them, rewrite them into new sonnets of Shakespeare’s words. All the while I was also performing adaptive or mutative translations of ancient Sufi Arabic poetry.
But again, in what I just said, am I not referring myself to power centers, submitting to them, to tradition and canon? And yet again, is it an exaggeration to say that a book like Textu will face obstacles of being (not) read within its various dimensions because of who wrote it? It does not have to be an experimental book or a political one. The politics are not always in the writing. The politics are often in the reception. Reception, or reading, is an act of translation, and translation of any form is plagued with political reflexes. Is it a fair question to ask: what if a certain “bona fide” American poet came up with a book like Textu?
I don’t mean to suggest Textu is the new wheel of sliced bread. I mean to say much of what goes on as criticism, reading, reception is a machine in motion. It ticks almost the same way each time a book comes out. It’s terrible to think that art has been reduced to a discipline like History, mostly echo or echolalia of “camp followers of the imperialists.”
If we say that politics is in the reception, then take a question such as this: returning to the poem, “A Word in Arabic,” would it have been as potent to portray the numerals 78 and 87 in the Arabic-Indic script? Or, I am asking, given your full use of available language, why not include the non-English as well? Is this a question you would balk at if your reader (myself, for example) asked it upon reading the poem?
What does 69 mean to you in English? You are asking me a question about the degree of imagination-work required by the reader or provided by the author. Maybe there is a sexual intention with the numbers but yes also the idea of incommunicability belongs in part to the reader.
The mention of Arabic in an English poem is a political act? Especially when mentioned by an Arab who does not reinforce the limited themes in which Arabic is and has been represented often by non-Arabic speakers or non-native informants? Again, everything seems to reach an absurd dead end these days.
I’m tired of the “political” poem talk. Tell me that American poetry does not “support our troops,” the plurality of it. How dare I bite the hands that feed me, unless I am a harmless puppy at heart? Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I’d rather find a different way of beginning…
Fady, Yes, I feel that too. I find myself struggling to account for multiple layers of “the political,” beginning with calling the questions, the propositions themselves, into question. The language continually crumples under the pressures we both feel.
I am crazy, too, with the infinite back and forth gazes (I think of Borges’s nightmare, of two mirrors facing). Glances more than perception.
I am confused by the difference between audience and market. And I’m confused by what must be revealed while still preserving distance (distance in order to have room for revelation), and when to reside in not-knowing, not-needing-to know or to penetrate further…
To that point, this line that I love from Textu: Better for me is / the indecipherable proximity.
A question, then, towards the point of reception—what kind of readerly reception or engagement with the book would not feel antagonistic to you, re. Textu? It is a reception that doesn’t politicize, or politicizes differently, or is private about its experience with the text, or …?
I don’t have an answer to this. You can ask an American poet about what it is like to grow up in Kansas or New York, but you can’t, for logistic reasons, you will tell yourself, ask her about what is it like to grow up a Palestinian or Iraqi American. By asking I mean actually becoming invested in the answer. “Logistics” as a code word for what is not “us.” We will say this is not a conversation for poetry. It is for “cultural studies.” Old hackneyed stuff. We will say, “play nice, can’t you play nicer?” As if one becomes an existential threat to the national tribe otherwise. It’s funny in the end. It makes me laugh. I wish others can begin to laugh too, but so many are waiting for me to deliver my words as a stand up comedian might before they feel laughter is safe.
My warm embrace.
Yes, you are of course absolutely right. Even trying hard probably doesn’t approach understanding what being an Arab in this moment is like.
Fady Joudah’s poetry and translation have received a Yale Series prize, a TLS/Banipal prize from the UK, a PEN USA award, and a Griffin International Poetry prize. He is currently a Guggenheim fellow in poetry. His most recent collections are Alight and Textu, both from Copper Canyon Press.
Todd Fredson is the author of the poetry collection, The Crucifix-Blocks, which won the 2011 Patricia Bibby First Book Award. His poems, essays and nonfiction appear in American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Interim, Poetry International, Warscapes and other journals and anthologies. He is currently at work on a translation project that considers ethnic politics in contemporary Ivorian poetry. Fredson is a doctoral candidate in the Creative Writing and Literature program at the University of Southern California.