INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MOORE WILLIAMS
Writer/Editor Forrest Armstrong came up with a very interesting and super-cool way to help promote "Avant Garde for the New Millennium" and that was to pair the anthology's writers off and get them to interview each other about their pieces in the book, as well as life n art n writing in general.
Forrest and I have talked long and hard in the past about making connections between people, and getting dissparate sub-networks of artists, writers, musicians, etc to collaborate or make contact w/ each other; it's one of our things. It's kinda logical: it means creating new audiences for one another's work, providing mutual support and advice, makin' friends...
So, engaging in this process was a no-brainer for me, and so it came to pass that I interviewed American writer and super-poet John Moore Williams. And it was an experience that I very much enjoyed. John's an uber-smart guy; very funny and great on-line company. Thanks, John!
Some of the other interview-pairings are posted here on Forrest's site. Please go'n read.
Oh, and I have to say a special thanks to the remarkable D. Grin/D W Green for his incredibly kind n flattering words about my own story "The Reformation" when D was actually supposed to be talking about himself. Cheers, man.
My own contributor's copy of "Avant Garde for the New Millenium" just turned up w/ a signed dedication from Forrest that I confess left me with a lump in my throat. Aww, youse guys...
The anthology is NOW AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE over on Amazon. Or buy direct from Raw Dog Screaming Press. There is go excuse for not buying this!!! If you do not buy it, we will come for you and your family in little lime-green, one-man saucer-pods with flashing lights underneath them and make lots of noise late at night in your backyard. Consider that a promise!!!
Okay, so let the innerview begin...
First, could you introduce yrself for those folks out there who don't know you or what it is that you do...
JMW: Introduce myself … hmm. Never sure what to say here. Guess I’ll start with the basics: My name is John Moore Williams and I’m the author of two chapbooks, both released this year: I discover i is an android, which was released by Trainwreck Press (Ditch, poetry’s imprint out of Canada), and writ10, which is available free from Jukka-Pekka Kirvenen’s VUGG Books. I write - well, I’ll just encourage you to go read my work.
I have an extremely hard time explaining just what it is that I do, and really respect John Ashberry’s view that to explain one’s work is to disrespect it. I won’t claim to be anywhere near as good as Mr. Ashberry, but I do think that my work articulates what it is that I’m doing far better than I could ever hope to. I will say that I write primarily out of dissatisfaction with the majority of what the ‘literary’ world has produced, and that my main influences are Aase Berg, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker and Georges Bataille. That’s not to say that there isn’t a wealth of wonderful work being produced in all sorts of currents; it’s just that I’d rather write things that just aren’t like what others write.
A fairly common, and much appreciated, response to my work is the comment that is very visceral. And I’d say I’m pretty chuffed at that. If it is of any use to anyone at all, I live in the Bay Area of California, but have found so far that the majority of sympathetic listeners to what I’ve rattled out happen to hail from the eastern U.S. and Canada. Oh, yes - and Europe.
I'm always interested in how writers, musicians, etc see themselves, rather than how critics interpret them...so, this kinda flows out from the previous question, but what sort of writer/poet/prosetist do *you* think you are? - how do you see yourself in the scheme of things -do you think you've got a specific flavour or mission statement that comes with your work...?
JMW: Ha-ha. Looks like I won’t be getting out of doing a little explaining. I think I’ve learned to think of myself and my work without much reference to what others are producing, or what history has come before me. That’s due both to an injunction from Brent Cunningham not to take myself too seriously, or to assume that anyone will ever want to place me within a particular set, and my own perception that I don’t really belong, in many ways, in the current streams of poetics.
Though a lifelong fan of poetry, I didn’t really commit myself to it until my last year in college, when I took a course in the poetics of translation with the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson. The idea of the course was not to really ‘translate’ other’s works in the traditional sense of the term, but to translate in the sense that we all translate our experience of life: to take what is given and transmute it into new work. And whether I’m writing a distorted translation of Aase Berg’s work, attempting to preserve rhythm and phrasing but to completely alter the diction and thematic; or rewriting Peter Pan from the perspective of what are essentially street punks, or simply working single poems out of pseudo-anagrammatic derangements line by line, so that each new line is a translation of the one above it (examples not simply drawn out of the hat: all present techniques of current – the first two examples – or past work – the latter describing the method I used to write I discover i is an android), I think of all of my work as translations.
However, while the technique and subject matter of all my works differs – form always informing content – my abiding concerns are that my work remain polysemous and visceral. Polysemy is my foremost interest when it comes to language: I’m obsessed with the sometimes hidden, sometimes fallacious (from the etymological perspective) but often intuitively meaty connections between different sememes. Essentially I’m not satisfied with language as it is; I have this feeling that I’ve had as long as I can remember that language can be forced to express new ideas, and I’ve tried as much as possible to highlight that perceived capability. I also try to keep my work visceral out of a perception that too little contemporary work truly is. Trolling the online journals, I’d venture it’s kinda rare to find a work about sex that isn’t highly metaphorical … I’d rather just get down there and dig amidst all those sticky fluids, and see if I can find any words floating about in there.
To close this bit, I’d like to reference my four favorite quotes from readers about my work:
1. “It’s like steampunk erotica with a Viking helmet on.”
2. “It’s tantra for wild boars.”
3. “It’s like a sexy version of Jabberwocky”
4. “ … think of this book as your introduction to the Romanticism of the future.” (this last about my book “I discover i is an android”)
Tell us a bit about the genesis of your piece(s) . Can you remember anything about actually writing them - any particular thoughts, vibes or peripheral stuff going on at the time that might have fed into them....?
JMW: While I do have a number of what I’d call “incidental” pieces, I tend to have pretty good recall as to the origins of particular pieces. Due to the larger project that both the pieces in the anthology spring out of, I very clearly remember their origins. Both come from an ongoing project with the brilliant Matina L. Stamatakis. About a year ago or so Matina and I had been talking doing a collaboration, and it was the first piece, “Zoom In,” that finally galvanized us both to start the project. “Zoom In” began as a simple alphabetic piece: I wanted to find 26 metaphors for love – and, typical of my oeuvre, they tended to revolve around the physical side thereof – so I wrote 26 lines, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet. I worked from a to z and found the work interesting, but somehow lacking … basically just a tad straightforward. So I worked on some parenthicals — a sort of parallel narrative that both elaborated on and diverged from the original piece — then integrated them into the original piece. So, in a way, it’s my personal aleph-bet of the relationship between physicality and love.
The second piece spawned from a line in one of those incidental poems I mentioned: “Our eyes meet over the slaughter.” A bit of talking the line over with Matina made me realize that it played quite well into my fascination with the zombie in all its myriad forms, from the Voudoun spectre to the pop-culture film icon to the philosophical thought-experiment. However, I was having a hard time elaborating on my ideas, so I let my anagrammatic machine (the one discovered and used in the writing of “I discover … “ (god with a little g forgive me for alluding to my book yet again)) take over and write the piece for me.
All this talk of machinery reminds me of another of my big influences: Christian Bok. He once suggested that the poet of the future might be lauded more for his or her creation of a machine or program itself capable of producing poems. And though I anticipate no lauds for it – nor feel I deserve them – the anagrammatic engine I mentioned above is my machine: It does the work for me when I cannot. And generally, I’m quite pleased with its results.
Some vague impressionistic thoughts on your pieces. I had a weird flash of Samuel Delaney at one point, particularly on "Zoom In" – though he's not someone I personally particularly associate with poetry. I haven't read anything of his for years, but some of his late 60s/early 70s stuff has a weird poetic feel to it and your work had a similar post-urban resonance to it, I thought. I was getting that strange deserted/abandoned city recast-as-a-human body thing that he used to do (and Zelazny sometimes had that feel too....) I like the way you've tangled up imagery from an post-urban landscape with that of the human body and then wrapped it up in emotional/psychological terms too. The three things seem to blur in and out of each other, so there's a sort of weird psychogeography at play - so the concrete-external, the human-physical and the bodiless-emotional states all come into play, like transitions between solid matter, liquid and gas...
You also do good endings too! I like the way that "Zoom In" finally comes to rest, as if it's depleted its own energy, but also the language and the imagery softens, and also that final feeling of desiccation, of the prose (and maybe also the writer and the subject-matter) shrivellng or drying up...as if the piece has auto-depleted itself. on "Our Eyes Meet Over the Slaughter" the language and imagery goes from a sort of increasingly super-heated liquid state to a juddering halt, like a sea-plane (or a bird) landing on water - for a moment, you think it's not going to be able to stop, but it does. And there's a sense of a gentle continuing motion that carries on briefly *after* the piece has ended...like an after-taste of momentum, even though you've stopped writing (if that makes sense LOL)...
Both pieces have a sense of sexual energy too, maybe...and there's a sense of them both being sated or used-up at the end, but in different ways in the two pieces...again, I don’t know if that makes sense - it's just how the changes of rhythm and energy strike me - again, I'm probably just projecting onto the pieces...
JMW: Well, I’d say that your perceptions – self-deprecations aside – are quite accurate, and I’m certainly flattered by some of the allusions. I adore Delaney’s approach to fiction, his perception that fantasy and sci-fi can be incredibly powerful tools for the exploration of concepts incredibly close to home. That ‘post-urban resonance’ you speak of is an idea dear to my heart: I believe that our relationships to our cities, our technologies, and our bodies are probably the most important, and will be the most central, concerns of human thought as we progress.
An exploration of those intense and highly tense relationships is, to my mind, pivotal: without properly exploring those relationships, our antagonistic relationship to all three of these realities will be, in the end, our undoing. And beyond the potentially catastrophic results of that ignorance, it is the ignorance itself which terrifies and fascinates me. All these things – our bodies, our technologies, our cities – are as close to us as our own thoughts, and are patterned after the biochemical processes and networks that are fundamental to our existence. For these things, which are so intimate in their reflections of ourselves, to be so alien to us is, quite simply, abhorrent to me. I can’t say that my work will ever help resolve these tensions, but it is immersed in them. The concepts are, to my mind, inseparable, and that’s exactly why you perceive those things merging so seamlessly in “zoom in”.
Otherwise, I’ll let your perceptions stand on their own.
I was interested in your own interest in Polysemy...and I was curious where you thought this might come from - what do you think has drawn you towards an interest in language's potential for multiple meanings? Are you interested in ambiguity primarily, or is it the 'hidden-ness' of meanings that intrigues you - the pleasure of teasing out new or unexpected layers of meaning? Was it something that initially intrigued you as a reader of other people's work, or did it develop as you began to write yourself...?
JMW: To be honest, I can’t say where my interest in polysemy began. If I were to imaginatively reconstruct the process, though, I’d say this: When I was very young, just starting to write, I was fascinated by that anachronistic idea – the very underpinning of both Biblical and fantastic literatures – that language had some intrinsic relation to reality; that manipulation of language could result in profound changes in the so-called ‘real.’ In a sense I think that power still is very much a reality ... I mean, there’s no denying that language profoundly affects our perceptions of reality – one need look no further than the word ‘queer’ to see that a word can be loaded with whole, often profoundly opposed, worldviews … and be equally powerful for either side of the coin.
Over time, though, that belief withered as I realized that no number of reams of moody teenage-angst poetics would ever take me out of this world, or help me find any sort of transcendence.
Then, as one does, I came across Saussure and the most intense part of my belief in language died away completely. But it wasn’t a difficult or painful death: Instead, it helped me realize that language, like most other systems of thought, was a sort of a web, a web in which each word was a node or interstice of many lines meeting and intertwining, and that each of those interstices depended entirely on the whole structure of the web. A word couldn’t mean anything intrinsically because it was simply a part of a set of relationships, and that sort of structure rapidly become incredibly more interesting, and more full of depth, than any intrinsic relation to reality ever could be.
As I said above, I realize that language is still incredibly powerful, but it’s in its relationship to sociopolitical realities rather any conceptual objective reality.
Interesting you mentioning Matina and Jukka-Pekka Kirvenen - both extremely talented and cool people, imo...I was curious - in "Our Eyes Meet Over The Slaughter" what is it that was slaughtered...? Is that something you're comfortable in talking about - or would you prefer to leave it open to the reader's interpretation...? (The zombie as metaphor is one I'm constantly using myself, pretty much on a weekly basis - it resonates on all sorts of cultural/social levels.)
JMW: I adore Matina, both as a poet and as an online friend. And Jukka-Pekka … to call him talented is a bit of an understatement. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my work than when I heard he liked my ‘writ10’.
I would certainly prefer to allow readers to read what they may in that slaughter. I will say that I often think of humans social relationships having a gustatory, consumptive element – and that the image of two lovers swallowing each other in a sort of recursive, Ouroboroean circle is no stranger to my thoughts.
I'm very interested in the idea of automation in fiction (and art, etc), particularly in the Surrealist sense of the word, so your comments about using an 'engine' intrigued me a great deal. Are you okay talking about your anagrammatic engine - and how this functions or folds in with your writing process? Is it something you use to dig your way out of a creative impasse - like, for example, Eno's Oblique Strategies cards - or is it more of a generative tool, that you then use to create or rearrange source-material, that you then manually edit until you get a result that's pleasing to your own aesthetics? There's some wonderful rhythms, particularly in "Our Eyes Meet Over The Slaughter" - they seem far too organic to be fully automated, or is that just an illusion? I love this particularly beautiful sequence (the way it tumbles and flows, vowels tripping and tipping over each other...)...apologies for removing it from the longer flow/context that it’s embedded it (and for losing the word position-placement - Blogger just wasn't having it), but I love the words...
“the hectored keel names you a taut seizure,
an aubade, an echo log, I a voice you wrote”
JMW: Here’s the text of a little statement of poetics which revolves around the engine:
"associative anagrammatics, or the poem as tarot spread
"the compositional method … is what I have come to call associative anagrammatics, a method I analogize with the layout and reading of a tarot spread.
"in each poem the title functions as the initial layout, in which the epistemological tools of the subsequent “reading” are established and defined. the poem thence unfolds as a series of readings of the fundamental datum provided by the title.
"progressing into the poem, the writing process splits the fundamental datum into its constituents parts, parsing the whole phrase down first into words, then into the individual letters – just as the tarot reader splits the total spread first into the individual cards, and then into the disparate images that compose each card’s total composition.
"thus, each line stands as a rereading, rewriting, redaction of the title itself, and its attempts to make some new and fresh meaning of the originary statement parallel the epistemological efforts we all make upon encountering some new media or stimulus. they recapitulate the semiotic tension between a thing and its name, and, much like the tarot, end up being more of a map, or an act, of meaning-making, than any static statement in and of themselves."
To more directly answer your question: it’s both generative means and oblique strategy. Your suggestion that some passages of my work seem “far too organic to be fully automated,” goes to the heart of my interest in the process. It’s a merger of these two concepts – the organic and the automated – and was thus the (here I go again) ideal method of composition for the android book. There’s no parsing out what the “machine” did and what “I” did – or, I suppose there is, but it would take a great deal of detailed backtracking to determine what the engine gave me and what my organic mind produced out of it. In a sense it’s no different than any compositional technique which produces a rough draft which is then edited … except I try to do both in one pass, producing a final product which is (hopefully) as polished as it is spontaneous.
Your thoughts on how the physical world around us is a 'projection', an externalisation or extension of our own biological and psychological processes resonates very strongly with me - the idea that we've created this world "in our own image" is one of the themes that I was playing with in my own story, so I'm pleased to see some overlap there with my own views of the world.
JMW: I don’t necessarily think of the external world as a projection or externalization of our own natures—rather that there is less distinction than we like to think between “our own image” and that of the external. What I mean to say is that one is a reflection of the other, and, if anything, it is the external that precedes the images that we have projected … and that those images we’ve projected appear in the manner that they do not because of some conscious act of artifice on our part, but simply because all things proceed from an underlying pattern.
It’s like galaxies: the majority of galaxies in the universe appear to conform to essentially the same pattern, the very spiral pattern to which our own Milky Way conforms. I guess I am, in essence, a scientific positivist, a believer in the as-yet unarticulated Grand Unified Field Theory. It’s simply that all things – from language to galaxies to human bodies and cities – are shaped in accordance with a single set of simple and elegant rules.