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Literary Prestidigitations on Display

15 Questions: An interview with Luke McMullan

15 Questions  
Tell me about your book.
John Kinsella has written that this book is ‘prising the nails out of the lyric’. That’s true. And while the book’s will to contradict the lyric appears anti-lyrical, I wonder what in fact could be more lyrical than that genre’s distress? If we believe that the lyric articulates formal, linguistic, politic, histrionic—some constellation of all predicates—distress, then the articulation of its own distress might be said to be both supremely lyrical and anti-lyrical at once. And this distress need not be that of the writer—I don’t believe in the childish and convenient equivalence of ‘the lyric I’ with the capitalist subject made by some for whom that simplification is self-valorising. It’s this tendency of the lyric to capture and recuperate its own escape attempts, like the event horizon of a black hole, that has interested me in the writing of Dolphin Aria. There’s a certain eternal gravitational pull to the lyric, which is also profoundly odd, alienating, given its apparent historical specificity. Wordsworth wrote that poetry makes the familiar unfamiliar, I think this is analogous to the process undertaken by every good writer of the lyric today—they make the form alien, perhaps uninhabitable. We should think of the scene in Independence Day when the denizens of Earth have this sublime experience of the alien motherships viewed from below: the whole thing cannot be viewed at once, only glimpsed in the gaps between skyscrapers, a sublimity that of course gives the lie to their centrality and desacralises their subjectivity. The humans triumph in the end by uploading a virus to that sublime form from a captured flying saucer—and perhaps the metaphor of the virus or of the fifth column is an appropriate descriptor for lyric engagement.
The book is called Dolphin Aria/Limited Hours: A Love Song. Perhaps I can disclose something of the book by parsing its title. For me, the aria is an apex moment of the aesthetic, in which the training of a singer and so many members of an orchestra in the pit, the competence and vision of the composer, the structure and needs of the work, become momentarily crystalline. The aria bespeaks aesthetic refinement in the same way that pure iron signifies the refinement of haematite. The aria is also, of course, the crystallisation of a certain social text; in terms of inclusion and exclusion I think we are all clear on what opera, as phenomenon, precipitates. Simultaneous with our own moment, there is speculation on whether and how dolphin/delphic language will ever be understood, which is one of the things I was reading about when I was in the poem. This idea of performing something for which one might be said to be truly maladapted, like a dolphin singing an aria, but performing it nonetheless out of perverse formal obligation, is my nightmarish and honest vision of poetry: ‘cry out elocution and become draped heroes’, which is both the garlanded soprano and the flag-draped coffin. Hence also the opening of the book with the semi-choral script of ‘ALL’, in which decoding is instantly converted into the spectre of accomplishment. The book is partly concerned with the exploitation of animals, the supremacy and surety of the human; so ‘Dolphin Aria’ is a pun on ‘dolphinarium’. I’ve written too much already. I’ll just say that ‘Limited Hours’ might refer to the visiting periods in hospitals and prisons, and the countdown in which endangered animals (all animals) unknowingly live; and that ‘A Love Song’ following the colon is meant to suggest or question the conditions that enable and inflect the possibilities for certain kinds of aesthetic form and experience (experience is form; and the love song is the form of experience). What kind of love, being-together, repair, is possible in a horrific world? And what else?
What influenced this book?

I was working for a software company that moved me to their new office in New York in January of 2013. The company had software that ingested vast amounts of electronic documents (the whole internet) and then looked for statistically significant words and phrases within that corpus in order to figure out, at scale, the languages and topical contexts of those documents (webpages). I didn’t understand it in any great detail, I just sold it to other companies; and then for a while I managed the development of new applications for it. As a way of thinking language, it was quite productive for me.
This was my first time in New York, even my first time outside Europe, and my impression was of an inhuman city. Anyone who has ever spent time in the Javits Center, at industry ‘get-togethers’ in the media world, watched the horses pull carriages around Columbus Circus, or done business lunch or drinks would agree with that impression without a second thought. It also seemed a city predicated on an enormous amount of suffering, both there and elsewhere. New York is made possible by impoverishment. I found this work stimulating on a day-to-day basis—‘fun’—but in the long run both profoundly alienating and totally inhibiting. Readers who have worked in an office environment or in software development or media and many others might ‘get’ things like the SCRUM SONG and the poem’s incessant intrusion of jargon. I would write absurd poems entirely out of things overheard on conference calls, or things I found myself saying at work. It was hard not to get the sense that language can be subjected to perversion by economic forces—something like the Lacanian sense of the pervert, so that one gets the sense that it ‘knows’ everything, totally. So essentially, I felt economically propelled in different manners—there was the necessity of work, I lived in Babylon, but I’d be dishonest if I didn’t also say that I had money in my pocket then, too. I was feeling nostalgic for home (Northern Ireland), too: nostalgic for a relation to place which was not possible for me in New York and was no longer possible in Northern Ireland, either.
At the same time, I drew parallels between what I saw in my Arbeitswelt, my work-world, and in the social world surrounding poetry. I began to equate my alienation from work with a burgeoning revulsion for the social text of poetry, for the way its producers jockeyed and scrummed and marketed their too-obvious signals. This book is influenced by and evinces disgust with poetry. This was late 2013/early 2014. I don’t feel quite the same way quite so much of the time now. But I’ll reserve the right to turn over a new leaf.
I was reading a biography of Walter Benjamin. I was reading some of the poets I had met and come to know and love in New York. I was watching helicopter gunship footage and thinking about Karl Kraus. I was translating bits of Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov and vestiges of those found their way into the poem throughout. I was thinking about Kant’s teleological argument from the apparent purposiveness of nature.

Where does this book fit into your career as a writer?

I should like not to have a career, except perhaps in the sense of the verb. This is the second volume I’ve published. It takes a lot of emotional effort for me to settle on publishing anything. Actually, that’s wrong. I expend a lot of emotional effort on trying not to publish. It is when that will is exhausted, that things slip out. I am a perfectionist until I am wrong-footed. I’m now working on a series of translations of an Old English poem called The Ruin, which have been gestating for some time. It’s an elegy in which the speaker comes across the stone ruins of a (probably) Roman city, long after the Roman Empire has ceased to meaningfully exist in the West. It makes me think of the American embassy in Baghdad. I am thinking of calling it IMPERIVM, or just Ruin.

If you had to convince a friend or colleague to read this book, what might you tell them?

Cajole them endlessly ‘til they relent and purchase. I learnt that trick from my work in media.

Tell me about the last literary reading you attended.

I don’t have much of use to say. I hate the idea that someone might look at me while I’m listening to poetry; consequently I can’t always concentrate. I have no problem performing; that’s something else. 
The last reading I went to was my partner, Sophie Seita, with Ron Silliman, at Segue. Ron read to us about Wikileaks. I had two martinis and a few beers, went to a bar that begins with S, and argued with Josef for a long but indeterminate time. Somehow we got home half a pizza richer. I call that a good reading.

Tell us about your process: Pen and Paper, computer, notebooks ... how do you write?

I do everything in notebooks. I do not usually set out on ‘projects’. I write what I’m thinking without specific intent and a set of concerns emerges, around which the work later organises. I’m a sonically driven writer; that is, the sound-patterns called for by the preceding lines drive what happens next. The necessary sounds arrive first, then constellate into words and phrases. I edit on the computer. I have lost a lot of those notebooks already. I scavenge. I like to cover my tracks. There are no rituals. Translation is a fallow field.

How do you handle a bad review of your work?
I’ve only ever had one review of my work. It was mostly bad, and I’ve forgotten what it said. So I suppose I do that.


Which writer would you most like to have a drink with, and why?

The ones I drink with now are the ones I most want to. I won’t name names. Partly because it’ll look like I’m doing coterie, which I hate; partly because it won’t be credible; partly because of my love for, nah just kidding. Maybe I’d like a drink with David Jones, so I can tell him he’s still being read and what his work is to me right now.

What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?

‘Write every day.’ 
Oh, and ‘The line comes from the breathing of the man who writes’. That is Cracker-Barrel dogshit.

Where do you buy your books?

Borrowed from the library or bought at readings.

Who are you reading now?

Gavin Douglas’s Eneados. Sam Newton’s The Origins of Beowulf and the pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia. There are writers whose work I return to over and over. Timothy Thornton’s Jocund Day. Prynne. Pound’s Cathay. Sophie Seita. Mina Loy’s ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’. I admire Loy’s wholesome sense of disgust for poetry. I was looking again at the first part of Hamlet. David Jones’s Anathemata, which should be more widely acknowledged as equal to Finnegan’s Wake. Various commentaries on The AnathemataRome’s Wreck by Trevor Joyce. Everything Ian Heames has ever done in his delightful life.

Bonus Round
What do you want the world to know about you? Make it juicy ....  
When I was a kid I was the Ulster under-16 chess champion. I wanted to be a professional chess player.
I hate astrology (sorry, New York poets).