• Between Leisure and Labor: Talking to Mónica de la Torre

    Where (from which chairs) might a poetics of the still-life emerge today? Where might such an aesthetic overlap with conceptual poetries from Latin America in the 1970s and the Soviet Union in the 80s, with art-world theatricalities from the 90s, with downtown New York theater from more recent times? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Mónica de la Torre. This present conversation focuses on de la Torre’s book The Happy End/All Welcome. Mónica de la Torre works with and between languages. Born and raised in Mexico City, she is a contributing editor to BOMB Magazine. In 2018, Ugly Duckling Presse also published her translation of Defense of the Idol by Chilean modernist Omar Cáceres. In 2020, Nightboat will publish her new book of poems and translations, Repetition Nineteen. She has taught at Columbia and Brown, and currently teaches poetry at Brooklyn College. 

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    ANDY FITCH: We’ve talked on multiple occasions about the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, typically in reference to Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska’s theater company. Could we open on what might keep drawing you back to this peculiar “nature theater” notion — here in terms of precedents such as Martin Kippenberger’s installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika (perhaps anticipating your book’s investigations of an author / artist’s place in contemporary corporate culture), as well as in terms of Kafka’s own absurdist-tending, myth-extending conception of coming to America (or Amerika) and pursuing its frenetic (perhaps contradictory) promises of unchecked opportunity and of universal employment?

    MÓNICA DE LA TORRE: I’ll begin with the anecdotal. I mean, this already feels like such a different era, but I remember seeing a lot of downtown theater overlap with what I saw happening in poetry, though somehow making radically different claims. You had transcription, collaboration, elaborate procedures for writing plays. For Romeo and Juliet, for example, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma basically had people write the play for them.

    I loved that play.

    Yeah, they called people up. They had warned people in advance, I think. Then they called and asked: “Hey, can you tell me the story of Romeo and Juliet?” Of course we might assume that everybody remembers this story, but when you actually have to retell the plot you realize your own narrative has all these holes. But people talked candidly and excitedly, and then this theater group transcribed everything verbatim, weaving it into a play. And when they acted out this Romeo and Juliet story, they had not only language at their disposal, but also choreography. They had the actors deploy all these Elizabethan moves, and these artificial and theatrical gestures. They brought in these strange costumes and random props. I loved the whole thing.

    And then, in poetry, you had this simultaneous conversation happening around conceptualism, which felt punitive, less generative. Conceptualism was presented as this end-all of 21st-century poetry. You couldn’t call yourself a 21st-century poet unless you appropriated language in this way that placed you above those whose words were appropriated — mocking others’ use of language was a part of it. By contrast, what I experienced in theater felt really appealing, and still had a weight to it, bringing along this surprising way out of naturalistic theater.

    I also think of something like Young Jean Lee’s play Lear. Or The Shipment has these shifting registers the whole time. It begins by feeling like a comedy skit, a monologue. This terrific actor, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, addresses the audience, like in standup comedy, but then all of a sudden that doesn’t go anywhere and you start getting a sort of naturalistic play — filled with bodies in space, asking questions around race and performativity and a lot of topics that really interested me right then. And again certain aspects of conceptual poetry also really interested me, and continue to do so, but more in terms of a continuation of more political conceptual poetry from eras like the 70s and 80s in Latin America and the Soviet Union.

    So ultimately, then, I find myself at Kippenberger’s installation, at MoMA, and I just go: “Wouldn’t it be fun to write the dialogues that take place in all these settings Martin Kippenberger provided?” And then many, many years later, I felt like: Oh God, why did I ever want to do this, and actually follow through with it?

    As your book describes it, Kippenberger’s installation offers an “assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs.”

    Right, and this show just overwhelms you at first. You can’t get a totalizing view on it. You just have to experience it. It doesn’t look intricate until you step closer and enter it. Some pieces have many elements combined, like you might have an actual painting of Kippenberger’s embedded in one of these chairs or tables. So at some point, I had to abandon the premise of riffing off every detail from Kippenberger’s show. I instead starting using my own furniture to sit and write from.

    But I kept thinking about all these different claims for what the best possible workplace or seated configuration could be, for any number of different purposes — not only for the office or the school, but for the art of living as conceived by modernist design and architecture. Kippenberger collapses that whole archive and makes it incongruous, and brings everything he can to it. He might design his own chairs. He might commission another artist to fabricate a chair. He might repurpose some second-hand chairs, etcetera.

    The overall installation seems to represent every possible way in which Kippenberger could approach labor, so I thought I’d do that with this book as well. As professional poets, we write blurbs. We give talks. We write occasional poems for particular events or conferences. We often don’t know where that’s all going. So I decided to cannibalize myself and redeploy everything for the purposes of exploring all of this unaccountable labor and what it means. That took maybe five or six years.

    Well, here could we discuss where The Happy End/All Welcome might have led amid your broader ongoing investigations into what a book (perhaps specifically a poetic) “collection” might be? Whereas some equivalent collections, for instance, might have divided these “Positions,” “Table,” “View from a Chair,” and “Yes or No” sequences into discrete sections, and might have offered a relatively familiar structure prioritizing the piercing lyric utterance or the sustained research-based poetic “project,” how did you arrive at the type of allover, DJ-set-like compositional rhythms that we get here? And again, did this distinctive modular drift just fit best for engaging Kippenberger’s installation, and Kafka’s “unfinished” novel? Or why else, within your broader writing trajectory, might you have wished to shape a book like this anyway?

    Right, that took a really long time to figure out. Both in Four and in Public Domain I did work with modules — modules sometimes operating independently, and sometimes alongside other modules. I wanted to interrupt the linearity that the print format imposes on the book, while still taking advantage of it. And then for The Happy End/All Welcome, I kept thinking in terms of John Cage’s ideas around simultaneity, and the interplay and interpenetration between different artistic modes. But I also did want the reader to eventually sense some progression in time. At some point “the company” manages to get off the ground. They make it to Oklahoma, in Colonia Nápoles in Mexico City (a neighborhood where there’s a street named after every state in the US). That tour gets vaguely suggested at the end.

    I want readers to have the possibility to reconfigure this material in manifold ways, so that various combinations generate different readings of the work. When I’ve read aloud or presented it, I’ve come up with different sequences. I’ll intersperse, say, the views from the particular chairs, because the “character” has this job of actually testing those chairs. She’s the only one whose movement you can track across this book. Everything else happens kind of all at once. Multiple people get interviewed for jobs all at the same time. You get a sense of this carnival’s scale that way. I felt so lucky later to watch Darcie Dennigan stage the book. She staged it for the Fringe Festival in Providence.

    How?

    Darcie and I never really spoke about my ideas on simultaneity, or the pacing. But when she staged it, a lot happened out of sequence. The play version did begin at the beginning, but didn’t make it to the book’s actual ending. I loved how, given the limitations of putting particular actors on stage, Darcie resequenced everything. Darcie’s partner played the piano. Every time an episode finished, he’d play this silly tune. It was highly comedic. Kate Colby performed, and a wonderful Brown grad student, Stine An. Darcie included maybe five actors and a musician. They would enact some of the interviews. They would offer some music or certain movements to segue from one episode to another. Kate wore this crazy hilarious pink wig, kind of like a Mermaid Parade wig, which came in handy because she delivered the text on La Perruque — work you do for yourself that appears to be work for your employer. And another thing Darcie did was introduce some episodes she herself had written. That made my day since, in a way, my book is also an invitation for others to extend the ideas in it, or attempt to complete its premise, just like I did with Kippenberger’s installation, and he did with Kafka’s novel.

    And this whole incredible performance and production kept up this super-fast pace that I wanted my book’s structure to convey. Darcie’s production made me realize that the key to pacing is to not give people enough time to realize that what they’re laughing about is actually quite dark. You just keep delivering one punchline after another.

    Though amid The Happy End/All Welcome’s roving book-length flow, certain dense passages do stand out, such as the following from “View from a Folding Chair”:

    Possibly carnivalesque, displaying an upside-down world, as in:

    a projection of the high-desert landscape and transit
    surrounding an old ice plant in the desert
    requiring no other technology but a lens and a dark room;
    ironically inverted in this picture of a tiny fraction of the
         planet —
    with no search engine logo and copyright date camouflaged
         to appear like a wisp of a stratus cloud —
    is the electrical plant across the street
    grids reversed, as is the soundtrack extemporaneously
    produced
    by the cars and pickup trucks seen fleeting by from east to
    west

    Similarly, the poems beginning from “Limitations and Constraint,” with their diagrammatic lack of spacing between words, slow down the reading process in their own distinct ways. And I seem to remember wishing, with Kippenberger’s installation, that we occasionally could sit on the furniture. And if I have any positive memories of adolescent shopping-mall afternoons, they come from sitting down on department-store furniture (always truly relaxing) before getting kicked out. So could you talk about any particular moments in this book when having your reader sit down for a bit and try a different, less drift-like pace did seem crucial?

    Absolutely. And wow: I love the image of teenagers lounging on department-store furniture! That’s another play / poetry book. It’s true that in between the rapid-fire delivery of punchlines and humor there are these moments where everything slows down. These chair pieces definitely offer a different sensibility. They give my take on emotion recollected in tranquility. They let you sit down and stop running around from one place to another. And they’re some of the few pieces in the book that are clearly poems — they look like poems, they behave like poems. At times this book did make me wonder: Can I even call this poetry?

    For these chair poems I had found myself on a Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, Texas. The house in which I stayed has a number of iconic 20th-century design chairs: a couple of Eames chairs, a Rietveld, a Saarinen womb chair. I realized some of them were actually in the Kippenberger installation. So I decided to track my experience of sitting in these chairs, and that led to the pieces with linebreaks, with more of a single voice and less polyphony.

    The chair poems also bring for me (perhaps arbitrarily) associations to musical chairs (but now placed in some more high-stakes professionalized context), to academic-department chairs, to Warholian electric chairs. The book’s tables evoke various familial and culinary and religious and scientific and medical contexts. So could you describe any additional autobiographical, intellectual, workplace prompts eventually leading to the imperative, in “Human Intelligence Tasks,” to “Find department chairs. / Extract information from a table”?

    Well, for that piece about extracting from a table, I’d start with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, which connects individuals (human laborers, real people who need jobs) with work tasks deemed only performable by humans. So when “Human Intelligence Tasks” calls for extracting information from a table, it operates like a set of instructions for a human to extract and interpret information — as one particular task not performable by machines.

    At least back in 2017.

    Exactly. Who knows today? And then to get back to chairs: you get this sense of comfort as a construct, as a relative notion, made available only to some of us. And even in a supposedly objective or universal ergonomics sense, you still can question this whole motivation for providing comfort in the first place. I did want this book to explore these borders between leisure and labor, and home and workplace, and independence and precariousness in the gig economy. I wanted to think about how being seated can make you poised, and also can make you passive. I thought a lot about notions of armchair psychology, and armchair activism on Facebook and on social media.

    So then maybe this sounds too domestic, but those “View from a Chair” pieces also make me wonder if the visual tradition of the still-life almost always delivers some sort of latent tension between implied subjectivity and depicted furniture (can you have a still-life with no furniture or housewear)? Do any particular genres of literary still-lives (I picture, for instance, Joe Brainard’s “Ten Imaginary Still Lifes,” especially in relation to your “Partial Inventory” piece), and / or of literary portraiture, stand out for giving you pleasure?

    Ha. I love Brainard’s piece (a process poem, in a way, since he claims to close his eyes before retrieving the still-lifes from memory). I hadn’t thought of portraiture at all in relation to this book, because the sitters are mostly unremarkable and generic — in contrast with the more defined props around them. So I present portraits of the pedestals, so to speak. The tables and chairs dominate. Georges Perec’s Things: A Story of the Sixties comes to mind. Talking with my friend Steel Stillman the other day I realized that had been an influence. And, of course, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

    Yeah maybe I should have asked about the chair poems as interiors, or chamber pieces.

    And when you ask about portraiture, I think of Francis Ponge.

    For sure.

    The Table. People have recommended that to me for years, but I couldn’t get into it. But after writing this book I recognized that connection. And now I think of Ponge as a fellow traveler. He didn’t directly influence me. But the resemblance now feels kind of uncanny.

    Well, I don’t want to weigh us down with modernist references, but in terms of how an artist’s distinctive “hand” might inflect a still-life or a portrait, I love the functionalist, quietly spiritualist, Mondrian-sounding syntax at play in “View from an Utrecht Chair”:

    What’s to simplify forms? Two half rectangles perform
    as armrests and front legs. No hind legs
    prop up the back. A play on angles:
    another identical half rectangle, yet generously cushioned, acts
    as seat and back. Its structure shows sideways

    and the poised, extra-spacious, Agnes Martin-esque monochromatic assonance of “View from a Lounge Chair”:

    in the posture afforded by birch and the phantom of wartime
         a black, new-moon sky would turn the ocean
    surplus parachute straps, latticed
         invisible; in the print it glimmers in moonlight
    to form the seat and back, hurtled into indeterminate
         although above the water is a rectangle of black
    sites

    and the Calder-esque mobility of:

    Chairs made mostly of air between bent steel rods. Unbent and activated by touch, these rods make ambient music 

    and the Claes Oldenburgian propositional impossibility (or not) of:

    Pair of astronaut chairs with lighting umbrellas over them circling on carousel surrounding sculpture of fried egg.

    Yeah, you’re doing a nice job of showing how this installation mode (again like Kippenberger’s) works in the book. But you’re also kind of uncovering the correspondences between the art chairs and the art they’re in dialogue with — and the ideals that all seeks to embody. At the house in Marfa there was an Utrecht chair by Rietveld, whose more famous Mondrian chair is represented in Donald Judd’s collection nearby. In my poem I touch on both, so to speak. All of those designs are all about stripping down the chair to its essentials, while still making it aesthetically pleasing, and still giving sitters specific phenomenological experiences.

    They also deal with the particulars of their materials. So, for instance, the lounge chair was designed by Jens Risom, who in 1941 could only use webbing that wasn’t subject to wartime restrictions. The chair that makes music is Harry Bertoia’s, whose designs are so ubiquitous they’ve become cliché. But he was also a sculptor, and while bending metal he realized it had certain sonic properties that could turn the sculptures he was making (out of the same materials as his chairs) into instruments to be played by the wind or by people contemplating these sculptures.

    Compositionally, my chair poems are also dealing with questions about form and function. And they necessitate that no poetic “I” dominate, in order to make room for the reader, so that the reader can fully occupy them. By the time we get to Pop, the relation between the objects’ materials, their visual appearance, and their function has been severed and immanence is irrelevant.

    Here then, alongside those more fleeting mid-century musicalities I mentioned, could you also start to position the deadpan corporate tone (sometimes carrying exclamation points) that circulates most consistently throughout the book? And does that corporate tone give you just as much pleasure, at least when placed in this overall mix?

    You know, I actually feel, since publishing this book, that I’ve moved away from tapping and exploring and subverting that whole ridiculous way of speaking — which has since reached limits I never even could have imagined. I mean, when I overhear someone in a cafe talking about branding themselves, and using all this corporate lingo to talk about both banal stuff and personal stuff, it still shocks me. When people talk about being “influencers,” or having “followers,” that still sounds brutal to me. And even with these apparently benign, super-stylized modernist domestic objects, which came as the culmination of decades of thinking about design, (and the art of living, so to speak), and with the Bauhaus bringing those utopian aspirations to the fore, and democratizing them…today you see how some corporate marketing has coopted all of this in ways that erase any revolutionary potential.

    So I didn’t want to abandon all traces of those utopian ideals so important to certain modernist design and architecture movements (design and architecture because they’re at the intersection of the public and the private). I strived for the work to manifest tension between these ideals and their latent potentialities, as well as their coopted, bastardized versions. My own sense of humor, I think, comes out of growing up in Mexico, with everything just so centralized — especially then. The authoritarian party in power would deploy language in the most masterful and perverse ways. That’s of course where Kafka’s darkness just felt irresistible to me.

    Here just to keep tapping this book’s tonal and emotional range, even when it traffics in the absurd and the authoritarian and the corporate: “Sources Sought Notice” points (sardonically, of course) to “the power of humor in the workplace, the close relationship between humor and stress, and why humor is one of the most important ways that we communicate in business and office life and prevent burnout.” So when do you see this book laughing at, laughing with, laughing within, laughing from, laughing for corporate culture?

    I actually found that notice online, explicitly speaking about instrumentalizing humor. My hope is that by appropriating it and exposing it to the reader, we get to have the last laugh. For me humor does still retain this radical potential to disrupt social hierarchies, and so does irony in the best possible sense. In this current age of sincerity, people might view irony with great suspicion. But I do want this book to laugh at that corporate power, and laugh despite that power, or laugh from inside it. Only by combining all of those possibilities do I see any chance of enabling our own release — the release of our subjectivities from the grip of corporations, of the market, and capitalism. Maybe that’s completely misguided on my part. Maybe that’s its own idealism. I do sense some redeeming… I sense a way out, a window through which we still can see and resist being controlled to the benefit of someone else.

    Sure, and I’ve asked about pleasure a bit, with this book’s title sounding pretty sex-and-death to me, and with the finger gymnastics of “Table 21” in mind. Could you describe, for example, what might make typing manuals and their quick pivots and recombining variations sexy, funny (here I think of the straight-faced Glenn Gould-esque: “Ring finger     right hand/Lol. Olo. Llo. . lol .lol lo.l lo.l lo.o”), and again musical in their own way? And could you connect those sensations to, from quite early in this book, its ever-emergent eroticized idiom of:

    Sitting erect, pelvis curved out, cross-legged or with legs parallel.

    Slumping, pelvis curved in.

    Sitting erect, slightly leaning forward, resting elbows and arms on desk.

    Definitely. Also the cover comes to mind, right? It has those chairs humping each other. But yeah, I only can say that this all happened on its own, in a pretty unplanned and surprising way. I didn’t really notice it while writing. And then in hindsight, I was like: “Oh, wait.”

    I mean, I know it sounds ridiculous, but even for that word “erect,” I was thinking more about looking patriarchal, sitting upright, being at attention, following orders in proper position. That all felt less erotic and more just preconditioned. When I read the piece out loud I try to do it as fast as I can, and the experience actually is quite sensual, sensorial. Given that there’s no meaning to the strings of letters I say, there’s no linguistic awareness running interference with the performance of my voice and tongue.

    Yeah, I guess I don’t mean “erotic” necessarily in the most pleasant of ways, more like “getting screwed.” Or with that preceding question’s quoted lines, with “Career Track” sitting beside “Available Positions” in this book’s two-page spread, with me at least hearing The Clash’s “Career Opportunities” blend with Prince’s “New Positions” throughout The Happy End/All Welcome, I also think of the various connotations of “getting fucked” that this book suggests. Again I think of how this book’s idiom (for instance its opening Steinian emphasis on “All” and “Anyone”) both accommodates us and bosses us around — just like office furniture does. I think of how, even when we sit “on top” of office furniture, we can’t help in some ways being its bottom.

    Sure. This makes me think of Octavio Paz’s essay book The Labyrinth of Solitude. Paz discusses all the different valences of the verb chingar, which feels pretty similar to everything you just mentioned. It originally refers to the Spaniards raping the Indians. But in Mexican Spanish, a chingón is an awesome, powerful man, respected by all. And for a woman to be referred to as una chingona…well, you couldn’t get a higher compliment. But then if something goes really wrong, you say “estuvo de la chingada.” It’s bizarre, to say the least, that the same word can have all these clashing connotations.

    Anyway, all of that happened intuitively while writing this book, like finding that fingers piece in a real typing manual — which weirdly had its own earlier version of “LOL” (a real way to practice typing with your right middle finger). And everything else you said about “Available Positions” and “Positions Available” totally makes sense. Of course I obviously knew what that was doing. But at the time of writing I felt so focused on this language of finding a job and seeking labor that I didn’t deal as directly with the sex.

    I could have dealt with motherhood as labor too, actually — now that I think of it.

    Well we do, as you said, get a “womb chair.”

    Yes. But that poem’s speaker has the position of someone inside the womb. That poem doesn’t focus on the speaker’s womb.

    Right. And again, more generally, “The girls” in The Happy End/All Welcome might get catalogued into “pinup secretaries, gamines, vamps, aspiring starlets, celebrity lookalikes, fashion hounds, compulsive eyebrow pluckers, shoe fetishists, thrift-store junkies, post-hippie hobos, and even ladies-who-lunch,” and we could discuss this gendered aspect of the text. But could we also discuss how getting gendered here happens to every body — with, for instance, “Table 41’s” company manager and consultant taking a disturbingly close look at “these organs,” contemplating how even corporate “organizations should function like a living organism?”

    Here again, very literally, one of Kippenberger’s tables has three jars looking straight out of some creepy lab — with organs or body parts or who knows what floating in a kind of chloroform. And of course my attention and everybody’s attention for that installation picked up on some things and not on others. I mean, if I saw Kippenberger’s exhibition now, I would find all of these parts I’d just inexplicably overlooked. I did write “Table 41” near the end of my work on this book, after reading Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. That whole overlap with “organs” and “organisms” and “organization” and “organizing” and “department heads” stood out right then. But it all first came from that disturbing jar on Kippenberger’s table.

    Still then with some more perverse pleasures in mind, could we talk about the feeling that comes for you from getting “Ad Copy (The customer is always…)” just right: sampling an idiom of left-leaning critique, while also capturing our own poetic-critical blurb equivalent of corporate speech — which likewise perhaps says nothing, so much as it styles its own conspicuous forms of consumption?

    Oddly, in rereading those blurbs, it’s hard for me to believe they once applied to books by other people. I tweaked them to fit back into my own book, but not much. One of the functions of the blurbs here is to point to this tension between the illusion poetry creates (often convincingly) of circulating in a different economy, and the reality of its material circumstances. If blurbs are the poetic equivalent to advertorials, then what does it mean to turn them inside out by: a) reclaiming them for oneself, and b) putting them inside a book where no one except the person who already possesses the book can see them? At least this trips the wires. They short-circuit, which might be enough of a disruption.

    Finally then, and still in terms of self-implication for literary as much as for corporate citizens, what might you have to say about a poetics that doesn’t have time for itself, that sometimes (for example in “Sales Letters”) loses interest in itself, that seems to have moved on before fully realizing itself, that dissolves into typos and such — or else into code? What do you find worthwhile about writing and / or reading one’s way even into that particular poetics, with “distraction and destruction” (perhaps including the “creative disruption” cliché that this book ponders) as “the subjective and objective sites, respectively, of one and the same process”?

    I’m not sure I’d say that this poetics doesn’t have time for itself. “Sales Letters” is a period piece, a performance text, with its feminist critique pointing back to the Mad Men era and before. As instructed by the typing manual I found when working on this book, I copied the sales letter and timed myself. I didn’t clean up the typos (clearly, I wouldn’t make it as a typist). And this sales letter itself offers a peculiar contradiction: it advises the typist to be sincere in one’s correspondence, for instance, but fails to acknowledge that the typist is usually merely taking dictation! So who is this advice for, if the person who needs to type as fast as possible is not the person whose voice we hear in these corporate letters?

    Those typing pieces in particular are also a commentary on conceptual poetry, as defined by North American men in the aughts — with that notion of writing as typing, which fails to consider the material conditions of people whose job involves ventriloquizing what those authorized to speak have to say. I was thinking also of an artist like Ulises Carrión, whose writing was key in articulating the ethos of the artist book in the 1970s. For him the artist is in charge of all aspects of book production, and no stage in the process is more important than another.

    Anyway, to your question: The Happy End’s ambition is diagnostic, and cathartic too, but not prescriptive. I’d frame all that as part of my refusal to arrive at any poetics that offers a conclusive, definitive approach to unsolvable social and aesthetic problems (at least they’re unsolvable through poetry, and lead to aporias).

    That refusal might seem to signal a lack of conviction. But this state of lacking conviction actually felt like the only convincing position to take at that time. The only convincing position I could take before the problem of poetry, and the performance of poetry (or of the poet), was this move towards all of these possible variants — but with none embraced too definitively or vehemently, because of the intrinsic limitations in each of them. A constant form of code-switching. So this book keeps reaching the point of needing to deflate itself, as the only way out of performing for others, subjecting oneself to their evaluations, and seeking approval.

     

    Portrait by Bruce Pearson, 2019.

     

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