Jamie Townsend: Hi Ted, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I want to start off asking you about In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame‘s relationship to Oakland specifically, but also to other sites of rapidly increasing disparity. The book seems to house itself within many confluences of the “natural” and “human-made” worlds (the third landscape; “A grassy lot’s meaning changes according to it’s geographical situation”). I am thinking specifically about SF and Oakland’s homeless/houseless encampments and their complex, deeply fucked up relationship with America’s particular brand of predatory capitalism. I am also thinking about your history as a train-hopper (which maybe applies or doesn’t). You write: “Now a living is preyed upon, evidenced by unmoored shopping cart cages strewn about the perimeter, signifying mere minutiae in a history furthered by squander.” In what ways do you see IBFA exploring or excavating these spaces, both materially and psychically?
Ted Rees: Thanks, Jamie, for these observations. I do believe that the book often finds itself dwelling in “the third landscape” because its constitutive elements are the most generative for me, remaindered as they are. As many of my friends know, I’m really into backpacking and hiking and places that are isolated, having suffered little encroachment from human exploitation. But given the levels of encroachment, and thus the time and investment needed to revel in such wilder places, I often find myself spending time in what Gilles Clément calls the friches and the délaissé, those neglected and forgotten spaces that are unattended by humans, yet often display the ravages of past human interaction. Think railroad trestles, median strips, sidewalks in crumbling former industrial areas, marshlands, former landfills, and as companions, more distinctly ‘natural’ areas such as parks, forests, beaches. What draws me to these places is not just their relatively approachability from a logistical standpoint, but also the ways in which they allow for exploration, interpretation, a type of archaeology. That they so often point toward humankind’s excess and wastefulness is also part of the fascination, admittedly. I would that a lot of these locales didn’t exist at all, a sentiment that I think comes across in the book, but to deny their immense potential for forming a poetics would be absurd. I said to a friend of mine recently, “I care more about garbage and the discarded than I do about most things,” and I think that sort of gets at the formation of the poetry that makes up In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame.
In terms of Oakland and the Bay Area, what has happened is that class and racial inequity has become so vast and entrenched that those without homes have had to settle into areas that are part of this third landscape, using the resources that are there so as to survive. Folks are living in tents on tiny strips of land in between and under major highway on- and off-ramps. People are settling in shacks and what I call “industrial humpy” shelters along arteries of logistical importance to capital, but little importance to many housed residents. And yes, there are folks all over the Bay Area who are living in cars or trucks or converted buses or fucked old campers. Speaking from my years of experience living between Oakland and San Francisco in a converted fourteen-foot U-Haul box truck with my partner, all of these claims on the third landscape by unhoused people are happening— and happening with more frequency— because everyone is searching for stability. The right to that stability is being denied by capital and technological forces, and so people find themselves eking out a version of that stability in placing a tent or a shack or a fucked-up old bus in disused and neglected areas.
That you mention lines about shopping cart cages is perfect, since they are an exemplary signifier of a lot of what living in as well as exploring the third landscape is really about. The last years I lived in Oakland (with you for part of the time!), I became friends with a guy named Elmer, who is a dude who does the recycling hustle. I used to make sure that he would get our house’s plentiful recycling, but we also would hang out and drink beer together and shoot the shit. Toward the beginning of our friendship, and when I was writing those lines you mention, he explained to me that the recycling fulfillment centers had stopped allowing folks turning in recycling for cash to bring their wares in via shopping cart, since the shopping carts were stolen. But this led to a glut of empty shopping carts lining all of these streets near the recycling centers, since folks would push the cans and bottles as far as they could, and then walk the rest of the way.
So, we’re in this landscape of tons of empty metal shopping carts everywhere, and in the meantime, people are trying to figure out a way to get their hustle on since doing it without a shopping cart makes you have to walk farther and take more trips to and from the recycling center and the streets. Elmer found an amazing workaround— he used a twin baby pram. He could fit a few contractor bags worth of recycling in the pram’s seats, and kept snacks and beer in a homemade cooler in the pram’s storage area. Smart dude. Even so, he was sleeping on a tiny cot in a room that his friend let him stay in, because he couldn’t afford rents in the neighborhood where he’d grown up. He was on his game every day. But a lot of folks without the ability to hustle like him fell by the wayside when those shopping cart bans went into place, and thus, the shopping cart’s inevitable role in a “history furthered by squander,” a sort of recursive history in this case.
All of that is maybe a very long-winded way of saying that In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame psychically and materially excavates these spaces because these are the spaces into which capital has forced so many.
JT: Thanks for this background info, which, while not needed for a rich reading of In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, definitely adds a new layer of specifics to all of the complex, nuanced relationships at play. I love also that you bring up our relationship as roommates and friends as this book was being written, because much of the time I was reading I was struck with a sense of deja vu or synesthesia where words became a passed bottle of bourbon or the background thud of a queer house track. Reading’s time portal!
Thinking about the cities of your book in relation to other works immediately bring to mind Dhalgren, and Samuel R. Delany’s vision of a vaguely-situated, crumbling infrastructure. His “Bellona” functions as a model of the whole of urban America taken to its logical extreme: a city on fire, navigable only by those existing on the margins. The visual artist Cao Fei’s multimedia work “La Town” navigates a city assembled from the debris of other cities, her “wormhole” metropolis. Your “buildings shattered along the arterial orbit of semis”…“a frame of reference for the structure of this smoke, its frottage with our garments and exposed pores, a darling of the blank monolith set” resonate.
Walking through the spaces of IBFA I’m brought back to Syd Staiti’s remarkable book The Undying Present and its evocations the render environment as character. I’m also very much reminded of Will Alexander’s poetry, where language itself becomes environment both in its sound and vision. That being said, I’m interested in hearing more about the use of voice in your work, almost in a declarative or oracular sense; how it plays against or folds within place. Are sonic elements of the poem, its tonal modulations, linguistic leaps, and scattered rhythms, constructed consciously to function in concert with the book’s environments? What (and how) do we say or sing at the site of disaster?
TR: First, let me just say that I’m overwhelmed by my work being mentioned in the same context as Syd’s and Will’s and Chip’s. Thanks for that— it has formed a nice buoy for the past days thinking about your question.
The more declarative or oracular elements of the book, particularly in “Drains to Bay,” are the result of a semantic construct that I utilized as a way of pushing the writing forward. I’m not one to really give up my processes too readily, so let’s just say that I am fond of anaphora, but am equally fond of erasing repetitive elements from the text.
I like to think of parts of the book as a type of “documentary poetics,” a narrativizing of subjective experience and recognition of objective material conditions and histories. While vastly different from all the brilliant recent examples of documentary-oriented poetic work— Mercedes Eng’s Prison Industrial Complex Explodes comes to mind— one of the major concerns of In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame is the way in which people interact with these material conditions that surround them, which brings us back to the third landscape, in some ways. I guess that what separates the book from more explicit examples of documentary poetry is that there is little naming of these conditions and histories, and more a dwelling within them and describing them as a method towards understanding them. For example, the final poem of “Drains to Bay” and the first page of the book’s titular long poem appear next to each other, and are actually about the same stretch of city street— namely, 7th Street in West Oakland, where the BART emerges from the Transbay tube and comes to its first East Bay station stop. This area, more than the Fillmore District in San Francisco, was the Harlem of the west coast before the urban renewal efforts and racist disinvestment of the post-WWII years, and the material remains of that history are negligible— plaques commemorating the musical history of the area, the shuttered Esther’s Orbit Room, the original West Oakland branch library. The postal facility, the BART tracks, and the Cypress Street Viaduct (the latter now gone, thankfully) erased a great deal of the physical history of the area’s cultural import. One of my aims in the book is to interrogate this history of devastation and its reasoning, while also extending that interrogation into more recent gentrification and development efforts, thus connecting finance vampyrics over time.
The voices in the poems about Oakland, then, are very much attempting to be in concert with the environment, giving aural space to the interstices, the histories, and the present interpretations of the urban scape. There are a lot of rhythms and tones that are somewhat easier to suss out— hyphy music and older rhythm and blues tracks make a number of appearances— and some that are more obscure, but what connects them is that they are situated in a location that is roughly fifteen blocks by twenty-five blocks.
The other poems in the book are more geographically dispersed, but I think share something of the wailing of disaster, of “cataclysm’s open road and burnt rubber/ one long drift across the continent.” That this wailing never ceases no matter one’s location needs to be recognized and reckoned with, particularly by those who benefit from (and often cause) its reverberations across time and space.
I hope that sort of answers your question?
JT: Definitely, and thanks for the sneak peek into your process without completely giving up the goods.
So, I’m intrigued that you bring up documentary poetics as a mode of thinking that shapes sections of the book. While definitely not a treatise in poetic form, such as Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, I see In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame clearly inhabiting the space of Nowak’s assertion that “documentary poetics needs to participate not only in the social field of contemporary Poetry but—as has been its historical trajectory—in the larger social movements of the day.”
Additionally, I was recently rereading sections of Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic as a way of searching for a different type of documentary poetics that narrates subjective existence in relationship to material conditions and history. In that book she writes: “I have often had to seek in events / the significance of complicity”. There’s a responsibility for reader and writer in creative work that extends both inward as subjects and outward as social actors; how writing functions in relationship to stolen or occulted narratives. Your section of the book “Flailsome” opens with a quote by Robertson from her other early work XEcologue: “My grief is no accident. I am hovering / between plunder and awe”.
In the titular section of the book you wonder: “What the levelers will happen upon or till into new foundations”. I like that the word level, as in balance, something “on the level”, also invokes a flatness, a platform, perhaps only one side of a scale? Can you talk a little about futurity, theft, and rupture in relationship to subjective and social responsibility in IBFA? How might imagined futures better bring together subject and object in an understanding of complicity? How do we tear away or steal back? What tips the scale toward a new world?
TR: I like to think that the book posits that we have to steal the future back from those in power in order to even begin to tip the scales toward a new world, but of course, that statement doesn’t do much beyond propagandize a la Crimethinc. and other pamphleteers. This not to say such groups don’t have a necessary and powerful role in mobilization, particularly the radicalization of youth. They do, and they do a decent job of it, given the resources available.
But I also think the book attempts to wrangle with the idea that in order to take steps toward a new and better world, we need to comprehend the matrices of our relationships within it, which means that we must recognize our complicity in those systems of relation that cause harm to our fellow humans, non-human animals, and the planet we dwell upon. Part of the difficulty here is acceptance— hardly anyone wants to accept that they are complicit in environmental devastation or systems of white supremacy or patriarchal modes of power, particularly those who currently hold the most privilege.
Another difficulty is that acknowledging one’s complicity involves moving back and forth in time. Take a car in a major city. The car drives along an elevated highway that was built in the mid-20th century, the construction of which destroyed a predominantly black working-class neighborhood that never really recovered. The car leaks oil, which then can later be found shimmering in a rain-puddle in the neighborhood that the highway destroyed, where many of the mostly poor and black residents have high rates of respiratory illness due to the highway’s constant hum. The car that created the slick on that rain puddle is related to the oil that spewed from the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, which killed eleven people and poisoned vast swaths of the Gulf of Mexico, decimating wildlife and devastating mostly black and brown subsistence fishermen in the area. And all of that is related to the liquid that arrives from the ultraheated, decomposed bodies of prehistoric creatures under the earth’s crust. And hardly any person on this planet could survive without this substance. It is truly awe-inspiring, this network of relations, but also more than a bit depressing. How do we find our way out from this mess, which is only one mess in a plenitude of messes?
I hope the book enjoins readers to think about these sorts of vast and complicated systems as a way of moving towards a more liberated world, where reliance on structures of petrochemicals is lessened, where white supremacy is not codified and used to terrorize people of color in their daily lives, where people don’t have to struggle constantly in order to eat and breathe clean air— and where such systems of dominance and power are understood as interconnected and acting in concert against the best interests of humanity and the world. As much as I like to poke fun at the certain hippie aspects associated with the word ‘holistic,’ there is something to it in comprehending these many parts as existing under a larger whole that makes up Mammon and its oppression.
I also would like to express the reality that love has a lot to do with all of this. Without loving ourselves, without loving each other, there isn’t really a reason to think and ACT towards a better future, because who the hell cares? After a reading many years ago at which my parents were present, I asked my mom what she garnered from my work, which was an older version of the Wojnarowicz essay published in the book. She paused for a while, and said, “I think you’re saying that love is anti-civilization,” and while I picked my jaw off the snowy East Village sidewalk, I thought to myself, “That is what I’m trying to say.” And that love is anti-civilization isn’t a negative quality— it is love’s highest aim, really. But in order to create a world in which that sort of love can flourish, we need to work to destroy what prevents us from loving each other as partners, friends, neighbors, and strangers. Accomplices, in another word.
JT: This is such a beautiful, necessary vision for what writing can do; recognizing that in the struggle to disentangle ourselves from oppressive power—that even the most resistant of us participate in—there will never be a clean break. And in that recognition toward complicity, letting love, in an active sense, provide a path pointed away from these pervasive systems of death. Thank you for this.
Speaking of love, in regards to how a personal writing practice or project often flowers from the deep engagement with another(‘s) work, I’m wondering if you can talk a little about the late Peter Culley. I know that we’ve discussed his writing and your relationship with him in the past, as well as other Canadian writers who often fly under the radar of an American audience (as perhaps opposed to Lisa Robertson’s work, which is very visible in the US poetry community?) As the dedication of your book’s titular section, how does Peter’s work and person occupy IBFA? How about Lisa’s?
TR: I could go on about Pete for hours, as you know.
First of all, and speaking of openness and kindness, Pete didn’t know me from Adam when we first met outside of 21 Grand almost ten years ago. I commented on a poem he’d read about Detroit house music producer Theo Parrish, and Pete passed me a joint, and then we just started talking about Detroit techno, particularly its funkier and rawer side. He gave me a copy of Hammertown that evening, too, and we became better friends over social media and email, chatting every so often and sharing music and whatnot. Anyway, he could have been hobnobbing it with any number of poets at that reading, but he shared some time and work with me, and those acts were very meaningful, as I’d yet to “crack the code” of the Bay Area scene, and still considered myself somewhat of an outsider.
So, there’s that. But the most important aspect of Pete’s legacy and influence in my own writing is his work’s focus on a very specific, limited geographical area. My friend, the brilliant poet and scholar MC Hyland, brought forth the idea in conversation that the works of John Clare and Peter Culley are wildly similar: both focus on the quotidian observations of and ambulations around a working-class, semi-rural area that is being destroyed by enclosure— as Clare comments, “ruin was its guide,” or as Culley comments, “Thus brick by brick/ the pyramid of stupidity/ is erected.” And like Clare, Pete’s work is boisterous, fun, tender, and absolutely brilliant in its rhyme schemes and rhythms.
Writing about Culley, Lisa Robertson rightly heaps praise on his poetry’s “witnessing attention,” and I think that this phrase captures Culley’s influence on my work the most— the first two sections of In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame are based on daily walks and observations and historical research on West Oakland. A lot of what I do is based on this sort of ambulatory poetic research model that drove Pete’s work, too, a desire to be witness to what capital has wrought, what struggles against it or goes with its flow, how the subtle shades and contours of a place are instrumental in understanding it.
Finally, while I have become part of the University “undercommons,” so to speak, I also very much appreciate Pete’s idea of a Leisure Poetry, what he called at the 2005 Orono conference “a mocking but heartfelt attempt to carve out a space for a louche but informed Bohemianism in an increasingly effortful and professionalized literary community.” I would like to think Pete would say something like, “What the hell is wrong with smoking pot, reading, writing, and listening to jazz records all day before having a drink and watching something good on Turner Classic Movies? What’s with this job shit?” And of course, anyone telling the truth feels the same way— I certainly do. I want to read and write and walk in weird places with my dog, not professionalize my craft as a way of ingratiating myself to some institution that won’t ever really care about me or my work. Sure, we all have to make a buck to eat and live, unfortunately, but I’m deeply suspicious of those who think that professionalization and institutions have anything to do with poetry— they don’t.
What’s funny, then, is that I met Lisa when she was leading workshops in my MFA program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco in the late aughts. I’ve written about how those workshops altered my life and my perception of what poetry and language can work on in the world, but related to the point about Culley above, I also sought advice and friendship from Lisa. One time at Gloria Frym’s house, at Lisa’s last reading in the Bay Area before leaving for good, she told me something like, “Don’t play into the academic game. You don’t need a Ph.D. It’s all bullshit. Find something that pays enough that gives you the time to write.” And while I’ve fiddled with the idea of continuing in academia for years, I think she was right, especially about time. The book could not have been written if I hadn’t found a well-paying, very part-time gig that allowed me a lot of time off while still living somewhat comfortably, in the louche and bohemian sense of the word ‘comfortably.’ And I am ever in her debt for her passing down that wisdom to 25 year-old me…
As regards her work’s influence on my own, I’m pretty sure you don’t want another novelistic response, but let’s just say that the surfaces of language that scrape and rub against each other, the constant surprise in every line, the oracular mixed with the uncompromisingly flitty— her work is revelatory, always, even when it exists within a self-contained system that she’s created, as in Cinema of the Present. I always strive to write toward my own endings, but if I could name a few poets who create work of a quality that I strive toward, Lisa Robertson would be at the top of the list, along with Scalapino, Kevin Davies, Will Alexander, and a few others.
JT: Your constellation of influences presents a range of work that resists easy definition and foregrounds a sense of difficulty (in legibility and content, compared to much classically narrative or discursive writing). Resistance to normative stories in a political machinery so hell-bent on enforcing a sense of what is “normal” (ie straight white rich apolitical cis-male) seems a reinforcement of what you discussed in your previous response: “love is anti-civilization”.
I know that we’ve, in person, spent a lot of time discussing your engagement with the visual art and writing of David Wojanrowicz, and I’m so happy to see that your stunning chapbook Outlaws Drift in Every Vehicle of Thought, originally released by the much missed Trafficker Press, is republished, in part, as the addendum to IBFA. In this final section, titled “Seventeen Rounds,” your writing merges and bubbles off from his writing and visuals (lovingly reproduced and scattered throughout). I’m wondering if, as perhaps a way to close this interview, we could discuss Wojnarowicz as a model par excellence for someone who writes about queer resistance. It’s a history that certainly doesn’t begin with him. However, he represents a very specific turning point in the way that queer art and activism, during the first decade of the AIDS epidemic in the US, increasingly began to push back, in a very public way, against dominant systems of control. I often return to those sections of his “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon This Will All Be Picturesque Ruins” where Wojnarowicz dreams, in moments of sexual release or speeding in his car, that gravity falls away, losses sovereignty over his body. This perfect rejection of external Law has become a seed planted in me that very much shapes the way I read all politically charged texts, and consequently your book!
Wojnarowicz’s work, in this regard, seems as though it could be a cypher or frame through which to view In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame as a whole, but I feel that isn’t completely the case. It seems too neat a conclusion, which would counter the very complex, messy and emotionally intelligent work both you and he are doing in your respective projects. In that case, did Outlaws… and Wojnarowicz’s legacy, later become a place of resolution for the book as it developed, something that was maybe a conceptual forerunner to areas the book situates itself within? For a book that moves in and out of forms, modes, voices, blasted cityscapes, and third environments in a strongly discursive mode, is this addendum where things begin to coalesce into a statement of purpose: a “fuck you”, rallying cry, or perhaps as the term “addendum” itself suggests, a gathering together of what was previously omitted?
TR: Your reading of those moments contained in “Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins” as a rejection of external law is interesting, as I always read them as an embrace of rupture, of what Catherine Clément calls ‘syncope,’ an absence followed by a new departure. The ‘petits morts’ as a method of resistance, in a way. While I am loathe to quote him otherwise, this is also the reason for the Burroughs quote in “Seventeen Rounds,” which I find so rich in its suggestive powers of revolt: “I have a thousand faces and a thousand names. I am nobody I am everybody. I am me I am you. I am here there forward back in out. I stay everywhere I stay nowhere. I stay present I stay absent.” What Wojnarowicz and Burroughs are getting at, I think, is that the moment of syncope takes one outside of surveillance or reasonable legibility, and thus when such genuine moments occur, they can be construed as hostility towards a world that would render everything legible, whether through laws or the truncheon or both.
As far as the function of including “Seventeen Rounds” in the book, I think that for me, it works as both the conceptual forerunner as well as the gathering together, as you so nicely put it. That the Wojnarowicz retrospective is going up at the Whitney in less than a month also had something to do with its inclusion, admittedly.
I wrote the essay when I didn’t have a place to live, and was often sleeping at the anarchist collective space where my now-partner resided at the time. Two months after the essay was written, I was on a slow junk train tour of the west coast. The essay felt like the beginning of something when I wrote it, and it was— there was deep determination and conviction that my hostility toward the world, our hostility toward the world, could somehow alter the world. I don’t necessarily believe that isn’t true, really, but I think what happened over the years following the essay’s delivery and publication is that I became convinced that such a positionality vis-a-vis the world could really aid in the formation of communities of care and mutual aid, of a dissident impulse that thrives in us queers, radicals, punks, and weirdos. We’re part of the world, but we’re also part of the world we imagine and want for everyone, including ourselves.
In a sense, the essay helped lay track for the remainder of the poems in the book, and I wanted to include it because I feel as though it gives some sense of context for the complications that the book has on offer— that is, it allows the reader into a more hospitable space where what guides the book’s former sections is clarified, though not explicitly.
Finally, I want to continue to honor Wojnarowicz’s legacy in some small way, and I would like to think that In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame tries to push back against the “pre-invented existence within a tribal nation of zombies” that he so eloquently dissects and rejects throughout his oeuvre. If anyone reads my work as existing within the tradition in which Wojnarowicz looms large, then I could say it is successful.
JT: With work this rich I feel like we could go on forever, but perhaps this is a good place to end. Thank for your time, Ted, and your work. It’s been such a pleasure engaging with it, and you as well.
TR: It is always a pleasure and privilege to commune with you, Jamie! Thank you.
Jamie Townsend is a gender-queer poet, publisher, and editor living in Oakland, California. They are half-responsible for Elderly, a publishing experiment and persistent hub of ebullience and disgust. Their first the full-length collection, Shade (Elis Press), was released in 2015. An essay on the history of the New Narrative magazine Soup was published in The Bigness of Things: New Narrative and Visual Culture (Wolfman Books, 2017) They are currently editing a forthcoming volume of Steve Abbott’s writings (Nightboat, 2019).
Ted Rees is a queer poet, essayist, and educator who spent 2008-2017 living in the cities and map blips of central and northern California, but now resides in Philadelphia, where he adjuncts in English Composition and American Studies at Temple University.