David Buuck is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA. He is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics, and co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics (tripwirejournal.com). Recent publications include SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, co-written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013). A Swarming, A Wolfing appeared from Roof Books in 2016.
His poem “FIRE ON FIRE” appears in the twelfth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poem “FIRE ON FIRE.”
A: William Rowe wrote a review of Joshua Clover’s The Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015) for issue #10 of Tripwire, and in it he hones in on JClo’s line “how to set fire to fire?”, seeing it as a central question about the hazards of how insurrection can become spectacle. Rowe references a line from Hegel — “Fire is materialized time” — that then became the first line of the poem. I’d been thinking a lot about the relation between insurrection and lived time, how certain moments can flare up in a way that feel outside of clock-time. In the poem I try to get at how capitalist clock-time — necessary for the regimentation of the wage-hour — ‘resides’ in commodities, commodities that, like Marx’s exemplary table, can burn. All that is (seemingly) immaterial congeals into solids. And in fire, all that is solid (commodities, carrying within them labor-time) melts into air, free — if only for a brief moment — in the ‘pure present' of combustion. That’s the gambit, anyway.
Q: How does this poem fit in with the other work you’ve been doing lately? Is this piece an occasional, or is it part of something potentially much larger?
A: It is definitely part of a line of inquiry over the last several years, beginning with the work that will be coming out this fall from Roof Books (A Swarming, a Wolfing) and continuing on into what seems to be a new MS. Whereas A Swarming could be summarized as trying to finds new or at least non-cliché/nostalgic modes of representing militant social movement, upsurges of revolt & their affective dimensions (from Occupy Oakland on through its offshoots and aftermaths) the new work is more concerned with languaging ‘insurrection’ as a form of both irruptive praxis and discursive energies: while this particular poem is more meditative and/or ‘philosophical’ on the subject, it certainly extends my trying to think through the (lived/non-capitalist) time of revolt as well as how poetics can articulate such contingent but collective experiences from the perspective and hazards of ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’.
Q: Do you see all of your writing as existing on a particular kind of continuum? How are your books usually constructed? How do poems begin?
A: I feel like my interests and concerns, both thematically and formally, are related across books & projects, or at least I imagine readers could trace such continuities, even as/if they develop and change (as I hope they do!). Certainly the performance works, fiction, and hybrid prose-works differ considerably from the more straight-ahead poetry – especially regarding prosody as well as method – but that may more be about testing different compositional methods to engage and interrogate political questions from different sites and modes. I guess that’s where I might like to hang on to the adjective “experimental” to describe kinds of non-conventional writing even though that term seems to have become merely a branding term for niche marketing, at least within the US poetry worlds.
The construction of the books varies. The Shunt and Site Cite City were largely written over the same period (2001-08, 1999-2012) and though the difference between the two might appear to be simply poems/prose, they were in many ways different projects. An Army of Lovers was co-written with Juliana Spahr, and evolved into a ‘book’ over time, driven less by narrative plot (as pseudo-realist fiction) as much as a shared sense of appropriate scale and reach for its interrogations of poets, poetry, and the possibilities for political action. The forthcoming book is work ‘coming out of’ Occupy Oakland and its more militant offshoots, and the questions of radical movements and representation, so that thematically that came together as a book-length MS more organically. As you know, it’s often more about what one leaves out that helps constitute a book’s form and I dunno, identity? – and each of the books involved a ton of stuff left-out.
Q: With three books (including collaboration) and a small stack of chapbooks/pamphlets over nearly two decades, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: Yikes, two decades! Where has the time gone?
I tend to follow various lines of inquiry, be they thematic or formal questions, but have tended to be a bit ADHD in terms of following such lines all the way to actualized ‘products.’ However, one could probably fairly easily trace some through-lines in my work so far. Certainly the question of politics and how social/cultural issues and one's own politics work themselves out in writing and art has been a primary driver in my work, both in my own writing as well as with BARGE, editing Tripwire, organizing events, and other efforts in the cultural spheres of the poetry world. Increasing skepticism as to the power and/or ‘efficacy’ of overtly political poetries can certainly be seen in The Shunt, as the book moves from more forthright (if embarrassingly so) ‘anti-war’ poems to a self-questioning of such genres and platitudinous pronouncements of certain received ideas and political platitudes. An Army of Lovers certainly pursues this skepticism, if not outright doubt and frustration, in my and Juliana’s fictions about the roles and possibilities for political poetry and art in its (pre-Occupy) historical context. Occupy Oakland and its related irruptions certainly have informed my own thinking about representation (in poetry and performance) and its relation to ‘lived’ (off-the-page) political movements, and such rethinking is (I hope) evident in A Swarming, a Wolfing.
Current projects include a novel about military simulations set in the Californian desert, as well as a cross-genre book confronting the question of (and relation between) ‘insurrection’ and writing. I hope to do more off-page BARGE and performance work, as well. I'm also increasingly committed to the editorial project of Tripwire, which feels like a space for critical thinking and interrogation (if only for myself!), as well as a mode of constellatory mapping of potential alternatives to what can often seem like a stolid, insular, nationalist, and Manichean approach to poetics in the US.
It’s hard to say ‘where my work’s headed’ given that I can’t predict the social and political landscapes that we will be confronting over the next years and decades, and how they might (re)shape my own aesthetics and politics. I hope to remain open to a continued self-critical engagement with such questions, however they manifest in practice.
Q: I’ve long been fascinated by those who engage more overtly in engaging the political in their poetry, something so easily done poorly, but managed brilliantly by a small handful over the years, from Spahr to Stephen Collis, Rita Wong and others. And yet, ‘political poetry’ has often been accused of pushing a message over the art. Why do you think the form is so easily dismissed?
A: Well, at least in the US, it’s easy to dismiss or roll one’s eyes at a lot of self-described ‘political poetry’ for a couple of reasons: it can be self-congratulatory, moralistic, and platitudinous; and/or it can seem to relegate formal and aesthetic concerns to the background in order to emphasize more overt/‘legible’ social content. (Though of course content and form are always mutually imbricated; I’m just suggesting a false separation for argument’s sake here.)
That said, I’d argue that the same could be said of much poetry that is not overtly political: it’s tired, cliché, and formally not very interesting. It’s not clear to me, for example, why overtly political content or intent in and of itself makes for worse art. Rather, bad art is ‘bad’ because it's bad art, no?
Or, a thought experiment: what would one rather have — an OK poem with radical politics, a good poem about the poet’s personal feelings, or a Great Poem that upholds Western cultural values. How do we enter this question without interrogating what we mean by OK, good, and great? Can we possibly divorce content from aesthetic judgment? How are these not political questions? (I’m not saying I know the answers to these questions — I prefer good poetry to OK poetry, but what I mean by good is very likely different from what others mean, and not just as a matter of personal ‘taste’...)
The other charges — pushing a message, preaching to the converted, sacrificing aesthetics, the limited efficacy of poetry (‘if you wanna change the world, why don’t you just go march’) etc etc, are perhaps more complicated, especially if we again think of ‘non-political’ art. I mean, love poems ‘push a message’ and are imbricated with questions of efficacy (i.e. they aim to convert, even if only the object of desire). Most lyrical poems preach to the converted in terms of shared aesthetic values (look, I’m writing that way that we all have agreed is good!). Few contemporary ‘political’ poets in the US actually claim their work has some broad efficacy in what we conventionally think of as ‘actual’ politics, but some critics level this charge regardless, choosing to ignore the multiple ways in which the political can work within art and cultural practice, not to mention poetry’s relation to radical social movements, ecological disaster, history, etc., or simply to press potent affective charges in readers (anger, inspiration, etc). I also don’t think it’s coincidental that the poet-activists most active in challenging institutional forms of exclusion and hierarchy within Poetry-World-Inc are also poets we'd generally think of as ‘political’ in their writing.
And of course, most importantly, we have to remember that all poetry has a politics — its values, histories, forms, and relationship to institutions and power are all deeply political, whether or not poets choose to directly engage those issues. So really when folks talk about “political poetry” they mean poems or poets that are more overt or explicit about politics (either in the work itself or in extra-poetic claims about poetry or authorial intent/posturing), almost as if the complaint is something like, “please go away and be an IRL activist or whatever so I don’t have to think about these difficult questions and can just concentrate on art,” as if what we call art or good art or art-not-sullied-by-politics isn’t at its core a political question, given the history of Western poetry and its values (craft, a focus on the individual, relegation of anything by or about marginalized peoples into the sub-category of “[identity category]-poetry,” etc etc).
I don’t, however, want to make any claims about overtly political poetry as some kind of privileged form or ‘better’ poetry. There is, as with any kind of poetry, a ton of dreck and clichéd political poetry out there (and believe me, my own work is certainly open to that charge!). But we don’t dismiss the great lyrical poets based on the millions of shit lyrical poems produced over the years, do we. I just find that the questions investigated by certain modes of political art — which are always formal and aesthetic questions as well as questions of content or an author’s beliefs or opinions — are more compelling and challenging to me these days, especially given our historical moment. I'm just not sure how much the world needs more USAmerican MFA’d poems about bourgeois ‘personal experience’ or perfectly crafted lyrical poems or risk-free award-winning poems, etc etc. I want poetry that challenges the way I see the world (which includes art, of course), whether or not it’s “good” as defined by the gatekeepers of convention. Down with ‘good’ poems!
Q: Should poetry that overtly engages the political be tied to action? As Peter Gizzi wrote of Jack Spicer: “He is not against political action; on the contrary, he suggests that instead of writing a bad political poem one should write a letter to one’s congressman.”
A: I try to resist ‘shoulds’ when it comes to making art, and we’d need to unpack what we mean by ‘action’ and even ‘tied to’ to begin to get at this one. Generally, though, my answer is no — or at least, I’m not sure how exactly one would begin to make some direct connection between art and action, or how one would then judge such poems. If my love poem doesn’t get me any action, does it fail? If my lovely lyrical poem doesn’t get me awards, does it fail? Why would we only value ‘action’ in relation to ‘political’ poems?
At the same time, if “tied to” means something like “in relation to” we could certainly begin to trace various traditions and histories where poetry emerges from and alongside political action/movements/events/etc., whether through historical, witness, documentary, movement poetries, etc. And obviously “action” in general — aka “life itself” — seems to be a pretty broad ground from which poetry might ‘overtly engage the political,’ since our responses are always going to be mediated through ideology and aesthetics.
On the whole, though, as much as I do believe poems can be and make action in and of themselves, I’m generally cautious about making any claims for poetry's efficacy or “shoulds.” I would ask Gizzi’s Spicer, however, what about a good political poem? Why isn’t that a possibility? I certainly think (good) poems can do more than letters to one’s congressman.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Well it’s a pretty long list, and it depends on what I’m struggling with at any given moment. There are often different kinds of works that provide different kinds of charges for me — writers that inspire me as models of what an engaged writer can be and do in the world even if I don’t write anything like them (for instance, a few off the top of my head this week: Baldwin, Cesaire, Brecht, Woolf, Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxembourg, Dario Fo, Raul Zurita, CAConrad, Eileen Myles, Amilcar Cabral, Said, Fanon, a million others), or writers whose work reignites certain aspects of my creativity, even if I just pick up a book and read a couple pages (Gombrowicz, Acker, Leslie Scalapino, Cesaire again, a million others), or writers who I read at some important time in my early years and so re-reading them tickles some hopefully not-nostalgic moment of Wow-you-can-do-this? (Nietzsche, Genet, Stein, Beckett, Dambudzo Marechera, Jean Toomer, the New Narrative writers, a million others). And my friends and contemporaries! And artists and scholars and musicians and and and!