Nathan Austin is the author of (glost), Tie an O, and Survey Says!, as well as the recent chapbooks, in very Variant (Greying Ghost) and a in e’er (Hiding Press). His work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in petrichor, P-Queue, Babel Tower Notice Board, Speculative Nonfiction, The Believer, ToCall, and Translation: a Halophyte Collective exhibition. He lives in Los Angeles.
His poems “& every waterfall, the surge and tremble of its own mouth” and “Love is a bird-like mouth that kisses,” as well as two untitled poems, appear in the thirty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “& every waterfall, the surge and tremble of its own mouth” and “Love is a bird-like mouth that kisses,” as well as two untitled poems included in the issue.
A: These days, most of my writing begins with Google Books searches: I’m fascinated by the strange distortions that show up when the archive misreads its own contents. Scanning errors or passages of text that depart from printing conventions are often transformed into gibberish or read into the wrong language; texts laid out on the page in vertical columns are often read across divisions, which produces strange turns of phrase.
Some of what my searches turn up feels like it’s been worn down by digital erosion until it’s no longer language. Forms like illloriler and bbllue (the clearest evidence in these four poems of this part of my process) remind me of something the tide’s coughed up onto the beach. My eye’s drawn to these misshapen and unsayable lumps; my mouth cannot hold them.
Lately, I’ve been feeding the weathered words and twists of phrase that I find into predictive text generators. That was really central to the process of writing these four poems, in fact. I should say that I don’t have a coding background, so my understanding of how these things work isn’t very sophisticated; I treat tools like these (or Adjunct Travesty) essentially as black boxes: I put something in, and something else comes out. What comes back to me can feel as mysterious and ancient as an echo. It’s often often a fascinatingly-distorted near-imitation, but in particularly delightful moments, it can feel like an uncanny and wholly other response calling out from the electronic beyond.
I should say, too, that I don’t intend to mystify the tools that I use (even as I invoke similarities between my writing process and various “practices of outside”). Of course, neither Google Books nor AI can be disentangled from the economic, social and political contexts that produced them. And, to be honest, I don’t really know what it means to “acknowledge” these things the way I am here--the matter of how to navigate my relationship to these technologies is something I’m still trying to think through and interrogate.
Q: How do these pieces compare with some of the other work you’ve been doing?
A: Like these pieces, most of the poetry I’ve published lately uses some combination of errors from Google Books scans and the output from predictive text generators. In terms of both process and the overall “feel” of the poems that emerged from that process, the ones in Touch the Donkey are probably most similar to my Hiding Press chapbook, a in e’er.
But the longer answer to your question is that I’ve always worked with found material and procedures and sometimes-absurdly-elaborate processes: for Survey Says! I transcribed contestants’ answers from a hundred or so episodes of that old game show Family Feud; for my Greying Ghost chapbook, in very variant, I wrote by using a loosely defined “system” to erase the dictionary definitions of variant word pairs from a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
Dictionaries have always been important to my work, and much of the material I used in writing the poems in Touch the Donkey comes from dictionary usage examples and pronunciation guides. And I’m always really interested in the tension between intelligibility and its opposite, and in the ways that writing draws the visual and auditory into sometimes-uneasy contact with one another, as well as the various roles language plays in the relationships between self and world.
Q: I like the idea of the tension between, as you say, “intelligibility and its opposite.” What brought you to this particular consideration? Were there particular writers or works that pointed you in this direction?
A: On some level, I think of engagement with the unintelligible as an inherent part of poetry’s work, whether that takes the form of “expressing the inexpressible” or aiming to reach Louis Zukofsky’s “upper limit music.” I think that poetry’s capacity to dwell in the unintelligible is an extension of its mythic ties to the underworld.
(At some point, I’ll need to interrupt myself to qualify all of this: I’m using the words “intelligible” and “unintelligible” in what’s probably a very imprecise way here. For the moment, I’m thinking of “unintelligible” as covering a range that includes silence, erasure, sound/noise, nonsense, etc. or that creates dysfluent encounters with [one’s “own”] language.)
I’ve been fortunate to learn a great deal from other poets whose writing engages with what I think of as the unintelligible. As a college student relatively new to poetry, I envied pop music’s ability to bury vocals and lyrics in the mix; I was drawn to writing that showed me how to do something similar. Poems for the Millennium (which was new then, and very exciting) pointed me in several directions I’d never considered before—the blues lyrics whose vocal performance Eric Sackheim visualizes as text, or Jerome Rothenberg’s similar “total translations” of Frank Mitchell’s horse songs.
Through that anthology, I started reading Schwitters’ Ursonate and Hugo Ball’s sound poetry—as well as Aleksei Krychenykh’s explorations into the possibility of a transrational language, which I think of as one way of dreaming up a perfect intersection of intelligibility and unintelligibility, signal and noise. From there, I found my way to Susan Howe, whose emphasis on text’s material stuff—the archaic spellings she plucks from the archive and lines scattered across the page—confounded my fluency and allowed me to feel her words as they tumbled around in my mouth, even when I was reading silently. P Inman’s poems felt like gnawing on hard candy; alongside some of Clark Coolidge’s books, they showed me just how noisy poetry can get. And of course Gertrude Stein!
I could go on listing formative influences for a long time…. Instead, I’d rather mention some writers and books I’ve encountered much more recently that have given me a lot to think about when it comes to both the nature of intelligibility / unintelligibility, and the techniques poetry can use to call intelligibility’s limits into the space of poem. Among them are several works that have offered me a lot of food for thought, particularly when it comes to thinking through various ways that unintelligibility intersects with race and gender, as well as performance: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Nora Collen Fulton’s Thee Display, Amanda Hurtado’s S ACE P, and JJJJJerome Ellis’ The Clearing, as well as recent reprints of Norman H. Pritchard’s EECCHHOOEESS and The Matrix.
Q: It reminds me of a quote I recall from Meredith Quartermain, how words can’t help but mean. In certain ways, meaning can’t be helped, and even jwcurry once spoke of the difficulty of discussing the simultaneousness of visual poetry: any conversation forces itself into a particular, and therefore arbitrary, order. How much are you working against or even with the possibilities of any potential reader attempting to assemble the pieces of your work together into meaning?
A: “Meaning can’t be helped.” I love that way of putting it: meaning is always there, like it or not; maybe we’re powerless against it. I don’t know that I’d thought of it quite that way before, but the idea resonates with my own experience. Words draw meanings in; I’m interested in the ways they interact once they’re in a space.
I think of meaning in my poetry as emergent and experiential.
Taking procedural approaches to writing allows me the luxury of pretending I’m at least partially outside of the meanings that circulate within a particular poem. That is to say, I don’t begin from a space of “I have something to say,” nor do I aim to arrive at a unified, cohesive message. Instead, I try to listen closely to what the fragments that I’ve collected or generated might have to say when they’ve been set alongside one another, and try to create spaces in which they’ll echo off of one another in such a way that something else—some other uncanny voice perhaps—might be able to find its way in. (Is that what meaning is?)
But I feel like I’m painting myself into a corner here, by focusing too much on signification and semantic meaning; because poetry engages with the materiality of language and text, it invites us to attend to the ways that words engage with our bodies. Every word is a set of instructions dictating what the body must go through in order to call it and its meanings into the world. These fleshy points of contact between body and text are on the hither side of intelligibility; they’re also the stuff of which intelligibility is made. The poems that I like most are the ones that remind me that language’s interaction with the body is (also) meaningful, even if it isn’t the sort of meaning that can easily be parsed.
I think that’s part of why I’m so fascinated by the kinds of things I find in Google Books search results. The nearly-words and digitally eroded text that are sometimes produced by its “reading practice” don’t just pose problems for interpretation; they also confound reading itself and often leave me unsure of how to sound out some of my lines. Nevertheless, they feel haunted by the meanings that their shapes and syllables call out to.
Q: With a small handful of published books and chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: Like pretty much everyone else on the internet, I’ve spent the past week playing around with DALL-E, inputting various scraps of text that I’ve gathered or generated or written over the past few years. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do with the beautifully unnerving AI-generated visual output, but I’m undoubtedly going to do something. At the very least, I'll use them as writing prompts for myself. Beyond that…
I tend to write pretty slowly—or at least, I’m slow to decide that things are “finished.” So I have a few of these sprawling, prose-ish pieces that have been hovering in a “nearly-ready” state for a while now; they’ve been giving me opportunities to extend some of the ideas that circulate through and around my writing practice.
One of them explores ideas of echo and loss in part by looking at various kinds of transcription between different media; it bounces from YouTube’s automated captions to Jean-Luc Godard’s adaptation of King Lear to the flight paths of bats to human vocalizations of radio static. There’s another one that grew out of the movies and books I used to distract myself from a particularly severe and long-lasting flareup of dyshidrotic eczema on the palms of my hands. As you’d expect, there’s a lot of body horror and a whole array of goops in it; there’s also some digressions into Stan Brakhage’s closed-eye vision, as well. I think I’ve been working on each of those off and on for well over a year (neither is nearly as long as that timeline implies!).
When I moved out to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, I had the idea of writing something in a documentary vein, focused around a few specific central California sites near my childhood home in Bakersfield. That project hasn’t come easily — I’m having a hard time figuring out what shape it wants to take. The few parts of it that have come together have appeared in recent issues of Lune and petrichor. I hope I’ll be able to get more of it onto the page!
Q: What is it about the documentary form that appeals? What do you feel it would allow that might not be possible otherwise?
A: Maybe if I knew what I felt it would allow, I’d have an easier time figuring out how to bring this particular project to fruition!
The idea for the project began in psychoanalysis as part of an attempt to rethink the place where I grew up—to reimagine it as something more than simply the place I’d fled as soon as I was able, and I suppose to make sense of myself. Digging into the ideas of “hometown” and “origin” enabled me to see a strangeness that’s inherent to central California, and that I’d never given my full attention before. On a personal level, I suspect that the book—if it ever coalesces into one—is at once an attempt to make sense of myself and an effort to avoid making sense of myself by displacing that effort. The landscape is particularly rich with the stuff of poetry: I’m focusing on a paleontological site just east of town, Shark Tooth Hill. Twenty million years ago, California’s Central Valley was the not-yet-uplifted floor of a warm sea; the site where Bakersfield (my “hometown”) is now was then just offshore. Much of the fossil bed is on federal land, and protected, but some of it is privately owned, and you can arrange a visit through the local natural history museum. The ground is just littered with the teeth and bones of sea creatures. The soil’s surface is home to a fungus whose spores, when inhaled by mammals, can grow inside the body to devastating effect; below the surface, the geology harbors enormous oil reserves, themselves the fossil traces of the sea that once was there.
My research led me to understand the site as a nexus of settler colonialism, climate disaster, geological change, and interspecies contact—and perhaps as a way to articulate grief in the face of the ongoing disasters that increasingly define our lives. But the procedures and practices that I use in much of my poetry tend towards abstraction, so they don’t really seem up to the task of addressing the particular weave of memory and history and mourning that I’m trying to effect here. The documentary form seems like the sensible choice: while it’s not exactly “non-fiction,” it enables me to work with research materials—and to extend the engagements with archive and textual materiality that are always present in my writing practice.
At the same time, the challenges it poses are real, and I’m not sure how to deal with them. But I think the fact of that challenge is a huge part of what attracts me to the project, too.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: In addition to the writers I’ve already mentioned, the following have been my guides / sources of inspiration for many many years: Stein’s Tender Buttons. Susan Howe’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Chris Marker” especially, but all of her work. Jackson Mac Low’s Pronouns. Georges Perec’s “Think / Classify.” John Taggart’s Loop. Alfred Starr Hamilton. Caroline Bergvall’s “VIA.” Tina Darragh’s on the corner to off the corner.
More recently—and, again, in addition to everything I’ve already listed—Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s Travesty Generator, Ian Dreiblatt’s Forget Thee, Dani Spinosa’s OO: Typewriter Poems, and Joey Yearous-Algozin’s A Feeling Called Heaven have been on whatever the literary equivalent of “heavy rotation” is.
Beyond the written word: Godard’s Lear, Feldman’s Three Voices, Cage’s 44 Harmonies, Eno’s Discreet Music, Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, Cronenberg, Brakhage.