Jacob Wren: An Interview with Malcolm Sutton

PLStiff72dpiBookThug’s Fiction Editor Malcolm Sutton recently  interviewed author Jacob Wren about his new novel Polyamorous Love Song, available imminently from BookThug. Read on to learn more about this unique philosophical novel about art and artists that is, of course, shot through with random acts of sex and violence.

Malcolm Sutton: I’d like to situate Polyamorous Love Song among works by other contemporaries – I’m thinking of writers like Chris Kraus, Michel Houellebecq, and Javier Marías. When you were writing Polyamorous Love Song, did you feel as though you were in dialogue with such writers? Do you think dialogues happen among novels, across continents?

Jacob Wren: So many of the books that have meant the most to me over the years are books translated from other languages, and I often wonder about this fact. When I was younger, I remember someone joking that my style read a little bit like ‘literature in translation’, meaning both that I shared concerns with European and Latin American authors, but also that there is often something slightly awkward about some of the ways I put words together. (I also like to think of this awkwardness as a kind of vulnerability. It is important to me to write books where I am also vulnerable, take risks, in the writing of them.)

Of course, in one sense, one is always in dialogue with the books one reads and re-reads. But I’ve always had a great deal of difficulty knowing what my writing is actually like, if there are other authors I’m similar to, if I’m in any particular tradition, or if I’ve simply devoured a little bit of everything, creating a hybrid, a carefully formulated monster that is in connection with my influences but also often in conflict with them. I recently wrote a text entitled A short history of anti-theatre, non-music, counter-philosophy, semi-specific art and unpolitics, and I suspect this list gets to the heart of my thinking. There are so many works that I love but, at the same time, I am compelled to work against them, searching for a counter-literature, for different ways of seeing and sensing the world.

One through-line might be that most of the writers I love most aren’t afraid of ideas. (To the list you began above I might also add: Juliana Spahr, Alvaro Mutis, Jan Potocki, Renee Gladman, Nicholas Mosley, Lynne Tillman, Wolfgang Koeppen, so many more.) There is perhaps a strain of North American literary anti-intellectualism that I am strongly reacting against. For me, ideas don’t need to be hidden within or behind narrative, you can have ideas and narrative side by side. The banal writing class cliché ‘show don’t tell’ seems, to me, to conceal an ideology I find almost pernicious. If you have something you want to say, concepts or insights you feel are worth conveying, I see no reason not to state them clearly. I use the word ‘pernicious’ because, I suspect, a rule against speaking out in literature is in some way connected to a reluctance to speak out in other areas of life.

Then there is the fact that I read all of these allegedly ‘obscure’ authors, authors that deserve to be better known but for whatever reason aren’t. For me, reading is always an act of creating one’s own personal literary canon and then trying to put it into play, put it into some sort of dialogue with the world. (I also wonder if there are writers in Europe and Latin America that I would like even more than the ones I know, but that I cannot read because they haven’t yet been translated. I have tried to learn other languages but always fail almost completely.)

As well, I’m not only in dialog with literature, but also with visual art, theory, performance, cinema. One of my desires for twenty-first century art is that more of the barriers between the disciplines continue to break down. That, for example, artists working in conceptual poetry would know more about what’s happening in conceptual dance. I think, because of the way different art forms are taught, and also because of funding structures, there is not nearly enough interdisciplinary dialogue. Ground-breaking things begin to happen when artists stop thinking only about their own narrow field and examine art in some larger sense.

But back to the authors you mention in your original question: I realize that, for one to call it a dialogue, they would also have to read my books, along with me reading theirs. And maybe even this fantasy isn’t quite as farfetched as it at first seems. Only the future will tell.

 

MS: Polyamorous Love Song is populated by artists and activists who desire, often passionately and at the risk of their lives, the possibility of the new, both in terms of art and social relations. The characters abandon their lives to radical activities. How does your own practice as a performance/theatre maker inform these activities?

JW: In one sense, Polyamorous Love Song is a full-speed-ahead sprint through art, politics, ethics and revolution. I am so painfully dissatisfied with the way the world is today, and find it so difficult to imagine how it actually might eventually change for the better, of how much change is possible or required. For us to fight against, for example, Monsanto, the NSA, Big Oil, the current prison system, etc., in a way that might fundamentally change things, we would most likely need to risk our lives. Yet, to risk your life when you don’t see much chance of victory is a kind of insanity. (Then again, there is this quote from Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until its done.”) I see all the problems, don’t see any real solutions, yet still don’t want to give up. Could different ways of organizing, different ways of working together, begin to suggest new possibilities? Different ways of thinking about time? A ban on all advertising? This would be some of the ethical background, the conflicted mental state, from which I began to work on this book.

My performance practice has always been very much concerned with collaboration, with new ways of working together, with how to make and do things alongside others. I think there is often something political about working together in a manner that is not solely hierarchical. I also think leadership has its place, but is it possible to have other models of leadership? Perhaps models where we share responsibility more, where we all take turns running things? Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever had any real experiences of solidarity. In fact, I think artists are notoriously weak when it comes to solidarity. I wonder what it might actually feel like to work politically amongst a large group of people all pushing actively in more or less the same direction. (The 2012 “Printemps érable” in Montreal gave me some small taste, but unfortunately I wasn’t so involved, I was too slow or too late.) Some sections of Polyamorous Love Song might be seen as dream-like imaginings of artistic and political solidarity as well as its shortcomings. One thing I am certain of, though, is the only way to really change anything for the better is to work together effectively with others, to build coalitions and work towards immediate goals, whether the goal is to ban fracking or to re-think how society might be organized along more emancipatory lines.

MS: Is comedy as important to you as heartbreak?

JW: I sort of hate comedy in art. On the other hand, I don’t mind writing about, or re-imagining, the world in ways that also happen to be funny at certain moments. In fact, I am often extremely surprised by what people find humorous in my books. When I’m performing, I often feel I have failed if the entire audience laughs in unison. However, if half the audience laughs, and the other half wonders why the hell they are laughing, then maybe I have created the condition for something interesting to begin, for some debate or dialog. I want to create questions, in a sense create conflict, within the reader and between readers. If something is only funny there is not nearly enough tension. Another way of saying this might be: comedy without heartbreak would be meaningless to me, not nearly complex enough.

Both comedy and heartbreak are, of course, very much parts of life. I remember first seeing the work of Bas Jan Ader and being amazed at how he took the basic structure of seventies conceptual art and filled it with so much vulnerability, comedy and sadness. It was like he glanced at conceptual art and immediately, instinctively saw what was missing. If you can see the humour even in moments of greatest heartbreak it might very well help you survive, but I suspect the opposite is also true, and might prevent one from laughing too much at the expense of others. I am fascinated by how often humour is used as a defense mechanism or form of attack. Comedy is seen as joyous but it can just as often be overly protective or violent. As well, as I get older I become more bitter, though I definitely don’t want to be, and I keep telling myself over and over again: never lose your sense of humour. I have no idea whether or not this particular mantra is working.

MS: For several years people in the fiction-writing world have been talking about an important but fuzzy line between reality and fiction. Many writers give their own names to characters in their stories and others do nothing to disguise real events while still calling their books novels. In PLS you too make use such strategies. I’m wondering how you derive energy from that fiction-reality line. What is at stake for you in it?

JW: In The Coming Envelope 8 I wrote: “I have been thinking so much about blurring reality and fiction. I feel it is important to do so, that it is our zeitgeist, but am never precisely sure why. Why is it important to blur reality and fiction? It has something to do with a lack of reality in our lives.” And, speaking personally, I do feel an enormous lack of reality in my life, which is possibly another way of saying that I feel disconnected or alienated from the world around me. I often find the experience of reading far more intimate and intense that anything one might call my ‘real life’, and trying to connect this greater intensity with things that actually happen to me (through writing about them) is, I suppose, one strategy for bringing my life back to life, so to speak, for dealing with it, for opening something up that too often feels closed.

I might also look at the question from another angle: I’ve never had much interest in abstraction. Too often I go see works of art or performance that make me feel even more disconnected, like all the things happening in the world aren’t actually happening, that exclude so much in search of, I don’t know what exactly, maybe autonomy or artistic purity. Often, at a performance, I find myself thinking: how can I sit here watching these semi-abstract, performative gestures when, at the exact same moment, children are being killed by drones in Pakistan. Which isn’t to say I think all art has to be explicitly political – in fact, the politics of Polyamorous Love Song are highly ambiguous, difficult to pin down – but I definitely want to feel that the artist is thinking about the larger world, that something is at stake that goes far beyond aesthetic questions. For me, the struggle to make work always has something to do with bringing the outside world into art, though this definitely in no way dictates what form this ‘bringing in’ can or should take. At times I feel it shouldn’t be too literal, that there has to be a form of risk, an aspect of questioning ones own most basic assumptions. The world must be present but also transformed. But then, at other times, I think really literal, or even didactic, art can be amazing.

Maybe I’ve drifted (once again) too far into politics, since there’s also the question of how my simple, daily life merges with narratives in the book. How do I connect my daily life to larger political catastrophes and struggles, and how do I think of my life in relation to the art I make? I have no answers but know that, in everything I make, I want these questions to be present, to feel them at every moment, as if something was actually at stake, and not to just unquestioningly add things to a world that is already brimming with too many things and not enough consequence.

MS: How important is it for you to explore sex and violence on the page?

JW: Polyamorous Love Song is definitely my sex and violence book. There is more sex and violence in it than in all my other books put together. I don’t know exactly why this is the case, but I do know how it began. I was thinking about how artists sometimes feel they have the right to transgress all ethical boundaries. I had in mind things like Damien Hirst’s piece in which he kills butterflies or the Artur Zmijewski work in which he strong-arms a former concentration camp inmate into getting his number re-tattooed. I was wondering why artists felt they had the right to do such things, what romantic conception of art generated this certainty that normal ethical standards don’t apply. This led me to think about how one might approach writing about sex and violence, which in turn led me to put these thoughts into practice and actually write some sex and violence. I am approaching it in connection to ethics, in relation to all sorts of questions about art and the world.

I remember, a long time ago, reading On Being Blue by William H. Gass, in which, I believe, he says that sex scenes in literature are almost always bad writing. Then, many years later, reading the sex scenes in the first section of The Savage Detectives and being intrigued by how Roberto Bolaño sort of pulled them off. (Also, from a more feminist perspective, writers like Chris Kraus and Tamara Faith Berger have clearly demonstrated how disturbing and though-provoking good writing about sex can be.) More recently, in Bluets, I read Maggie Nelson’s dismissal of On Being Blue’s sex writing position as being “puritanism, not eros.”

It’s also sometimes strange to me, this expression ‘sex and violence.’ Are those two words we really need to put together? Or put together so often, without even questioning the formulation? I can’t watch Hollywood films anymore because I simply find them too violent. My nervous system can’t handle it. I have an overwhelming desire to flee the cinema. I wonder what the point of all this cinematically presented violence is. I feel it’s a kind of propaganda for violence. Propaganda for the police and for war. At the same time I have no interest in morally condemning it. I only want to ask the question: why so much, what is the motivation behind it, what are they actually trying to do with or in the world?

Writing about sex and violence does not come, in any way, naturally to me. I took it as an eccentric challenge, as trying to do something I have never done before, perhaps even as something I’m partly against, as going against my better instincts and doing so with a certain commitment or ferocity. I don’t feel I’m really an artist if I’m not working on things I’ve never attempted before. If, or when, some people I know (and don’t know) read Polyamorous Love Song, I am more than curious how they will respond to this particular aspect of it.

For more information on Polyamorous Love Song by Jacob Wren, to read a sample, or even to purchase your very own copy, visit:  http://bit.ly/OAJ8ym

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