An Invisible Intellectual Speakeasy

Chase Griffin recently did an interview with me for Metapsychosisa journal of consciousness, literature, and art. Chase is the author of What’s on the Menu? (Long Day Press, 2020), the forthcoming Peter Zoidoid & the Commonplace (Corona\Samizdat), as well as co-author (with Christina Quay) of How to Play a Necromancer’s Theremin (Maudlin House, 2023), about the latter of which I wrote,

“How do you like your metaphors mixed? This work of psy-fi docutainment, best ingested by first grinding it into Bookpowder, follows Rocco Atleby’s kudzu plots in the pursuit of fluctuation on the horizon of the Patasphere. Flitting and flirting with spacetimeconsciousness dimensionzzzzz, deep down, heinleined under there somewhere, Chase Griffin and Christina Quay have committed some really serious satire. So pack your pestle and mortar and get ripping!”

Thanks to Chase’s insightful questions, he and I cover quite a lot in this short but wide-ranging discussion.

Redfishingboat (Mick O), sk8 or fly [CC BY-NC 2.0]

Chase Griffin: Is there a circuit for you between BMXing/skateboarding and media theory? If so, what’s that sparking thing?

Roy Christopher: Well, in the broadest sense, one of my main research interests is the influence of technology on culture. The study of media—and even that in my mind is quite broad—somewhat narrows the research to where the results of this collision play out. I’m focused on the domains of various youth cultures, so BMX and skateboarding media is where bikes, boards, digital cameras, video cameras, writing, riding, music, and the like converge and capture it all. When you watch a video or see a magazine from a certain era, you’re seeing a snapshot of a culture at that time.

So, yes. I started making zines in the summer of 1986. Ten years later, I started messing around with HTML, and I saw the web as another level in zine-making. Though I was still doing print zines, I learned some basic code, bought some domain names, and starting building websites. The blogs (a term I am still hesitant to own) of the 2000s might’ve been the last era during which I felt like my approach to indie discourse thrived. The social-media silos killed all of that.

CG:Is the feedback loop the only way to go? Is this what makes today’s media such an anxiety inducing place? It feels like it’s not just the geopolitics and climate change? The loops, content aside, can be wholly crippling for many. It feels conspiratorial at times, in a divide and conquer kind of way, to get us all to stop acting in meatspace and live in this anxiety box so that the robber-barons can go on robbing the poor and raping the earth. Is there an alternative to this? Is there a way to create a more positive media?

RC: Last year, I went back to a bar I used to frequent in Chicago, and the same few people were there, sitting in the same places, having the same conversations. That’s what social media looks like after you take a break. It’s always baffling to see the same people posting the same stuff months later.

So, my first inclination is retreat. I’ve left every major social media platform and flirted with a few new ones, but I get fed up and deactivate them every few weeks. It makes for an inconsistent online presence, but I can’t be more consistent with it and still feel human.

Anxiety is lucrative. Once the social media platforms saw the goldmine of outrage, their steering users toward anxiety of one sort or another was inevitable. This has spread to every other kind of media. The goals are not information or entertainment as much as they are to elicit a reaction—any reaction. It’s turned journalists into trolls and the rest of us into dupes. There’s just more money in making people feel shitty than there is in making them feel good.

CG:What is the best way to help others?

RC: Fund their creative pursuits. Every problem I see my artist and writer friends and colleagues having is because there’s no money to do the cool things they want to do. I have the same problems, but I’ve sacrificed things and adjusted my lifestyle to facilitate the creative work I want to do, and subsequently I get to do some of it. The internet democratized and simultaneously demonetized everything.

To put it simply in a slogan: pay for art.

CG:I feel like we should all get together and create a better media. I miss the promise of the user-generated utopia. Do you think coding and computer engineering should be taught in public school widespread and starting at an early age? Do you think that if everyone speaks the new Latin, we can jumpstart society and get along without the new greedy and incompetent priest class?

RC: I can’t help but be cynical about the state of media at this point. The promise of the user-generated world has been fulfilled, but it’s no utopia. Computers, the internet, and ubiquitous cameras and screens have democratized every form of creativity. If one can be a “content creator” simply by aiming a lens, we’re not exactly honoring human creativity. DJ Scratch once said that the reason we respect something as an art is because “it’s hard as fuck to do.” Is the bar getting higher or lower?

A lot of my current students have majors that you would think would help (e.g., computer science, data science, information science, etc.), but the truth is that not everyone should be doing this stuff. The barriers to entry that existed before the internet were not tuned properly, but take a quick look at your feed, and you’ll see that we need some of them.

I think it’s all going to get a lot worse before there’s even a chance of it getting better.

CG:What does your ideal virtual community look like?

RC: A real-life secret salon. An invisible, intellectual speakeasy. I know a lot of smart, creative people. If I had a place to meet all of them on a regular basis and exchange ideas and collaborate on projects, that would be the ideal virtual community. If you went looking, you’d never find us.

Many thanks to Chase Griffin for doing this interview, Metapsychosis  for publishing it, and you for reading and sharing it.

The Medium Picture Has a Home

I recently got an email celebrating the 21st anniversary of my long-abandoned LiveJournal account. I looked back at my six entries from 2002 and found the seeds of a book: my earliest research in media theory, a note on Brian Eno’s edge culture, the claustrophobia I felt from working on computer screens.

That was supposed to be my first book. I started outlining it in 2001, worked with an agent on it for a few years, and—after a decade of research and revision—I originally signed a contract for it in 2011. The book then went through several publishing shuffles, during which I went on to finish several other projects. I worked on it off and on in the meantime and am happy to finally have it on the way out of my head and into your hands.

My mock cover for The Medium Picture.

To that end, I am proud to announce that the University of Georgia Press has deigned to publish The Medium Picture. To wit, I was born in Georgia, and I attended UGA briefly during my first attempt at grad school. This project is very close to my heart, and I am stoked to have the UGA Press putting it out.

Here is a brief overview:

The ever-evolving ways that we interact with each other, our world, and our selves through technology is a topic as worn as the devices we clutch and carry everyday. How did we get here? Drawing from the disciplines of media ecology and media archaeology, as well as bringing fresh perspectives from subcultures of music and skateboarding, The Medium Picture illuminates aspects of technological mediation that have been overlooked along the way. With a Foreword by Andrew McLuhan, it shows how immersion in unmoored technologies of connectivity finds us in a world of pure media and redefines who we are, how we are, and what we will be.

The book uses ideas from Marshall McLuhan, Brian Eno, and Mark Fisher, examples from Fugazi, Radiohead, Gang of Four, and Run the Jewels, and artists like Christian Marclay, Richard Long, and Laurie Anderson. It’s post-punk media-theory!

Here’s what some nice people are saying about it:

“Exactly the sort of contemporary cultural analysis to yield unnerving flashes of the future.” — William Gibson

“Like a skateboarder repurposing the utilitarian textures of the urban terrain for sport, Roy Christopher reclaims the content and technologies of the media environment as a landscape to be navigated and explored. The Medium Picture is both a highly personal yet revelatory chronicle of a decades-long encounter with mediated popular culture.” — Douglas Rushkoff

“A synthesis of theory and thesis, research and personal recollection, The Medium Picture is a work of rangy intelligence and wandering curiosity. Thought-provoking and a pleasure to read.” — Charles Yu

“Immersed in the contemporary digital culture he grew up with as a teenager, Roy Christopher is old enough to recall vinyl, punk, and zines — social media before TikTok and smartphones. The Medium Picture deftly illuminates the connections between post-punk music critique, the increasing virtualization of culture, the history of formal media theory, the liminal zones of analog vs digital, pop vs high culture, capitalism vs anarchy. It’s the kind of book that makes you stop and think and scribble in the margins.” — Howard Rheingold

I have a bunch of things planned for the rollout, but first…

After all of this time and all of the rejections, it feels really good to announce that The Medium Picture will be out next fall from the University of Georgia Press.

Jenny Toomey: Fits and Starts

In November 1993, a few months after I first moved to Seattle, I went to see Washington, DC’s Tsunami at the late, legendary RKCNDY. It was a magical time in a magical place, and I was marveling as the names on record sleeves and magazine pages emerged in the flesh. At the merch table, I met Fontaine Toupes of Versus (who signed my Versus 7” “Seattle ain’t shit!”), my friend and collaborator to this day Tae Won Yu, as well as Kristen Thompson and Jenny Toomey of Tsunami and Simple Machine Records.

Toomey is a towering figure in 1990s punk rock, playing in bands, running a record label, and so much more. She and Kristen Thompson, put out The Introductory Mechanic’s Guide to Putting Out Records, Cassettes, and CDs [.pdf link], which was repeatedly updated with new and better resources over four editions throughout the 1990s. After releasing nearly 80 records, Simple Machines ceased operations in 1998.

   

In the meantime, Toomey has continued quietly trying to figure out how technology can serve music and musicians. She was the founding executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, and she worked in various roles at the Ford Foundation. She’s also working on a book about all of this stuff. In her recent op-ed piece for Fast Company, she recognizes a pattern repeating. Likening generative AI to the file-sharing wave of the early 2000s, she writes,

The potential bait and switch of the tech world today is worryingly reminiscent of the early 2000s. While new technology always promises a flashy quantum leap into utopia, it instead regularly delivers opaque systems that streamline mistakes from the past. Throughout 2023’s frenzied AI debates, my feelings of déjà vu have become undeniable.

After years working behind the scenes, Jenny Toomey is thankfully emerging again.


Roy Christopher: When the impact of the internet started to dismantle the music industry as we knew it, many touted it as a new DIY revolution, returning the means of production to the people. What did you see?

Jenny Toomey: I didn’t see it flatly that way. In the same way that I didn’t feel like punk rock solved the problem of consolidated corporate media. I mean, if you look back at the hippie movements, you can criticize some of the hippies as being sort of just hedonist utopic people in denial about the systems in the world and just rejecting them (drop out), and then you can think of other ones as pragmatic utopian people who say that if we’re going to live a different way, we have to model how to live that different way which is more “drop in” or Whole Earth Catalog or Our Bodies Ourselves or eventually DIY punk.

That’s the element of counter culture and punk that I really liked. Not the flashy nihilism of tearing the old down, but rather the joyful enthusiasm of building the new. Asking that increasingly unasked question, “Why are we consenting to so many things we don’t agree with? And what would it look like if we tried to build different systems to give us more and better choices?” So, putting out your own records is a piece of it. A nice piece… nothing wrong at all with putting out your own records, but it’s not going to solve the problem of highly concentrated corporate media systems in late-stage capitalism. It does offer you a way to not completely condone what you abhor. Simple Machines was very much about that… grasping at, or rebuilding a small patch of agency. 

With Future of Music, it was a little bit more trying to bridge those two things, saying we’re actually at an inflection moment where the systems are going to change, and if we could model more open systems, more transparent systems, systems that artists had more say in the design of and more benefit from, then we might get both things. We might get to avoid the systems we hate while actually contributing to building new systems that we could love.

And for me, there was an idealism to it that came out of coming from DC and a kind of can-do quality, that kids that were my age that grew up in DC felt empowered—to DIY, to make your own thing. But we were also practical and pragmatic, because we’d done some of this before. When we put out The Guide to Putting Out Records, and we saw that it took on both of those problems at the same time. First, the guide let novices get on third base and be in charge of their own punk-rock destiny and put out their own records because we spelled out the recipe. But the advice and guidance in the guide wasn’t neutral, it embodied certain values. It looked across the scene and modeled better behavior and therefore it influenced how the scenes functioned. So, if a pressing plant was using bad vinyl, we wouldn’t recommend them, and if a distributor wasn’t paying independent labels, we would take them out of our recommended list of distributors, and if somebody like Barefoot Press was doing great work, we would enthusiastically promote them. It was a way of putting our thumb on the scale to amplify the kinds of behaviors and values and relationships and systems we wanted built.

RC: That was just the beginning though, right?

JT: Yeah, that’s what we were trying to do initially, before we started the Future of Music Coalition. We were just trying to figure out the best path forward for our own catalog. Kristin Thomson from SMR and Tsunami and I started the work as a project we called “The Machine,” which was basically a blog on Insound’s website that allowed us to share whatever we were learning about the music/tech space in real time. We would just sort of reflect on all of the different music distribution systems that were reaching out to Simple Machines as potential partners because there were like dozens of different companies that were all starting up. They all had different business models. Some would buy your copyright outright, and some would license it, and some would encrypt your music, some would stream, some would download. We had no clear idea which of these options were better or worse. So, a lot of what we were doing was trying to understand the trade-offs and make our best recommendations based on guidance from different experts that we ran into in our travels. Very often, once we’d published something,  other experts would come forward and disagree with some aspects of what we’d written and that back-and-forth would allow us to refine our recommendations and make the information even better. 

We thought, let’s just do this until we can figure out what we want to do with our own catalog. Because we had like 80 releases and we had no idea what to do with them. Ultimately the music tech bubble began to burst, companies began merging and going out of business and getting sued by the major labels and we realized that that the emerging system wasn’t solid enough for us to recommend any of these companies. That’s when we knew we needed to set up an advocacy group. We couldn’t just recommend a good and trustworthy company, because that company would be out of business in a few months. Everything was in flux. Instead we realized we needed to advocate for a set of systems.

   

RC: That systems mindset is so important, zooming out enough to see the context of the changes you can and can’t influence.

JT: We believed that instead of just waiting around until everything was set in stone according to the desires of the most powerful companies, we could identify more artist-friendly systems we wanted to advocate for. That’s what it was about. And FMC served quite a useful purpose for a number of years, but then the bubble burst and the collapse of the marketplace put a lot of the idealists on their back foot and the concentration of control began to reestablish itself until it turned into the system we live with now.

It’s hard to remember the level of constant polarized propaganda that we live within now was once uncommon. Today controversial issues are sorted into a quick binary, and everybody finds themselves on one team or another in relation to most things. But that didn’t really exist back then. The internet started as a way to let a billion flowers bloom but ultimately played a starring role in fomenting that polarization. Just around the time that I left Future of Music. It felt like the copyright issues had become a total religious war. There was no discussion about the merits of the different opinions, and you were either on the team that were Luddites or you were artist-hating thieves. It was all caricatures, and in many cases the only ones who benefited from the public battles were the companies.

One of the main reasons I went to the Ford Foundation was to work on these questions at a systems level… I felt like we were not going to be able to build better systems if we were just focused on music. Music was the canary… It was the first industry where we could see the tech and society clashes, the trade-offs, the stakes. The systems that we were developing out of the music battles were on a path to impact all the other systems of journalism and publishing and film and democracy and everything else… as we’ve seen.

The systems that we were developing out of the music battles were on a path to impact all the other systems of journalism and publishing and film and democracy and everything else.

We forget that in the time before the internet there were public interest battles that led to rules that regulate newspapers, radio stations, TV…constraining the behavior of those who control the information pipelines. People fought to establish community-input requirements, ownership limits, and regulations to balance thought, constrain bias and propaganda. All sorts of rules and regulations existed for traditional media. But very few of those protections were extended clearly into the internet environment. Or if the rules did theoretically extend into this internet environment, it wasn’t clear how they would be enforced and by whom. So both the legacy media and the emerging tech companies went on the offensive and were able to use this moment of public disagreement and confusion as a fig leaf or fog behind which they successfully advocated for reduced regulation altogether. And that’s the world we’ve been growing accustomed to over the past 20 years. But it didn’t have to be this way.

Actually, the reason I started writing about music recently is because I feel like that same land-grab is happening all over again in the AI space. The optimism that I felt in the 90’s about the potential for the internet to transform society into a better place has disappeared and been subsumed into a kind of overwhelming powerlessness and pragmatic nihilism. An acceptance of how little protection we can expect from these surveillance and consumption systems that have basically threaded themselves through all of society. So, the piece I wrote for Fast Company was just trying to remind people of a time back when it was a smaller set of problems, focused on music. In retrospect it’s clear to me that we didn’t have to make the choices we made, and we shouldn’t have trusted the companies on either side to protect us because it’s now absolutely clear that they exploited us. And maybe we can learn something from that.

RC: Here’s hoping!

JT: I think part of this problem is now everybody is so dependent on the tech systems that validate them with likes and attention we’ve all come to think of ourselves as a brand, and everything’s intermediated in that way. There is so much time spent on navigation and optimization… that somehow if we do everything right, two-factor authentication and just the right amount of self-promotion and other bootstrappy bullshit, we can win the rigged casino game. It’s very strange to me, but we also just assume these bad systems are the best we can possibly have and that they are permanent. They don’t have to be, but we’ve lost the outrage and the imagination that we’d need to remake them.

RC: That’s one of the things you’ve been able to see very clearly, is that none of this is permanent. It’s going to change again.

JT: Right, right.

RC: There seems to be something fundamental about abandoning analog practices for their digital equivalents—or simulations thereof—that puts human authenticity in peril. Do you think that there’s a distinction there that’s meaningful?

JT: Yeah. The vertical integration of everything and the co-mingling and codependence of information, creativity, community, labor and the systems of delivery, commerce and connection all through a self-dealing commercial gateway mostly designed by technologists who never took a humanities class… It’s disgusting and it’s obviously tremendously dangerous. 

You and I are a bit older and technology was perceived in a completely different way when we were growing up. So, to give you a personal example, I very, very reluctantly took a typewriting class in junior high because I believed I was going to be a powerful woman who was never going to work as somebody else’s secretary. The association to typing back then was clerical. There was a status association to whether you did the “thinking work” or whether you did “technical work” supporting the thinkers. And in the 80’s women were still very often seen as the supporters and not the thinkers. So, as a feminist, I felt reluctant to even learn typing because typing was associated with a service role I didn’t see for myself.

When the internet came, that shifted dramatically. If you couldn’t type or understand the value of typing as the gateway into the internet you were gonna seem outdated and square. I remember my mother left a pretty powerful job running a large non-profit. When she was trying to get her next job she had grown fond of saying, “I don’t even know how to type.” It was a badge of honor… a marker of her status as the type of woman who isn’t a secretary but who has a secretary. And I remember saying to her, “If you want to get your next job please don’t ever say that out loud again.” In the space of maybe five years “up” became “down”… and that’s just one example of how dramatic the shift was and how opaque and slow the cultural catch-up was for so many people, particularly my generation and those who were older.

RC: There are all of these invisible boundaries we find each other behind.

JT: When I went to Ford initially, that “othering” of tech was commonplace. Almost every single person who was recruited to run programs came from the academy, organizing, legal advocacy, policy advocacy—respected careers on the humanities side. Many of them carried with them bias-against, or incredulity or aversion-toward, tech as compared to the disciplines they studied and revered. This meant that they were incurious and had a gap in understanding just how thoroughly tech was transforming the landscape where they did their work. So, the smartest people, the ones with the power to stop it, sat back without contesting much of what the tech companies were doing till it was too late.

And it wasn’t until much, much later when I had a different role at Ford that we did research that allowed us to see that even the universities who were best prepared to graduate hybrid tech-experts, were actively siloing the tech away from the humanities. And we can all see how that turned out. So many of the clunky technical systems we are forced to use everyday (and live within) were designed by guys who were solving a technical problem on a deadline in a humanities-less void.

So, I think my major point is this one: We didn’t have to go into an environment where the internet was completely unregulated, because when you scratch the surface of the historic media rules—the rules that we have for telephones and the rules that we have for privacy and the rules that we have for equal opportunity and thousands of others—all of these rules should be enforced within the internet environment. But the advocates and the leaders who ran the nonprofits or the regulatory agencies that advocated for establishing and enforcing those historic rules were scared of tech, or functionally blind to tech. This meant that they functionally ceding enforcement. They back-burnered governance for long enough to normalize a digital world that lacks public protection. And while that was happening the tech companies became more powerful than the robber barons, and we all became complicit and dependent upon the systems they control.

RC: Is there a way out of that?

JT: There have been some moments of protest over the past 20 years, where artists have tried to demonstrate the value of their labor and their agency by saying, “I’m not going to be in your Spotify, or I’m going to build my own internet player that’s going to be artist controlled” or whatever. But in the meantime as the market becomes more streamlined and consolidated the stakes have become existential. The centralization of recommendation through the music players actually determines who can be seen as a legitimate artist and who is invisible. What’s worse, as the markets become integrated, how you are seen or “not seen” in those environments determines other things… whether you get enough attention to be paid any royalties whatsoever from Spotify… whether a venue will book your band without a certain number of likes or followers etc. We couldn’t even get a professional Spotify account for Tsunami if we didn’t have a Tsunami Instagram page to link it to. It’s way worse than I expected where all but the most powerful artists are forced to shop at the company store just to be in the game. And each post those artists reluctantly put out there to try to develop an audience is just more labor and content extracted to sell ads and train large language models, generating profits they will never share. So you go to Bandcamp to keep it real in the indie-sphere and that platform is actually owned by a Video game company and then they sell it… and you have to wait for the other shoe to drop… So, that just another reason to work with the largest companies that might not go away. Yuck.

I also wonder if that desire to be outsider and not self-promoting and secret is going to reestablish itself as a value in the same way that punk rockers said, I’m not going to look normal. I’m not going to sing pretty.

 

Tsunami: Jenny Toomey, John Pamer, Kristen Thompson, and Andrew Webster.
 
Kristen Thompson, who ran Simple Machines with me, shared an album where all the song titles were in Morse code, which of course makes it impossible for any of the algorithms to recommend their songs. There’s no way that this was an accidental choice, and that kind of decision does seem a little bit like an art project or as like a way of getting a different kind of attention because it’s so different from a word where constant self-promotion is just a precondition of being a creator or getting a next job or whatever we have at this moment.

So, I really don’t know how we disentangle those things. Maybe you don’t want to be on LinkedIn, but where do you get your next job? That’s where everyone’s looking. Maybe you don’t want to self-promote on social media, but if you’re going to try to do a tour, more and more often the clubs determine who they book based on numbers of followers.

RC: You’re speaking my language now. These are all problems I’ve been having.

JT: It’s that centralization of attention. I don’t think it has to be that way. We could have chosen a different way or built different kinds of technologies that would’ve allowed us to maintain agency, privacy and diversity… lots of smaller pockets of success coexisting… and we would’ve had more competition in those environments, and we would’ve had accountability because they’d be fighting for your business. It sucks that for the last 20 years, the people who were in charge ignored technology, and then—in my book I talk about it like the stages of grief. There was a very long period of denial and then, you know, bargaining and rage and negotiating, but so many of them still haven’t gotten to the place of acceptance. And when you’re in acceptance, you’re like, “Okay, the world we were in before, it’s over. My partner is dead now. I can’t have another vacation with them. It’s over,” you know? And now I’ve accepted this, and I am in my next life and it’s sad… but acceptance means I can begin to build a real life because anyone  that pretends we’re living in the previous world is in denial.

I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s certainly how I see it.

RC: Oh, it does… When I talked to Ian MacKaye, he mentioned the fact that punk was the last youth movement that used paper, which just struck me as such a brilliant insight that I’d never really thought about. He’s talking about zines and flyers and stuff. What do you think about that idea of paper being punk?

JT: I think paper contains the human gesture in a way that many forms of digital creativity does not. It almost always involves a greater level of scarcity. You could have the gesture of a human image or a human choice in someone who makes digital art, but it’s immediately replicable, you know? So, there’s not that scarcity in the same way—like people trying to create the artificial scarcity through the Bitcoin type stuff and those whatever they were called that everyone was talking about—

RC: NFTs?

JT: Yeah, but there’s something else about the pace of paper. It’s slower. Tsunami’s putting out a box set and Simple Machines putting out a box set with Numero, so I was forced to look at my archives. I have like 50 journals, and I had something like 17 suitcases packed with ephemera and letters—even before punk rock: I have a whole suitcase of all of my junior high school and high school correspondence, and it’s absolutely transformational.

RC: Absolutely.

JT: In almost all of the letters that I received in junior high school and high school people used fake silly names. They drew art on every envelope. They created collages. They were poets. There’s poems in there. There’s pictures in there. We were using every bit of our creativity to communicate with each other. And soooooo much time. These letters took hours. I can barely be bothered to write a full email these days or to listen to a voice message. Our level of attention is so fragile. It’s just destroyed. I had such deep attention, but everything is constantly distracting and pleasing us with little dopamine hits. We’re always jonesing now.

I also think that there was more of a barrier in some ways, too. There’s a privilege barrier. You had to have enough time to write all those letters, or the ability to cobble together a group house and enough part-time jobs that you had enough resources to be able to go on tour. So, when I think of how inexpensive it was to live when I was younger and how expensive it is now, it’s really shocking to me, but aside from that there was also a physical and time barrier to getting things out in the world. There were a lot of great bands that just didn’t have the work ethic to put the 30 to 50 postcards together to send them out to the clubs to try to get shows, because that’s how we got our shows. You wouldn’t waste money on a phone call. You sent a postcard to a club suggesting they might want to book your band without any ability to hear you at all.

RC: This is a whole other world.

JT: Part of what I really liked about working at Ford was we’re funding these brilliant visionaries who are getting the grants. They are the people who do the work, and they should have the platform and the attention to use their brilliant voices and it’s been a privilege to amplify those voices. But it also does mean that except in a few very specific forums, I’ve put my voice away for 16 years, and a part of that op-ed was also about beginning to think about, Well, what does Jenny’s voice sound like,16 years later?

RC: Exactly.

JT: That’s why I’m trying to write a book as well, but it’s really hard to write a book. I don’t know how you wrote nine books.

RC: Well, I’m glad to help in any way that I can.

JT: I mean, what I should be doing is not an interview with you but writing. I’m supposed to be writing every day, and I get to do it a couple days a week.

RC: You and me both!

John Oakes: The Fast and the Curious

Constraints—self-imposed or otherwise—can be a powerful tool. I have argued in the past the merits of pulling back, but John Oakes’ new book, The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without (Avid Reader Press, 2024), digs deeper into the history of abstinence of all kinds than I’ve ever dared. It’s erudite and well researched yet highly readable, historical and thorough without being unnecessarily verbose, and instructional and inspiring without the inherent condescension of a self-help manual.

John has been a friend and a supporter of my work for years now, so it’s an honor to turn it around and talk about his here.

John Oakes reading from The Fast. [photo by Gordon A. Gilbert Jr.]

Roy Christopher: You found an angle that cuts across so many other concerns. How did you arrive at fasting as the topic for this book?

John Oakes: It was something I fell into. Post-Trump—or what I thought was post-Trump—I decided to do an intense fast as a curative. A long shower wasn’t enough, celebrating wasn’t enough, meditation didn’t work… I needed to purge myself. A long fast seemed just the ticket, and it more or less was. And during a long fast (this was a week) you find you have a lot of free time, not buying/not preparing/not cooking food. I became curious about what was happening to my body—around Day Three or so you begin to feel a bit stoned, because of the various chemicals coursing through your body—and I searched for details. And then I started thinking about the role of fasting in religions, philosophy, and politics. The entire concept of pulling back appeals to me—and there wasn’t a book out there that combines these concepts. There are precisely a zillion how-to books on fasting that tell you it will cure everything from depression to old age, and a handful of academic books that look at aspects of the practice, but nothing that brought it all together. Plus, I like the idea of bringing a political perspective (the hunger strike and boycotts) to the discussion. Fasting has been integral to various political movements, from Russian civil rights activists in the 19th century, to suffragists and suffragettes, Irish and Indian patriots in the 20th century, to eco-activists in the 21st. Africans in the Middle Passage went on hunger strikes on such a regular basis that an instrument known as the speculum oris came into use by slavers to ensure force-feeding.

RC: Is there an underlying statement or message in The Fast that fasting is the path to?

JO: I would prefer to think I am simply reporting on the phenomenon and its spinoffs. BUT if pressed, I would say that fasting has so many applications beyond the religious or body-centric themes with which we are familiar. Judicious fasting can empower even those of us who are areligious and not body-obsessed. And it has been around a long, long time. It is for me a path to self-acceptance, to better understanding my place in the world, and it is a path that never ends. It is an important practice and it seems to me an effective one from a political standpoint. Even if hunger strikers don’t win their cause, they almost invariably force a dialogue—authorities may brutalize hunger strikers (thereby revealing their corruption), media may report on the situation, bringing outside attention to bear.

RC: I’ve found a lot of personal growth in going without things. I haven’t eaten meat since 1994, haven’t owned a car since 1998, haven’t had any alcohol since 2017, never owned a television… What is it about going without that is so powerful yet untapped by so many people?

JO: Good for you, Roy! That succession of “going withouts” is going against the grain for sure, and I find that admirable. I think we give ourselves a sub-conscious pat on the back when we refrain from doing certain somethings that we know we could do, that we know we have the right to do. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to all obligations; if, for example, we are supposed to pick up a child from school and decide not to do that, we are going to feel guilty.) Going without (to a limited degree) gives us strength because we suddenly realize we are stronger than we realize–whether it’s something as profound as resisting making a cutting remark or as trivial as eating an extra slice of pizza that we don’t really need. And yes, the nature of social media, with its lightning-quick responses, is anti-fasting. On social media, we’re swept along by our reactions (even if we don’t post) or our desire for reactions, and (with the help of corporations) we deceive ourselves into thinking we’re expressing individuality.

RC: Fasting in particular and doing without in general are not always seen as rebellious or revolutionary, yet they are the simplest means of undermining oppressors, manipulators, and the system at large.

JO: To me, abstention can indeed be revolutionary, but I am not sure how simple that act is. The act of withdrawal threatens the system—any system—which depends on participation. If, for example, you are a prisoner, you are expected to play the role of a prisoner; a businessperson or consumer, the role of a businessperson or consumer, etc. If you undertake a hunger strike (in the case of a prisoner) or a boycott (in the case of a businessperson or consumer) the act of withdrawal—fasting from food in one case and fasting from contact in another—becomes a powerful tool, even a weapon. The ancient Irish weren’t wrong to respect the power of fasting—“illegal fasting” even merited a fine in pre-Christian Ireland. Nothing terrifies Israel as much as BDS. But it is very hard to force people not to fast, or to boycott.

RC: You fasted yourself while writing this book. Have you done any form of fasting since finishing it?

JO: Indeed I have—in fact, at this moment I am on Day Five of a weeklong liquid-only fast. I fast for at least a week, twice a year, once in spring and once in the fall. It is my own personal ritual to assure the change of seasons!

The Fast is available wherever you buy books.

The Long Bright Dark: Allusions in True Detective

During the last episode of season four of True Detective, some cheered and others groaned when Raymond Clark said “time is a flat circle,” repeating Reggie Ledoux and Rustin Cohle’s line from season one. OG creator and showrunner Nic Pizzolato himself did not appreciate the homage to the original. Allusions as such can go either way.

At their best, allusions add layers of meaning to our stories, connecting them to the larger context of a series, genre, or literature at large. At worst, they’re lazy storytelling or fumbling fan service. It feels good to recognize an obscure allusion and feel like a participant in the story. It feels cheap to recognize one and feel manipulated by the writer. They are contrivances after all: legacy characters, echoed dialog, recurring locations or props—all of these can work either way, to cohere or alienate, to enrich the meaning or pull you right out of the story.

[WARNING: Spoilers abound below for all seasons of HBO’s True Detective.]

The spiral as seen in season four of True Detective: a motif smuggled out of the mythology of season one.

Our experience with a story is always informed by our past experience—lived or mediated—but when that experience is directly referenced with an allusion, we feel closer to the story. Allusions are where we share notes with other fans, and they form associative paths, connecting them to other artifacts. So, if you recognized Ledoux or Cohle’s words coming out of Clark’s mouth, or if you recognized all of them as Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, you probably felt a closer tie to the story. As he wrote in The Gay Science (1882), “Do you want this again and innumerable times again?” For Nietzsche, this is all there was, and to embrace this recurrence was to embrace human life just as it is: the same thing over and over.

Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in season three.

Moreover, in season four we got the ghost of Rust Cohle’s father, Travis Cohle, a connection to the vast empire of the Tuttle family, and the goofy gag of recurring spirals. Season three had its passing connections to season one as well, as seen in the newspaper article in the image above. Given the pervasive references to it, season one may have been the show’s peak, but my favorite is still the beleaguered second season, the only one so far that stands free of allusions to the other seasons of the anthology. Perhaps it is the most hated season of the series because of its refusal to connect to and coexist with the others, yet—riding the word-of-mouth wave from season one—it’s also the most watched.

It should be noted that in addition to its lack of allusions to season one and any semblance of interiority, season two also lacks any sense of the spiritual. There is only the world you see and feel in front of you, no inner world, no adjacent beyond, no Carcosa. As Raymond Velcoro says grimly, “My strong suspicion is we get the world we deserve.”

Bezzerides and Velcoro share a moment of quiet contemplation.

Season two continues the gloom of the first season, moving it from the swamps of Louisiana to the sprawl of Los Angeles. Like its suburban setting, season two stretches out in good and bad ways, leaving us by turns enlightened and lost. Though, as Ian Bogost points out, where Cohle got lost in his own head, the characters in season two—Ani Bezzerides, Paul Woodrugh, Frank Semyon, and Velcoro—get lost in their world. The physician and psychoanalyst Dr. John C. Lilly distinguished between what he called insanity and outsanity. Insanity is “your life inside yourself”; outsanity is the chaos of the world, the cruelty of other people. Sometimes we get lost in our heads. Sometimes we get lost in the world.

Rust Cohle in his storage shed in season one.

To be fair, season one isn’t without its references to existing texts. Much of the material in Cohle’s monologues is straight out of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2010), where he quotes the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe (even using the word “thresher” to describe the pain of human existence), and the dark-hearted philosophy of Nietzsche, of course. The writings of Ambrose Bierce (“An Inhabitant of Carcosa”), H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu Mythos), and Robert W. Chambers (“The Yellow King”) also make appearances. Daniel Fitzpatrick writes in his essay in the book True Detection (Schism, 2014), “Through these references, engaged viewers are offered a means to unlock the show’s secrets, granting a more active involvement, and while these references are often essential and enrich our experience of the show, in its weaker moments they can make it seem like a grab-bag of half thought-through allusions.”

“One of the things that I loved most about that first season of True Detective was the cosmic horror angle of it,” says season four writer, director, and showrunner Issa López. “It had a Carcosa, and it had a Yellow King, which are references to the Cthulhu Mythos with Lovecraft and the idea of ancient gods that live beyond human perception.” The hints of something beyond this world, “the war going on behind things,” as Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle put it, pulled us all in. “That sense of something sinister playing behind the scenes, and watching from the shadows,” she continues, “is something that I very much loved.”

In his book on suicide, The Savage God (1970), Al Álvarez writes, “For the great rationalists, a sense of absurdity—the absurdity of superstition, self-importance, and unreason—was as natural and illuminating as sunlight.” By the end of season one, Rustin Cohle seems to embrace the eternal recurrence of his life, the spiral of light and the dark—including his own daughter’s death. At the end of Night Country, Evangeline Navarro seems to do the same, walking blindly into extinction, one last midnight, a lone sister, fragile and numinous, opting out of a raw deal, lost both in her head and in the world.

 


Further Reading:

David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Ambrose Bierce, Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, New York: Dover, 1964.
Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow, Knoxville, TN: Wordsworth Editions, 2010.
Roy Christopher, Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body, Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2021.
Edia Connole, Paul J. Ennis, & Nicola Masciandaro (eds.), 
True Detection, Schism, 2014.
Jacob Graham & Tom Sparrow (eds.), True Detective and Philosophy: A Deeper Kind of Darkness, Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, New York: Dover, 1882.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, New York: Macmillan. 1896.
Nic Pizzolatto, Between Here and the Yellow Sea, Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2015.
Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, London: Zer0 Books, 2011.
Eugene Thacker, Infinite Resignation, London: Repeater Books, 2018.

Artificial Articulation

No one reads. People say this all the time, and as a writer, it’s very hard to hear. If I’m ever forced to start a podcast, that will be the reason, and it might be the name. If no one reads, why are we outsourcing writing? According to a recent article on Futurism, sports magazine Sports Illustrated allegedly published reviews generated by artificial intelligence. Not only that, but the bylines on those articles belonged to writers who weren’t real either.

Drew Ortiz, a “Product Reviews Team Member” for Sports Illustrated.
Meet Drew Ortiz, a “neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes” (likely on purpose), and a “Product Reviews Team Member” for Sports Illustrated. One of Drew’s many articles for SI claims that volleyball “can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with.” True enough, Drew, but it’s also tricky to get into if you don’t have an actual body to practice with either.
Look, Drew is just like you and me.
Drew was eventually replaced briefly by Sora Tanaka, a “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.” Futurism also notes Jim Cramer’s TheStreet hosting articles by Domino Abrams, Nicole Merrifield, and Denise McNamera — all pseudonyms for AI-generated pseudoscribes.
Sora Tanaka, a “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.”
Given that this path was paved when we first outsourced our thinking to written language, it’s perhaps most fitting that what passes for artificial intelligence these days are large language models, none of which can play volleyball but can write about it. The computer scientists Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon defined thinking in just such terms, writing, “A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for general intelligent action.” The externalization of human knowledge has largely been achieved through text — a physical symbol system. Cave paintings, scrolls, books, the internet. Even with the broadening of bandwidth enabling sound and video, all of these media are still heavily text-based.

In a paper from 1936 titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing posited that humans compute by manipulating symbols that are external to the human brain and that computers do the same. The paper serves as the basis for his own Universal Turing Machine, algorithms, and the fields of computer science and AI.

I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence masters program midway through my first semester there in the late 1990s. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. As Al Burian sings on the Milemarker song “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” “We keep waiting for the robots to crush us from the sky. They sneak in through our fingertips and bleed our fingers dry.” If humans have indeed always been part technology, where do the machines end and we begin? As the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles told me years ago,

In the twenty-first century, text and materiality will be seen as inextricably entwined. Materiality and text, words and their physical embodiments, are always already a unity rather than a duality. Appreciating the complexities of that unity is the important task that lies before us.

“Manufacturing Dissent” multimedia on canvas by me, c. 2003.

A medium is anything that extends the senses or the body of humans according to Marshall McLuhan in his classic Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). More specifically, McLuhan saw the “electronic media” of the time — radio, telephone, television — as extensions of our nervous system. Jussi Parikka writes that we must stop thinking about bodies as closed systems and realize that they are open and constituted by their environment, what Humberto Maturana and Francisco J. Varela call “structural coupling.” Our skin is not a boundary; it is a periphery: permeable, vulnerable, and fallibly open to external flows and forces through our senses. Parikka adds, “[W]e do not so much have media as we are media and of media; media are brains that contract forces of the cosmos, cast a plane over the chaos.” We can no longer do without, if we ever could.

Our extensions have coerced our attentions and intentions.
We are now the pathological appendages of our technological assemblages.

Desire is where our media and our bodies meet. It’s where our human wants blur with our technologies. It is the inertia of their meeting and their melding, whether that is inside our outside our bodies is less relevant than whether or not we want to involve ourselves in the first place. Think about the behaviors that our communication technology affords and the ones we find appropriate. They’re not the same. Access is the medium. Desire is the message.

Crash-testing intelligence [Sharpies and Photoshop by me, 2023].

The Turing Test, which is among Alan Turing’s other top contributions to the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence, is more accurately a test of the human who’s interacting with the machine. The test, as outlined in Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” states that a machine is considered to be truly thinking like a human if it can fool a human into thinking it is (a.k.a. “The Imitation Game”). So, according to the language and the lore, artificial intelligence doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be convincing. Now that Drew Ortiz, Sora Tanaka, and the other machines can do these symbol-manipulation tasks for us, we’ve outsourced not only our knowledge via text but now the writing of that knowledge, not quite the thoughts themselves but the articulation thereof.

Weak Ties Gone Wild

One of the since-faded early concerns of the internet was “information overload.” The worry was that given the onset of abundant connectivity and content, we were being inundated with so much information that we’d never be able to process it all. Now we limit the flow in our feeds and find just what we need. The real danger of filter bubbles and echo chambers is a cultivated myopia: a limited view of a world of sameness and an inability to see beyond the barriers we’ve erected for ourselves. As Jay Ogilvy once said, “If it’s not different, it’s not information.”

My rendition of “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter, (1973).

In the late 1960s, Mark Granovetter was studying how people found jobs. His 1973 article in the American Journal of Sociology, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” states that each person in a close social network is likely to have the same information as everyone else in that network. It’s the weak ties to other networks that lead to the new stuff. That is, weak ties are a more likely source of novel ideas and information—regarding jobs, mates, and other opportunities—than strong ones.

Granovetter says, “I put the theory of weak ties together from a number of things. I learned about hydrogen bonding in AP Chemistry in high school and that image always stuck with me—these weak hydrogen bonds were holding together huge molecules precisely because they were so weak. That was still in my head when I started thinking about networks.”

Like most of my research interests, I first noticed these thresholds in music. I was looking at the CDs I had on hand one day, and I noticed that most of my favorite bands didn’t fit into established genres. They tended to straddle the lines between genres. In nature, these interstitial spaces are called edge realms. In her book When Plants Dream (Watkins Media, 2019), Sophia Rokhlin describes them as follows:

The edge describes the place where two distinct ecosystems meet. These are places of tension and unfamiliarity, territories of confrontation, where different ecosystems overlap and merge. The edge is found where a grassland meets a forest, where oceans reach the shore, where wetlands mediate between river basins and fields. Edges are hot spots of biodiversity that invite innovation, intermingling, and new forms of cooperation from various species. Edge realms are thresholds of potential and fecundity.

Mutations inside Area X as seen in Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ (2018).

An edge realm is a wilderness, a mutant space ripe for new forms. In Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the mysterious Area X is just such a space. Its pollinations crossing well established boundaries, mixing into ever-new breeds and combinations. In his book about VanderMeer’s work, None of This is Normal (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Ben Robertson writes,

Area X is something else, what has always already disrupted the processes by which by which borders are established between that and this, between one space or time and another space or time, between the human and whatever its other happens to be.

My pencil portrait of Brian Eno from ‘Follow for Now, Vol. 2’.

The fertile ground is in between the established crops of others. The new stuff happens at the edges, in between the codified categories. Any old boring story from history can be made more interesting by varying viewpoints. In his 1996 memoir, A Year with Swollen Appendices (faber & faber), Brian Eno proposes the idea of edge culture, which is based on the premise that

If you abandon the idea that culture has a single center, and imagine that there is instead a network of active nodes, which may or may not be included in a particular journey across the field, you also abandon the idea that those nodes have absolute value. Their value changes according to which story they’re included in, and how prominently.

Each of us tell our own stories, including the cultural artifacts relevant to the narrative we’ve chosen. The long tail is an ironic attempt to depict a big picture that no longer exists. With its emphasis on the individual narrative, edge culture more accurately illustrates the current, fragmented state of mediated culture, subcultures, and the way that edge realms and social networks define them.

My Sharpie sketch of a Boundary Object in use among 3 communities of practice.

The members and fans of subcultures—groups united by similar goals, practices, and vocabularies—represent what Etienne Wenger calls communities of practice. To translate differences and aid communication between these communities, they use what Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer (1989) called boundary objects. A boundary object can be a word, concept, metaphor, allusion, artifact, map, or other node around which communities organize their overlaps and interconnections. These connective terms emphasize groups’ similarities rather than their differences. Boundary objects between different communities of practice open borders once inaccessible, circulating ideas into new territories.

Allusions, references, quotations, metaphors, and other figurative expressions provide the points at which multiple texts, genres, and groups connect and collaborate. They are where textual communities compare notes. “What I see instead of there being one line, many lines,” Eno explains in a lecture from 1992, “lots of ways of looking at this field of objects that we call culture. Lines that we may individually choose to change every day.” Hunting and gathering, picking and choosing, we can each make our own individual mongrel culture.

Mark Granovetter conceived the edge realms of these cultural networks way before we were all connected online, but his insight is all the more relevant today. With our personal media, ubiquitous screens, and invisible, wireless networks, we live in a world of weak ties. You just have to reach out to find the new stuff.

Bibliography:

Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices, London: faber & faber, 1996, 328.
Brian Eno, “Perfume, Defense, and David Bowie’s Wedding,” in Christopher Scoates (ed.), Brian Eno: Visual Music (221-233), San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013, 223.
Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6 (May 1973), pp. 1360-1380.
Benjamin J. Robertson, None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 116.
Sophia Rokhlin & Daniel Pinchbeck, When Plants Dream, London: Watkins Media, 2019, 32.
Susan Leigh Star & James R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 19, No. 3 (August 1989), pp. 387-420.
Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Josh Feit: Dwell Time in the Interstitial City

My introduction to Josh Feit’s work was through The Stranger, Seattle’s longest running alternative publication. There’s a line from an article he wrote about Brittany Spears for their “Yes, Logo” special issue in 2002 that I had quoted so often, I had memorized. I recited it to him when we finally met in 2019: “Authenticity comes from the moment you’re living in, not from the product you’re buying.”

Feit has moved on to other creative work, most notably poetry. The Night of Electric Bikes (Finishing Line Press, 2023), his latest collection, meanders through urban terrain, wandering with wonder. About it, I wrote,

Josh Feit notes herein that urban planners call the time commuters have to wait for mass transit “dwell time.” The Night of Electric Bikes is dwell time well spent, like no matter where you’re headed, you’re already on your way. As Feit writes, “You have arrived. Your destination is found in others.” These poems are sidewalks and streets and cities made of stories, and within them, many more to explore. Take your time, the next one will be along soon.

His first collection was Shops Close Too Early (Cathexis Northwest Press, 2022), and he’s working on a new one now. I find it fitting that I committed Feit’s words about authenticity to memory, since capturing that authentic moment is the ultimate pursuit of poetry.

 


Roy Christopher: I got to know your written work originally through The Stranger. When did you start writing poetry?

Josh Feit: It’s fitting that you mention the time I worked as a news reporter. I spent years in the newsroom before I ever started writing poetry, but the whole time, I felt there was something poetic in the policy debates I was covering. People were clashing over how they wanted their city to work in a way that seemed almost existential. Anything from parking regulations, to a proposed employee head tax, to should we allow more density in the neighborhoods? The debates were so emotional. Where should the light rail station go? These technical discussions about dry subjects like zoning turned the cityscape into a personal canvass for people, and suddenly the discussions became metaphors for larger questions about living life itself.

These policy matters started segueing into verse for me when I was working as a speechwriter in the mayor’s office and my brain was spending more time in the margins of the Word doc on my computer screen where I imagined adding fanciful footnotes about: how mixed use development can be piano nocturnes and daffodils; how exclusionary zoning was a suspension of habeas corpus; and how sustainability was Billie Holiday at the Spotlight Club. The city planner is a DJ!

Feit reading at Good Weather Bike Shop, May 25, 2023.

RC: Speaking of, tell us about The Transit Singles.

JF: The Transit Singles! Oh, man. That’s an old project; very early poems that I’m not eager to share. Those videos are buried on the internet, somewhere. So, props to your detective chops for even finding those. But I’m still proud of the conceit. That was a musical outing more than a poetic one. The idea was to pair a poem with a transit oriented pop song re-imagined and performed as a Billie Holiday era nightclub piano ballad; for me, Billie Holiday’s small club dates in 1930s and ‘40s Manhattan are one of the crowning achievements of human kind’s city experiment. In my poems, I’ve cast her as replacing Athena as the Goddess of Cities.

For the pop songs, I went with Kris Kross’ “I Missed the Bus,” Lord Kitchener’s “Underground Train,” Berlin’s “Riding on the Metro,” Le Tigre’s “My My Metro Card,” and The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” I asked a pro-pianist diva, Leah Tousignant, to cover and record these songs Billie Holiday-style, and then I had an electronic musician Paco Cathcart of the Cradle make samples and loops out of my readings and float them underneath the songs. Kind of a mess. But the great thing is it led to a wonderful idea a few years later. For The Night of Electric Bikes book release reading this past spring, I asked Seattle electronic musician Rob Joynes to open the reading with ambient covers of a few transit pop songs; we went with a mid-60s set, The Impressions’ “People Get Ready (There’s a Train a-Coming),” The Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” and the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride”). He showed up with his effects boxes and cords and laptop and big speakers and played a gorgeous set, singing the tunes over his atmospheric waves and drones with a dynamite female vocalist Malia Seavey accompanying him and his loops. The gig was at a local bike shop. It was a dream, so no recording.

RC: How did you come to focus on transit in Seattle?

JF: Transit was one of the topics that was always central to the city debates I had been covering as a reporter. And when I dug into the technical details of making transit systems work better, ideas like center platforms,  pedestrian scrambles, road diets, and faster headways, the palette of metaphors expanded exponentially. This gave way to poems like “Dwell Time,” where the time we spend waiting at the bus can become a larger narrative about yearning.

My copies of Josh’s books.

RC: That idea of “dwell time” really stuck out to me from The Night of Electric Bikes. The simple acknowledgement and further exploration of the interstitial spaces in our cities feels tangible to me as someone who hasn’t had a car in 25 years. Walking, riding a bike, or taking the bus or train puts you in places that cars can’t go. It’s a different city!

JF: Lovely. Yes, and speaking more literally of interstitial spaces: This is how you bike home in Seattle, along interstitial streets, ever delusional you’ll find a route that avoids the hills. It’s great, though. In this way you’re always zigzagging along back streets you’re unlikely to ever find driving in a car. Now that I know these routes, I do ride my new bike, my e-bike, along these quiet streets during late-night biking adventures home. 

RC: What’s coming up?

JF: I’m working on a sequence right now that features wayfinding poems; poems that chart and navigate trips. They’re set up like file path directions: “Bike north on Beacon Ave > West on S Columbian Way > ricochet off the pavement craquelure > live to tell> > continue onto 15th Ave S > …”

Over the course of the collection, these wayfinding poems become less about city geography, and start to chart other paths: events that lead to events, books that lead to books, thoughts that lead to memories.

These shorter wayfinding poems are paired with larger poems about retail kiosks in subway stations, ancient Athens, Joshua Tree, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, affordable housing, kiss and rides, greenhouses, Hermes, and other city subjects.

Digging D.E.E.P.

The Intellect U Well Journeys: Afrofuturism book discussion at the African American History Research Center in Houston, Texas last weekend was a blast and a blessing! Many thanks to Deborah “D.E.E.P.” Mouton, James Stancil, Tonya Stancil, Davin Stancil, Suzanne Simpson, Lily Brewer, everyone at the Gregory School, and everyone who came out.

Me and Deep Mouton in Houston. [Photo by Lily Brewer.]

Deep Mouton’s book, Black Chameleon (Henry Holt & Co, 2023), takes hefty strides toward creating a Southern African-American mythology, its horror tempered by hilarity. Talking with her about it, Boogie Down Predictions, and our views on Afrofuturism, hip-hop culture, writing, poetry, performance, and scholarship was a privilege and a party. I hope we get to continue it sometime soon.

Danika Stegeman LeMay: A Spiral of Questioning

Poetry is one of our most radically subjective communication media. One person’s transformative verse is another’s cliché. We struggle to understand each other, yet we quickly tire of the same old words and phrases.

Meanings are malleable. Language bends and breaks under the stress of unintended use, abuse, or overuse. Like machine parts pushed past their limits, cogs stripped bare of their teeth, the words we use wear out, weakening the culture that carries them and our connections to each other.

The barriers to appreciation are also unreasonably high. Being into poetry is a strange burden to carry. Never mind being a poet.

Danika Stegeman LeMay is a poet. She bends words and molds phrases, creating and transforming meanings. I’ve been reading her work and corresponding with her about it for a couple of years now. With her new book, Ablation, coming out next month, and a few other projects cued up behind it, I knew a more formal interview was well past due.


Roy Christopher: How did you get started writing in the first place? 

Danika Stegeman LeMay: Oh, the usual: by listening to The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Around the time that record came out, I had a really great 7th grade English teacher. I was painfully, cringingly shy until I was about 17 years old. Apparently my book reports or whatever were good, or the teacher understood I needed an outlet that allowed me to be quiet. There was some kind of writing conference for middle schoolers in the state of Minnesota, and the teacher got to choose one student and he chose me. I spent the day learning about writing at a local college and they gave us all journals to write in at the end. I think the theme of the conference was peace (very 1990s) and the journal had little zen quotes about being peaceful in it.

Instead of writing about peace I wrote what amounted to a very, very bad Smashing Pumpkins “song.” It was my first poem. More poems followed, and what’s really charming to me about that journal is that we weren’t quite really in the word-processing era yet. Like, if you wanted to save a draft, you had to have a floppy disk. So I’d write poems by hand and then re-write them by hand to make a revision. I re-copied so many poems in slightly different variations. Along with collage, repetition is an interest that’s captivated me across time, so the fact that I wrote and re-wrote these pieces as my youngest poet self is sort of heartwarming.

RC: When did you know it was going to be a passion or a problem?

DSL: I think I knew it was going to be a passion/problem by the time I was getting ready to graduate from undergrad. I was trying to decide if I’d apply for MFAs or do something “practical” like law school. I was dating someone who was getting his MFA in printmaking at the time, and I asked him what he thought. He said to me, “you can’t just not practice your art because it’s easier.” Because it’s not easy to love something and to want to pour all of your energy into it when you can’t make a living doing it. There will always be interruptions so you can afford to eat sandwiches or pay an ungodly amount for rent or see a doctor when you’re sick (but only like, insanely sick, or it’s probably not worth the cost). The number of times I’ve thought “I wish someone would pay me to write poetry.” But creating art out of love, desire, a kind of inner pull/force that I feel but can’t quite articulate has its own intrinsic value that has nothing to do with money. So most of the time I’d call it a passion, a “strong and barely controllable emotion,” rather than a problem.

When I think about writing as a “problem,” I think about “problem” more in the sense of physics or mathematics: an inquiry or investigation, rather than a matter of harm. It seems to me that my poetic projects and I unfold together; we figure out what forms we’ll take across time and space. It’s a spiral of questioning, a call and response.

RC: You’re quite prolific on social media, especially with your #lineaday series of posts. I always find that a pursuit becomes something different than I originally intended when pushed in such a way. Have you found out anything from the practice of posting daily? 

DSL: I’ve come to appreciate the #lineaday posts I make as stories daily on Instagram in several ways. For one, it’s a way to exercise a muscle. Whether any of those lines get put into a larger piece or not, they’re a dedication to language that I make each day, and I consider writing a line a day a similar action to my daily yoga and meditation practices. It’s a way to honor and shape the mind and voice by way of patterning and ritual. Writing a line per day is also a way to trick my mind into releasing anxiety around the generative act. I don’t pressure myself to be brilliant, a line is a line and doesn’t have to be final. An Instagram story disappears after 24 hours. Like anything, it exists and it passes away. It reminds me life changes and is impermanent. Though of course I do save the lines in a Google doc… It’s material to use or not use in the future. It gives the generative process a spirit of play.

All these words I’ve piled up have softened and washed away some of my anxiety around having a blank page in front of me. I have this stockpile of material to refer to and riff off of. And I do often refer to that pile. During the pandemic, I took an online class about collage-based writing called “In Pieces” with Joshua Bridgwater Hamilton. I can’t remember what the reading was, but we read a piece by Clarice Lispector. She talks about how she’d write snippets whenever they came to her–on scraps of paper, napkins, etc. and save and pile them up. Eventually, she’d wake up very early in the morning and work for hours, poring over these pieces and pulling them together. She said something about how that’s when the time and the energy and the struggle comes in, constructing the work into a whole entity from these pieces. In a way what she’s doing is collaging herself. I’m also a collagist at heart. I like to pull materials together, to consider juxtapositions and unexpected symmetries. Even when I started writing poems as a teenager, often what I was doing was collage, even if I didn’t realize or understand that’s what I was doing. 

RC: I find the same. Sometimes it’s just a juxtaposition—rubbing two things together to see what comes of their intersection—and sometimes it’s a whole pile of things that come together and transform into something else.

DSL: Transformation is, in my opinion, one of the most magical things we do. We look at a cloud and name it tree. Even a juxtaposition is a pile of transformation. What else would it be? The cosmos is vast and the one thing we know for sure is that it changes things. We work with materials on an infinitesimal scale in the same ways that they work on an infinite scale. 

RC: Tell us about your latest project for 11:11, Ablation.

DSL: Ablation is a book I wrote about my mom’s death, becoming a mom to a daughter, inherited trauma, and how to acknowledge pain and loss while accepting it and realizing it exists alongside joy. In these liminal places of death and birth, we see perhaps more clearly that we are a line: fear and love, void and form, grief and acceptance, chaos and control, are two sides of the same door, and we’re the door. The book moves through many forms to arrive at realization and acceptance. It contains images I’ve cut apart, re-assembled, and sewn. It reckons with images of the past that haunts it, and by it, I suppose I mean me. After my mom died, I found like 8 rolls of film from the early and mid-1990s that she’d never developed in her closet, while I was going through her things trying to decide what to keep and what to let go of. I developed the film, because that’s the kind of person I am. I will follow things to completion.

The images the photo lab was able to develop are haunting for a couple of reasons: they’re literally fucked-up—if you leave film to sit for years, you get double exposures, strange colors, dark fog, dust motes, and flares of light. They’re also fucked-up because part of the reason my mom never developed them is that they’re mostly photos my brothers and I took the summer after my stepdad died in a head-on collision with a semi-truck when he was driving home from work when I was 13. He fell asleep at the wheel. It completely wrecked my mom, who’d had a painful life anyway, and had struggled with depression and other mental illnesses without diagnoses or any sort of medical help her entire life.

The photos themselves are haunted. You can feel our pain in them. Writing, collaging, taking a thing apart to understand it, rearranging it into something like hope, like future, like presence, and taping it back together is my way of coping with the world as I find it: both terrifying and radiant. The process of writing the title sequence, “Ablation,” which is a long, tightly-wound sequence of mirror cinquains, was that sort of collaging myself process I was talking about earlier. I originally wrote that sequence on postcards, but the form didn’t quite feel right. When I arrived at the mirror cinquain, I worked and re-worked and carved and threaded the words into place. The other poems in the book either attempt to lean into form, as “Ablation” does, or into chaos. Both needed to be present.

This is a book I had to write to continue existing after the sudden and catastrophic loss of my mom. It’s a place where I can leave things, so I can move forward and create a better environment for my daughter. “Ablation” means three compelling and wildly diverse things: evaporation of ice from a glacier, surgical removal of tissue from a body, and the way a spacecraft or meteorite sheds material in the atmosphere. At its root, the word means “taking away.” Ablation is, by nature and necessity, much more vulnerable than my previous work. I had to learn to be vulnerable as a person while writing it. I feel that vulnerability is one of the book’s strengths, and I hope that its presence might be helpful to others moving through similar corridors.

RC: What can you tell us about how your erasure project, GOD IS IN THE MALL, came about and your possible plans for its publication?

DSL: GOD IS IN THE MALL (GIITM) is actually the first full-length manuscript I finished. I wrote it alongside Pilot (Spork Press, 2020) and actually finished it before I finished Pilot. It’s an erasure of a book called God Is in the Small Stuff for the Graduate, which was given to me by evangelical Christian relatives when I graduated from high school. I started circling words in pencil probably around 2006 or so. I got stuck pretty quickly, because the end of every chapter has a list of bullet points about how “God is in the small stuff” for the theme of that particular chapter. And I was like “what am I going to do with these lists?? It’s impossible to erase them in a productive way and make it a poem.” Years later, in probably 2014, I was riding the bus to work and had the idea to cut up a directory of the Mall of America and paste the names of the stores into the list parts of the chapters. So a bullet point that said “You can’t stand up to the devil unless you kneel before God” became “You can’t stand up to the devil unless you kneel before Nordstrom Rack.” And it went pretty quickly after that.

When I’d finished penciling in the words I wanted to keep and pasting the names of stores in, I began the process of painting white out over the rest of the text. I scanned every page, and, luckily, by the time I’d finished that, Adobe Acrobat had advanced to the point that you could actually edit words inside a PDF. So I spent a lot of time taking this raw material and turning it into a cohesive book, moving pages and deleting more text. I think it’s a fun book and at the same time it points to the problematic relationship between the United States’ version of Christianity and the capitalist system.

The book was a semi-finalist for the Sawtooth Poetry Prize run by (the now sadly non-existent) Ahsahta Press in 2017. It’s been a little bit of a challenge to find the right publisher for GIITM, because every page needs to be printed in color and I’m not Mary Ruefle and the book is sort of specific and weird. You can read a good chunk of it in vol. 30 of Word for/Word. Shout out to editor Jonathan Minton for consistently being open to publishing the stranger forms my work takes; he also published an early version of the title sequence of Ablation in vol. 35 and is about to publish some pieces from what I hope will be my 3rd book, The Book of Matthew, in vol. 41. Matthew is actually the reason I haven’t been actively looking for publishers for GIITM recently. I wrote Matthew alongside Ablation, and they’re linked, in my mind. Like, Matthew is the aftermath, the shadow cast by Ablation. So I need those two books to come out back to back. I’ll start looking for publishers for GIITM again after I find one for Matthew.

RC: Is there anything else you’re working on you want to mention?

DSL: The Book of Matthew is finished, and I’m sending it out to publishers right now. It’s a book of miracles constructed from 3 types of materials: erasures of each miracle found in The Gospel of Matthew cut from various editions of The New Testament, ecstatic poems (some based on dreams, some based on dreaming), and epistles written to a Matthew, a messenger, an angel of my own making. By the end of the book, these materials elide and coalesce. It’s a book of dissociation, science, spell-casting, prophetic vision, intimacy, and other sorts of magic. As hinted at above, while Ablation addresses the sudden loss of my mom and my childhood trauma directly, while Matthew addresses the aftermath: my patterns, my (un)consciousness, my longing. The book also reckons with acculturated ideas of femininity and power and contains a lot of references to Radiohead. I sort of had to write the Matthew poems alongside Ablation because Ablation was painful to write. Most of the poems in Matthew felt magical and fun to write. I’m really excited for a couple of those Matthew poems to come out from Carrion Bloom Books as a pair of microchapbooks soon: Familiar Birds: House of Mesh (I) and Familiar Birds: House of Suet (II). So watch for those.

In addition to the microchapbooks and the cut up miracles coming out in Word for/Word vol. 41, poems from Matthew will be out soon in FIVES (that one’s a video poem actually), SOLID STATE, and mercury firs.

Right now I’m working on two things (have you noticed I like to write two things at once?). One is the sequel to Pilot, which I’m currently calling FARADAY; Pilot only uses scripts from the first 2 seasons of Lost, so FARADAY will cover the remaining 4 seasons. The other project I’m currently working on is called Wheel of Fortune; it’s a long long book-length poem about endlessness and circles that I’m writing onto a rolodex I bought at an open-air flea market in May of 2021. 

 


Preorder your copy of Ablation now, out from 11:11 Press on November 1st.