InterviewsWeekend

Beep Beep: An Interview with Brandon Brown

“The momentary eternal sounds like heaven to me.”

good-life-cover

“The momentary eternal sounds like heaven to me.”
— Brandon Brown, Top 40

Brandon Brown is a poet and translator living in the Bay Area, where he received a B.A. and M.F.A. from San Francisco State University, and where he helps curate the Heart’s Desire reading series at the Bay Area Public School.

Brown’s books include The Good Life (Big Lucks: 2016), Top 40 (Roof: 2014), Flowering Mall (Roof: 2012), The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (Krupskaya: 2011), and The Persians by Aeschylus (Displaced Press: 2011). His work has appeared in Fanzine, Art in America, The Best American Experimental Writing, The Felt, and Open Space. He is a co-editor at Krupskaya, and occasionally publishes small press materials under the imprint, OMG!

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Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle: This fall you released The Good Life, published by Good Lucks (2016). We’ll soon do a “drive by” of all your books, but may I say this volume looks comparatively sanguine (vs saturnine) beside your debauched, demented, deliberate misprision of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Aeschylus in Oakland (The Persians), or Catullus reconfigured at 15% Flarf? Not that there’s anything wrong with wrong. The Good Life: Tell us all about it.

Brandon Brown: I keep telling people that The Good Life is like a “mixtape,” a predictable simile, I’m afraid, to contrast this collection with my other books, which were all larger-scale works written over a sustained period of writing. The seven poems in The Good Life didn’t fit with any of those books, little loners which I nevertheless felt fondness for. Some of them were written for specific occasions. The Dying Star Letters was a gallery talk I was commissioned to give at the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco. For My Future Children was originally part of a performance at a gallery in San Francisco about Drake’s use of the word “wohs.” Others were just the usual poetry situation where angels descended from the sky and whispered rhythmically into my ear. ”Lips so close to my ears they’re like headphones,” to quote Rakim.

G C-H: Legend holds that Lisbon’s poet of the heteronym, Fernando Pessoa, met the diabolist Aleister Crowley, and together faked Crowley’s death at the Hell’s Mouth (a wave cave in Portugal) to free him from the clutches of the Scarlet Woman. Imagine the most extravagant avant-garde arts group, composed of our favorite figures: Dirty Harry, Debbie Harry, housed in Fourier’s communes with Duchamp and Debord. Like the Oulipo, you inject select effects such as they too might devise, but you’re a solo show. Sold Out!

You maximize, wide, through all domains, in every book, on every page, in each poem and line — pop, poetics, aesthetics, like tigers breaking cover. Your Catullus thang iz dense! I picked it up. Mighty mighty. Clue me in. How do you mélange trenchant political analyses, a canny cultural critique of Top 40 songs, plus the drugs you heard them on, invitingly inlaid in such stellar stanzas? Here’s how I’d class your books and words by flocks and herds in the animal kingdom: a dazzle of zebras, crash of rhinos, and a murder of crows.

BB: I don’t know if there’s anything extraordinary about how these things show up in my writing. The combination of sources you allude to reminds me of Sappho, you know? Writing poems about the somatic reverberations of thwarted — and fulfilled! — erotic desire, using the language of Iliadic fight scenes.

In part, I write about what’s in front of me. And what’s in front of me at any given moment could be a biography of Rutherford B. Hayes (that fucker!), a Frank Ocean tune, a strawberry Caviar Cone, The Phenomenology of Spirit, The Hunger Games (book or movie), a painting by Manet, a bottle of lube, a plate of tagliatelle with ragu d’ fangiano, etc. Whatever I am includes those things, all of them, and without any hierarchy. No argument is less interesting to me than whether Richard Wagner is better or more important than Mean Girls. I deeply distrust anyone who hasn’t had their lives redeemed by a pop song.

G C-H: Isn’t it also true that you enlisted other authors to translate certain poems included in your The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (189 pages), and then issued them irreverent instructions, which you list in the book’s notes?

BB: That’s right. I was interested at the time in the Sol Lewitt model of providing instructions for other artists to make one’s work. I’m more cynical about that now I guess, having become more experienced with the visual art market in which Lewitt and others made work. Now it seems a little gross, although I don’t think what I ended up doing in my book was that gross. Still, it has much less appeal. I’m tremendously grateful to the friends who made a translation for the book, and I hope they like the poems they made. And I guess I still think it’s a pretty good idea (if you’re foolish enough to translate 144 poems by any given author) to try and share the labor.

G C-H: I’d dial down that doubt. Your Catullus is a hoot! Erudite, to boot. It effectively evokes “Roman” insight, insolence, humor, and élan.

Next, in Note on the Text, in his Lucinda (Canarium Books, 2016), John Beer, speaking of the poets Erin Moure and Mina Pam Dick, states, “Both of these writers have been deeply inspiring to me in their exploration of the possibilities of translation once freed from the normative expectations of direct meaning transfer.” This sounds like guerrilla code. Lucinda is a transmogrification of Schlegel. I think, too, of David Cameron’s Flowers of Bad (seven years in the making) as, of course, your Flowering Mall. Unlicensed. Aren’t these texts subversions? Ill-legitimate mistreatments, they stray.

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BB: That’s a great line of John’s, and a perfect description of his project. I don’t exactly have a quibble with your characterization, except that I always prefer to call my translation works “translations” as opposed to versions, subversions, imitations, parodies, etc. There is of course a rich critical tradition that attempts to parse these things and set rigid definitions, shaping those “normative expectations.”  But there is also a long tradition associating translation with crime. The Italian proverb traduttore, tradittore (“translator, traitor”) resonates so deeply in the critical and secondary literature around translation that it is rarely called into question. And yet why ‘treason?’ Why ‘crime?’

I resist this metaphor, although of course I understand the glory and glamor of crime and I could appreciate anyone who wanted to embrace a sort of “translator of the damned” subject position. Ha ha. Like, Villon was good. And Stephen Rodefer’s translation of Villon is good.

I’d only add that I wouldn’t call my translation works “illegitimate.” If they are done with an anarchist spirit, all the better, I say. But of course if somebody came up to me and said they had never read Flowers of Evil and wanted to know the poems, I wouldn’t suggest they start with Flowering Mall.    

G C-H: Some hold that the Edo poet Matsuo Bashō doubled as a spy, using “poet” as his cover story. That his Narrow Road to the Deep North contains poetry in cipher, and that he was sent north to map its territory, assess enemy strength and position. In The Essence of Jargon, Debord’s wife, Alice Becker-Ho, undertook indispensable work on the micro-mismanagement of speech that masked Romany, a private language. She also studied Villon’s gangland slang. Isn’t it instructive, too, that Erin Moure, who lives in Quebec, there spells her name Mouré?

BB: Yeah, I mean nothing seems more normal to me than poets writing in code, cultivating Satanic extragenetic families, obsessing over forgotten and secret histories and languages, dreaming of revolt as passionately as possible. I guess I want to mark out a space for literal crime, actual revolt. As good as my poem, or anybody’s poem, could ever be, it doesn’t overthrow the government. Well, your Bashō example might be the exception.

G C-H: When I write I prowl. I feel like I am stealing. It’s my drug of choice. Black electrical cats on crystal methedrine. Breaking and entry in the nighttime. Vision and passion. Fire and style. Nerve, drive, destiny, design. When you write, do you enter the Rapture?

BB: Well, of course I admire your connecting writing to the good life of sweet pharmaceuticals, but it’s more a modest and normal scenario for me. The fundamental practice which aids and abets my writing is daydreaming, and I do it as often as I can. I live in the east Bay Area and don’t drive, so much of the free time allotted me when I’m not at my day job is spent walking, to and from trains, here and there, hence and thence. Sometimes on these walks I listen to headphones, but I prefer to use the time for daydreaming. Most of what I make is conceptualized and even composed that way, in my head. The closest I get to the rapture is probably when I get momentum in editing. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the great theory of the daydream. I don’t know who has one but it must exist. It’s not exactly flaneurie, which has too much of an agenda. But it’s a way to keep moving, stay open, live part-time in a fantasy world;

This song sounds like a convertible top pulling back on a bright
afternoon, its movements are mechanical and slow, but it makes the
whole world a waterfall.

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G C-H: Such, from Top 40, is a magic lyric with no conspecific our side of Xanadu.

While, on Pink, in that same book, you beguile us with yet one more instance of the shapeshifting I’ve applauded:

To the objection that her work is not a valid contribution to the
philosophical tradition which has taken up love as an object of
inquiry, I’d simply say something obvious, which is that pop is for
many of us a prerequisite course in the regime of signs by which
we understand what these signifiers, like love and hate, even mean.

Could you expand on how, when, where you write? Pocket pad, smartphone, long-hand to laptop etc. I still write in pencil on blank drawing pads, sprawled upon the floor! Talk, too, about how you entwine only apparently discrepant material (your love bird, riots, chats and Chats by Baudelaire) seamlessly in cogent song, unmarked visibly by thematic sections, but all over at once in every line?

BB: This is great, I would love to ask everybody this question. I know I sound like a broken record, but I daydream almost all of my writing while walking around, riding trains, sometimes staring off into space at work, or in the swimming pool. If I’m writing prose, I usually work out as much of it as I can mentally, and then steal a little time before or after work, or on my lunch break, and draft out the skeleton. Then invest in the magical visitation of the angels during the editing process.

As for that weaving of different registers, I dunno how much of that is conscious, but it certainly betrays my debt to New Narrative writing. I think that was the great permission I found when I first read Robert Gluck, that on one page you can talk about your deepest feelings, appropriate a speech from another text or movie, have a sex fantasy, describe an orgasm, comment on all of the above, and still hold the reader’s attention. Now, I don’t have the hubris to suggest that my works do these things, but the agility and brilliance of New Narrative certainly pertains to what you’re noticing.

G C-H: Present tense, active voice, le mot juste or just a word. You see angels when you edit? In poetry, revision is reviled. To reverse Allen Ginsberg, I say, “First word, worst word.” Yet, where poets claim to intuit, the art of artifice is abhorred. Is revision visionary? I’m told dyslexics don’t in fact make reading errors. For them the words and letters move. They say exactly what they see.

I’m taken, too, with your psychic skill-set, what you suggest is mental writing. Borges imagined books, so he wouldn’t have to write them. In Plan of Future Works you introduce several books you say you plan to write — Life of Money on Earth, Missouri’s First Verizon Pigfucker, “a collaborative sousveillant history of Dallas [with Pasolini] called I Got the World on a String and It Is Fucked.” Plus, Look Who’s Fucking in a Mosquito Thorax. Scare me: What are you writing now?

BB: I’m not writing any of those books. Ha ha. But I do sort of dream of books to write, and I love books that dream of or contain other books. And I love baroque, formal shit-shows, like I love Dante, you know?

I can’t really say what’s next. I finished a book called The Four Seasons, a long poem which is exactly what it sounds like, a book in four parts. I wrote it between May 1, 2015 and May 1, 2016. For now I’m planning to have a consciously undertaken “midlife crisis” in writing, and try to figure out what’s next. The other day I made a list of books I would like to write that included an epic poem about the bard, and ribald, Earl of Rochester; a stage adaptation of Dante’s Paradiso; and a “real” translation of something from Sanskrit. I will probably do none of these things. Stay tuned?

G C-H: Finally, the three keys of conscientious journalism: What are you doing? Why did you do that, anyway? Who the hell do you think you are? And the dreadnought, Number 4: Don’t you think you should say you’re sorry?

BB: (1) Following my nerve. (2) It’s all I know how to do. (3) A vessel, at best. (4) Sorry for what?

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