25 February 2013


Toby Altman lives in Chicago, IL where he co-curates the Absinthe and Zygote reading series and co-runs Damask Press. He is the author of the chapbook Asides (Furniture Press Books, 2012) and his poems can or will be found in Rhino, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Gigantic Sequins, Bodega, Birdfeast, and other journals. Toby took some time last week to answers a few questions for me over email regarding his newest collection:

At a reading in Philadelphia during July 2012, I believe you mentioned that you adapted the form of Asides (i.e. a numerical list of propositions) from Wittgenstein's Tractatus. To that end, I wondered if you could address two separate but related issues. First, how do think, at least to your mind, poetry and philosophy relate or interact with one another? What are the effects of their confluence? Secondly, how does the numerical list function within you collection? Or stated differently, how did a numeric list of propositions enable you deal with the subject matter of your chapbook in a manner that other forms would not permit?

I’ll only be able to answer this question in the most gestural terms. Though, perhaps there’s an advantage in the loose pleasures of the gesture when tackling these kinds of abstractions. Perhaps we should think about philosophy as a form of pleasure—or, more precisely, as a technology for organizing pleasure. It’s in this capacity that philosophy has, historically, encountered poetry: as a disciplinary apparatus, designed to organize and moderate the body for political life.

Politics is a logistics of the body: a matter of organizing the shivers and excesses of embodiment. For philosophers in the Platonic tradition, poetry interrupts their logistics, introducing unmanageable bodily heterogeneity into the political community. If the basis of political community is the organization of embodiment, then poetry—which amplifies and unmoors the body—will not just be bad politics, but anti-political as such. The pleasures of poetry actively make war on the political order.

This is—potentially—a damning accusation. The long tradition of political poetics, which begins with Aristotle, might be seen as an attempt to rescue poetry: to justify it to the city without denying its potency over the body. If my own work tends to identify with the concerns and methods of philosophy over poetry, this is in part because I sympathize strongly with the Platonic critique of poetry. I want a poetry which amplifies and unmoors the body, a poetry which is not only useless but actively anti-political. (This position does come dangerously close to a libertarian individualism: maybe it is a form of leftist libertarianism. The challenge will be to insist on the anti-political pleasure of poetry, without negating communal bonds and obligations). 

One last word about the numbers. The chapbook is intended to be both one continuous thought and a series of discrete thought experiments. The numbers are designed to indicate the continuance of a single, unified thought through the discrete poems.

There's quite a bit of food for thought in your previous answer, but your conclude with the claim that the "numbers [within your chapbook] are designed to indicate the continuance of a single, unified thought through the discrete poems." But in Asides, you write:
(16) Imagine a world in which numbers were believe to have bodies. (It is irrelevant for your purposes whether they do have bodies.) Would mathematics be more like arranging the pieces on a chessboard or composing music?

Now imagine a world in which numbers are believed to have souls. Here, addition would certainly be a kind of celestial music.
I was hoping you could address this passage with regard to how this proposition functions, in and of itself, as well as within the context of your collection (i.e. the titled sections are number 1-6, and the individual propositions are number 1-28). What is your investment in mathematics, numerology, etc.? What is your take, generally speaking, about the manner in which poetry has engaged numbers (whether functionally or as a manner of categorization)?

I’m glad you put some pressure on this point. I confess I didn’t fully think through these issues while I was working on the chapbook (it’s old work, dating from my time in college). So the notes that follow on the relationship between numbers and bodies are not authorial; they represent an attempt to read the chapbook beyond the terms and intent of its composition. 

I’d like to start by noting a paradox in the body’s architecture. As Elaine Scarry notes, the body is “effortlessly grasped”—almost perfectly self-present to its possessor: “the most vibrant example of what it is to ‘have certainty’.” But, “the” body is also a linguistic fiction even for the person who possesses it. “The” body is constantly in the process of unmaking itself, slipping into non-being: as it ages, as it sloughs off dead skin cells and hair. As a structure of feeling, the body is perfectly self-present; as a structure of narrative, the body is persistently absent, shifting, unthinkable. This paradox should not be solved or sublimed: it should be withstood. 

Roughly the opposite is true of numbers. In poetry, the use of numbered sections binds the reader into an organized process through the poem – imposing sequentiality and narrative. The device veers, sometimes dangerously, toward certainty: a certainty that forecloses the rifts and aporias of language. But in math, numbers are formal devices, meaningless in themselves. Numbers tend toward self-presence and certainty in narrative; in math, they tend toward the absence and insignificance of pure form.

Now let’s imagine with 21 y/o Toby that the categories of body and number might become unmoored, and populate each other. First, the narrative certainty associated with numbers might leap into the body. The undecidable aporia of bodily decay would be replaced by the certainty and sequentiality of numbered sections of poetry. This would be a religious fantasy: a fantasy of impossible plentitude and presence. (And, as all the sentimental language about “souls” and “celestial addition” implies, this poetry has a more-than-casual relation to the devotional). Or—second, maybe the narrative uncertainty of the body would leap into numbers, denaturing and unsettling the steady progress they imply: an atheistic plentitude of uncertainty. Either way: here is another paradox to be withstood. 

You mention that Asides is an "old work." That being said, what do you think about the chapbook looking back on it through the perspective of today's Toby Altman? How has it held up, to your mind, over time? What about the chapbook still resonates with you? What seems more distant? Finally, when I heard you read in Chicago last autumn, you read (if my mind serves me properly) from a series of sonnets you're working on. How do those poems relate to Asides? Are there aspects of your chapbook that have filtered into your new work, or does the newer resist the poetics and issues of your older work?

The language of this chapbook is embarrassingly lush; it uses the rhetoric of religion, often uncritically; it veers into sentiment and confession, particularly toward the end; it’s restless in invention, maybe obsessively so. These are the basic characteristics of the work, and I feel intensely ambivalent about them now. (Which is to say, I feel about them).

The dissatisfaction I feel with this chapbook is habitual. I never remain invested in a body of work long. I don't think I have—or want—a single poetics: rather I try to work with (and through) a range of strategies, discarding and absorbing methods of writing as my interests change. I turned to the sonnet, in part, because I wanted a way to constrain my voice—which, left to its own devices, tends toward ecstatic hyperbole. I tried to treat the sonnet as an Oulipian constraint: a way of restraining and retraining my voice. Predictably, I’m already a little tired of the restraint. My most recent work attempts to reconcile all these warring impulses—another fantasy of impossible plentitude and presence.

18 February 2013

American Dialectics

One corollary of conceptual writing, following Sol LeWitt, maintains that “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work” and that “the execution is a perfunctory affair.” Hence, in its purest and most rigorous application no writing results at all: the concept alone is worth contemplation and would only be determined in its execution. Another corollary maintains, to the contrary, that writing resulting from the execution of a concept or procedure should itself be at least as interesting as the concept or procedure. From this it follows that value inheres to concept or procedure chiefly insofar as it yields compelling, engaging, interesting writing. I intend my review of American Dialectics to operate somewhere between these corollaries. I want as much as possible to collapse this very distinction and make the concepts and procedures an integral part of the very material occasion of the text’s being.

Yes I am a poet, truly, and I was struck dumb, stammering, attempting to speak in the presence of your glance. Shall we talk? In faith and in hope, I am listening.

I can certainly imagine procedures to obtain the circumspection of my pleasures. The business of coiling, rattling, and spitting. This describes the situation obtaining. Somebody else did it before we did it. I am nowhere gathered together. I recognize that scene of language. Do you remember shape-shifting? It frees the air of dead influences. I am transported, beyond language, i.e., beyond the mediocre, beyond the general. I can do everything with my language, but not my body. And no silence exists. I am not interested in my mind. Music is not different only simpler. Now that things are so simple, I hear rumbling menacingly a whole other world. I engage in dialogue, to the point where I lash out furiously against the importune outsider who wakens me from my delirium. “We have three”: the close anonymous collaboration. I perform, discretely, lunatic chores. I am caught up in a double discourse, from which I cannot escape. I sustain this discourse. We will change direction constantly. Phrases begin and end. I want, I desire, quite simply, a structure. Does it matter which? 

If one hears what one writes—by which I mean not just paper poems—how can one not be seduced by the sensuality of the language? It is physical, very exciting, and when organized it can have the impact and grandeur of Wordsworth. The struggle is between this sensuousness which is elegance and the newer, easier to arrive at, excitement. On the one hand language is comprehensible in that it evokes a sentiment, though the sentiment itself may be incomprehensible and far reaching. Language is all our dreams of poetry. Non-referentiality is poetry’s dreams of us. And those moments when one loses control, and language like crystals forms its own planes, and with a thrust, there is no language, no idiom, no sentiment, nothing left but the significance of our first breath.

I love splitting and scuttling American Dialectics. You go crazy traveling through logic, blaming it all and fucking over in ya. Words, terrible scuttle. You like his alright. Move over if talk can grab ya. No trust can doubt you.

“A Conceptual Review of American Dialectics by Tom Orange” is a treatment of Tom Orange’s American Dialectics (Slack Buddha Press, 2008), conceived of on 16 February 2013, actualized on 17 February 2013, and performed on 18 February 2013. Each paragraph of this review contains language taken from a particular piece of conceptual writing found in the original text. The original text contains seven compositions, five of which Orange actualizes/performs and two of which remain conceptual.

11 February 2013

O Holy Insurgency

Of her second full-length collection of poems, O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), Mary Biddinger writes on her blog that the book:
wrenches the love poem out of the terrain of hearts and flowers, and transplants it in a quotidian rust belt paradise, where broken glass becomes a shimmering beacon, and no river is too polluted to dazzle a pair of lovers on its banks.
To call O Holy Insurgency a collection of love poems would, indeed, be correct. For everywhere throughout its pages, an “I” and “you” travel through Biddinger’s “rust belt paradise” in an effort to join as “we” and “us.” Take, for instance, the opening lines of the poem “Treaty Lines”:
There were wonders, but we didn’t know
they were wonders, or that they belonged

to us. The watermelon we tethered in a maple
with fishing line, just to see who would look up.

A dare involving teeth. Sentences we’d write
to burn. I trade my fear of matches for a love

There’s a filament inside both of us, though
we never noticed. It’s imaginary most days. (17)
Tethering a watermelon to a maple tree with fishing line or proposing an unnamed dare involving teeth are just a few of the unknown “wonders” to which the book’s couple find themselves subject. These “wonders” create an “imaginary” and unacknowledged “filament inside both of” them that bonds the two in a love burning through Insurgency’s sentences; yet it leaves the imaginary filament intact.

The imaginary filament connecting these lovers is of utmost importance because the “rust belt paradise” they wander through constantly shifts, mutates, and conjoins, thus making it easy for one to get lost in it. Or, as the speaker of “A Diorama” says: “One day / we woke to an unfamiliar backdrop” that “took weeks for them to identify” (70). Yes, just as the fishing line tethers a watermelon to a maple, the filament tethers the lovers together throughout the “unfamiliar backdrop.”

As long as the imaginary filament keeps the lovers attached, the protean landscape of Biddinger’s collection does not instill anxiety or fear. Instead, both lovers and readers can delight in the collection’s fabulous permutations, such as when the speaker sees “you walking out / of the sea instead, except we only had lakes” (13); and each “lake engulfed another lake” (53) with “clouds / turning green overhead” (35). Similarly, the speaker and her beloved eventually:
       invent an ocean, then merge
the ocean with another ocean
to make it vaster. (26)
or a day when:
Autumn and spring fused to one
single season where the leaves died
and reopened, and then died again. (65)
Or how:
             Somewhere nearby, two
doves stood tail to tail, made one

four-legged blur. (68)
Whether a sea transforms into a lake, an ocean into a large ocean, or autumn and spring merge into some unknown hybrid season, the “I” and “you” do not separate. They do not lose themselves or their love.

Of course, all these alterations eventually do affect the lovers themselves, such that “Every night we remake us / as our skin transubstantiates” (60). Yet even with the external transformations the “I” and “you” undertake, the filaments inside of them keep them attached; and whatever distance does separate them, they carefully map and document so as not to lose their bearings:
the inches that might exist

between us, as if anything
could. (58)
The “inches the might exist / between” are so few that the speaker’s map of O Holy Insurgency’s strange world “become[s] // the palm of your hand. No longer / hiding your body from mine” (69). As such, with these maps, the lover’s bodies remain close. They keep the lovers familiar to one another. Or as Biddinger writers toward the conclusion of the collection:
Everything with us had a certain

permanence the rest of the world
lacked. The only place for me

was poured across your body. (85)
Indeed, even when liquid and fluid, the lovers pour their bodies across one another and remain fused in their love. Their imaginary filament connects them permanently, while “the rest of the world” in the rust belt paradise shifts, changes, or disappears.

04 February 2013


The first epigraph of Hélène (Furniture Press Books, 2012), Deborah Poe’s novella in verse, is an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. It states:
moving still farther away from penality in the strict sense, the carceral widen and the form of the prison slowly diminishes and finally disappears altogether: the institutions for abandoned or indigent children, the orphanages, the establishments for apprentices; still farther away the factory-convents…where girl workers entered about the age of thirteen, lived confined for years and were allowed out only under surveillance, received instead of wages pledged payment…which they could use only on leaving.
Conceiving of the textile industry as an invisible prison whose structure has receded from view, Foucault understood the female factory worker to be surveilled and incarcerated by a system whose shackles and bars were not wrought from iron but from a patriarchal ideology and an economics of inequality. The factory-girl’s only escape was betrothal. Marriage, of course, was not an escape at all; it was merely another form of prison.

The Foucault epigraph provides a multi-layered framework for Poe’s novella. At the level of narrative, Hélène tells the story of the title character’s life as a laborer in a silk factory; but conceptually, everywhere a language of confinement litters the text. On the opening page, Poe writes: “Forget the elastic or bounding movement. // To eliminate succession of movements is to linger in lament”; and shortly after:
Girls mummied with stares that could frighten a specter.

One girl that stuck. A gaze nerve struck.

Some wanted to run. The way they controlled themselves as they crept through space.
The restrictions of factory life force Hélène and her co-workers to forget their “bounding movement” and remain in a “mummified” state that leaves them “stuck” within a stifling social and economic system. As year after year of confinement passes, their boundaries become self-imposed through habit; yes, some “wanted to run,” but they now “controlled themselves” and could do no more than “cre[ep] through space.”

Of course, the space Hélène creeps through is not only highly regimented (both externally and internally), but limited to activities that serve either an economic function for her employers or the most basic survival requirements for herself:
Here is where you pray.

Here is the workshop.

Here is where you sleep.

Here is where you spin.

Here is where you weave.

Here is where you learn.
Sleep, pray, spin, and weave: this is what the factory girl learns; thus, this is what the factory girl knows: a life committed to the production of silk garments with occasional moments for rest and religion. The most frightening aspect of Hélène’s invisible incarceration, though, is not the scope and range of these restrictions, but the fact that the psychological torment incurred upon her and her co-workers succeeds in transforming their thought:
The benefactor offered something other than work on farms.

The benefactor set out to board, lodge, and clothe girls as well as give them wages.

The benefactor built the silk factory.

The benefactor taught the art of silk.

No, the benefactor taught the manufacturing of silk.

The benefactor became the hero of the country.

The benefactor found docile bodies.
Her captor transforms from a de facto prison warden into a “benefactor” and a “hero of the country.” Moreover, echoing Foucault, her once individuate or liberated self transforms into a “docile body” that can be manipulated at will for the sake of “manufacturing silk” for someone else’s profit. Yes, the most dangerous prison is not a fortified structure with locked cells and high walls, but the mind broken into subservience.

Poe’s Hélène provides flashes of hope for the title character as the novella nears its conclusion, though, as she begins to take control of her own body by employing it for her own artistic ends:
I crush my chest and pull out a string of songs

bone inscriptions, note on a score—in the rights hands something becomes

music—these are the notes which code a becoming

phenomena maneuverings otherwise left unscribed.
While, yes, Hélène must enact a certain violence upon her own body in order to escape her various captors, she does so in order to “pull out a string of songs” from inside herself and create a “music” of her own. True, her “becoming” commences with her crushed chest, but the self-inflicted damage enables her to enact a series of “maneuverings” that would have other been unavailable to her. Soon thereafter, Hélène concludes with the protagonist traveling “miles and miles” with “a book of songs” into an unknown future away from her invisible prison. The hope of liberation, it would appear, exists in distancing herself further and further from the prison structure and found in the possibility of song.