Kenneth Goldsmith’s writing has been called “some of the most exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry.” Goldsmith is the author of eleven books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb, and the editor of I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, which was the basis for an opera, Trans-Warhol, that premiered in Geneva in 2007. An hour-long documentary on his work, Sucking on Words, was first shown at the British Library that same year. In 2011, he was invited to read at President Obama’s “A Celebration of American Poetry” at the White House, where he also held a poetry workshop with First Lady Michelle Obama. Earlier this year, he began his tenure as the first-ever Poet Laureate of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I recently sat down with Goldsmith to discuss his new book, Seven American Deaths and Disasters.
Since your practice emphasizes the value of the selection process over the creation process, how do you choose what to include and exclude from Seven American Deaths and Disasters?
I began with the assassination of JFK, which is arguably the beginning of media spectacle, as defined and framed by Warhol. His portrait of Jackie mourning iconizes that moment forever. Although he made Marilyn’ss, he never memorialized her death, thus it never entered into the realm of media spectacle in the same way. From JFK, I naturally proceeded to RFK, an eyewitness account of his shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It’s an incredible linguistic document—you really feel the newsman’s struggle to find words to describe what is unfolding before his eyes. John Lennon is taken from a cassette tape made by someone scanning the radio the night of and days following his assassination, which feels like an audio document from a lost time. Space Shuttle Challenger is from a TV broadcast of the event and its long, weird, silent aftermath. Columbine is straight transcript of a harrowing 911 call. The World Trade Center, the longest piece in the book, is from several sources—talk radio, news radio, color commentary—stitched together into a multichapter epic, thus mirroring the gargantuan scale of the event. And Michael Jackson is from a catty FM station, where the shock jocks have no problem cracking jokes and making racist comments at his expense.
I wish there were air checks available from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but in those cases, the media doesn’t show up until well after the assassination and the reporting is pretty slick stuff, lacking the struggle to find words to express the horrors that they were witnessing. I do have a great transcript from the shooting of Ronald Reagan, but it’s mostly Secret Service men talking to each other in numerical code, which just didn’t fit in well with the other, more transparently textual pieces.
Sadly, new material keeps on coming. I heard the language of the Newtown shootings in a very different way after having written this book.
This book feels both like an important historical document and a beautiful example of what the Great American Novel might look like today. Yet you identify it, and much of your other work, as poetry. I’m curious why that particular genre is so important to you?
I suppose that the work has become more novelistic as time’s gone on, but when I started down this path some twenty years ago, it was only the poets and the poetry world that could accept what I did. So I hung out with them. You take your love where you get it. But you’re right, I’ve never really written a poem—I don’t think I’d know how to. Yet there’s some sort of openness in the poetry world concerning writing that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. Some of the Language poets, in particular, sort of blew apart notions of prescriptive lineation in favor of margin-to-margin madness. I’m thinking of works like Ron Silliman’s Tjanting.
As with many of your projects, I notice that time, duration, and history seem rather significant to this book, especially in terms of the tension created between our personal and cultural experiences of chronology. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how Seven American Deaths and Disasters intersects these issues.
These are all tragedies I lived through, so each one is tied to very specific memories and periods in my life. You could say that we are defined by these tragedies—and more so by the spectacle emanating from them. But it’s curious to see who is moved differently when I do readings of this work. For younger people, the Kennedys are cold, distant historical figures while Michael Jackson grabs all the heat. And vice versa for the older people, who tend to write Jackson off as a joke. As a result, the book—although based on objective public events—is read and strained through one’s unique subjectivity.
Following Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s claim in Notes on Conceptualisms that “failure is the goal of conceptual writing,” in what ways do you see Seven American Deaths and Disasters succeeding in failure?
I’m not sure I agree with this statement. I prefer the definition made by Peli Grietzerhere, when he claimed that conceptual writing can be evaluated by an “aesthetic of sufficiency.” In order to succeed, a book must simply fulfill its requirements—no more, no less. If I set out to, say, retype a day’s issue of The New York Times, and I actually do just that, then the book is a success. But if I begin to get “creative” with the text, and I overdo it, the book fails. Likewise, if I skimp on the task—omitting certain portions of the text—the book also fails. But if I accomplish what I set out to do, the book is a success.
Regarding your aversion to “getting creative with the text,” could you clarify what you mean in terms of your perspective on the boundary between “creative” and “uncreative” writing?
Creativity is about the most worn-out, abused concept that used to mean something remarkable, something that differentiated someone, something that made them special. It’s a term that’s been usurped by the creative class, by people like Richard Florida, and reduced to a base concept that has come to stand for the opposite of creativity: mediocre, middle-of-the-road, acceptable, unadventurous, and so forth—so that creativity is no longer creative. What was once creative is now uncreative.
Calling a practice uncreative is to reenergize it, opening creativity up to a whole slew of strategies that are in no way acceptable to creativity as it’s now known. These strategies include theft, plagiarism, mechanical processes, repetition. By employing these methods, uncreativity can actually breathe life into the moribund notion of creativity as we know it.
Of course modernisms used these strategies, and they were proven fairly resistant to co-optation by mainstream culture. So you’re starting to see a lot of these inverted terms emerge in order to describe various attempts to reenvision cultural production—like Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius and Against Expression, the title of the anthology of conceptual writing that I edited with Craig Dworkin.
I’ve noticed that you often cite Brion Gysin’s quip about writing being fifty years behind painting. If it’s safe to say writing is now in its conceptualist stage, what can we expect next in terms of postconceptualist poetic practices?
You can map this out if you look at the historical precedents of the art world. Following the period of high, pure Conceptualism and Minimalism—Judd, LeWitt, et cetera—you get counterreactions that at once reify and violate the first generation’s precepts. The LeWitt-ian grid, for instance, gets wrapped in cloth, creating a soft grid. Later, people start to hang objects off that soft grid, bringing in notions of narrative and subjectivity. After a while, it gets so covered that you lose the grid entirely, thus clearing the way for other types of discourses.
If we extend this into a post-Conceptual narrative for writing—and I’m not sure it’s such a one-to-one correspondence—we see younger writers melding rigorous strategies with kitschy and ironic texts in works such as Andy Sterling’s Supergroup, which is 426 pages of nothing but listings of sidemen and engineers from forgotten LPs. Another example would be Steven Zultanski’s Agony, in which he performs insanely complicated mathematical equations and applies them to absurd propositions like how many average-size breasts stacked on top of one another it would take to get to the height of the Burj Khalifa. For years, Kim Rosenfield has been constructing quirky, hard-to-categorize texts from appropriated material. She puts it together in ways that are not explicitly process-based, leaving a lot to whim and taste. I think these are all ways the discourse is moving forward. If you want to get a glimpse into the future of this discourse, have a look at the sites of the young online publishers of this sort of work, Gauss PDF and the Troll Thread Collective, which are full of next-generation works.
And for you, any idea what’s next or where your work is headed?
For the past eight years, I have been working on Capital, a rewriting of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project set in New York City in the twentieth century. As of today, the book is about seven hundred pages, nearly three-quarters of the way to the thousand-plus pages that constitutes Benjamin’s book. The idea is to use Benjamin’s identical methodology in order to write a poetic history of New York City in the twentieth century, just as Benjamin did with Paris in the nineteenth. Thus, I have taken each of his original convolutes, and, reading through the entire corpus of literature written about New York in the twentieth century, I have taken notes and selected what I consider to be the most relevant and interesting parts, sorting them into sheaves identical to Benjamin’s. It’s an impossible project, and if it ever is published—I have my doubts that, due to size and copyright issues, it’s publishable at all—I’ll be sixty-five before I see it in print.