The Colorado Poet, #27, Summer 2014

Interview: Matthew Cooperman

Imago for the Fallen World

(Jaded Ibis Press, 2013)

John Gallaher, co-editor of The Laurel Review, conducted this interview with Matthew Cooperman and has allowed it to be reprinted here. It’s taken from Gallaher’s blog “Nothing to Say and Saying It: Searching for a Heartbeat in Poetry and Music”.

Laurel Review: Visually, and as a collaboration, Imago for the Fallen World is really an unusual book. How did it get started?

Matthew Cooperman: The how’s really a where; the book got started in a museum, which is not unusual for me. I find museums intensely generative––the space of museums, the public presentation of art, the art of watching museum goers, the codes of viewing, curating, framing, etc, and the syntax itself of visual art, a bodily immediacy I crave. I was at SF MOMA, somewhere in the late 90s. Per a certain routine, I was wandering about taking notes, visiting some familiar pieces. I stumbled onto a regional California photography exhibit, the history of WPA Projects in California. Something about the way the show documented the scene intrigued me. Curatorially speaking, there was a parallel “text” alongside the photographs that gave lots of information about the ostensible subjects—amount of concrete poured for a given damn, amount of money the project cost, the number of people killed in the construction, the cost, say 1935, of a gallon of milk, that kind of thing. The juxtaposition of information to image, how one 'still' indexed the other in a kind of capture was intense. That got me going. And not only the juxtaposition but the manner in which the textual data seemed to be in dialogue with the images such that a category, a voice, a persona—the persona, oddly of the curator—was navigating the art. Subjects interrogating a photographic 'stills,' or a curator leading one through a hallway of experiences.

So I started writing these poems, which were very much driven by outrage, political outrage at the stolen election that got George Bush Jr into office, 9/11, the Patriot Act, the first war in Iraq, all that, and environmental outrage at the denial of global warming, our thirst for oil, and just our culture of violence and retribution that seemed bloodthirsty.

I felt frustrated as a writer because my inherently lyric voice seemed pitiful next to these problems.

I felt frustrated as a writer because my inherently lyric voice seemed pitiful next to these problems, so a kind of poetic outrage as well. It seemed to me that there wasn't any place for these large "subjects" in poetry, or that aboutness itself was taboo. So I wrote these poems, "Still: Environment," "Still: Shooting," and so on to attempt to document something of the times. Eventually these gathered into a monster I called Still: Writing, which spawned a series of books and chapbooks (Still: (to be) Perpetual, dove/tail poetry, 2007; Still: of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move, Counterpath, 2011); and finally Imago for the Fallen World, which came out with Jaded Ibis in 2013.

LR: Was Imago always a collaboration? How did Marius Lehene get involved?
MC: Imago really evolved into a special node of this larger writing project. It’s a collaborative book, to be sure, but also a visual-text book in the sense that I'm obsessed with visual art, and I was always writing into topical images. If I had the chops I’d be a painter. But alas, no mad skills. As luck would have it, though, I happened to meet Marius, an extraordinary painter-assemblagist, by the happy accident of academia. He’s a prof in CSU’s Art Department. I had always felt like these poems were seeking a visual analogue, and my friendship with Marius lead rather naturally into collaboration. We like a lot of the same artists, filmmakers, etc--Dada, Kurt Schwitters, Matthew Barney, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, Lars van Trier--so we started hanging out. This evolved into a collaborative arts group that we co-founded at CSU, Accidental Vestments, mostly formed of our mutual MFA students in creative writing and visual arts. It was pretty lively for about five years.

I think our first foray into publically presenting the work in Imago was for the "Giving Attention" Conference, held at Denver University in, I think, 2005. I asked Marius to visually score some of the poems I'd written, which we then presented at a wonderful reading alongside Eleni Sikelianos and Joseph Lease. Marius understood from the very beginning how the colon functions in these poems––how it structures and frames information, syntactically marks something as a list, or alternatively, as a kind of dramaturgical cue for speech and character. And he got the play, the satiric investigation of "information" that both exposed and undermined the "subjects" of the poems His brush or his splice was remarkably parallel my line. The book's essentially collage, a collage aesthetic, and we both found that a productive way to work.

 LR: Did Marius simply respond to the poems? Or was the collaboration more dynamic?

 MC: It started out with Marius reading these poems, then creating slides that corresponded in some way. He got the colon, for sure, but also the kind of Google mining that these "subjects" implied. So he followed that lead, sought out the public domain, the actual visual minefield of daily life. That was really inspiring, how much he got the documentarian mode. His approach to these subjects had the effect of reopening, or enlarging them for me. So it became much more back and forth as things went on, new poems arising out of his visual field, and my sense that there might be more textures of visuality to the (already) written words. All this conversation had the effect of foregrounding the visual dominances of current media imagination, shifting the mode of the poems toward visuality itself. Looking at it now, I see how much more ekphrastic these "Stills" are than the other parts of the triptych, how they've become a kind of museum. Or maybe mausoleum is more accurate.

LR: The book is excessively quotative. It’s rather maddening. What’s with that? Are you okay? 

Cultural Schizophrenia, substances, a need for Zaum….The book’s like a garbage heap, or an archive, with all the voices piled together.

MC: Cultural Schizophrenia, substances, a need for Zaum. It’s really the build up of a specific time, a chronicle of a decade, the dark occasion of the millennial turn. It’s both what people have to say, are saying about a given “thing,” and a way of representing the breadth of any act of representation. Talk poetry all the time. The book’s like a garbage heap, or an archive, with all the voices piled together. The way things ‘go viral’ in our time means the sources of statements—or the veracity of ‘facts’—are always moving at light speed. Benjamin’s entourage has its own reality show, or, to quote from Balzac, who himself is quoted early in The Arcades Project (one of the inspirations for the book), “The great poem of display chants its stanzas of color from the Church of the Madeleine to the Porte Saint-Denis.” I love the spatiality of all this, literally hi/low. And I hope Imago captures some of that journey from the sacred to the profane.

 LR: The design of the book is really interesting, too. Can you tell me about working with Jaded Ibis, how you came to reside there?

MC: I'd been shopping the book around a bit, had sent it to Sidebrow, Siglio Editions, Ugly Duckling Presse, and got some good feedback, but no takers. I knew it would require a really special press, and there aren't too many of those visual/text houses, so I was getting a little nervous. But as luck would have it, I was at AWP, in Washington DC, and I ran into an old friend, Doug Powell, who was sitting with the poet Sam Witt. I knew Sam slightly, really liked his work, and in fact had interviewed him for a job he'd applied for at CSU. We got to talking, and he described this new press he was the Poetry Editor for, Jaded Ibis. From what he described, it sounded perfect, so I sent it there. And indeed it has been perfect.

Ultimately that meant working with the Editor and Publisher, Debra DiBlasi. She's really visionary, not only a cutting edge aesthetic, but a master of new media technology, the platforms by which any kind of work might be delivered. Jaded Ibis books all work from multiple iterations––e books, black and white editions, four-color fine art editions, and an object d'art subscription series produced out of the books. Regardless of whether they are collaborative to begin with, each title includes visual art by a notable artist or artists, and an audio track or tracks of music, spoken world, or sound art. Fine arts editions incorporate a variety of materials that conceptually reflect the content of the book. I can only tell you where I'm at, which is mid-stream; the black and white and fine art editions have now been published, but we're working on the music and further art iterations. It's really amazing, like no other press I know.  

What I like, too, is the way in which working with Debra and Sam has itself been collaborative. Once they got the original manuscript, the conversation changed the book. I had some vague idea how I wanted it to look, or at least how pages needed to juxtapose, but Debra really shaped that into something I could not have anticipated. For instance, I love the weird, high key acid green in the color edition, and the way that color functions as a bleed on each of the pages. It really pops, and underscores the satiric play of the writing.

LR: Could you talk about the form, or better said, the forms of the book?
 MC: Whatever merits the book has, they are, to my mind, ultimately formal. I figure content will take care of itself, either you're interested or you're not. But something instructional happened in the accommodational need of the writing. As statistics, people, places, events, quotes, historical contexts, etc, entered the poems, the challenge was always to represent them. A visual crisis. .

Mimesis doesn’t cut it in such a fast-moving world. Hence collage. And so what is the particular tone of a subject. Or how does a list distill, distend.

Mimesis doesn’t cut it in such a fast-moving world. Hence collage. And so what is the particular tone of a subject. Or how does a list distill, distend. Or who is speaking all this information. The syntax of all that capture became an impulse to scan, to incorporate. A paradox of moving stills. This also came out of my reading of Husserl, whose insight into earth, into ground—that it is the foundational principle of all our senses of space––is really quite profound. He says "the original ark of the earth does not move." It is, as object, as body, prior to any conception of space. I used that phrase as the title of the Counterpath book, and it's continued to haunt me. The dominant form of Imago are these "Still" poems, which have long strings of information, examples, mashups, quotes, speakers, etc. That put pressure on the index, and the equational balance that the colon offers as punctuation. It’s a list, but it’s apposition, metonymy. Epic catalogue becomes daily catalogs, inboxes and mailboxes…stuff. It’s hard to breathe, but there’s something democratic in that, too. I’ve always loved Ammons’ Garbage. It’s totally American, garrulous, spatial, concerned with its body. In my case that impulse has pushed away from the lyric to prose, which accounts for the line—mine—if you want to call it that. The book’s line spills right up to the bean counter. 

But then there’s the relief, the need for one. As things went on I began imagining the earth itself as a character, something hidden in plain sight. That really intrigued me. We all assume earth, its manner and appearance, but very few of us have ever seen it, that planetary figure from space. Is it solid ground or is it spinning? No first person, who's to say? That paradox stunned me, a kind of intense loneliness to this assumed being. So I started writing the earth letters. Those are the "_______ Planet" pieces, which are both direct in their prose address, and elegiac in tone. Hopefully that works as an apt counterpoint to the poems.