Julien Poirier on the chips in his brain, going all the way, and his book Stained Glass Windows of California.
It wouldn’t be out of line to describe Julien Poirier’s writing as pretty immature, fuck-offy perhaps, even YA at times. Here’s a husk of neurology left behind on page twelve of his underappreciated 2010 masterpiece El Golpe Chileño (Ugly Duckling Presse) titled “Police Aquarium”:
My soda is a police aquarium
to please you, I would say anything
rat out my best friend
“Your Wildest Dreams”
and never blink
’til my eyes
locked in yours
You’re the law I live to break
time to leave a clue
before the ice melts
This isn’t a love poem; it’s a poem that loves. It swims in the really shitty language of now and thinks it’s funny while everyone else stands on the shore and points. It’s Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd mistaken for Andy Griffith in The Andy Griffith Show. You can almost hear Ian Svenonius singing his lines, which want to get caught, then point fingers: “His mind was a wild garden of aspects / a pocketful of solar powered nickels.”
In Poirier’s universe, the world is a stale baguette with goldfish caviar and moldy matchtips. Call it what you want. He hangs out behind the Kum and Go with Bob Kauffman, Bernadette Mayer, Richard Brautigan, and Henri Michaux and eats it.
Noel Black I’ve read your chapbook about five times now. I was looking for the right glasses through which to see it until I finally realized it was a pair of stained-glass glasses of California. It was like watching you put shards of Diebenkorn, Steinbeck, Stein, and Beck into this apocalyptic Wizard of Oz Musée Mécanique Tiffany window. How did you come to putting this thing together?
Julien Poirier Thanks, Noel. I love everything you mentioned. Beck too, my fellow Scientologist.
Well—I was writing on the fly all the time because I was in between work and taking care of my daughter. I’d end up with lots of pieces, like skit poems. They weren’t finished poems on their own and they all seemed like shadows of each other, though establishing shots were often missing. I had been assembling poem systems of this sort for about a year, and Stained Glass was the final system in that sequence.
NB If gender was geography, this book is transgeographic. You’ve lived in Berkeley and New York. Can you talk about the different poetic geographies of these places?
JP I’m in Berkeley today, and tonight I’ll be reading books about California geology and architecture and ghost towns. I might also be driving across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco and listening to a radio story about the recently deceased physicist John Wheeler, who coined the word “wormhole.” As Wheeler talks about time travel, I’m coming up on Telegraph Hill, which is the site of a dream I had many years ago where I was crossing the bridge and the hill was a Mayan ruin. Later, I look up Wheeler online and find another John Wheeler—a US government operative who went missing in Delaware just after Christmas. A week later, I read that he was found murdered in a landfill after ATM surveillance footage showed him wandering alone, carrying one of his shoes.
Every length of media I feed into my head has its own landscape. They unfurl in my brain like sponge dinosaurs from gel caps, and then there’s the actual landscape, air, sunlight of California, the walls of our apartment and the front porch where I drink beer, which makes me feel protean and sentimental, or where I ingest marijuana tinctured in brandy which makes Negativland sound like blind prophet moles with utility belts.
When I look at a poem now, what I’m doing is making an actual landscape for someone’s mind to range across, and what I want is to get as much of this texture and conjunction into it as possible. New York for me was a much different kind of place to work. I loved writing in New York when I first moved there and hardly knew anyone. I’d just write in diners and on park benches then make my own Xerox books, stapled in the upper-left corner like schoolwork.
NB The book is hilarious, I’m just going to list some of my favorite LOL moments and then maybe you can say something smart about how and why poems now are funny and if it is, in fact, “cheap” to be so.
The second stanza of the opening poem, “Cheap Shot,” goes:
Some People are complaining
that the chips in their brains don’t come with salsa
but what’s the last time you looked at a door
that didn’t open for you?
Then deep into “Night Vision Training School”:
What are you doing man!? The Baptist Church up there is occupied by
Rastafarians! They’re beating their huge manatee-skinned war drum which
you can hear all the fucking way to Eureka! Abandon ship!
The second stanza of “Split Pea Nuclear Ham”:
Carnival’s packed up ferris wheel gone
You’ve got nothing
But a can of yams
And a nuclear ham
Ohhhhh, split pea nuclear ham
From “Fortune Cookies”:
Ride the whale with Susan B. Anthony
And “24th Street,” which you dedicate to Mark Strand after quoting him saying, “You don’t read a poem to figure out how to get to Twenty-fourth Street”:
Go straight down Broadway
Past 25th Street.
You can’t miss it.
JP I think the humor is a way of trying to jam the frustration I feel toward people for all sorts of reasons—politics mostly, and poetry politics a little bit. I don’t know. I love poems, but they wear me out. There are a lot of poets writing really good poems these days, but every one of them bores me at some point. Poetry can be really boring, I don’t care how good it is. The fractional advances from line to line. The eggshell wording. Sometimes I hear a voice in my head saying, very earnestly, “Oh, s/he’s a really good poet.” It sounds so ridiculous.
I think, I mean I know, that the barbs in these poems are supposed to be confrontational, and even supposed to make people feel bad or uncomfortable. Why? People don’t react with the proper disgust to the Academy Awards. Their contempt for political rhetoric isn’t palpable to me. Or to put it another way, I want to be writing about a great communion of humanity with everyone out on the street and this silver ectoplasm swirling through the air, and instead I’m satirizing my old director at the San Francisco Boys Chorus. I’m pissed off that I can’t find the space to love, that I don’t have the depth as an artist to turn my anger into benevolent cosmic indifference. I keep telling myself I’m just settling scores before I go into the real deep Otis Redding trance of total commitment to the moment in reality, but one way or the other I spend a lot of time sharpening my shiv.
NB I think there needs to be a new word for humor in poetry because “humor” and “funny” don’t get there. Absurdity is part of it, yeah. Jokes. I like jokes. But when I think about your poems, or Sommer Browning’s poems, or Maged Zaher’s poems, or Mark Leidner, or Ron Padgett’s poems, these terms just don’t do it. How would you describe it? Hysteria?
JP If Anger was a pack of cards, and Death were to point at the pack of cards and say, “If you don’t win this game, this game that you don’t understand, you will die, and if you do win then your friend here will die,” and then a young Poly Styrene were to step out from behind Death and start dealing the cards and talking a line of candystriped bullshit obviously intended to distract Death—clearly making up the rules as she went along, clearly making a game out of Anger that would go on for so long that Death would be bored and confused and move on to the roulette table—so that the rules were absurd and purely capricious, and every time it seemed like the game was about to come to an end and someone was about to die angry, she’d throw in a new saving rule . . . that would be like the kind of humor you allude to. It’s a way of saving the soul from anger for a little longer.
NB Talk about the poem “Big Man on Hippocampus” in which you brilliantly reify William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things” into a kind of comic-book allegory starring Marvel’s “The Thing” as this kind of petrified playboy in Vegas and “The Idea” as a shitty tipper, “A binary motherfucker.” What!? I love this.
JP I once heard a Hollywood overlord say that every movie is binary: it’s either a one or a zero. Steve Jobs said he didn’t want “amateur hour” on his pocket juke, only “professional music.” These guys are obviously Idea Men. They have no time for aging Julian Assanges putting on beer fat in satellites of Ecuador. When President Obama brags about the United States military being “supple,” he’s not only shaving his wife’s leg in a Roman bath, he’s also playing you like a 99-cent Chinese harmonica. The idea of a SWAT team that glides like an ice-blue Gillette over the smooth calf of Afghanistan is an appealing one. A good friend of mine likes the war in Afghanistan because he can’t stand religious extremists. He’s a smart guy, so he can’t actually believe that by invading Afghanistan the United States is going to eradicate religious extremism there, right? But that’s the Idea for you, that’s the “one” that makes us flesh, that’s the “professional music” that guys like Steve Jobs expect us to trade up for. Eighty percent of the world lives in slums, but the Idea that wins our heart is that they’re all embodied by one handsome young go-getter from Calcutta.
NB Talk about how you write. I get the feeling you’re always fighting with different parts of your mind, but not in a struggling way, more in a kung-fu-movie kind of way where all the ideas and poets in poetry, from Emily Dickinson to Vanessa Place, play-fight one another backwards toward this kind of oblivion you crave.
JP I subscribe to Burroughs’s conviction that there’s no use in going over already explored territory. That means I have plenty of time to be restless and dissatisfied. It can take a long time for something to happen, but once it does I try to take it further than I should. Like Blaise Cendrars, who said, “Back then, I didn’t know how to go all the way in a poem.” I try to go all the way. Then there’s something John Cage said, that he doesn’t want a poem to say something, he wants it to make something happen. If what’s happening looks like a Victorian kung fu movie to you, I’m happy with that.
NB The Peyton Powderworks newspaper article in the middle of the book. What’s that all about?
JP The Peyton Powderworks were owned by my mother’s family, the Peytons, who were rich enough a long time ago to intermarry with the DuPonts (Tyvek). It was in in Santa Cruz, and the old stereoscopic photos make it look like it was built on the beach. It burned down some time in the early part of the last century. Santa Cruz is famous for its beach boardwalk, where I used to go a lot when I was a kid. I made up a city called Planta Nova to shadow Santa Cruz through my poems. I didn’t know much about my family’s history in Santa Cruz until recently.
NB In the long poem toward the end of the book, you bring Holofernes—Biblical General of Nebuchadnezzar—and Henry Kissinger together as conceptual artists of horror in The Chuck E. Cheese Band, which is apropos, given that the Chuck E. Cheese band is a corporate rock group of automatons created to inure children to the inferno of capitalism. “It is the only example in the annals of modern art where irony was transmogrified entirely into pizza dough.” Again, I’m in awe. Can you talk about the Higgs-Boson particle in which this idea originated, if you could?
JP I think it was when I was on the subway with my wife Kailey in New York, back before we had kids, and there was an ad for Geraldo Rivera’s news show that really brought the eyeliner. I mean, Geraldo looked like a balloon head among a big bunch of balloon heads of other Fox News talking heads, like a summer’s fair version of the priests at the fashion show in Fellini’s Rome. Kissinger really does remind me of one of those mechanized bears—or woodchucks?—that are playing on stage at Chuck E. Cheese. I’ve only been once, when I was a kid, and what I remember about it was how disappointing it was, even though I was obsessed with video games, surrounded by video games, and loved pizza. But it was so dank, so shabby. I felt creeped out by the dissonance between the actual place and what I’d seen in the ads on TV, which had really excited me.
Another ad I remember like that was for a toy called “Dark Castle,” which had all of these super dramatic shots of plastic catapults destroying the ramparts of this towering gray castle—but when I got it for Christmas it was a totally shitty toy. But I figured out much later that it was Orson Welles who’d done the voice-over on that ad. No wonder it seemed so great on TV! When I think of Holofernes, I think of Salome. I think of her dancing on this little stage made of aqua-blue tile. You can see her through the sandalwood screen. So that, by way of bitter contrast, brings us back to that little stage in Chuck E. Cheese—a crypt for Kissinger and friend, or at least, for the public image of Kissinger, G.G. Liddy, etc. My friend Pete has his voice nailed—his voice as its pictured in the Oliver Stone movie “Nixon.” “We’re bombing Cambodia, Mr. President.” I wanted to hear that voice calling itself a Bible-thumping whore.
NB In the last poem of the book, “Holofernes and Kissinger Hit the Rails,” a “she” enters. We don’t know if “she” is the muse or the biblical Judith, but she has academically murdered/beheaded the “the Poet.” Maybe the poet of these poems who, as he’s dying with New York Times Review of Books falling from his hands, has a “sex change from Poet to Reader.”
What I’m getting at is that our generation of now-forty-year-old-ish poets, many of whom have spent time in New York, LA, Chicago, and the Bay Area, and scattered out into the plains or not, seems to be sandwiched between this conflagration of New York School, Beats/Spicer, Language, Conceptualism, books and, ultimately, the internet. We are, it seems to me, a generation of trans-poets on many levels. And this moment at the end of your book in which the poet becomes reader feels double. On the one hand, All poets become readers of their own work when they finish their book. On the other hand, at this current moment of conceptualism-conschmeptualism, we’re all invited to hang up our authorship and become pointing readers. I don’t want to ask you to explain yourself here, but explain yourself.
JP In the new Cometbus (#55), Aaron Cometbus says, “The world we were born into, which we took for granted and considered normal, is what I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to understand and explain.” Maybe that hits the spot for me particularly because I grew up in Berkeley at the same time as he did. But I think it may also hook into what you’re saying about the early-middle-age poets who, you know, started playing with Commodore 64s when they were in junior high, lived through the Gulf War and ‘90s irony and the disintegration of the Old Left, endless war from before September 11th and the hummingbird syrup of the internet in everyone’s bloodstream, OWS, Katrina and the Waves. Fukushima is melting down and I’m going through a midlife crisis.
It goes back to what you said about “transgeography.” It’s exciting to be writing poems now, and to be getting on, forty-two in my case, because if you can plunge into the simultaneity of all of these events that warped you in some way, drove you crazy or forced you to find some narrow streak of optimism in the evident relentless disaster, then you might, as a poet, be able to get deeper and deeper into an understanding of what’s happening. You might be able to understand the way things work together and make a poem map, “a map to the map” as my friend Tony said, before you forget. And it’s incredibly exciting because there are about a million ways to go about doing this. So, Fellini again—who said, “I find it more interesting to believe in everything.” All of those forests you mention—Spicer’s forest, the Beats, Conceptualism and Language Schools, New York School—all of them are open landscapes for us to travel through. But that’s what I want to emphasize: I do think we’re free to travel. I don’t see why we attach riders and provisos to magpie freedom. To each poet his or her own, I say. So when I read something like, “No more metaphor, no more simile. Let the thing be, concretely.”—which is what Vanessa Place, who you mentioned earlier, wrote in her poem “No More”—I just wonder, why not? Why no more metaphor, no more simile? What does that even mean, “Let the thing be, concretely”? I mean, to me, that’s a pretty useless manifesto. Vanessa Place does interesting work, but that day she should have followed her own advice and made a paper airplane instead of a poem.
NB Finally, you’re working on another book about California, Way Too West, a megalopolopus (if I may), which I’ve had the pleasure of beholding but not fully reading yet. Can you talk about that project (available at Filip Marinovich’s blog, Wolfman Librarian) and its relationship to Stained Glass Windows, if not manifest destiny.
JP Way Too West started out as a five-poem sequence called The Goalies of Eldritch. I planned to make it into a ten-page poem that would put all of my other work in the dark and possibly be as good as anything anyone ever wrote. What went wrong? I kept thinking, “It’s as if the Goalies are a tribe, but they’ve never met, they’re blood brothers and sisters but they might not even recognize each other on the street,” and trying to figure out how to write that. I started thinking about Vonnegut’s idea of the karass in “Cat’s Cradle”—this loose-knit tribe of like minds. You know your karass on instinct. You might even hate someone’s guts, but if s/he’s in your karass there’s no denying it.
I kept following the movements of this confederated band of outsiders, and the poem kept getting longer until it was about one hundred pages long, including comics. Every word is in there for a reason, but that doesn’t make it cohere. The poem isn’t really about California or even set in California. It’s set in badly registered, illuminated pages of continental drift. I think of Stained Glass as a pamphlet on a park bench inside of Way Too West. It could have kept growing forever, like a coral reef before the Model T, but there are all sorts of reasons to not let that happen. One day I just stopped.
Noel Black is the author of the full-length collections La Goon (The New Heave Ho, 2013), and Uselysses (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011). His translation of Mara Pastor’s Llamamé Lactea/Children of Another Hour is forthcoming from Argos Press. He co-curates the Say Hello to Your Last Poem reading series in Colorado Springs with poet and printer Aaron Cohick of NewLights Press.