Interviews

An Interview with the First Poet Laureate of MoMA

by Samuel Jablon on September 3, 2013

Simone White doing a guerrilla reading at the Museum of Modern Art (© Lawrence Schwartzwald (used with permission; no reproduction without express permission)

Simone White doing a guerrilla reading at the Museum of Modern Art (all photos © Lawrence Schwartzwald, used with permission; no reproduction without express permission)

Kenneth Goldsmith and I sat down at our computers in constantly changing parts of the world, and we talked about his recent poet laureateship at the Museum of Modern Art. For the position, he delivered a special lecture and organized a series that invited contemporary poets to read in galleries to museum visitors. The events ranged from one person reading intimately in a gallery to the entire fourth floor being taken over by writers. I wanted to interview Kenneth for many reasons, including: he does not write his own books, he wears pink suits on The Colbert Report, and he believes in poetry, and challenges it to adapt. The MoMA series exposed new audiences to poetry and brought attention to writers.

In addition to his recent role at MoMA, Goldsmith is the founding editor of UbuWeb, a senior editor at PennSound, and has edited and authored many books, including Seven American Deaths and Disasters (2013), Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (2011), and Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011).

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Kenneth Goldsmith reading at MoMA, in front of Andy Warhol's "Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times" (1963) (click to enlarge)

Kenneth Goldsmith reading at MoMA, in front of Andy Warhol’s “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times” (1963)

Samuel Jablon: Let’s focus on the MoMA poet laureateship and all the events you did between February and June. How many poets did you invite? Was there a connecting thread between them?

Kenneth Goldsmith: My goal was to slather the museum with poetry; and that I did by inviting a total of over 125 poets, novelists, essayists, critics, musicians, etc. into the museum to read. The scale was unprecedented in the history of MoMA. My goal was to show the range and diversity in American poetry today. We had experimental poets, lyric poets, feminist poets, conceptual poets, language poets, slam poets, and so forth.

SJ: Could you talk about the Artists Experiment series at the MoMA? Your project is one of the first experiments in this series, correct?

KG: The Artists Experiment series at MoMA was initiated by Public Programs and Education, in my mind, the most innovative and cutting-edge departments in the museum. They invited four artists into the museum and gave us the run of the place. Nothing was off limits; whatever we could dream up, they would accommodate. It was almost too much. Amazing, really. And that sort of freedom can only be obtained by coming through the back door, so to speak. These sorts of gestures simply do not and cannot happen through curatorial. So in a sense my interventions were all guerilla actions, spontaneously dreamed up and enacted with no friction. I can only describe my experience there as utopian.

SJ: My favorite part of the series was how poets engaged an audience that was moving through a space. They weren’t necessarily at MoMA for poetry, but many sat in a circle around the poet and then moved on. Was a goal of this series to introduce poetry to new audiences?

KG: The goal was to bring poetry into the museum and see what happened. Because the readings were scheduled on Wednesdays at noon, most of the poetry audience wasn’t able to attend (all poets have day jobs), so what we ended up with were a few friends of the poet, a couple of museum staff, and scads of strangers who just happened to be wandering through the galleries and stumbled upon some of the most famous writers in America giving quiet readings. Most of them had no idea who or what they were seeing, watched for a while, shrugged their shoulders and moved on. It was beautiful.

SJ: I always find back doors to be the path of least resistance. I think we basically met through a back door, at your MoMA event “Transform The World! Poetry Must Be Made by All!” I didn’t know what to expect; it was chaotic and incredible. I think it did transform the MoMA for that hour. Could you talk about guerilla poetry interventions and your ideas behind that event?

KG: Guerilla is all relative, particularly in a place like MoMA, where little happens that can be truly termed “guerilla.” That said, because MoMA is such a scheduled and prescribed place, weekly poetry interventions were a radical thing. It had never been done at MoMA. For instance, I asked John Zorn to do a simple reading, and he took the opportunity to blow it up and present a full-on five-hour concert in various galleries as part of his 60th birthday celebration. Later we were told that, as far as anyone could remember, live music had not been performed at MoMA in the galleries during open hours. That gives you a sense of how circumscribed events at MoMA are. That said, they were very open to us coming in and doing these events. They had no problem with us doing it.

Trisha Low reads in front of John Baldessari's "What Is Painting" (1968) (click to enlarge)

Trisha Low reading in front of John Baldessari’s “What Is Painting” (1968)

SJ: There’s no podium, microphone, or PA system, and MoMA itself is an intimidating space. How did poets respond to reading there? 

KG: Reading in MoMA is like reading in Terminal 4 at JFK. It’s the least intimate space you can imagine. The poets took two strategies: either to read really loud or to read in a normal voice, forcing people to discover them.

SJ: What were some of your favorite moments from the series? Any surprises? 

KG: My favorite moment from the series was Sheila Heti reading from her novel How Should a Person Be? She read a very explicit part of her book to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” beginning in a very quiet voice, getting louder until she was screaming and crying. It’s as if she was communicating with Picasso himself. Really eerie. Or Stephen Burt’s extraordinary series of poems that he wrote for a Meret Oppenheim painting, which he read in drag. Or CA Conrad’s séance that he held with Ariana Reines and Stephen Boyer on the floor of the Inventing Abstraction show. Or Christian Bök screaming sound poetry in the Futurist galleries. Or Rob Fitterman and Kim Rosenfield posing at the information desks, giving out disinformation. Or Stefan Sagmeister reading Jonathan Haidt on happiness in front of Matisse’s “Dance (I).” Or the food critic from the New York Times, Melissa Clark, reading obscure food writing in the midst of the contemporary galleries during lunchtimes, followed by the cocktails guru David Wondrich reading old stories from the New York Sun about drunken bums getting rolled in front of Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s film Manhatta. Or Tao Lin mumbling into his chest in the midst of a scrappy Robert Morris installation. Or Rick Moody singing songs with a guitar in front of a Rothko. Or David Shields reading an essay about how much he is like George W. Bush in the midst of a Broothaers installation. Or Vanessa Place reading absent wall text for what seemed like hours. Or Charles Bernstein pontificating upon and performing Futurism. Or Tracie Morris’s improvising in the Bauhaus Staircase. Or Maira Kalman reading stories about her father in front of Joseph Beuys vitrines. Or Ingo Neirmann asking visitors waiting in line for the Oldenburg Mouse House to recite a poem of his. Or Heidi Julavits laying out objects in front of a Duchamp and telling the crowd what her psychic said about them. Or Tan Lin reading smart and cool in front of a Judd sculpture. Or Steven Zultanski reading insane mathematical calculations in front of Monet’s “Water Lillies.” Or Monica de la Torre reciting the works of Ulises Carrión in the Dieter Roth show. Or Eileen Myles reading dog poems in front of a Picasso. Or Vito Acconci and Maria Mirabal reading sexy, architectural works in the design galleries.  I could go on. So many surprises, so many magical moments, it’s hard to believe this ever happened. It was like a dream.

SJ: You pulled together an amazing group of artists. How did you choose who to invite?

KG: While I could’ve only invited my friends, most of whom work in ways similar to me, I wanted to open it up to demonstrate the diversity and wealth of writing happening today. So, I included poets, essayists, designers, musicians, novelists, visual artists, and so forth, assuring that each interaction with the objects in the museum’s collection would be unique.

SJ: How does this series fit into your work? Would this entire series be one extravagant performance?

KG: My own work has little to do with this. This series is more like my role at UbuWeb: that of a curator. Of course curators bring their own imprint and sensibility to whatever project they do, so this is very much an expression of myself, but it’s not really about me.

Charles Bernstein reading in front of the "Inventing Abstraction" exhibition

Charles Bernstein reading in front of the “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition

SJ: What are you trying to do with poetry?

KG: I’m trying to demonstrate that poetry is as vital to contemporary cultural discourse as any other art form. Sadly, we’ve become so accustomed to living on the margins and in the shadows that we often can’t imagine a larger role for us ourselves. But I’m advocating for a central role for poetry in the culture. There’s so much great work being done by so many poets that, with a little bit of push, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes evident to a broader audience (the way that, say, dance has recently been embraced by the art world). Now is poetry’s time.

Kenneth Goldsmith’s poet laureate events took place from February through June 2013 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).

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