Paul Ebenkamp’s first book, The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (from Timeless, Infinite Light), is a buoyantly jagged mix of lavish verse and full-color, noised-out, handwritten visual poems.
Paul Ebenkamp’s media-saturated work—like complicated profanity or a really gorgeous curse, wherein immanence seems like a self deprecating joke and rhetoric is raised to tactile bas relief—emerged as The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen in 2015. Dense, sensorial writing is interjected with bashful, comic, and hubristic text pieces. Paul and I have talked often in living rooms and kitchens about other media which influence our poetry long before Timeless, Infinite Light asked me to ask him about his work. “Some of my favorite noise artists report that that they’re not directly inspired by noise music itself; rather, it’s like a means of exploring what they are inspired by. Similarly, I’m mostly inspired by things other than poetry and, like noise, I think of poetry-writing as a conveyance,” he tells me here. When he puts together the phrase “a body nodding godlessly off” in TLTRTDTS, a honed aural sense shapes the vowels and consonants with Joycean logic. Paul’s poetry contains a wild, horizontal sense. Last year he participated on a panel on “form” with Suzanne Stein, Alex Cruse, and myself. That day, he proposed that the opposite of “formlessness,” a term we had been discussing, is not “form,” but “formness.” Paul’s writing is constantly approaching but never quite making new forms; in the plastic and mobile realms of what Timotheus Vermeulen has called “depthiness,” he plays with that possibility, and that impossibility.
Anne Lesley Selcer: What do you use poetry (writing) for?
Paul Ebenkamp: To put my body and mind into conditions conducive to surprise.
Anne Lesley Selcer: Upon reading “Tapes (After Robert Earl Davis Jr.),” I was thinking about synesthesia. Which comes first for you, the image or the language?
Having drove a nail
d through the dial tone, hon
—Sun gone candied in those
d glass-shaped handclaps
Paul Ebenkamp: Nothing, strictly speaking, is materially precedent to the writing except other writing. Once a resonant image (but actually, what is an image?) is discovered by writing, it spurs and guides more writing. They’re of dependent causation. I want to stay level-headed about where writing comes from, and to minimize fantasies about imagery, inspiration, and imagination. I set up the syntax scaffolding and let it populate, in many iterations, letting it stiffen and wane and all that. Any nature does its work.
Synaesthesia is big in TLTRTDTS, because I was interested in extreme/liminal states wherein the senses turn into each other.
ALS: Can you talk about this?
PE: It’s a list of space, an absurdist Borgesian taxonomy of generalities.
The assonance in the first three words relative to the spaces that they connote is an excellent language happenstance.
Its fourth term “ETC” is, why not, the non-Euclidean geometric zone where lines of latitude on a sphere’s surface form angles of intersection at the poles even though the lines themselves are technically parallel.
The alluring glow of this piece was produced by scanning the page without putting the scanner top down, so that some light slipped in between paper and glass.
ALS: The first lineated poem in the book is “Hell is Now Love,” which is lengthy and intense. Where are we here?
“an odor, a chime”
of rivers of wires
and sun a hole sunk
in the 3D scenery’s
PE: The quoted line is John Berryman’s, from one of the very best Dream Songs. We’re at the work’s starting out, on its first pages, and there’s a sense of trying to discern the surroundings and get a grip on where we are: namely, the traumatic-naturalistic realm of Blake’s Jerusalem, Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Ronald Johnson’s ARK.
ALS: In “Hell Is Now Love,” why/how did you arrive at these hash marks for stanza breaks?
the big dream
flinching it its
up and down and
up the drain \\\\\\\\\
////////////// but no one
knows what happens
when a song ends
PE: I was on the warpath against stanzas but couldn’t write this poem right without some kind of interstice, so I came up with these shimmering areas somewhere between humming cosmic anterior and jammed broadcast signal.
They aren’t stanza breaks; they are burgeoning connective tissue and future music. I didn’t want stanzas because this poem, I felt, was not going to be rooms in a house, though it does remind me of the lyric by Dominick Fernow: “big things grow much bigger / and need bigger things inside them.”
ALS: How did you make this (also from “Hell is Now Love”)?
trim blocks of
no future ago
where the doom
metal riff ends
in circular sundown
PE: First, I overwrote. These first two lines were boiled down from six lines, the sum of which wasn’t adequate. I decided to revise them not by cutting things from them but, less deterministically, by reducing the number of them from six to four somehow, then four to three, etc., and by so reducing, thickening them, like a coulis. I wasn’t adding or subtracting, exactly. I know I was thinking of Dan Farrell’s Last Instance.
The last three lines were summoned by Thergothon’s Stream From the Heavens (or was it Beherit’s Drawing Down the Moon?). I tried to find an image to express what I love about the kind of music commonly called doom metal, and in this case came up with “circular sundown.” Today I’m transported by these lines to Corrupted’s Paso Inferior, and then to Earth’s “Like Gold and Faceted” from Earth 2. You just met my next mixtape.
ALS: The movement in your writing releases me kinetically. What is your writing’s relationship to release? Can you speak about some technologies of release? What is your language’s relationship to entropy? What writing releases you or releases your writing? What art?
PE: “Style is an effect of pressure,” wrote the painter Jack Tworkov. “I wake up with the supreme fiction all over me,” wrote Wallace Stevens in a letter. A nun once told me “Spirituality’s just whatever we do with our unrest.”
For years I wrote poems with privation in mind, sort of a semi-advanced post-existentialist thing, Beckett-obsessed but bloodless. A particular boulder got thrown into that pond, at a particular point in time, and since then I haven’t given a shit, written whatever I’ve wanted, and in so doing have begun over time to feel a kind of release not previously imagined.
In my life, sound experience is a source of release. Airline, wind chime, bird yawp, truck backing up, rain falling on wet paint.
And then there’s recorded music, an obsession since toddlerhood. A short list: Faust, This Heat, The Dead C, Campbell Kneale, Basic Channel, Eliane Radigue, Swans (circa Young God), Thou, Corrupted, Beherit, Enslaved, Iannis Xenakis, Catherine Christer Hennix, Joe Colley, Viodre, Matana Roberts, Prurient, FM3.
Non-sonic arts: Cy Twombly (esp. “Goethe in Paris”), Joseph Beuys, Francis Picabia, Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell, Ryan Trecartin, Seth Price.
As for entropy, that touchy subject. I’ve noticed that the tension of not-understanding can induce another kind of understanding in a learning process analogous to the interactions between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Someone once told me that one of my readings gave them the impression of knowing more than they actually did about the work, in terms of the stories it was telling, like they knew more actual backstory than there even was, and maybe that experience is kind of like being inside a shadow that demonstrates the depth of one’s surroundings in ways that full “illumination” could not.
I am interested in the identity of tension and release. I acknowledge the empirical fact of there being four known forces (the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity). But I suspect entropy is a myth; I suspect energy, too, is a myth. It seems important to start from clear analysis and then move into blinding intensity and disorientation. As “Four Colors For the Based God” has it: “I AM FOR MORE’S VIOLET FRINGE.”
On the wall behind me hangs a sheet of white paper with heavy lipstick-red oil crayon lettering on it spelling the words RUIN STYLE.
ALS: Lisa Robertson speaks of writing as a time-based medium (in a recent Tripwire interview). What is the relationship of your poems to time?
PE: Oh, time is what I think about the most!
To hazard a general statement: poetic speech feels intimate with time in that the lag between experience of speech and experience of meaning is an inflection of the lag between experience of presence and experience of time.
Part of my intention with the grammar of that sentence is to convey a sense that the experience of <<moving between hearing and “experience of meaning” (which I use because “understanding” is not a state of being I have ever experienced)>> is a kind of subposition of the essential foward-goingness of “time.”
Time is a plan, but life is a pulse (often seemingly arrayed such that its regularity can’t be measured). Time’s a sign of the dream getting done.
ALS: Can you talk about your very short lines?
PE: I see them as a tool for moving rapidly between expansion and contraction.
Emily Dickinson is my model on short lines. TLTRTDTS is, spiritually, a dilation of her poem “From Blank to Blank.”
Short lines, properly torqued, interlock and dissolve. With them I’m seeking a density of Einsteinian affect, slowing down under its own speed, the black metal drummer doing 64th-note licks with ease. And then TLTRTDTS’s poem-drawings are the polar opposite: intensely labored, lumbering ordeals that “do not follow.”
ALS: All the space around the words suggests an interest in defamilarization. I wonder if you can speak to your relationship to the historical avant garde? And also if you have a critique?
PE: Yes. TLTRTDTS is inspired by dada, punk, situationist, and industrial/noise music cultures, all of which take pieces of mundane daily life and throttle them to a point of noble gnomic uselessness. I admire and respect Throbbing Gristle’s early slogan “We Guarantee Disappointment.”
Also involving defamiliarization—my critique of defamiliarization, maybe—is an intentionally passé sub-Dadaist project called Proclub which mutates language of cynical consumerist passivity into odd and distressing sutras of jazzy paralysis. (I know what you’re thinking: this is precisely what cynical consumerist passivity is and does already. I just had the same thought.)
I’m a bit of an antinomian towards the presumptive reality of what is called “information.” What is Proclub? I don’t know. Proclub is your resistance to it.
ALS: How was this composed?
I’m calling to request a hex on whatever it was hid the myriads!
O pluck me from this haze of spellcheck!
PE: The poem is called “Long Time Listener, First Time Caller.” It explores what is called “calling,” the difference between calling and telling, and the difference between what one calls oneself and what one tells oneself. And calling is greater than telling. I’ve been thinking for years about Peter Klappert’s poem “The Invention of the Telephone.”
These lines describe my sense of trouble about poetry (metonymic for life itself) in which I’m trying to accept what it can do, trying to show up and hang instead of glaring two inches above the general line of sight, trying to set aside my aversions to everything because the costs of sticking with them are obviously unbearable, I mean you get to a point where you just pick up the phone and call the fucking AM talk radio show or whatever and say “Please, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
ALS: What space of address is imagined in your poem writing? Inside this space, who is your antagonist? Who is your lover? What is your protector? Who/what is the authority?
PE: In “The Animist”, near the end, there’s an address to an audience beginning with a translation from Lakota: “Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ” meaning “all my relations.”
I don’t know what to do in life. I know I’m not alone in this, and I know I’m not the only one who has found that cultivating an openness, however flawed or apparently impossible, to all of existence is the only viable way through the terror and stupidity of what is called individuality and all the maintenance it requires, “as the brevity of life loomed madly in the corridor of days”…
The antagonist is the voice that thinks it knows everything it’s saying.
The lover is, at present, not known.
The protector is love and friendliness towards alterity. And planet Jupiter. Its gravitational pull saves Earth from destruction by asteroid more or less centennially.
The authority in these poems is me, I am the selector, of course this is delusional, but no one has the luxury (to say nothing of the right) of declaring how it is for anyone or anything else.
ALS: We’ve talked a bit about how music has influenced our work—Could you take me through your composition process?
PE: Writing is a refuge without walls; bound and empty, I am never happier than when I’m writing. I want that feeling to be what my work says so that other people can perhaps feel what they feel if/when they feel how I feel. I write and draw and make my own music because that is how I can feel integral and well. Writing comes in fits and starts or not, however’s needed; but it is good to have a thing that I like to do.
Some of my favorite noise artists report that that they’re not directly inspired by noise music itself; rather, it’s like a means of exploring what they are inspired by. Similarly, I’m mostly inspired by things other than poetry and, like noise, I think of poetry-writing as a conveyance (though poetry, unlike a raft or tricycle, is processional and can’t be isolated in time and space).
ALS: What poets under 40 are you reading?
PE: I’m nearing the age where I’ll no longer be able to decipher who’s over and under 40. Is Cyrus Console under 40? If so, him. I love your from a Book of Poems on Beauty chapbook, and Jamie Townsend’s Shade, and lots of recent work by Alli Warren, Amy Berkowitz, Maya Weeks, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Zoe Tuck, Kate Robinson, Michael Nicoloff, David Brazil, D. Scott Miller, and Jacob Kahn.
ALS: What poets over 40?
PE: I love Lance Phillips, Dan Farrell, Alice Notley, Tyrone Williams, Lisa Robertson, Philip Jenks, Elaine Equi, and Noelle Kocot. I’m a late-period Ashbery fan, esp. Wakefulness and Planisphere.
ALS: How does this book function in digital culture?
PE: TLTRTDTS is, in part, an intense marriage between crude manual old school art-implement work and equally crude digital processing. I know about 0.007% of what Photoshop is capable of, and that 0.007% did it all, and most of it in relatively little time, because I didn’t have the skill level to batter it further. So perhaps the work is part of digital culture’s yen for instant gratification, but I’m engaging that tendency with an aesthetic that values well-considered imbalance and provisionality in the arrangement of materials. On this note we could consider the wabi-sabi aesthetic of traditional Zen art, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to appropriate that term to describe my intentions with this book, this aesthetic has been very inspiring to me.
ALS: I feel like your book is a girl that was written by a boy. Do you think about gender’s relationship to art? Art you aware of your own gender while making your art?
PE: I am moved by your suggestion about the book being a girl, though a book is a thing and a girl or a boy is not a thing, insofar as use of gender terms should point more to consciousness/memory/suchness than to thingness.
I’ve noticed, well after the fact, that—and I know this might seem beside the point of the question, but I am answering it this way—there is zero sex in TLTRTDTS aside from “Hell is Now Love” with its distressing scene near the end. It’s my impression that most of my published work does not embody or convey attitudes of first-person capital-P Paul Ebenkamp self-ascription (which would include acts of desiring), so that the work may seem to exist outside normative eros, or out of touch in some way. Maybe this is blind/delusive of me, maybe everything I do is an unambiguous effort at self-ascription. Poetry seems to allow for the possibility of other kinds of effort.
It seems to me that all beings are both made and born, and origination is everywhere and anywhere. Maybe my work interfaces with associations that are held regarding poetry written by different kinds of people, in this case by boys (one of whom I identify as, though without much conviction), in ways that involve and involute awareness of the function of memory in the ways that we identify one another? That it might do this, rather than constitute an attempt to embody/reify a particular state of being that I do not experience qua self, seems to me the best outcome for writing intended to lean (to tend) outside the window of individuality and take a close look around. I don’t know if this is possible, but I have some faith that trying is worth the effort. By faith I do not mean belief.
Paul Ebenkamp is a poet, visual artist, and musician. He is a nature poet in the same sense that black metal bands are nature poets: gnomic, ungainly, defiant, ridiculous, grand, naïve, and obsessed with disaster and grace. His visual art usually involves writing and is distinguished by unskilled chalk/pastel/marker/ink/paint work and equally unskilled digital processing, evoking both the egalitarian stress of a noise show and the fleshy smell of a kindergarten classroom wherein language acquisition is mysteriously underway. As a musician, he makes a saturated harmonic racket using electric guitar, a microphone, found sound, a small modular synthesizer, circuit-bent electronic devices, and a loop station, and this sound work is conceptualized through a number of project aliases (Position, Cellophane Marrow, Palm Reaper). He is the author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015) and “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013).
Anne Lesley Selcer is an art writer and a poet in the expanded field. Her collection from A Book of Poems on Beauty was chosen for the Gazing Grain publication award in 2014. She is also the author of Banlieusard commissioned by Artspeak (Vancouver), as well as two other chapbooks. Poems have most recently appeared in Fence, Open House, and Armed Cell, and are forthcoming in The Chicago Review. Writing has been included in three anthologies, and appears in catalogs or monographs for Centre A, the Or Gallery, the Belkin, the Helen Pitt, TV Books, 2nd Floor Projects, and was recently reprinted in Art Practical. More critical writing can be found in Fillip and Formes Poetiques Contemporaines. In San Francisco, she has been associated with the Nonsite Collective, and in Vancouver curated the Chroma Reading Series. She was an artist-in-residence at Krowswork gallery, a fellow at Mildred’s Lane, and is Southern Exposure current art writing resident.