Johannes: In the review of your new book Undead in Aftonbladet, Petter Lindgren remembers the 90s Swedish poetry scene as an era of groups – Malmöligan, the Stockholm Surrealists, Nya Juno. In some ways it seems similar to the very contemporary moment of US poetry. If you agree that the 80s/90s was an era of groups, what do you think caused this group-proliferation? In one regard, this harkens back to the era of the historical avant-garde in Europe in the 1910s and 20s (with Surrealism, Dadaism etc). In the US poetry discourse there seems to be a lot of condemnation of this “balkanization” – people love to point out that they are not part of groups, that they “just write good poetry” – to suggest that they are open to all aesthetics and that the “groups” are close-minded. But I think it’s kind of great that there are many different view points, and it seems to me that they different groups are often in fact more “open-minded” than the folks who pretend to be above it all. What do you think about groups in poetry?
Clemens: As far as I can see groups have been instrumental in the emergence of new styles and ideas, especially in modern times. The historical avant-garde groups that you mention are examples of that. We did of course create our own history. We were young and bold and wanted to make history so in some sense we copied the avant-garde group concept. But we emerged in an increasingly post-modern era and that somehow contributed to a growing eclecticism within the group itself. We wrote a manifesto but it was more like some kind of calculated joke than a text to be taken at face value. Malmo Gang’s manifesto has most of all similarities to the famous Dada manifestos. Besides that we also had some more immediate role models such as the older Lundaskolan group (where the previously mentioned Göran Printz-Påhlson was one of the members) and the Vesuvius group from Stockholm. Admittedly Lundaskolan was highly academic while we stood for a kind of anti-academic stance, but there was still common ground after all. The Vesuvius Group had started in the 70s and was heavily influenced by the beat writers but also anarchism and the social revolutionaries of the Situationist International. In the Malmö Gang we certainly had no explicit political agenda but we liked the anarchist attitude of Vesuvius. By forming a group, we got a ground to stand on. The things you are telling me about the groupings in contemporary American poetry are interesting, I think. This must indicate that new ideas are in circulation. I cannot see anything negative about it. Groups are formed and sooner or later they will dissolve. The ideas and different styles will remain in motion. /still be around/…
Clemens: [adds]… Yes, members of Malmö league had certain common denominators. Still, each of us had distinct individual stylistic characteristics. At this time, there were very few writing classes and none at all at the academic level. None of us had any training of that sort. I got a bachelor of arts degree 1981 but never talked about that. We were supposed to be anti-academic, remember? So I talked about “the university of the streets” instead. That was the image. But when the Danish poet Poul Borum started a writing class for poets, Lukas Moodysson became one of the first students. As Denmark was ahead of Sweden in this respect. That formal education clearly affected Moodyssons writing. He became more minimalistic, you could say. Still he remained a member of our little gang. By the way, Per Linde got an PhD in interaction design at Malmö Högskola some years ago. Thus he became the one and only academic scholar in the Malmö Gang. Currently he runs a project on City Fables so obviously he is still focused on urban perspective.
[Note: The most prominent member of the Vesuvius Group was Bruno K. Öijer, who translated some of his 1970s poetry for Action, Yes a while ago. Pär Bäckström wrote an essay about this group also in AY.]
Following up on Clemens’ answers to the first question, I asked him: What do you mean by “the old Scandinavian school of bland modernism”? What poets would you say are central to this tradition? What about it did you want to move away from?
Clemens: Well, what we certainly did not like was the kind of modernist poetry that lacks rhythm and is kind of high brow in a very pretentious way. That’s why we also were quite critical towards the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer. It would be wrong to call his poetry bland but a lot of poets that tried to use his aesthetics for sure came up with some really unexciting poetry. We could see and understand Tranströmer’s greatness as a poet but we saw nothing of that in the poetry written by his followers. You must bear in mind that we wanted to capture the urban street life while most Nordic old school modernists were interested in observing nature. There were exceptions of course. Among older poets we liked, for instance Göran Printz-Påhlsson (who has been translated into English by the poet John Mathias). By the way Göran Printz-Påhlsson was an important scholar from the Malmö/Lund-region and as an essayist he had introduced the notion of metapoetical writing to Swedish readers. He also translated John Ashbery into Swedish. As a poet Printz-Påhlsson himself was both learned and witty but had a wide scope when it came to the topics of the text. You could say that he also had a tendency to mix high and low. We were as a matter of fact friends with his son Finn and that’s how we got to know Göran.
Of the twenty or so books I picked up at AWP this year, Juliet Escoria’s Black Cloud is one of my favorites. I’m not usually a big fan of novels/poems/stories about drug addiction. For every Naked Lunch and Jesus’ Son and A Child’s Life and Other Stories, there seems to be plenty of works based on the redemption narrative. An addict goes through shit, hits a series of bottoms, and eventually makes their way to at least a fraction of light. For people dealing with addiction, I can see why such narratives are wanted, even needed. I don’t think there’s any doubt they can play a crucial role.
But with writers who downplay the redemptive model (like Gloeckner, Johnson) or don’t use it at all (Burroughs) the addiction becomes (to use a phrase Johannes and Lucas have discussed in various posts) a sort of ambience, an aspect of the aesthetic landscape. The Christian mythos of darkness leading into light is taken out, or at least made less of a factor. We’re left with works that instead become like recording devises, Warholian cameras, where everyday life in all its fucked-upness plays out in its own haphazard, digressive way.
Escoria’s book is very much in that later mode. Characters move through the years, get sober and then dramatically non-sober, age, think back on their childhood, their adolescence. The last story, “Trouble and Troubledness,” has a sentence implying the speaker does eventually get sober, but the struggle is left out. And this is also only one character. Though every story is told in the first person, or close second person, the individuals are different — or so they seem, since their personal histories can appear so contrasting. We never know if the others escape from their situations or not.
To me, these stories seem less about drug addiction than existential pang, a keen sense of isolation reinforced by the use of the first person, so that every story seems as if it were being told to a stranger, or to the narrator’s own self in a dark room. Because of this, some of the most luminous moments in the stories are some of the most seemingly low-key. In “Reduction,” the narrator says, “I spent the days after the appointment staring through the bedroom window, out at our view of the alley. Sometimes the haze would turn the sky scarlet at sunset and the birds would perch on the power lines in blackened silhouettes, but usually I must admit that I was staring at nothing at all.” (The addition of “I must admit” here — which implies a break in time, that these are events truly in the past — is an example of how precise Escoria’s prose is through the book.)
Black Cloud made me think of Bolaño’s troubled, isolated narrators, especially the one in Antwerp and those in Last Evenings on Earth. Like those characters, Escoria’s narrators lack self-pity despite their circumstances, and they talk with a calm assurance, not so much telling stories as simply describing moments in their life. Also, Mary Gaitskill, especially Veronica. Like Gaitskill, Escoria can write about parties and drug taking and twisted relationships without it ever seeming clichéd, or done for shock value. These aren’t bloodless ciphers: her narrators have a fevered, beating pulse as they move through these worlds. As the narrator says in “Mental Illness on a Weekday,” “As explosive as I feel, it is nice, too, because I feel like I’m holding a secret. I will sit here and brace myself, my knuckles white as my insides burn, and no one will know this fire.” The line also implies the fault-line that creates so much tension in the stories: the artful, calibrated prose paired with the explosive subject matter.
Anyway, this is a great book. “Heroin Story” is one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time. If you’re into Johnson or Gaitskill or Gloeckner, you’ll love this collection. (Side note: the author has made several fascinating videos to go along with the book — they’re like music videos for the stories. They can be seen on Vimeo.)
[I met Clemens Altgård at a reading I gave in Malmö with the Iranian-Swedish poet Azita Ghahreman last fall. We got to talking about Malmöligan, the 80s, and a bunch of other stuff. I thought it would be interesting not just to Swedes but perhaps to others as well if I asked him a few questions about these matters. This is the first of a series of questions I'll ask him. Please feel free to join in and ask your own questions of him. Here are three of his poems (in my translation) from the most recent issue of Action, Yes.]
Johannes: I’ll begin with a broad question. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, you were a part of Malmöligan (“The Malmö Gang”), a group of writers in Malmö (a major industrial city in Skåne, southern Sweden, also my dad’s hometown) which also included Kristian Lundberg, Lukas Moodysson and Håkan Sandell. One of my first encounters with the group was Sandell’s collection Flickor (Girls) and another was Kristallskeppet, your translation of the Danish poet Michael Strunge. In many ways these two books color my impression of Malmöligan – as a decadent/Romantic aesthetic that is also deeply engaged with pop culture (Sandell’s book samples Iggy Pop and Strunge’s includes references to Joy Division and David Bowie) [I wrote a post about the 1980s and Strunge and "visionary kitsch" a while ago]. I also get the impression that an important part of the group dynamic was the emphasis on readings. You have also mentioned an interest in Latin American poetry. And another part – as the name suggests – is the location (Malmö, hardly the most poetic place in the world). What do you see as the guiding aesthetics of the group? Did the group have a guiding aesthetic? How important was the fact that you guys were from Malmö (as opposed to Stockholm, the capital and cultural center)? [Och kanske jag oversatter en Sandell dikt och en Strunge dikt och länkar till dina dikter i ActionYes]
Clemens: I must also mention the other two members, Martti Soutkari and Per Linde. Both Martti and Per were also musicians and played in post-punk bands. Martti was the singer in Blago Bung (that took its name from a poem by the dadaist Hugo Ball) and Per was a drummer in Kabinett Död.
When it comes to the question of guiding aesthetics of the group I’m sure that you would get different answers depending on who you’re asking. But we all met in that strange subcultural melting pot that existed in Malmö/Lund at the time. There was an underground scene that consisted of different elements, for example: punk, postpunk, psychedelia and avantgarde aestethics. In the beginning it was me, Håkan and Per. Then we got to know Kristian and Lukas. We all knew who Martti was but he was not in the group to begin with. He joined the group in -87, if I remember correctly.
At first we were much into the early modernists like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. And the surrealists and dadaists of course. I must also mention the beat literature. We all read those American writers when we were still very young. There was a Latin American community i Malmö consisting of political refugees and soon enough we got to know some of the artists, writers and poets.
We did readings together and there was a great cultural exchange. Then we discovered the baroque qualities in the poetry of our friends from Latin America. This also influenced our own writing, I think.
The last couple of days, this is what I’ve been reading:
Nikki Wallschlaeger: “His body rejected the new lung like my body rejected your dick…”
he cannot know and hence he doesn’t answer.
it looks like one of those dangerous games
with animals waiting on both sides
of the barbed wire….
We have had some discussion of Steve Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” article here on Montevidayo. Mostly we have been critical of the article, but I wonder if we cannot use it as a starting point for some more discussions of taste, translation and excess.
I certainly still believe that excluding any discussion of translation, especially translation of Latin American poetry, is at best what Joyelle called “a missed opportunity” and what Lucas said indexed “a certain allergy and attraction to the foreign, a certain anxiety over the loss of canon control.”
As I noted, this is an article that is very much trying to come to terms with a notion of taste, of the value of restraint as a model of taste. I wrote about this matter a few days ago. What is the pedagogical value to warn against “going too far”? Or using a “nearly baroque” to set up against an over-the-top baroque? (continue reading…)
“I want to write poems that touch something chaotic and messy without destroying myself in the process”: Paul Cunningham interviews Sade Murphy
[Sade Murphy has poems in the new Action,Yes. Paul Cunningham, assistant editor of Action Books, interviews here here.]
Paul: Hi Sade. How do you approach writing a new poem? What kind of work do you typically set out to write?
Sade: I feel like when I start something, it’s usually accidentally. Dream Machine began because I wanted to trick myself into a good writing routine during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I’d start my day by writing about the previous night’s dreams over breakfast. It eventually replaced the project that I thought I would start there and grew eight legs and several other healthy appendages. So I guess I stumble into new poems while I’m doing something else. But once I have a concept I’m obsessed with it and I have to work it to completion. So I don’t feel like I typically set out to write anything. But even if I don’t have an intention in that regard I do intend for the poetry to be visceral. I want to write something that makes me feel powerful and effective when I read it. I want to write poems that touch something chaotic and messy without destroying myself in the process. I want, at least for the time being, to write poetry that creates questions and discomfort for people, to make them wonder if they’ve underestimated me.
Paul: Could you say something about the structure of Dream Machine? For me, the rapidity and the weight of the poem’s numbers tugged and propelled me through what felt like a filmic dream archive.
Sade: That’s really well put. So Dream Machine is set up in sections of six poems each and each section is titled Dream Machine of the Decade and then subtitled with a certain kind of number. For instance most of the dream machines on Action, Yes are “Sexy Numbers” or “Prime Numbers”. I have this thing about numbers, so the numbering of the poems is fairly intentional. The numbers are the titles for the poems. But it’s disordered too, the numbers aren’t sequential, they aren’t all there, they’re grouped somewhat subjectively. Ultimately the numbers kind of represent this ideal of structure or order within the realm of Dream Machine, in a way that the order is only meaningful to the imposer of said order.
There exists a sole dreamer spawning the Dream Machine. That dreamer is me… which I feel is important to say because I have a particular position and experiences which inform the things that are able to happen in the Dream Machine. There are also a few recurring characters.
Paul: What primarily influences your use of language and wordplay?
Sade: Eleutheromania. I want freedom. I remember growing up and feeling very policed about what I was allowed to write or think or feel. (continue reading…)
In response to my post on Gringpo provincialism, Brian Stefans wrote:
I can’t tell how much you are joking here. I love elaborate name-calling and neologisms as a sort of extravagant gesture like snapping your fingers in someone’s face but do you really be expected to be taken seriously?
Tonal ambiguity; bitchy extravagance; ornamentation and gesticulation; coinages galore. Deep in my plumas, I love Brian’s take on the disorienting effects of my queeny baroque. What does he describe if not the baroque “process of masking, of progressive enveloping, of mockery” that my lettered nena Sarduy identified as
“a necessarily pulverized reflection of a knowledge that knows it is no longer ‘calmly’ closed on itself. An art of dethronement and dispute.”
While “Las meninas” is an example of colonial Spanish baroque painting, I believe it is rebelliously Latina in spirit. As if to decolonize the gaze, the boundaries of art, Velazquez, and his spectators dissolve through a juvenile femme force that destroys mastery. Even in the 21st century, the painting’s assault on all frames and borders restages a crisis of the phallus and its neo-imperialist order.
This is the baroque abyss inseparable from its fullness: the fear of a vaccuum in the face of a missing center, a paradoxically generative horror vacui. (continue reading…)
In response to Steve Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” article, Lucas and Joyelle wrote posts questioning the exclusion of the foreign, and in particular the Latin American engagement with the baroque. Lucas suggested that this “nearly baroque” not only omitted the Latin American poets, but that in fact it was a way of dealing with the threat of the foreign (fully baroque).
For me this is a key issue. One of the volatile aspects of translation is that it asks us to question what might be domestic tastes and conventions. I am fond of stating that translations cause problems because they generate too many versions of too many texts by too many authors. And as we know from the “too much” trope that has become increasingly common in contemporary US poetry discussions, this excess is tightly intertwined with the idea of taste. Taste saves us from the too much, the “plague ground.” It’s in fact because of the too much that we need taste. (See for example my Ranciere post from a while back.)
As I wrote in my last post, “baroque” is a kind of tastelessness, a kind of excess. The tasteless art that is seduced by the artistic, causing it to write too much, to put too much into the writing/art.
There has been some discussion here and on facebook about Steve Burt’s article on the “Nearly Baroque.” And not surprisingly, there has been a lot of focus on this “nearly,” a word that suggests both an open-ness to this baroque, and a restraint, an an ability to control this (possible dangerous, decadent impulse). It’s “extravagant” but not *that* extravagant.
I agree with Lucas’s (and Joyelle’s) suggestion that it has to do with a defense against the foreign, that the “fully baroque” may not even be a particular foreign poetry, but a more general foreign-ness. Lucas asserts:
“The exacted inexactness of Burt’s ‘nearly baroque,’ his ‘almost rococo,’ thus indexes a certain allergy and attraction to the foreign, a certain anxiety over the loss of canon control.”
I am interested in how Burt’s “nearly” plays into a dynamics of Taste, a sense that I think is enhanced by Burt’s standing as an arbiter of taste. For isn’t the most obvious meaning of baroque in fact “tasteless”? The word was first used as a derogatory term calling attention to an excess of ornamentality (which equals crime, thanks Modernism). And this is largely how Burt uses the terms as well. With this important change: the poets he writes about are “NEARLY” baroque.
Or: NEARLY TASTELESS.