Life Actually or Never-Ending Frontiers — The Jacob Wren Interview Part 2

As promised, the following post is a follow-up interview with Jacob Wren, author of Polyamorous Love Song. The questions are based on Wren’s prior interview with BookThug’s Fiction Editor, Malcolm Sutton, on March 20, 2014.  After catching up with Wren at the Pivot at The Press Club event on May 7, we just had to ask him a few burning questions.

In this interview, Wren discusses concepts of the outside and inside, artistic ethics and cruelty, new conceptions of time, books he’s reading and films (yes, films) he’s watching, his fear of performance, and the idea of transformation.

Puneet Dutt: You have said:
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.”
What were you thinking about during/before and/or after your live reading? Is there a line from your book that describes that feeling, or that tackles something more closely political than ambiguous?

Jacob Wren: Well, I’m not sure I was thinking about anything specifically political ‘during/before/and/or after my reading.’ Probably I was mainly feeling nervous. So perhaps I was thinking about how nervous I felt, or even, how after twenty-five years of performing, I still get completely nervous before standing up in front of people and doing anything, perhaps a little bit more nervous every year.

I feel all of my books are filled with explicitly political observations, thoughts, questions, paradoxes, etc.  Perhaps a good (if a bit obvious) example from Polyamorous Love Song might be the following paragraph:

“At film school I was taught: a film has a protagonist and the protagonist has a goal and a well-made film sets as many believable obstacles as possible in the direct path of the protagonist (to make the audience feel all the more exhilarated when he finally does achieve his goal). The higher the stakes – in essence, the greater the eventual reward – the more desperately the protagonist will want to achieve his goal, the harder he will fight to overcome all of the humiliating obstacles the screenwriter so gleefully throws in his path. This standard formula somehow mirrors at least one aspect of the logic of capitalism, where the goal is to make as much money as possible and all of the many things that get in the way of this ultimate objective must be steamrolled over like so many twigs in the path of a tank. People who work in film like to say that they are interested in storytelling, but I have found, on the whole, they are not. What they are interested in is the premeditated catharsis made possible when a certain kind of story delivers in a very specific way” (Wren 17).

Puneet Dutt: You have said:
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.”
What are your thoughts about the concept of outside and inside, and how much of those feelings have informed your current work?

Jacob Wren: I guess I would hope for an extremely fluid conception of outside and inside, one in which things are constantly moving, never fixed, in which things on the outside are constantly coming in and vice versa. When I’m writing I try to put myself in a place where anything is possible, where anything can be included, to suddenly surprise myself with sentences or themes it never would have occurred to me that I might have written even a moment before I wrote them. I am constantly thinking about the world, how painfully unfair it is, how often cruelty overcomes kindness (though of course there is also a great deal of kindness in the world), and these questions inform, at least I hope they do, basically everything I write. But I certainly don’t want to stop there, I want to let so much more in, especially things I haven’t, or even can’t, yet imagine.

Puneet Dutt: You have said:
“The world must be present but also transformed.”
What transformation do you hope will happen to readers who read your book? What transformations have happened to you, while writing?

Jacob Wren: Well… after the revolution I suppose everything will be clear. In the world as it is now, I certainly desire transformation, but am not exactly hopeful that it is possible, or even that I’m on the right side. As an artist I feel, whatever your intentions, there is always the likely danger that one is more a mirror that reflects the world as it currently is, instead of an agent for active change.  And if I ask myself what has to change, the answer would be almost everything.  We need a completely different relationship with the natural world, with production and consumption, another way of thinking about time, something that will either undercut the power of money or even replace money altogether. More ways to be satisfied with what life actually is and less hunger for never-ending frontiers. All of these transformations seem far more unlikely than our simple, eventual extinction. I would like my work to be on the side of such transformations but suspect and fear it is not. I am feeling along the wall, looking for a secret door, but when I find one I’m never allowed to know exactly where it leads.

As to how my own work has transformed me in the writing of it, by the time I reach the end I can barely remember the beginning. And I’m never certain to what degree I’ve changed and to what degree I remain the same.

Puneet Dutt: You have said:
“I can’t watch Hollywood films anymore because I simply find them too violent. My nervous system can’t handle it.”
What (older) movies do you recommend, or enjoy, or perhaps those that have inspired you?

Jacob Wren: I basically no longer watch films. But, there was a time in the past in which I still did. Some of the filmmakers I remember liking: Fassbinder, Godard, Passolini, Claire Denis, Gillo Pontecorvo, Roy Andersson, Pedro Costa, Lucrecia Martel, Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

There is a long section in Polyamorous Love Song about the 1990 film Close Up by Abbas Kiarostami, but I won’t give away the details here. The way that film mixes fiction and reality was very important to me at the time, another answer to your question about outside and inside.

A few nights ago I went to see the documentary Finding Fela (I can’t watch films anymore, but sometimes I can still watch documentaries) about the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. There was one moment in it, literally just a brief moment, that I can’t stop thinking about. The film is both about the life and music of Fela Kuti, and about a more recent Broadway musical based on his life and music. In the moment that struck me, the choreographer Bill T. Jones is working with the dancers in the musical. They are working on a scene around the song Zombies, which is a critique of the Nigerian military, saying all the soldiers are merely zombies who have no minds and don’t know what they’re doing. (Fela Kuti continuously put his life in danger by making such critiques.) Bill T. Jones walks on stage, and asks: “Do we have time for some quick goose-stepping here?” A moment later, he’s asking the black American dancers to goose-step during the section, and there is confusion. He repeats the word goose-step until one of the dancers admits: “I don’t know what that is.” He then demonstrates the goose-step, an exaggerated parody of a Nazi-soldier march, and quickly a quick round of goose-stepping is inserted into the musical. But it’s that moment when the dancer says “I don’t know what that is” that I keep thinking about. The dancing they were doing moments ago was fluid, alive, using the entire body as a physical, organic machine. It was the complete opposite of rigid military goose-stepping, a completely different conception of the body, of dancing, of humanity. Perhaps it is a good thing to not know what goose-stepping is. Two completely different conceptions of the human apparatus – of how we move and live in the world – colliding for a brief moment in a Broadway musical rehearsal. (In general, I would highly recommend Finding Fela, a beautifully made documentary about a fascinating, legendary figure.)

Puneet Dutt: You have said:
“question: why so much, what is the motivation behind it, what are they actually trying to do with or in the world?”
What questions did you begin to ask before you wrote
Polyamorous Love Song? What questions are you asking now?

Jacob Wren: At the beginning of Polyamorous Love Song, I was mainly thinking about artists and ethics. Why do some artists think that normal ethics don’t apply to them? (I specifically 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 had such mixed feelings about such gestures. On the one hand, my ideas and desires about art are very much complicit with excitements around transgression and boundary breaking. On the other hand, there is so much cruelty in the world already, and I feel artists shouldn’t add to this cruelty just for the sake of effect, that artists must seriously examine their own ethics and understand how their artistic gestures exist in ethical relation to the world. However, from that basic starting point the book went in so many unexpected (for me) directions: dreams, secret societies, viruses, haircuts, mascot outfits, pop songs, Nazis, small dogs, so much more.

Lately I’ve been thinking about time. How we need a new conception of time, how our current conception of time as moving forward, and things getting better over time, is a delusion that will always lead to catastrophe. We need to be more honest about the fact that things go in cycles, go in circles, that history endlessly repeats. I am fascinated by this quote from the book Empire of Neomemory by Heriberto Yépez:

“Imperial ideas transform time into space. Nomadic ideas, on the other hand, tend to understand time as a multiplicity of times. These times—tribes of monads—are autonomous from each other, each one obeying its own laws. (The notion of a single spatialized time is linked to the historical appearance of the State.) The Rarámuri, for example, developed a model based on the existence of more than one internal time, sustaining the existence of various “souls” that simultaneously co-existed within the human body. While the Huichol believe that when a pair of nomad groups meet two different times collide. This understanding of time not only functions to plumb the profound nature of the human animal but also to impede the formation of a unitary political order, a system of centralized control” (246).

Literature itself is a way of playing with time. The time of sustained reading is so different than other ways we think and use time in daily life. I have been wondering if there might be some connection between this different way of experiencing time through literature and a more general need for our culture to work towards a new conception of time.

The views expressed in this BookThug blog entry are held by the author and the interviewed author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BookThug.

Puneet Dutt is a MA candidate in the Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson University and currently works as an intern for BookThug. She has completed a marathon, and when she is not working, running, or doing coursework, she is tasting the words of great poets on her tongue. The League of Canadian Poets published her poem, “The Lonesome Lunch,” as a New Poet Selection for the 2013 National Poetry Month and her poem “Salon” was published by Canadian Literature (Summer 2013). She resides in Toronto with her husband. (Follow her on Twitter: @Puneet_Dutt.)

 

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