Emji Spero reads from Too Big to Fail at the Speakeasy in Oakland, CA. 2012
ES: We have to wait to–you know about tapes. We have to wait a few seconds for it to counter. Um, so, will you tell me your name and a project you’ve been working on recently?
DB: Uh–I’m David Buuck. I’m trying to finish this essay on Renee Gladman’s work and it’s relationship to the city. What she calls the problem of the city. The events of the city.
ES: What is, what is the problem of the city?
DB: Well, actually she, the problems are–what she calls problems of the person, of time, of space, and narration or language, she–works them out or thinks them through–on the form of the sentence and the prose block, but, she sees them, I mean, in terms of what she–the content of what she narrates, I think it’s primarily through what she calls events of the city. The index is another form of how she has recently been talking about her, her work. And architecture. Anyway, something about that, in that.
ES: Um, I was recently talking to Andrea Spain about the event, and then, um, Andrea has been writing about the event and, like, ways of approaching it. And I’ve also been thinking about, well, conversation, as a method of approach. And I was wondering if you see any relations between the sort of like, the work that you’re doing, sort of more socially, in curating these events–because you, you helped to curate Beyond Oakland, right–and the work that you’re doing, maybe like, in your writing, or in your essay work on–
DB: Well, I like the concept of organizing situations. More than events, but, you know, not to the extent that I organize pub–publicity around terminology. But, the reading, the house reading, stands for more than just, it’s not just a literal description of what will happen, but it’s a sort of social event, or situation, which you can to some degree…shape, by who you have, who you invite to read, what audiences you imagine that might bring into contact with each other, what the work might do. But, they are also situations, in the sense of creating a space for certain kinds of social…behaviors? Even if those become increasingly wrote? Um, and, not institutionalized, genred perhaps? That could just be my age and cynicism. Or boredom. Um, but, thinking about doing experiments in say, public space, or the work I do with and as BARGE, and like, the thing we did at the George Perec re-enactment at OGP [Oscar Grant Plaza], those I don’t think of as events as much, I mean, they can become an event, but yeah, creating a situation for which, in which, things, interesting things can occur, without knowing in advance what those might be.
ES: Almost, like, immersions?
DB: When peopl–you put yourself into a situation that has, you know, um, depending on what methodologies you want to, bring to bear upon the context, situation, conditions? Um, you know, they, you know, different sort of formal and genre-based, aesthetic, political, ethical frames.
ES: And also, a situation in which you don’t quite know the “language.”
DB: And then the contingencies of, the contingencies of both the unpredictable and the sort of, you know, overlaid, you know, uh, histories and ways in which different people from different positionalities use and encounter and think through these places, that, you know, aren’t–that are very, that are very–very different, and also unpredictable. Um, so, the method is, is, is research. It’s a kind of embodied research, that you put yourself in the situation, and you, you sort of–
ES: So, where–
DB:–decide to put your antenna on in a certain way.
ES: So where would you position the sort of, um, Beyond Oakland? Because like, right, it has the three different forms: the panel, the reading–or maybe even more than that–there’s the panel, the reading, the conversation, and then all the things that happen around that that those things enabled? And, maybe in your curation of it–how did you
ES: –create space for the unpredictable?
DB: Well, I mean, I guess the–the, the experiment was to, I mean, in the loosest sense, would be like something that is not the model of, lets say, the [East Bay Poetry] Summit, which, the primary locus of content is sociality. Which is, you bring, it sounds cynical, but the poetry is not the primary focus of the curation as much as the desire to bring a variety of interesting people, and they could be interesting, because of and through their poetry of course, it’s not just like ‘Who would you want at a party,’ but the desire to take the model of the house reading and that form of community and sociality, and extend it over a longer period of time. So that different kinds of conversations and unpredictable things can happen. Uh, but there’s not, there wasn’t necessarily a set of problems or questions of poetics or politics or thematics that were foregrounded–for better or worse. Um, it’s just a different–it’s just a different model. And that’s not to say those kinds of questions don’t come up, but it’s just sort of not…formalized in any way. And then the other model is the, you know, academic, or even the academic model or institutional model, which can get replicated in alternative spaces as well, um, where one attempts to sort of delimit, but sort of, or or focus in on specific issues in order to get, you know, I don’t know, what–in order to, to produce or collect or invite the kinds of–
ES: Like, the themed panel?
DB: –things that come out of that focus, and that, they’re like this language, but one can go deeper, further if you’re sort of, um, attempting to sort of, you know, ‘Let’s focus on this, this one set of questions or problematics,’ you’re not policing other material that comes in, but the institutional frame, or the sort of understood and shared frame of those models will do the policing for you. So there’s expectation, a sense of discourse in language that, um, becomes a sort of gravitational pull of how those things, how the form of those things shape the content, and so the idea of Beyond Oakland was to sort of try find something in between. It was also, um, uh, a desire to not overburden it with heavy curatorial hand, or or big expectations. So it was sort of a ‘What if.’ And it was also a–I mean it came out of a conversation that Juliana [Spahr] and I had about, um, well, something that I was thinking about proposing to do, again, you have this sort of dead space in July and August, in the, at least in the local poetry scene. And so, what would be interesting to make happen that wasn’t terribly ambitious, didn’t require, um, working with formal institutions, was doable, wasn’t stressful, but would be different and compelling and interesting. And we tossed around some ideas and I think, really, I mean, for me anyways, it was sort of a more interesting question to ask–rather than like, ‘What should we do,’ and let’s take this sort of expected sort of ideas of forms or what other people are doing and and fit into that as much as ‘What would I like to see that feels, you know, reasonably doable.’ Sort of like, well, I’m interested in what’s going on in other places that are similar, but also very different than Oakland, and, um, interested in thinking how poets who have been engaged with these questions think about them, and maybe think about the intersections or lack thereof between their work as poetsand their work in these various, kind of, more heightened, uh, political situations. So, not simply, somebody’s been working for years and years in the nonprofit industry, you know, not that there’s anything, not that that can’t be a very heightened political state, uh, practice, as we see in like, Cecily’s work. But also, you know, like people who can, you know, bring the news. Um,
ES: How do you see–
DB: And the advantage of the face to face of that, and then also, I mean also, in anticipation of the, the, the thing that’s coming up, with inviting the British poets that Juliana’s involved in organizing. I mean, there’s a real desire in that case to avoid the institutional setting, but the institutions are where the money are in order to fly people from fucking London, which is expensive. And the commitment is sort of–you can’t ask people to just like cruise in for a weekend–
ES: –without resources.
DB: –without those resources. Especially the specific people we were interested in bringing over, anyways–the idea was sort of also, the impetus for that was not, not ‘Let’s have an academic conference with some Brits,’ but like, they’re having conversations, there’s some overlap, it’d be really interesting to share those and sort of, well, what about–I’m also interested in Montreal, and Vancouver, you know Detroit, we talked about other people in other locations too. That’s how it sort of came together.
ES: Were there, um, were there certain sort of, like, conversations, or discursive moments you noticed from the people who were not from this area that were different from the way that people were talking about things in this area during–
DB: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I mean, um, well it’s, the specifics of all four of those areas that our four guests came from are very–it’s not simply ‘Occupy,’ certainly not, the focus isn’t necessarily, well, it’s not on the police in similar ways. Right? So, Montreal certainly became a lot about street fighting, you know, strategies and tactics to delete, to, to, um, combat the police state? Uh–
ES: The police state as opposed to just the police?
DB: I mean, because, you–the police are an arm of that. Um, nd then you can make that about, you can shift that to–I mean, the Montreal case, as I understand it, of course, starts with, you know, anti-austerity protests around the University were very organized, um, loose coalition of student political organizations, which you wouldn’t, you know, I mean, you have here, but not formal, like, you know, you wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh let’s get the Berkeley, I don’t know, school student government out.’ You wouldn’t expect them to be out in the streets in this certain way. Um, there’s not, like, a history of that kind of militancy, um, in those formal organizations. But, then Mon–you know, Montreal then spills over into something much grander and towards the generalization. And so, where, here you have–Occupy gives a loose frame to which people can enter in, but you have already from ’09, you know, veterans of the battles around Oscar Grant and then the the anti-austerity measures and the tactics of occupation in the universities, in the regional universities. So, you know, and then, Kansas City is very different, in Vancouver, you know, it’s a lot about the anti-Olympics actions in the run up to 2010, and then, their Occupy, and of course, struggles around Native rights and land, violence against women in the downtown area, gentrification, I mean, there’s a lot of overlapping things, but the way they play out–of course Detroit is a very different situation, um, in terms of the very specific political economy and it’s relationship to land and real estate. So, those kinds of things that are different, and then also, just the specifics of the poetry communities. You know, um, Vancouver has a lot of history of very activist uh uh poets, that are organized around those intersections and with artists. It goes back, now probably, three generations to the Cootenay school. Whereas here, you have a little bit of that, but it’s also sort of, you know, my sense is that like, until recently, the reading groups would be poets with other poets, and they might be reading political theory about–, so, anyways, I’m sort of babbling at this point, but, I mean, I think that those, that would have been something that, if we had had more than two days, uh, in some ways it was a little bit of an ‘Oakland gets to sit back and learn from other people’ rather than self-reflect with each other. Uh–
ES: So what do you think about, um–you mentioned that it’s all these different poets who are maybe also activists in their communities–what do you, what did you notice in that conversation, how people–and maybe there’s a wide variety of this–how peoples’ writing was related to their activism? Or, was it just with the sociality of, like, the poetry community, or was there something more formal, or content-based–
ES: –going on?
DB: We didn’t get that far, because of our conversations. I can talk a little bit–
ES: You mean, your personal opinion–
DB: Yeah, my own–
ES: Your familiarity with–
DB: My familiarity with those poets work and conversations I had outside the sort of formalized ones. I mean, I know that–broad generalization, but–Marie Buck’s work has, you know, changed very radically over the last, you know, eight, ten years. Um, I mean, that’s also very self-description. I mean, her narrative of where she was as an unddergrad. Why she went to Amherst to work with much more conventional conservative poets, and sort of met other people and got turned onto flarf and went a certain way, now, her political activism in Detroit is probably, at the very least, putting a few questions into her poetic concerns. Cecily–always been very invested in thinking through political questions, but talks about how for her it comes directly out of her communities, and not as much about the sort of conversations one might have with fellow poets who are also political, my sense is that she found those other poets through the work she was writing, as opposed to the other way around. Um, you know, Bay Area, you often get people who come here to be poets, who aren’t necessary, who might be generally liberal, but aren’t necessarily thinking about certain political questions that are, you know, uh, but because of who they might be working with in a grad program, or just sort of the sense of what’s going on here might lead–I see a lot more poets here who become politicized rather than come to poetry out of political questions. But, maybe–gross generalization–it’s never, it’s a little bit chicken/egg.
ES: Yeah, that, um.
DB: But of course here, there were other people, you know, here, that weren’t the primary, the four people we invited. I mean, that last day we had people from New York, London, Paris, Niko’s been here awhile, but he’s from Athens, we talked about what’s going on in Greece. There’s somebody, two women who just moved here from North Carolina, um, and a couple people visiting from Minneapolis, uh, and I feel there were two or three other areas represented too. So, which is, Bay Area’s such a global city, in terms of how many people from around the world come here and stay here and work here, but it’s rare–
ES: But you don’t feel like that’s represented in the poetry scene?
DB: No. It certainly is not. It’s very mono-cultural. And certainly white. It’s quite, it’s quite queer, and you know, gender…balanced is the wrong word–
DB: Gender-fluid is really a word?
DB: Sometimes more fluid than other times.
ES: [laughter] Good pun.
DB: Well, yeah, the sense of internationalism, and what that can bring, um. I mean that’s, you need
ES: Is that part of why you curated it in this way?
DB: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if we had the money, we’d be bringing in people from other continents and Mexico and Latin America, for sure. I think that, and also just the historical perspective too. A lot of these questions are, kind of brand new for a lot of Oakland poets.
ES: What were some of the questions that were being brought up in the conversation? That that that stick with you. That you’re still working with.
DB: Well, some were ones that didn’t come up explicitly, but were, you know, deeply embedded, and then become the sort of next step questions. Where had we a third day, then of course, the rest of your–stuff like this is the third day. Other questions are then, ‘How do these things work themselves into and through one’s poetic practice?’ Uh, both as content and form, formal questions. Um, ‘How, sort of, compare–comparative analyses of very different situations can give one the, um, uh uh, different, I hope, I think, productive perspective on one’s own situation. So, I mean, it’s not so much like, ‘Oh what poets did in South Africa in the 70s did this kind of work so we should do what they did,’ but rather like, ‘What were the questions and the strategies that radical activists and poets brought to bear on their situation in their context and how did they move through those?’ So what would be, you know, we have a very different historical moment and context, but perhaps, the kinds of questions and strategies that were used in these other very different moments could be things that we haven’t asked of these. Which could be, you know–questions we think about not enough, like questions of audience, or dissemination, or uh, or even just a recognition of maybe Now’s not the time for poetry, or Poetry shouldn’t’ be–doesn’t need to be–about reflecting on things that have happened, I mean, all these sort of, these things. I think the comparative moment, both geographically and historically can really help one think one’s one? I mentioned I learned more about other stuff, which was fascinating.
ES: Can you go more into that one question, the one of like, ‘Maybe now is not the time for poetry,’ and what you mean by that?
DB: Well, it’s not like now is not the, like ‘Stop writing poems,’ but maybe now is not the time to invest one’s political energies or sense of urgency or especially sort of self congratulatory sense of um, of the impact or whatever in the work of poetry. Um, I mean, I had stopped writing poetry, November 1, 2008. I can remember the last time I worked on poetry. And, I have been writing prose pretty much ever since, until Occupy started. So, for me it was very much, it wasn’t like I said ‘Now’s the time, the world need poetry,’
[laughter] but that it was this mode and form through which my, whatever, encounter, you know processing, whatever–
ES: Then, what do you feel the relationship there was, like, what is the relationship between the form of Occupy and the forms your poetry took at that time?
DB: Certainly the experience of time. So, the sense of of lived time was very different. Sped up. Condensed. Something that happened five days prior would seem like five weeks. And yet also like five minutes ago, simultaneously. And so, um, that sense–urgency is part of that–sense of urgency, like, we don’t know how long we’re going to have this little opening, but also, but more so the sort of lived experience of time, and so it’s not like, ‘Aha, poetry gets this time,’ but something about that. And also, just for me personally, I don’t go home and then journal or blog about it, so it’s like, I carry around post-it notes and I, like, am grabbing language, or I’m, like, texting myself in the middle of a march on the phone–
[wail of passing fire truck]
–two words that probably will remind me of something else. So there are, I mean–
[wail of another fire truck]
–[louder] this is an analogy not a [obscured by sirens] but the line breaks are, are enforced by the situation. I mean, like, you, it’s not, uh, prose is–I think it’s Douglas Oliver who says that prose is a walking measure. And, marching is different than walking. Um, as is running. Uh, so that, especially what I think of is, my, you know, the California sentence tends to be…long, meditative, landscaped–
ES: Maybe run-on?
DB: Run-on. I mean, it’s a mode of, both in New Narrative, but also New Sentence, um, uh, you know, it’s philosophical, it’s explor–expiatory. Ex-pla-tory. However you say it. Um, exploratory. Yeah, I mean, whatever, these are gross generalizations, but, um, at the same time, while this is happening there’s the most amazing kind of…uh, on the fly, kind of, theoretical work coming out of Oakland, Berkeley, and the area, um, in terms of sort of the rise of the pamphlet.
ES: Any particular ones you’re thinking of? I felt like for me, What is Called Violence was one that came out of that, that particularly–
DB: In terms of Oakland, I feel like there’s an incredibly important model, there’s um, stuff that came out of Oscar Grant struggles and the University struggles that was, um, on task. And then you have Reclamations blog, which was already up and going around the struggles around the University, um, putting things that happened, you know, the Occupation of Wheeler Hall, you know, whatever it is, three years ago, in context of these much larger national and international, you know, post-crisis debates.
[Marianne Morris arrives]
ES: Look at your–
DB: Whoa. We’re gonna mix it in
ES: –flowers. Yeah, come join the conversation.
MM: Are you sure? Do you want me to–
DB: Just closer to the thing. Those are amazing. What are those?
Well, did you get your honey?
MM: No. They didn’t have any honey.
DB: That’s bullshit. [laughter] Are you gonna get something?
MM: Are you recording?
ES: Yeah. I’m just gonna keep recording, so just join in–
DB: Do we get–do your interlocutors get veto power? I mean, editing.
ES: Oh. Um, no. [laughter] I mean–
DB: Fair enough. No, I’m not–
ES: Yeah, I’m just letting you know. I can, I can stop the, um, conversation for a minute if–
DB: Cause if you go the bathroom, I might start talking dirty to Marianne, and I wouldn’t wanna–
ES: [Laughter] I would love to have that recorded.
DB: You know, at least I’ll say ‘Open parentheses. Sidebar.’
MM: You wouldn’t do that unless it’s being recorded.
DB: Ha ha. Touché.
09.01.2013 / Interview with David Buuck and Marianne Morris on BEYOND OAKLAND to be continued…