[Another installment in my on-going interview with Clemens Altgård:]
Johannes: In 1995 you and Håkan Sandell co-wrote a two-part manifesto “Om Retrogardism,” drawing in part on the Slovenian arts collective NSK/Laibach. Could you talk about what interested you this work? What was the reaction of the Swedish literary establishment? To what extent are you still interested in this line of thought?
First the idea was that we should write one long text together. It soon proved to be impossible. So I wrote about the Slovenian group Laibach and the NSK. Håkan Sandell wrote things like that true inspiration is impossible without rhythmic fixed forms.
We were both negative to the established but by then outdated modernist school of writing. I had picked up on some postmodern thinking but Sandell was more into a premodern way of writning. As a matter of fact he wanted to reconsider the whole creative process from an almost primitivist point of view. What we both could agree on was the thought that the techniques of oral literature could be used in the writing process in order to strengthen the expression. But in a way you could say that we created different versions of what retrogardism could be in a Nordic context. What interested us both was how the Slovenians managed to use old mannerisms, even the totalitarian language of the enemy and put it all together in brand new and amazing works of art and music. I was very enthusiastic at first. I could see no limits to what we might accomplish.
But our book got a lot of criticism. Many liberal and leftist intellectuals got anxious and seemed to think that we had some kind of hidden fascist agenda. They got it all wrong, to say the least. But that was bad enough. Some literature critics understood the concept and that we presented two different ways of creating in a retrogardist spirit. Some people though got the naive impression that the two essays should be read as one coherent text. If you do that, well then you will get confused. For me all that became a bit of a problem. It was like a big backlash of some kind. For me it took many years, a decade or so, to get over all that and sort things out for myself.
For Sandell it was different. He moved to Norway and still lives in Oslo. Some kind of exile, you could say. In Oslo he started something that gradually grew bigger. Sandells ideas attracted a group of young Norwegian painters that went the classicist road, some of them trained by Odd Nerdrum. That was Sandells new context. He got pupils and followers. Sandell has said that his young Norwegian pupils – he gave them lessons in metrics – opposed him in the sense of becoming more classicist/traditionalist than he had ever been himself. But instead of rejecting them in return, he joined them. In Sandells words: “I took the side of my pupils, against myself! And there followed the second wave of retrogardism, in close community with the painters. The painters came mostly from what has sometimes been called the ‘Nerdrum School’, after the painter Odd Nerdrum.”
Well, I was not into that, not at all. I kept writing poetry but did not publish any new book. Instead I did collaborations, art projects, with my friend the artist Ola Åstrand. And that was something quite different from the “second wave” retrogardism in Norway.
Laibach has continued to develop their aesthetics. They still make ironic manifesto-like statements and they still display a negative attitude towards authority. I went to see the Laibach concert in Malmö 2011 so their work still interest me. I still listen to their music but as a poet I have moved on. The world has changed a lot since we wrote the essays “Om retrogardism” and I have changed a lot too, I think. I’m not really that interested in traditional writing techniques, for instance.
Drew Kalbach’s Spooky Plan is spooky—an uncanny directive working in and out of time. The speaker operates the paradoxical technology of the lyric like a drone pilot, virtuosic and remote; immobilized, isolated, instrumentalized, and lethal. Meanwhile, the lyric lines toggle between literally ancient modes of address—graffiti transcribed from the walls of Pompeii—and the ultra-purposeful/ultra-random language of SPAM-bots. What is the strange—spooky—texture that knits up in the oscillation between these poles? Spooky action at a distance? The illusion of consciousness and intimacy that makes the universe, and the lyric, and the Internet function, while each is in fact a mass of dazzling, unparaphrasable relays? What wonders is the Sublime sitting on, somewhere over the paywall? Spooky Plan sez, “Drop down and get your worship on.” Bow down. Bow-wow.
–Joyelle McSweeney, author of Percussion Grenade
In his wonderful first book, Spooky Plan, Drew Kalbach manages to write short lyrics that are somehow incredibly punchy even as they pile up the refuse of centuries together with defecations, nocturnal emissions and other bodily fluids/media. “You are coming to blow me but not until later. I learned this while I was alive”: time spasms and drags, while “the baby girls” “grind and booty shake” and “put me under.” The dance of this menacing, hilarious, sexy (in possible an illegal way) group provides if not a narrative then something like a volatile pattern to the otherwise formless excrement of the narrator’s “post-continuity” visions of the body and sexuality. With this book, Kalbach joins a growing group of younger poets – poets like Jennifer Tamayo, Trisha Low, Monica McLure – who are changing American poets with their irreverent lyricism, performativity and media obsessions: “goodbye giggling in the carwreck”!
– Johannes Göransson, author of Haute Surveillance
These are the dreams for the commercials in post-surveillance capitalism. Kalbach’s poems are real guns, real volts, real gifts, and they’re usually about how we live today—even as we’re afraid to admit it. His poems are in community (ethereal and ethernet) while recovering isolation (in sickbeds and video games). His visions defer to an ethos, but it’s a post-integrity kind, where the body’s fallen into corporations and hostile takeovers and hostage situations, and the tremendous cost crushes thoughts into what you’d expect: flickering sadness, blinkered rage, but best—this roving curiosity for finding a better way to be electric and dead and still wanting one more try at the slots. You can’t “glitch it back together,” Kalbach has noted elsewhere. But the attempt is a funny, bracing instrument, and it’s exquisite.
Johannes: The most famous member of the Malmö Gang, especially in the U.S., is Lukas Moodysson, internationally acclaimed film director of such films as Fucking Åmål, Together and Hole in My Heart.But he started out as a teenage-poet and member of the Malmö Gang, as you have already mentioned. Do you want to say anything else about him?
Clemens: When we got to know Lukas Moodysson he was still very young and unexperienced. I think that we taught him one or two things but he was a very fast learner. He already had a style of his own when he became a member of our group. But his style would change over time. As he went to Borum’s school in Copenhagen Lukas started to write in a new manner. Then he quit and began to write more maximalistic again. As a matter of fact I wrote a poem about him that was published in his book “Kött”” (Flesh/Meat). But Lukas had to move on. In fact he became a world famous director! How about that?
Johannes: Which is your favorite of his films?
Clemens: I’ve seen all of them. If I should pick av favorite… I´ll choose Container. It’s very close to his poetry.
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…)