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I Love Poets: An Interview with Chris Kraus

After an introduction, what follows is the beginning of an email exchange I am currently conducting with Chris Kraus. More will follow in the coming days.

Chris Kraus

I Love Dick (Semiotext(e), 1997), Chris Kraus’s epistolary first novel, begins with this entry, dated December 3, 1994:

Chris Kraus, a 39 year old experimental filmmaker and Sylvere Lotringer, a 56 year old college professor from New York, have dinner with Dick __, a friendly acquaintance of Sylvere’s, at a sushi bar in Pasadena….Over dinner the two men discuss recent trends in postmodern critical theory, and Chris, who is no intellectual, notices Dick making continual eye contact with her.” [emphasis mine]

Immediately, things are complicated. Yes, the protagonist has the same name as the author of the book, collapsing, perhaps, the distance between these two figures; but this seems secondary to Kraus’s comment “and Chris, who is no intellectual…” The book features several conversations in which Chris sits like an attentive stone while Sylvere and Dick argue over the shape of contemporary critical thought. Later, Kraus the author writes of her double, “Because she does not express herself in theoretical language, no one expects too much from her and she is used to tripping out on layers of complexity in total silence.”

Kraus’s novels present a record of the performance of the masculine wielding of intellectual power and the resultant isolation—emotional, intellectual, artistic—that has shaped Kraus. What aggregates after reading her work fairly in order, ending with her most recent novel, Summer of Hate (Semiotext(e) 2012), is a complex record of self-interrogation and -doubt. Here is a writer of immense talents whom we barely know.

In Torpor, Kraus’s third novel, everyone the protagonist meets seems to really want to meet her partner, Jerome—another international intellectual (in an exciting twist, this time, instead of naming the partner “Sylvere,” she names the female protagonist “Sylvie.” Pointed? I don’t know.) The collision of autobiography, fiction, personal history, and History (about the capital H of which Kraus writes, “…as if this abstract noun was a god or person.”) is dangerous and thrilling.

“She’s writing my biography,” my wife tells me. No, she’s writing mine. We grapple over this long into the night. And then when my wife points out that Sylvie is Jerome’s silent  “co-writer” as my wife, who won’t let me name her here, is really writing this entry, I concede.


Nick Twemlow: Why do you not only read contemporary poetry, but include mentions of it in your fiction (as you must know, poets get so little press, it's always strange to encounter mention of them/it in other media)? In other words, why poetry?

Chris Kraus: Poetry is the JUICE.  I love reading poetry and remember favorite lines.  I never studied writing in any formal way, but spent several years in New York hanging around the St. Marks Poetry Project, going to all the readings.  I lived with a poet.  My friends were poets.  I went on a poetry tour with Jeff Wright and Barbara Barg and Bob Holman.  I still love reading poetry almost more than prose, for the intensity of something happening within a tight frame, with just words as variables.  I still read poetry, probably more widely than before.

NT: What are these favorite lines you remember?


Poetry's not made of words. | Ariana Reines, Mercury

Leaning up against the telegraph pole

I hand down the ritual of the road to the wires. | Marina Tsvetayeva, "Wires 2"

Sometimes when I'm in love with a person I could eat their head like a peach | Robert Dewhurst, "OMG I Ripped My Jeans"

I can't contain myself I'm full of bliss | Kurt Schwitters

A single line of poetry is enough to rid ourselves of the filth of this accursed language. | Hugo Ball, Dada Manifesto

And how are your teeth tonight?

Can you afford to fix them? | Eileen Myles, "An American Poem"

NT: Why do you think they stick?

CK: Because they so succinctly gather costly states of knowledge and emotion.

NT: What poet did you live with?

CK: Steve Levine.  He was one of the "younger poets" around St. Marks in the late 1970s, and a fantastic writer.

NT: What poet friends did you have?

CK: Steve, Jeff Wright, Susie Timmons, Barbara Barg, Rose Lesniak, Greg Masters.  Eileen Myles has become a friend since I started writing.  At the time, I was afraid of her.

NT: What is a "poetry tour"?

CK: Bob Holman must have thought that one up.  It was very enterprising.  Basically we rented a van, drove around New York State, and got paid to give readings.  I think I read prose, or else poems by other people.  In Buffalo, we crossed the Peace Bridge into Canada and solemnly stated our occupations at customs as Poets.

NT: I wonder if you would detail a bit your entrance into the New York poetry scene?

CK: Sure.  It's 1977 or 1978 and I'm newly arrived in New York, doing office temp work.  I meet Jeff Wright, also a temp, at one of these jobs in midtown.  Jeff and his family live two doors away on E. 11th Street, and we become friends.  Then, I meet the rest of the poets.

NT: In your novels, the reader encounters poetry in a sort of inside baseball way (this is a compliment; most encounters in fiction with poetry seem maudlin, out of touch, or, in most cases, treat poetry as if none of it had been written after 1912). You entered into the St. Mark’s scene in the ‘70s. You clearly have a deep relationship to poetry.

My armchair analysis is that you showed up in NYC and the poets were the only ones who would take you in, and you “will never forget,” even though you don’t write poems; indeed, you work in film and fiction, which are like the two poles standing opposite (in economic terms) from poetry (and yes, I know your films are themselves at the contra-pole of, say, Transformers). I guess I’m looking for some memoiristic anecdotes of Ted Berrigan, Myles, the Howes, Ashbery, Mayer (perhaps my all-time fav of this crew; she’s ridiculously under-appreciated, etc.) But also the answer to the question, Why didn’t you ever take up the writing of poems?

CK: Well, as above.  I didn't know the "older" poets that well, because I wasn't attending the workshops - although I went to all of the readings.  Anselm Hollo, Bernadette, Alice, Ted ... they were formidable.

Greg Masters has published the most amazing book this year, At Maureen's.  It's a dual journal he and Bernadette Mayer kept during the month they were housesitting for Maureen Owen in Guildford, Connecticut.  Bernadette was there with her family of course, and Greg was often joined by his girlfriend.  Greg and Bernadette decided to keep separate journals, then put them together to leave for Maureen as a gift at the end of the summer.

Bernadette's journal writing is so Bernadette-like—highly poetic, but also grounded and lucid.  Her daily routine of caring for young children, worrying Greg's friends think her artistic values are dated, etc.  And Greg's writing is so descriptive and candid and perfect.

It's the kind of writing that could no longer happen, because solitude, post-connectivity, is no longer the same.  It's the kind of writing I've always associated with St. Marks.  Reading it, I realized how much I've internalized that style as a benchmark of good writing: simple, detailed, mostly metaphor-free, deceptively easy reportage.

Actually now I remember visiting Maureen's one summer, watching a bunch of 14-year old boys running around on the beach.  One of them was Mark von Schlegell, the sci-fi writer and now a great friend whose three novels I've edited for Semiotext(e).

I never wrote poetry because I could never figure out the thing about line breaks and was too embarrassed to ask.

NT: Do you find anything interesting about Michel Houellebecq? I will follow up with an explanation for this question-if it isn't already obvious-after you answer. Perhaps, if yes, a few lines on what (dis)interests you about his fiction, if you please.

CK: I love Michel Houellebecq.  I think he's my favorite contemporary fiction writer.  He captures the psychic state of the present so accurately.  And not without longing.  The Map and the Territory is one of the best narratives about visual art-making I've read.  Most fiction writers deal with visual art in the same way you complain they deal with poetry.

Originally Published: July 23rd, 2013

Poet and filmmaker Nick Twemlow is a senior editor of the Iowa Review and co-editor of Canarium Books. His first collection of poetry, Palm Trees (2012), won the Norma Farber first book award from the Poetry Society of America. Judge Timothy Liu noted of Twemlow’s work, “Reading Twemlow gives one a deep sense about what's exciting...