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Literary Prestidigitations on Display

15 Questions: An interview with Seth Abramson


15 Questions For you to Answer: 

Tell me about your book.

Metamericana is a collection of concept-driven texts that combine original, appropriated, and remixed language. Each piece is intended as an entirely different conceptual space from any other, meaning that the book includes a wide range of language expressions and experiments: everything from the actual text of a cease-and-desist letter sent to me by Shia LaBeouf's attorney (long story) to an epic poem comprising four-word phrases from every song ever released by Taylor Swift (arranged in the order the songs were released). There's an actual transcript of the end of the world--a very particular virtual world that actually existed and had tens of thousands of inhabitants--as well as an original poem composed exclusively of phrases that have their own texting acronyms. My hope is that each page will give the reader a reading experience they can honestly say they've never before had.

What influenced this book?

In mid-2013 I turned aside from a decade of studying poststructuralism both in and out of the academy and became a dedicated metamodernist. Metamodernism is a small but growing movement that holds late poststructuralism to be both a political failure (from the standpoint of a political progressive, at least) as well as entirely inapt to today's network culture. Metamodernism, as a cultural philosophy, juxtaposes the idealism of Modernism and the cynicism of postmodernism by promoting exploration of what theorists now call "informed naivete" in an elevated middle space between the two. Metamodernism offered me a means of processing the wash of data we all experience every time we go online--specifically by allowing me to treat others' language and my own as interchangeable rather than in a constant state of contestation. Metamodernism offers a new framework for such literary techniques as misappropriation, remixing, mash-ups, conceptual confessionalism, meta-writing, and many others. The results are often as provocatively strange as poststructuralist writing is, even as they are much more readable and (dare I say) relatable to how we live now each day in America. My hope is that this book will be at once a fun read and an authentic performance of how we generally (and I specifically) process language in the Digital Age.

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

I think I've been headed in this direction a long time. My second and third poetry collections featured atmospheric, non-adjectival lyric poems whose atemporality and rhetoric-driven rhythms looked ahead (I hope) to a time when we needn't choose between writing "self-expressive" first-person verse and indulging a political and creative dead-end like late-postmodernist "conceptual writing." I've been trying to explore the middle space between ego-driven and deracinated poetry--and between audience-aware and audience-indifferent poetry--since the mid-2000s, and I think Metamericana is the closest I've come yet to the region of thought and emotion I'd like most to explore. A former professor once told me that my poems seem intent on creating "a wormhole between the head and the heart" without having to explore any of the space in-between, and thus paradoxically end up living almost entirely in that "in-between" space where the work is neither emotive nor abstract. I feel that's a pretty good summary of where I'm at, or at least where I'd like to be at.

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

I don't know whether people will like this book or not, but I can say (and I really do mean this to be entirely separate from the question of reception or even whether the book is any good or not) that very few people have read a book like this one before. This is a book for which even a quick review of the back cover--which is a language experiment that turns the notion of the "blurb" on its head--will communicate to most readers that the author of Metamericana really had little interest in reproducing poetry (or even the "poetry collection") as it's currently being written.

Tell me about the last literary reading you attended.

A few days ago my wife and I attended a reading put on by graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was thrilling to see the range of work these students have written in the two years they've been in Madison: everything from lyric poetry with an abiding interest in Classical Greece to a sort of conversational and comedic metamodernism. One poet is even writing work we might consider "paramodernist"--a form of New-New Sincerity that's a return to the first principles of Modernism with full knowledge of the postmodern and metamodern periods that interceded between the Modernists and the mid-Internet Age. Anyone who thinks experimental writing is primarily happening on the coasts, or that creative writing in the academy is still such a provincial premise that all such writing is mere self-parody, should attend a reading like this one. More than ever before, poets are taking advantage of the patronage of non-profit institutions to explore the possibilities of language rather than merely seeking to meet institutional expectations. At this reading were works that would delight classicalists and lovers of poetry in translation, but also works that speak to the current metamodern zeitgeist and the possibility of eradicating cynicism and irony from poetry altogether--and in a way that doesn't at all cheapen our hard-won knowledge of the world and its systemic tragedies.

When did you realize you were a writer?

In the fall of 1998, when I was a 1L in law school. I discovered that half my brain--literally--was rebelling against being a graduate student in the social sciences. I knew by October of that first year of legal training that I wouldn't survive through my third year without learning to use language creatively as well as (as attorneys do) with a rigorous rationalism. Poetry literally got me through law school, and once I became a public defender I never looked back. My hybrid poet/attorney self-identity saved me from falling into utter despair as I watched people's lives get destroyed daily by the American criminal justice system. I realized then that while poetry can't single-handedly take down a system, it can provide hope for all renegades and, in time, a systematic alternative to the cynicism of conformity and compliance.
Tell us about your process. Pen and paper, computer, notebooks--how do you write?

I write on my computer, as computer technology is absolutely indispensable to cutting and pasting quickly when you're remixing original and found material. It's a change for me, though: I wrote many of the poems in my second and third collections (or at least many of their opening lines and stanzas) with pen and paper.

How do you handle a bad review of your work?

I think we as poets are lucky to just get read at all, honestly. A bad review that's thoughtful isn't at all bothersome because it's a sincere engagement with the text, and I think poets always expect that each reader will engage with the text differently and find it differentially generative for them. The reviews I find upsetting are the ones that are thinly disguised ad hominem attacks; these are distressing on both a personal level (because what sort of nasty spirit is required to dedicate oneself to dehumanizing another author in this way?) as well as on a professional level (because it speaks ill of where poetry-reviewing is headed). Generally, though, a bad review--or any review at all--is just a snapshot in the literary lifespan of that particular reader. Years hence that reader might feel differently, as I know I often have years after writing something critical about a text. And even in the present, a reader with different sensibilities than that particular critic is essentially having an entirely different life experience; not every book is intended for every reader, and as a poet I just hope to find my readership in time--however large or small it may be.
Which writer would you most like to have a drink with, and why?

Walt Whitman. If even 1% of his spirit and energy could rub off on me during the course of a single meeting, I think I could live the rest of my life appreciating the gift of sentience exponentially more than I do now.

What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?

Caring what anyone thinks about my writing or my ideas. I don't mean that as harshly as it sounds; in fact I've become much more attuned to audience as I've continued developing as a writer, and much more committed to understanding the tradition I'm writing in and against rather than just writing in a vacuum. But I think that, as an English poet of my acquaintance once said to me, once you get to the point where you've put in a necessary span of years writing and reading your own and others' poetry, you have to begin trusting yourself. All writers have to cut the cord with their community in this way at some point; workshopping (implicit or explicit, indirect or direct) is a useful tool for a time, but it's not a prescription for a lifetime in language. These days I hope that I know what I'm about sufficiently to not be looking over my shoulder or seeking approval from peers on a regular basis. The poets I admire the most are the ones best at writing with intelligence and knowledge of the tradition while also not giving a good goddamn whether what they're presently doing is fashionable.

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

That craft is anywhere near as important as developing an idiosyncratic poetics that speaks earnestly into and out of your own relationship with language and genre. When young writers equate success with reproducing aesthetic gestures they've seen elsewhere, I think they set an unnecessary ceiling on their own efforts. When I teach creative writing, the first thing I tell my students is that our goal is to begin together a conversation about an idiosyncratically developed poetics that ends, many years hence, with them writing poetry not a single other person in the world could or would write. To me, there's not too much point in writing poetry--a genre that brings with it all sorts of hidden and not-so-hidden psychosocial miseries--if all you're doing is trying to become the "next" so-and-so.

What scares you the most?

Not continuing to evolve as a poet. If I'm writing the same way and believing the same things I believe now in five years, I'll be gravely disappointed in myself. And I think readers should be as well.

Where do you buy your books?

Everywhere I can: used bookstores, large chain bookstores, online, at conferences, at university library sales. I buy so many books that I'll admit I've become catholic in my buying practices; I never feel like I'm using one method of procuring books to the exclusion of others, because I'm pretty fanatical about all of them. I'm also not adverse to free books, either, as I review contemporary poetry frequently and love receiving work in the mail that I might not have come across by other means.

Who are you reading now?

I'm reading Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, and Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon. Which means I basically have no time to read--or really even do--anything else. But when I read poetry lately it's been student work, and that never ceases to inspire me. I'm encouraging my students to take risks that they'd normally be uncomfortable with, and they're rising to the challenge and then some. My goal is to take a cue from them in my own writing--as well as from the metamodern qualities that are so superlatively performed by Wallace and (at times) Pynchon.

What's your favorite TV show at the moment? 

Any answer other than Game of Thrones would be a lie. But Sherlock (the Benedict Cumberbatch iteration) is a very close second. I also like (or liked) Mad Men, Justified, Breaking Bad, Louie, Wilfred, The Wire, Deadwood, Bored to Death, Portlandia, Community, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, The Office, Battlestar Galactica, Family Guy, Extras, Halt and Catch Fire, and, yes, Big Bang Theory (I admit it). I think the new show The Last Man on Earth shows some promise, but it's too soon to say.
Bonus Round

What do you want the world to know about you? Make it juicy.

Ever since I was a kid I've been an obsessive collector. I have no idea why, and I'm not particularly proud of this sort of materialist instinct. But collecting things just makes me happier than anything else in the world--it makes me feel like a kid again, and it's important to me never to lose touch with the way I saw the world when I was young (which was simultaneously in an oddly cynical and absurdly idealistic way). So I suppose I'd have to cop to having certain types of collections that really would startle the average person with their size and scope and (not for nothing) their absurd dorkiness: Legos, baseball caps, Dungeons & Dragons guidebooks (and I don't even play D&D), contemporary poetry collections, reissues of psychedelic LPs from the sixties, comic books, children's fiction (everything from dystopian YA novels to Dr. Seuss), game-used baseballs and hockey pucks, higher ed stat-sets, soccer scarves and full-size flags from nation's I've visited, framed prints of contemporary art I like, and many other things. I'm the sort of sorry idiot who even collected computer "icons" when he first came online in the mid-1990s. What's wrong with me? Like I said, I'm not proud of any of it, per se. But I do think it reminds me to be an active and energetic participant in the world, which I fear is something I'd forget otherwise. I wish I didn't need such tangible reminders, but for some reason I always have. The one "blurb" on the back cover of Metamericana that comes directly from me is the sentence "I dream of disappearing"--a line from my still-forthcoming poetry collection, DATA. I really think that summarizes my problem: without some studied connection to temporality and the objective world I think I'd allow myself to just drift away.