Once upon a time, before everybody’s face splashed across the social media, and on more than one public occasion, I saw myself politely having to let acquaintances know they had me mistaken for the other avant-garde Latino—Rodrigo Toscano. Of course, same initials, I understand, on the contrary, I’m flattered, he’s better looking, among our best poets, and a competitive distance runner.
Rodrigo and I met in 1998 when Bay Area writers Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian had us read together for Small Press Traffic at the Yerba Buena Arts Center in San Francisco. Rodrigo was active in West Coast literary scenes before relocating to New York City in 1999; and poems later featured in Partisans (O Books, 1999) were already appearing in the journals that defined our generation such as Chain, Tripwire, and Apex of the M.
I was ambivalent about alliances overly obedient to the formal trappings or cultural authority of the dominant US avant-garde and its so-called realisms. But Toscano’s work had something more: an imaginative interest in the excess and contradictions of the neo-liberal project and its foreshortened social stagecraft, as viewed from Latin America’s cultural legacy. Since then, he has developed these and other related themes in books that include The Disparities (Green Integer, 2002); Platform (Atelos, 2003); To Leveling Swerve (Krupskaya. 2004); and Collapsible Poetics Theater (National Poetry Series; Fence Books, 2008).
What follows is an edited telephone conversation (which took place on February 25, 2013) that Rodrigo and I recorded on the occasion of his most recent book Deck of Deeds (Counterpath, 2012). As a bilingual Latino—that is, as an insider-outsider in both languages—Rodrigo’s especially equipped to capture the way US English couches language in affable everyday personalities, but in voices also perplexed by the dynamics of technological, social, and economic change. Our conversation shape-shifted to reflect his poetics: from consumer culture as a disguise for the democratic process, to equating unstable body morphologies and political corruption with the ossified forms of avant-garde practice.
Roberto José Tejada Rereading Deck of Deeds this morning I was struck by the card game configuration and its link to the cover art by Teresa Villegas. In poker, a competitor plays his cards by showing and withholding. But your book is structured in terms of La Lotería, similar to bingo, but using a deck composed of images that name objects and personas. This reference confounds the avant-garde tendency to conceal modernism’s origin in folk culture or popular expression. Deck of Deeds is riddled—like the traditional board game—with various social types, vernacular and elite.
Rodrigo Toscano To be honest, I was well into the project when I realized that the individual prose poetry pieces of what became Deck of Deeds echoed the Latin American Lotería. Once I made that connection, then the archetypal social references I was activating—“El Banquero” (The Banker), “El Financiero” (The Financier), “El Diablo” (The Devil)—further generated my own deck of actors and actions. I didn’t yet have the title. That didn’t come until the end. Instead of a deck of cultural types, these characters were an amalgamation of deeds, at least in an instant of social time. That’s what would constitute, in the literary sense, a character. Incidentally, Teresa Villegas is an excellent Tucson-based artist who has produced a whole set of these iconic paintings. She’s an accomplished public artist as well. If you walk through the halls of the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, for example, you’ll see her artwork: a floor mosaic that depicts a sprawling aqua-colored terrazzo of desert imagery such as flying insects. Perhaps you’ve seen it? Well, Teresa was kind enough to let me use one of her images for Deck of Deeds, “El Tragafuegos” (The Fire–Eater), for the cover. In terms of process, the book is a series of 70 pieces, each one written to an image, but in this case the images are missing (“negative palimpsests,” I call them). For example, in the first, “Los Exploradores” (The Explorers) there was an image I wrote, a very literal, lurid scenario based on that picture—I won’t describe what it is. So all of the pictures I chose each had their generous caption. Then, as a second step, I went back and rewrote every one of these pieces, often reversing the genders and the power relations, as I saw them in the pictures.
RJT Spoiler alert. That confirms what you insinuate to a reader by the time she gets to the final prose poem, “El Refugiado” (The Refugee). There, you speak of the guest who “recommits to confronting his toiled-over ‘writer ready’ texts, looking to ‘flip’ them (hard) into ‘reader ready’ fables, squeezing the last few drops of transpersonal nectar onto each of them.” Tied to the disclosure of your method is the camouflage of your source image. It reads as though, by the second or third revision, you’ve caused a meltdown of distinct spaces. In “Los Exploradores,” for example, you submit a provocative scene: the BP oil spill collapsing into the torture-chamber setting of a Latin American soccer stadium, combined with regimes of self-improvement or physical fitness in the age of global capital. Sex, physical abuse, and desirability coalesce into this messy crude oil of an environment.
RT One hallway of horrors. If you think about it, it’s like a room. Trans-capital actors spend a great deal of time in hotel lobbies and hotel rooms. And, you know, hotel rooms can be very digressive environments, to say the least. So the trope of the hotel room appears over and over in Deck of Deeds as a place of digressive transaction. Whether it’s exchange values across the continents, or the exchange of body fluids. Or alien body fluids. Or alien beings swapping their identities with other alien beings. And by alien beings I don’t mean extraterrestrials, I mean social alien beings.
RJT But I hope we can get back to extraterrestrials because there are plenty of those in the book as well. (laughter)
RT There are some of those, too. I think of industry—I mean this very literally, whether it’s the industry of education or manufacturing or publishing; think of everybody you know, you’ll see them acting in and across industries. Industry largely determines the way one acts in the world for many periods in their lives. There’s such a thing as, for example, coffee house barista sexuality and social horizons, you know, and possibilities. So I’m casting doubt on the notion that just because people are able to read a lot (and act on very little of what they read), in the end, we’re very bounded by the possibilities of industry and across industry. This cross-contamination of alien affects is embarrassing in the extreme. So what!
RJT Hotels are microcosms of transnational interface and class interaction, between those who labor in and those who gain from the service industry. Hotels have that capacity to link all spaces even as they confuse them.
RT Exactly. And imagine if somebody were to have a sort of tectonic, global tectonic-shifting meeting, let’s say, in the back stalls of a bookstore. That would seem very strange to people, right? But, nonetheless, here they are—these “decision makers,” deliberating in places where people are actually working, in actual factories of service. Every day, millions traverse these factories—airlines, hotels, bookstores, the modern university classroom, etcetera.
RJT Since we mentioned extraterrestrials, actually, I was struck by the genre-bending performed in these spaces. Some narrative techniques appear derived from hard-boiled detective fiction or crime novels. But the prose of “Los Terrestriales” is a kind of a sci-fi phantasmagoria. Of an elderly couple that hires this Andromedan for sexual service, you write:
The Andromedan believes they have an avant-garde, cadmium-corset fetish, pure and simple, so it double-flash welds every single rivet, very precisely, till they’re all flush, till all of the encasement specs are realized, till the Andromedan can barely breathe.
Some of the technical language—the “logarithmically calculated eventual decay,” and so forth—allows you to insinuate the actual subject matter.
RT Yes, one perplexing thing about the avant-garde that often goes unremarked, particularly in North America, is that it must produce some notion of a reader—some sensate being on the other end—obliged to perform the disciplines of whatever the parameters of that avant-garde trajectory might be. This is something that we don’t talk about. We talk about torquing or tweaking textual maneuvers or critical topographies at the service of psychology, philosophy, theology, whatever. But we don’t talk about what it is, what kind of alien, we are painting in our minds that’s going to encounter this stuff, nor about what happens when they are brought into close proximity of our actions. That’s why I think there is an inherent cruelty in “Los Terrestriales.” It confronts the kind of labor that must be performed to make that avant-garde solvent. Like what goes on behind the gates of the production for the reader of these avant-gardes? Are they really that sort of S&M? Are we up to the task? Or do we just produce these monstrologies with labor demands and forget about it and say, at the end of the day, that we’re just happy people having cocktails at some conference somewhere? And I think that’s why in “Los Terrestriales” I focused the scene so tightly that it’s almost like a strip-club “VIP” room.
RJT What kind of person must a reader become to properly attend that avant-garde object known as the difficult text? Taken on faith, and little else, difficulty in terms only of frustrated expectation forecloses on other likely gratifications. You redirect the reader when such faith is pulled altogether from underneath. Your use of Spanish first, for certain titles, followed by English, defines the knowing relationship of what a reader needs to enter the spaces of these texts.
RT You touch on several things. The separation between title and text, the former in Spanish, the latter in English, makes the reader think, Okay, I wonder what kind of social scenario might occur here—whether it’s just across the border or somewhere else far away. And if this is in English, does that make this authentic or inauthentic to the reader’s experience? One thing about the contemporary avant-garde is its fascination—certainly not mine, but a general fascination—with disembodied voices, like the airport voice or pre-recordings or the helper voice in the dial-up technical support system. Writers have taken a curious fascination with that voice—wanting to embody it, send it along, as though to say this is an atmosphere we should naturalize. For me, you know, it comes down to a question of labor value—the extracting, distorting, and cauterizing of labor. I cannot help but think of the violence that took place in relational terms for those things to happen. They’re not just necessities. Obviously an airport voice is a necessity; I wouldn’t want it removed. But we don’t think of this cleaving, this unmooring of human effort, of bodily proficiency in relationship to the text. This is a huge problem. We’ve moved away from a concern with ergonomics. Ergonomics as a national standard was only in place, if you remember, for a few months in the United States, before the Reagan administration put an end to it with the stroke of a pen. But the interest in how the body contours around specific tasks and what the results might be, not only health-wise, but imagination-wise, persists. Well, here we are now, celebrating disembodied voices, but what about absolute contortion of actual voices borne of bodies?
RJT It’s a kind of puritanical system that prefers to disavow the unruliness of the lower body or the excretions of bodily labor. It’s an obsession with hygiene, one that so eradicates the abject mess as to give sheen to specific objects—cherished residue of minimalism—commensurate with mass production. In terms of writing, it’s the Steve Jobs ethos for designing language—as recognizable as an iPhone or an iPad.
RT As for the lower body, in “Los Terrestriales” this Andromedan is obliged to expel—almost through alien guts—readership. These “two seated academics”: they’re watching this and controlling the lighting and the atmosphere in which the Andromedan is delivering this cadmium-corset fetish pure and simple. You know, double slash. Welts every single rivet, very precisely. It’s an erotics. In a funny way Deck of Deeds steps in to confront and—how can I say this?—re-carnalize all that which refuses to be fleshed. Whether it’s “disturbing” to a reading audience is neither here nor there. These pieces aren’t in anyway cynical. They’re hopeful in the sense that they confront the contours of the crisis, this disembodiment, and this cruelty visited upon minds and bodies—the reception of culture. So by going through it, it’s almost as if I feel like an idol smasher so to speak, from the inside, having gone through the guts of some of these avant-garde scenes myself, having witnessed some of these behaviors and hierarchies—forms of affective labor, to cut to the chase.
RJT To carnalize: that’s a fitting verb to describe what you do in the book. Another action, far from the disembodied voice as a kind of exceptional object, is to make of it a spectacle. Your previous book, Collapsible Poetic Theater, which you’ve described as body movement poems, positions bodies at the vanguard, in real time, as on a stage. In Deck of Deeds, you’ve created this carnalization of the voice. There’s comedy and carnivalesque humor, but I think they point rather to that other tradition, from Latin America, where the body is at the forefront, and gestural language, a legitimate technique, joins the medium’s range of self-reference. The paradox of a body in its enactments can upset overly determined relationships between the animate and the inanimate, between cause and effect.
RT There’s very close attention to anatomical limits in many of these pieces. For example, “La Meditadora” begins: “the extremities of her fingers and toes electrified, the eyes popping wide open,” and so forth. It’s a self-realized response to cultural values entering this character’s social space. It goes on to say: “Suddenly, as if commanded by a ghost, she goes down all fours in the cramped stall and raises her lowermost spine up high while arcing her uppermost spine backwards as far as it can go. In that position…” Okay, now, there’s a very obvious erotics at play there, but this refocusing of attention on the actual contours of the spine—as far as it can go—is also as far as this ethics can go, as far as this thought can go. It’s an “avant-garde” based on the limits of the body, and it’s a switching out of one position into another position that’s extreme, that causes pain, but it’s still a body that’s jointed, that’s communicative in its parts, it’s not divorced of itself. That’s why bodies appear throughout Deck of Deeds. As we say in industry, “it’s up to spec.” Right? I’m not talking about replacing this particular spine with titanium coil, okay, and when I do evoke an alien body, then I totally commit to it. Like the Andromedan: a sign of something, an impossible objective, and a real reading subject for an “avant-garde.”
RJT “La Meditadora” is in keeping with Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. The elites use the bathroom for dining and they socialize seated on toilets. The subject of “La Meditadora” finds in an airplane bathroom the space to conduct her true private moment, her legitimate experience of self, her “Core American Values.”
RT What does it take? What contortions do the body and mind have to undergo to legitimately and calmly expel these values? How does ideology hide its dirty work? To find out, I create these environments in Deck of Deeds that are obviously very extreme. Getting on an airplane, getting to a certain height, shutting the door behind you, contorting the body, and then hitting, subsequently, smashing your head. Not randomly. Not chaotically. But ten times. Ten minutes go by. “Ten minutes go by, and as the feeling of fainting increases to a fevered pitch, she slams her face into the stall door ten times to bring herself around.” So this figure (not character per say) comes out, sits down, and has a realization about value, about global value. And that “value” gets modulated like this:
With lingering pain in her supmorbital foramen and zygomatic skull bones, she relaxes for the rest of the flight until landing in Lansing, MI, where she’ll resume her life as a porous and permeable life form who works in a synchronized manner alongside identically porous and permeable life forms across the globe.
There’s an attention in Deck of Deeds to very specific contortions people have to do to make deep global contradictions suture in their minds so that they can take one step after the next. And there have to be many instances throughout the day in which we have to make these contortions. The question is how many of these, I mean from all spectrums, whatever political outlet one might have, how many of these do we have to do per day. And what is the damage, you know? What do we get out of this? What’s the calculus of the effects of this stuff?
RJT Speaking of bodies and filmmaking, the other filmmaker that came to mind over and over again—the horror genre unearthing the terror that a body inspires—is David Cronenberg in the period of Videodrome or Dead Ringers. He’s also conflating technology, sexual perversion, political corruption, the body as this unstable morphology, and in eXistenZ, identity’s persistent shape-shifting.
RT Many of the techniques, points of focus, and influences of Deck of Deeds, whether its Cronenberg or Infrarealism, involve a phase-shifting of objects, reducing things to vibrations or to thoughts about vibrations. Deck of Deeds is a sort of hyper-application of these discoveries into instances that, together, expose or super-expose a larger terrain over which several avant-gardes (Microcinema, Neo-Cinéma Pur) journey now. In my current work experience, as a Health, Safety & Environment Coordinator with the United Steelworkers and National Institute of Environmental Health Science, I listen to men and women deliberating about their bodies’ range of motion in the world. I facilitate dream projections of new realities, infusing lessons learned from virtually every state and region of the country. All that makes me partial to viewing the workplace environment as theater, the kinds of theater you walk into every day: this includes academia, a factory, an office, whatever. It’s all very dramatic to me. Like, what’s happening with people when they have a meeting in a hotel lobby. Or when they enter a classroom for a first time. Once that class situation is over, for instance, you get to reflect on what happened; it can blow your mind, in terms of thinking about globalism’s march of body disciplining. The thing is we have to keep moving until we assemble the very next moment for entry into the very next workplace environment. In this way, I think literature can help, “as an aide to memory” (to cite Lyn Hejinian’s seminal work) to go back and confront what eludes us given the speed of our lives and the commitments to our social stations. And perhaps only literature can in some way forestall a complete paralysis by form-fitting/contouring what we sense to what think through.
RJT That’s why there’s a relish in this book for storytelling. No matter the conceptual framework and despite the angular motion of these accounts, there’s a sense that storytelling is that which unites us in a project. The interpretive stakes are higher when a storyteller accounts for listening as productive of personhood, in ways left unexamined when appealing only to the discursively constructed reader.
RT The most important part of this project was getting that first sentence down: “This has gone pretty far, and it’s likely to go farther.” Once that first sentence landed in “Los Entusiastas,” for example, I could think about what followed as a general social drive. Already you’re like, Uh-oh—a limit’s been breached, something is blobbing or expanding away, and it’s likely to go further. Already there’s a metric in place for consequence.
RJT All that can be contained in the structure of a sentence. Even as I don’t want to reduce your work to fiction, those first sentences are important, as they are especially for micro-fiction, because in one architectural unit, you can set up a world of expectations, futures reliant on a past, a frame of cultural and interpersonal reference.
RT In one piece, “El Lector,” it’s like, Okay, wow, this isn’t the reader just sitting there coolly identifying where the textual sampling came from: “This being your one ‘casual’ perusal too many, the one that tipped this mildly perverse book over the mountain ledge into a violent tumble, splintering pines, scattering birds, the pungent odor of pitch all around.” This encounter causes things to rupture, ooze out, and even spread out among the different senses. Not just the temporal sense, but also taste, touch, smell, whichever sense.
RJT Some of this character-driven prose follows the quest narrative. A subject navigates the obscene underbelly of the world—cultural, scientific, or psychological—in search of an overarching “new art.” “La Experimentalista” is your opportunity for laugh-out-loud lampooning of our present-day avant-gardes: splork poetry or conook-anák-anók-ka-ník-ník art.
RT Oh, yeah. Conook-anák-anók-ka-ník-ník, a “nonce” word, something invoking of an overtly exoticizing gesture in describing the art of “the other.”
RJT (laughter) The humor works not as a flippant, off-the-cuff stance. It implicates us all. It’s funny because we’re complicit in a failure of cultural capital. I mean, splork poetry! In the last lines of “La Galerista,” you so name the anxieties of avant-garde practice as to betray its objects: nothing more than an aggressive cover story for embarrassment. What is it that so many US American experimentalists are embarrassed about?
RT In “La Galerista” I used gender pronouns—perversely (strategically) switching between masculine and feminine—to keep the reader on edge. I should mention that many of these were originally written with the opposite gender pronouns, and I decided at the last minute to go this way or that. In this particular piece, “she” pulls something into her body—harbors it for herself, enjoys it. The action has an effect. Then, in public, she lets it all sort of gush out. Pretty darn erotic, in a way. It tests the boundaries of what is permissible in a large public display. The so-called arts of transgression are in fact pretty timid compared to the things we do in private. Compared to the deals proposed across coffee tables when international, global business people talk, and to the consequences those conversations actually have on society, the things that we do in our art world and our literature are absolutely timid. So that’s one of the dimensions of embarrassment. No matter how extreme performance is, it remains an act for discussion. It’s not there to template a practice, to capture “reality.” No, no, it’s actually pretty messy and has everything to do with the cross-contamination of industries—their speak.
RJT This points back to an act of conflation that poet Laura Elrick describes in her essay for the Eco Language Reader. She makes a very strong case for poetry—if it is to continue having any relevance at all—as self-estranged dwelling. She pits Lefebvre on “the abyss of negative utopias” and Olson on the technical replacement of voice, not to “propose a return to speech or poetics of breath, per se, but rather to suggest a possible grounding of poetics in spatial practices that challenge the ‘nature’ of capitalist spaces, a practice that rejects the separation of our bodies from the spaces we inhabit.”
RT That’s a Copernican correction to an excessively idealist view of avant-garde work. It upsets the commonplace assumption that an advanced poetics can alter the effects of globalism. What do we do with this relegated space?
RJT It’s as though the audience at certain avant-garde poetry readings is expected to fever into abrupt moments of elucidation—those pearls of disjointed self-emancipation meant to so counter the logic of global capital as to release us from our false consciousness and make us proper oppositional actors.
RT As for the social spaces that precede our acts, Elrick does not say, however, that to act within those spaces—neo-liberal, redesigned urban spaces here in New York City—is, necessarily, to feed the dragon. But to disavow those contours or how those spaces are created, to entirely ignore these questions in one’s artwork or in the artwork of one’s peers, over and over and over, is to create a seal, a seal against lived conditions, an interpretive imperviousness, despite the wheels of production: books, readings, reviews, the archive.
RJT I think that’s exactly right. I think much literary production aligned with the historic avant-gardes fails to question the basic idealisms of modernism and its legacies.
RT Your work, Roberto, as early as late ’90s and early 2000s, has been preoccupied with some of these questions. The work has changed over time, but one thing remains consistent—I’m thinking of skin. It’s almost as though when you look at something, you cut along the bias until that skin comes off. And you’re left with another social membrane that’s extremely vulnerable to the environment. When facing words, that shedding shifts the language. And that reveals another layer of skin to be flayed. That’s one way you approach matters of life and death—what made this organism alive makes it dead, and vice-versa.
RJT The Aztec figure of the Xipe Toltec depicted in skin torn from a victim. It’s no wonder a strand of surrealism, that of Georges Bataille, was interested in extreme cases of death-bound subjectivity. In a world now of high-speed communication, global-scale financial collapse, and mass migrations, skins are record of past and future atrocity. Membranes are a limit but also match for the barbed wire of global capital.
RT It’s one thing to know about—people can know about global capitalism, even as others know how. Knowing how, as in a whisper, “Hey look, it might not be perfect, but this technique of suturing these two contradictions is something that I know how to do.” It could be as well a very sanctioned official gesture. We have plenty of people who know about the contradictions of global capitalism. But we have very few people who talk on a micro to macro level about the knowing how. I think one thing we share in our work is this how. In Deck of Deeds, there’s always this preoccupation with the action, doing something and watching the result of that deed. And in your work, your sense of urgency translates into having to speak it through, and having it rip or tear right in the middle of your speaking—quite literally. And it’s not about whether this is your voice or if someone else is speaking, but the fact that this voice is traversing such a contradictory plane that it actually shears off.
RJT It’s as if to know how is to indulge in dubious fantasies that enact another kind of violence. It’s an uncertain ethical position, possibly, but one I prefer to facile vetriloquism in the grip of global capital that passes for critique.
RT I think, again, that to know how is to mobilize “this is as far as I’ve gotten,” or “I’ve done this to this end” or “I’m doing this for now.” This is why it’s called Deck of Deeds and not “Deck of Possibilities.” How depressing is that! What if I called it “Deck of Possibilities.” Worthless, right? I don’t want any more possibilities! I want deeds—regardless how small—and the ensuing results, and me apprehending them, however fraught. Other people’s deeds, and what they create in the world.
RJT In the folk Lotería’s world vision, even as each character—“La Luna” (The Moon), “La Sirena” (The Siren), “El Camarón” (The Shrimp), “La Araña” (The Spider), and so forth—is defined by convention, a riddle, the playing field is hardly a rigid one. The principle of chance disrupts our place and standing in the world, inviting the player into this arbitrary system and its score-keeping. Win or lose, the call and response in cheerful verse is no comfort for the fact that fortune does not distribute equally, even as it allows us players to rebuff the scripts we are handed.
RT You know, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) itemizes every industry identifiable by the government. Though constantly shifting into subsets, there are usually around 46 to 70 designations used for research purposes, or to validate degrees, to functionalize society. But what’s interesting about a deck of one’s own designations is—well, imagine, if we spoke like this to each other: “As an architect cross-cut by newspeak, and compromised by academia, I want to say blah blah blah…” What I’m getting at here is that it would seem ludicrous to people for us to speak way across our designated areas of social activity, and yet that’s one of the things that literature can do. You can’t do it in life. You’re going to lose a lot of friends and possibly your job if you start talking like that. So I thought it was the perfect opportunity to do it through Deck of Deeds.
RJT Despite the different labor identities in the book, there’s nevertheless an overarching everyman or everywoman. That subject, though limited to a bureaucratic role in the institutional machine, strives to overcome the constraints.
RT Exactly. Work yourself out or bolt yourself in so tight that you and that bolt, well, it’s going to be hard getting you off of that.
RJT Oh, I definitely plan to model myself after “La Meditadora” the next time I fly American Airlines (product placement). I will go into the bathroom and rehearse my performance as scripted in Deck of Deeds.
RT (laughter) Also, you know, I had the decency to say it was done to the muffled twin jet engines of the 747. To spec, baby! To be in concert with your surroundings.
RJT You mean I can’t do it alone?
RT You have to do it to a muffled engine whirring. To make it art, after all.