We talked with Kenneth Goldsmith, the American poet and UbuWeb editor, who participated in the conference "Public Library” and held a workshop "How to Waste Time on Internet” in Zagreb. "Public Library” was organised by Multimedia Institute and WHW.
Author: Miljenka Buljević
Although you were at the conference "Public Library", I would like to ask you first about your private library.
I inherited my library from my grandfather who was a great book collector of the classics, beautiful editions, from Shakespeare to avantgarde. He also loved modernism so he would go to Paris during 1940s and 1950s and he would bring books by Henry Miller, James Joyce... everything that was obscene and could not be imported into US or GB. That way he gathered a great collection of banned books.
Did those books influence you or were you more keen on reading other genres?
Many books influenced me. I love concrete poetry, visual poetry. That is a mid-century movement that came out from visual uses of language. I was influenced by the avantgarde tradion, the way Marinetti worked with "parola liberte", Joyce, Stein, Ezra Pound, ideograms, Mallarme... I still work in this long tradition that, in my opinion, goes back to Mallarme. I took this idea to use language as a material.
Do you see yourself as a 21st century formalist?
You could say so. I think the web is really encouraging formalistic tendencies. If you can cut and paste so many things, you have lots of material.
In Zagreb you held a workshop about wasting time on the Internet. Why did you come up with this particular workshop?
We've never theorized wasting time on Internet, and you can theorize it through literature. When we waste time on the Internet, we are boasting with reading or writing, recognizing it as being the "proper" thing. But still, people are doing more reading and writing than 25 years ago. Every time you tweet, share or like something, you are actually reading and writing. Textuality is central once more.
How do you translate that to literature? Reading and writing are not necessarily literature...
I think it is just a matter of shifting the frame of literature. Duchamp gave us the permission to take an everyday thing and put it inside artistic frames.
To do so, you have to use performance as well.
We are poets, we get up and read our stuff, we are often performative. Novelists are often less performative. You can take any text and make it interesting by reading.
But by reading, by this interplay between the written text and the performance, it becomes another thing. How conscious is your performative process?
I am deliberate, there is not much left to chance in my work. You try to consider all angles. A failed work will miss certain points, but complete work will see all the angles and possibilities. For me, writing is a performance. Every time I sit in front of a computer, I am aware that it is not a passive thing. Moving the language from one place to another, dragging it, that is a performance.
Writers are often unaware of their creative process, or they act so. But you put the process in the foreground while the outcome basically becomes less important.
The 21st century writer has a perfectly functionable machine into which language can be put and it will come out good. We don't need to worry about the result, but the design of the machine. If the machine is faulty, text will be faulty (and vice versa).
I cannot avoid the question about your recent, controversial reading of a poem about Michael Brown from Ferguson. Could you comment on that experience?
It was a bad art-work because I didn't build the machine long enough. I didn't anticipate what could have happened and I left lot of blind spots while moving into the performance. The text was OK, but the performance was not.
Poets and artists fail all the time. You think you are doing one thing, but you realize you are doing something else. We all fail. I failed publicly on a very large stage. Best I can do now is learn from that: the ways these blind spots were brought to me were really good, I was told many things that I was ignorant about, and I will certainly not repeat same mistakes.
I wanted to see if I can work with topical, hot, political content and apply very cold methodology to it. It didn't work out.
How political are writers and movements that influenced your work? In my opinion, they are primarily aesthetic.
I don't know, I am trying to figure that out in my own practice. I was aesthetic for long time, provocative in that way, but I wanted to push my practice to see if it can handle politics. I believe it generally can, but I may not be the person to do that.
As a teacher of creative writing, do you think you can really teach somebody to write?
I am also always learning. My reaction to Michael Brown's case would have been different now than earlier. Now there are different issues that need to be taken in consideration. Who has a write to speak, who can address these issues? After that incident, I have to go through a whole check-list.
Isn't that crippling?
It is, but... It is a good question. Right now I am seeing limits to my practice that I wasn't aware before, but they were here before. So it might be not so bad to be a little crippled, a little self-conscious, because that is how discourse moves forward and becomes more complex. I could say "fuck it, this is my practice", but I am not interested in stepping into destructive things. If I didn't learn from this, I would be stupid.
From Croatian perspective, literary establishment in US seems like a well-oiled machine that eats up everything that is not perfect. But poetry is still marginal: it is written, but it is not sold, it is not even read that much and it definitely doesn't have the prestige. But you strike me as somebody who could hack this establishment.
I like playing with institutions and institutional practice in a poetic way. I don't mind engaging with big institutions and hacking them. This is not the traditional role of poetry, but maybe it is its future. Maybe poetry is not as powerless as it seems. Poem about Michael Brown also showed that – it was very effective in a negative way, but very powerful.
In 21st century, the term "agent provocateur" could give new life to poetry. It doesn't need to kiss anybody's ass, it doesn't have mainstream support, poets have nothing to lose, so poetry can be dangerous again. This poetry may look more like a performance art, but "poetry" is an orphan term that everybody gave up on. So you can shake it off and use it in a new way, active and powerful.
Avantgarde is another term that was left behind, so you can reinvent it and do it wrong. I wanted to do it wrong and make it impure, since avantgarde tradition was always concerned with purity, patriarchy and militarisation – I wanted to turn it back on itself, pollute it with theory, unusual politics, aesthetic that never quite fit in the doctrinaire.
What was the motivation behind starting UbuWeb? And has it changed by now?
UbuWeb started 20 years ago. My job was to put visual and concrete poetry on the Internet. It moved after that, but UbuWeb works pretty much the same as it did 20 years ago. World has changed, people used to get upset about finding their work on UbuWeb without permission, but I think our ideas about copyright have opened up and loosened back this situation. Now UbuWeb is much easier to run than 20 years ago. It just gets bigger and deeper.
And your motivation?
I like it and it changed my life in a really good way. It is not for everybody, but if you need it, if you need, say, John Cage's recordings, you can find them there in an easy way. UbuWeb is my community service and it makes our world a little bit of a better place.