Poetry News

Rob Halpern Discusses Common Place, Utopia, Autopsy Reports & More at Open House

By Harriet Staff


At Open House, an interview with Rob Halpern about his latest book, Common Place (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015). Editor Cosmo Spinosa asks the tough questions. "CS: So what do you think the link is between the soldier and the detainee? Do they occupy a common place? RH: I’m curious–can I throw this back at you, Cosmo? I mean, what do you think? What’s your sense?" Another tough question:

CS: ...[T]his brings us to the question of Kenneth Goldsmith and the “Body of Michael Brown” performance. So I’m just going to read this question to you and you can answer if you’d like: In the erased performance of “The Body of Michael Brown” by Kenneth Goldsmith, a similar procedure and material are used to construct the text. This is not to invite a comparison between Michael Brown’s wrongful murder or Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy report and your treatment of the detainee’s body in Common Place, but there is a procedural similarity and also a risk that your text will be perceived in a similar way, because it does rehash violence done as the result of a system of white supremacy and colonialism. So, how do you view your text in light of Goldsmith’s performance? How do you view the treatment of the detainee in light of Goldsmith’s performance, or how do you view it differing from his performance?

RH: You know, Cosmo, I was totally freaked-out by Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, but for reasons that might be a little self-centered. The launch date for Common Place was May 1, just a few weeks after “The Body of Michael Brown” exploded on social media and I was mortified, not only by the performance but because I was anxious that my use of these Gitmo reports would get conflated with Goldsmith’s spectacle. I just couldn’t get beyond the superficial—and I’m a little embarrassed to say—but, you know, like What’s going to happen to my book in the wake of this?! And while I knew that there was little to warrant a meaningful comparison, I was still afraid that I might be called out, especially given the current climate.

Anyway, one of the many problems with Goldsmith’s performance is its total failure to demystify the autopsy report itself or to foreground its politics or draw attention to all the antagonisms around its production. I mean, there were three different autopsies conducted on Michael Brown’s body, yielding three different reports, and the contestations around the production of “fact” is what’s critical here, right? First, there was the official St. Louis County report, followed by a private autopsy commissioned by the family, and a subsequent third ordered by the Justice Department under federal investigation headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, and that one was conducted by the military, which in itself brings the whole devastating saga full circle, insofar as it began with a militarized police force. But all this was obscured in Goldsmith’s performance.

Obviously, I’m interested in the way autopsy reports are used to “document” casualties of racialized violence, and the way those documents turn bodies into so much human material to be processed into facts that service, justify and defend the same institutions that are responsible for abandoning—and banning—those bodies in the first place, that is, for allowing them to be killed without being legally murdered. Whether Goldsmith’s performance extended the violence of that institution, or if it made “poetry” a prosthetic of that injury, these are questions that have been taken up elsewhere, and I want to comment here more personally...

Read more at Open House.