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I Love Poets: An Interview with Chris Kraus (Part II)

This is the second part of an email exchange I recently  conducted with Chris Kraus. Read part one here.

Photo by Daniel Marlos

NT: Earlier in our interview, you wrote, "It's the kind of writing that could no longer happen, because solitude, post-connectivity, is no longer the same." Would you detail just a bit your sense of solitude pre-connectivity? How much solitude do you require to get through a day? To write? How do you obtain this solitude? I press on this because, as my friend Robert and I were talking about last night, if a person actively seeks to shutter themselves off from the world to write, it's pretty much considered unsocial. And so, the world isn't geared toward the kind of isolation most writers seek. Finding a brief pause is always filled with obstacles: work, family, debt, grant applications, single people, rich single people.

CK: A lot.  Even if I'm not working on something, I get really claustrophobic if there's not at least an hour every day to read, walk, write in my diary, just let things bounce around.  If I am working on something, I have to be careful not to engage too intensely with daily stuff before I start writing for the day, or everything is blown.  Lots of things can be done on autopilot.  I try to keep the day really tepid before I start to write.  Appointments are a killer—especially when people you really want to see come into town.  Coffee, lunch, dinner, drinks—lunch is the worst.  There are times you just have to forget it and stay home.

NT: Thinking about solitude and sense of self, in Torpor the character Sylvie accompanies Jerome to an editorial meeting and has a vivid meditation on American poetry:

Unlike Jerome, she reads a great deal of American poetry and fiction. Before she married him, she worked at a poetry center in New York. She knows the St. Marks Poets, she knows the Buddhist poets exiled in Bolinas, she knows the language poets, too. In fact, since 1989 she's edited a fiction series for Jerome's press, a kind of occupational therapy they've devised to fill the (thousands of) spare hours she has while waiting for her movies to be funded. The series features first-person fiction written by Sylvie's friends and former friends. Because most of them are women, Sylvie sees the series as a philosophical intervention. Though written in the first-person, the books are well-constructed rants, not introspective memoirs. Finally, she thinks, a female public I aimed outwards towards the world, more revolutionary than the 20th century male avant-gardes! This is the only countercultural trend worth mentioning.

Published in 2006, Torpor begins in "1989, or 1990." Do you have anything to say about the feminist first-person now? Do Sylvie's feelings reflect your own? Do her editorial interests echo your own mission statement, if there is one, as editor of Semiotext(e)'s Native Agents series, which has published, among many, Kathy Acker and Eileen Myles?

CK: Definitely I was thinking about my work with Native Agents in the early 1990s when I wrote that.  It pretty much summarizes how I saw the project at the time.  But then mission was accomplished. At least, my part.  The first set of books were New York writers who I'd known, like Acker, Myles, Cookie Mueller, Lynne Tillman, David Rattray and Ann Rower.  There was a second wavelet of younger people like Michelle Tea when I moved to the west coast.  But then my interests changed.  The first-person, per se, was no longer so important.  I was drawn to writing that's conceptual and embodied at the same time, that's very serious but doesn't take itself too seriously. And there's a politics in this.  That change dovetailed with Hedi El Kholti joining us as a co-editor in 2004.  Hedi, Sylvere Lotringer, and I are now co-editors across the list, although it's mostly Hedi and I who work on Native Agents. I've never edited a Foreign Agents book.  Hedi brought in writers like Abdellah Taia, Tony Duvert, William E. Jones, and Bruce Hainley.  Recently we've done fiction books like Jarett Kobek's Atta, Veronica Gonzalez Pena's The Sad Passions, and Travis Jeppesen's The Suiciders.

The feminist first-person has been picked up by other people now, in other ways.  I always like it best when it has a larger politics. Unfortunately, what happens is the life-style aspect gets all the coverage, eclipsing all the other aspects of a book.

NT: Also in Torpor (sorry about obsessing over it; it's a house favorite), some of the characters are playing a game called Who's Peaked, which charts the trajectory of cultural figures and trends. The obsession with what's in and what's out masks the real concern in the novel, it seems to me, regarding identity and culture on a deeper and much more violent level. One could say the real game played for very high stakes in this novel is, Who's Jewish? Can you think aloud for a moment about the role of the Jew wandering, as it were, in space and syntax in the modern novel? I hope this isn't too personal, but is anything too personal? How did an American Jew get the name Chris?

CK: The Jew thing was huge when I was moving in that world of older, European Jews.  Definitely 'who's Jewish' became a kind of game, was that Stine a Stein?  LaVigne a Levine?  Not to mention what KIND of Jew—German, best; then Russian or other East European; the Poles were proles.  It's hard to believe.  In LA, and New York as well, "Jewish" hardly registers as an identity any more at all.

There was this cloud of negativity obviously, the Holocaust and its aftermath, behind this intense identification with Jewishness, across the culture, high and low.  Like other nationalisms, it's a mixed bag: it thrives on lack, resentment, deprivation, but those are very animating things.  The lost Jewish culture of New York is like a lost regional, work-class culture.

I'm only half a Jew, and technically not one at all—my father's, not my mother's family, are Jewish.  My father distanced himself from his family, and from Judaism too.  But I lived with Sylvere Lotringer for a decade, learned a lot from his experience as a child survivor of the War.

Originally Published: July 31st, 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...