Follow Harriet on Twitter
ArtTalks Interviews Josef Kaplan: “The problem is that you even have to buy an apple”
A great interview is up at ArtTalks with Harriet fanatic Josef Kaplan, author of Democracy Is Not for the People (Truck Books 2012). Kaplan addresses issues bound (and probably not bound) to come up in a thorough engagement with his work, such as the “political work poetry is capable of,” violence/gentrification, the worthlessness/value of art and poetry, and whether or not to consider his poems as satirical:
JK: I think art is in a lot of ways already meaningless. I think that’s probably one of its strengths.
To risk sounding redundant, the idea that art or poetry would or should have any kind of political value, that idea might be a cultural expectation that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on what poetry and art are, actually, in the world. Poetry and art are formal categories. They aren’t responsible for anything because they themselves don’t make decisions. So it doesn’t much matter whether they’re marginalized or not. It seems better to think about art and poetry in terms of what is unique to them, in terms of what they, as categories, encompass, and to ask: “What are the ways in which we can radicalize formal positions within art and poetry?” And then, similarly, to think about what makes politics politics and ask: “How can we radicalize that?”
Does that make sense?
AT: That makes a lot of sense. Do you think one of the problems is that the discourse has collapsed? That people don’t insist on a distinction between the discourse of art and poetry and the discourse of politics? Let me ask you this: do you think that artists and poets believe that what they are doing is a social good?
JK: I’ll absolutely argue against the idea that poetry can or should generate a kind of social good – that’s bullshit, and it makes for boring, affirmative, congratulatory poetry. And it’s because the examples of that being the case pertain to things that are generally outside of poetry, and based largely in select, predetermined social effects, most often boring ones. For example: “Poetry can build a community of engaged individuals!” Except you can find a wide spectrum of things, of kinds of writing, or any number of activities that put people in dialogue and build a community. I mean, a knitting circle does that, you know? Not to knock knitters, though also fuck knitting. I’m kidding. Not really.
AT: I imagine people might read your piece and consider it as satire.
JK: Yeah. It’s not.
Kaplan also addresses poetry as a social good (“that’s bullshit”)–or, really, the need to distinguish between “articulation and efficiency”:
AT: I think something that ties into this conversation of gentrification is the way people moralize their behavior. For example, you buy organic food, you shop at the farmers’ market, you’re really into art and poetry, you buy the glasses that I’m wearing where the company donates a pair to a person somewhere—you buy into a mythology—and I think people begin to think that they’re not as jealous and protective of their material conditions as they truly are.
So that one of the important tasks of poetry and art is to at least have a conversation that is a little bit more open and honest about the fact that people really love their stuff. They’re really connected to it. My friends who work for environmental nonprofits, for example, at the end of the day, they don’t want to not be able to buy all of the great food that they can buy at Whole Foods. They’re actually really committed to their luxurious lifestyle. And I think pointing that out is something that doesn’t happen often enough. So maybe the question I want to ask you is, do you think your poetry, which can be politically oriented, has any efficacy in this light?
JK: I think the difference is between articulation and efficacy. Poetry is maybe one way to talk about politics in interesting ways, to demonstrate a kind of political logic that people may not be ordinarily willing to formulate. The disconnect happens when people think that articulation translates into capability. And it’s unfortunate for poetry because that idea severely limits the kinds of articulations you might otherwise achieve without that expectation. Poetry itself doesn’t do shit. Which is why you can have things happen in poetry that would be horrifying or terrible if conceived of in spheres outside of poetry. Which is honestly the best part about poetry.
To relate that to the lifestyle stuff you’re talking about: buying an organic apple as opposed to a normal apple isn’t political work. The problem is that you even have to buy an apple. You can do these little negotiations, these nice things within a metasystem that is inherently corrupt and destructive, but you’re not doing the hard work of breaking apart the system, which is what is actually necessary. Poetry, like some shitty organic apple, can’t burn shit down. Poetry can signify certain things that relate to it, but a poem is never going to, I don’t know, loot a Foot Locker. It’s not something you can expect a poem to do. And every Foot Locker should obviously be looted. So, if you want to do political work, maybe you should loot a Foot Locker instead of writing a poem. Or write a poem and then loot a Foot Locker. As long as the Foot Locker gets looted.