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.

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