Issue 9

An Interview with Mark Lamoureux

 · Nonfiction

By Christopher Schaeffer

Mark Lamoureux has spent his career mining the vein of rich weirdness that American poets from Poe to Charles Olson to Kathy Acker have reveled in carving out and getting lost in. His work balances the bold imagistic strokes of the imagists and surrealists with a wry, sly grounding in pop culture and the experience of the body in time. Reading Lamoureux’s poetry is entering into a suspension between two modes of reading and thinking—a state in which images of staggering strangeness and clarity can meet their complements in perfectly pitched declensions into humor and precisely measured pathos.

When I first read his 2013 book, 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years, published by Pressed Wafer, I felt much like I did when I first picked up Jack Spicer years ago at a used-book sale—a sense of the lyric being used in new and challenging ways, while still playing within the rhetorics of collective experience. Lamoureux’s latest projects, in addition to 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years, include the 2013 chapbook Allsorts, published by Ixnay Press, and Horse Less Press’s 2014 Hours. A book from Black Radish is forthcoming in 2016. In addition, Lamoureux is the editor of Cy Gist Press, which has put out recent works by Stephen Campiglio, Chris McCreary, and Christina Strong, all of which are available here.

Your new chapbook, Hours, and your 2013 book, 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years, both take a sort of schematic approach to time. In the former, we’re taken from 8 AM to 8 AM on an hour-to-hour basis, while, in 39 Years, each poem covers one year from 1972 to 2011. And yet even within this framework, these projects adopt radically different approaches to time.

What is behind the appearance, in such close succession, of two such strictly temporally bounded projects as 39 Years and Hours, and what was it like stepping away from the looser, more sweeping engagement with time in some of your earlier work? And what can you say about the difference in what comes out of the respective temporalities of the two texts in question, which do seem to be working so differently?

Regarding time, I think that temporality is one of the great themes of poetry — after all, as far back as the 18th century, Lessing espoused the virtues of poetry being rooted in time as opposed to sculpture and painting’s basis in space. Lessing, of course was talking about the fact that poetry is experienced temporally by way of words being read in linear time, however I think poetry has a deep engagement with time in its temporality and its seriality—which is not to say that either of these need be experienced linearly. My own interest in time is unsurprising given that the works which first really seriously brought me to poetry, Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of classical Chinese poetry, come from a poetics for which the experience of time is one of the governing tropes; the Chinese poets’ relationship to time is far more complex than a cursory glance reveals. I highly recommend Stephen Owens’ book Omen of the Word: Classical Chinese Poetry and Poetics for a thorough exploration of this.

I think Rexroth’s translations along with Owens’ book laid the groundwork for what I would later do with time in 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years and Hours, though stylistically they may seem to have little in common. The two sections of 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years were written almost a decade apart, with the 39 Years section being added to the initial 29 Cheeseburgers chapbook published by Pressed Wafer, which had gone out of print. 29 Cheeseburgers is an early exploration of seriality and memory; Stuart Kelly’s assessment in Poetry Review of the titular device being a kind of “more calorific Proustian madeleine” is more or less accurate. The title and device are intentionally ironic, though perhaps upon close inspection less so in retrospect than they seemed at the time I was writing them in the early 21st century.

With 39 Years, I was looking for a slightly more complex exploration of time and memory and, for lack of a better word, nostalgia. I wanted to give a sense of the disordered sweep of a life while still providing some sort of concrete anchor point for what was not entirely a narrative. I realized that one of the ways that I measured time internally was through products and popular culture, e.g. “this is the year I discovered Joy Division,” “this is the year I received Castle Greyskull for Christmas.” So what I attempted to do was to provide a kind of nonlinear narrative built upon the skeleton of popular culture, limiting the lyric/narrative and building a kind of Riccian memory palace of cultural detritus in the hopes that this would both alienate the reader and also give them a sense of shared experience by way of the, in some instances, easily recognizable references. I think this works best for readers who are roughly the same age as me and can readily identify the references.

In that sense, the work also performs a kind of documentation, a kind of lexical time capsule similar, in some ways, to Warhol’s time capsules comprised or item of presumably personal relevance that become mere collections of junk when stripped of context, albeit collections of junk infused with great cultural significance by way of Warhol’s celebrity. I suppose the poems of 39 Years perform the same function minus the celebrity.

Hours, as you point out, is a much different project. I had as my model for these poems the medieval book of hours. These books presented you with a series of prayers and aphorisms relating to the time of day providing a kind of ritual devotional map of the day. Insofar as capitalism is the official religion of our culture, I was trying to create a kind of capitalist book of hours, although, of course, it is coming from a narrator who is alienated from capitalism. Many of these poems come from having, as an adjunct professor, ridden NYC transit at various odd hours such as early in the morning where, for example, most of the people you see are contractors, day laborers, domestic aids and service-industry workers, and late at night with club kids, drunks, and service-industry workers returning home. It’s a view of the capitalist day centered around the sacrosanct “nine to five,” but attempting to include the rest of the hours as well to show the larger picture, which, when scrutinized, becomes sort of sinister. Insofar as we are all swallowed by, and most likely also alienated from, capitalism, I think it becomes the sort of “universalized experience” you refer to.

City/Temple, the earliest work you refer to and more or less my earliest published work, gives a kind of parable of loss in tandem with thinking about the then-current invasion of Iraq. It is much more narrative than anything else I’ve ever published so, in that respect, offers another view of time even though, as you mention, it is ambiguously located in historical time. It does, in that respect, pay an homage to weird fiction like that of Robert E. Howard, whom you mention, although I wasn’t reading him at the time. Even though these works approach their tasks in very different ways, I think that they are all facets of the same project, which is conveying the perspective of the alienated subject, the classic modernist project. At the end of the day, I am most likely just a garden-variety modernist, albeit one who occupies a very specific moment in collapsing late capitalist society. My overall project is to document the intellectual, emotional and spiritual ramifications of that collapse, I suppose.

So before turning to your chapbook Allsorts and its much different relationship to citation and reference, I want to ask: how do you approach these more ephemeral or marginal cultural products—comics, Atari games, Castles Greyskull, Dungeons Master’s Guides—as objects of poetic attention, or as aesthetic objects, categories for which the existing critical vocabulary only goes so far?

In terms of how I handled that sort of “marginalized” material, I guess Warhol comes up again—that’s a kind of an expected analogy, but it’s true. I actually didn’t like Warhol for the longest time because I basically read him as archly ironic, but after reading a bit more about him and looking at the stuff for a long time, I realized there isn’t much ironic distance there at all. Those objects he deified meant something to him, personally, and therein lay their resonance as “art.” He likes the way the Campbell’s Soup cans look all together neatly lined up on the shelves.

I do the same thing in 39 Years; that is, not attaching any ironic distance to the material at all—no distinction between “high” or “low” tropes, because there wasn’t any during the periods of my life I am addressing and, honestly, there isn’t much now. That material was formative and transformative for me—comics and later Dungeons and Dragons, punk rock, the occult—gave me a way of both ordering and escaping from my universe. I’m not sure I could have made it though adolescence and early adulthood without those outlets, so, as such, they are very important to me autobiographically—and 39 Years is essentially an autobiography—an autobiography, as it were, of “stuff.” 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years has been described as cryptic and byzantine, but for me it’s actually very ordered—these are very concrete associations that emerge from thinking about specific years of my life—as such they constitute a kind of memory palace, albeit one filled with debris and organized in a way that perhaps only makes sense to me. It’s a free-associative manner of recollection, but if you repeated the experiment the same references would emerge every time. If you look at a physical analog of an artist’s memory palace, a cluttered studio, you will probably wind up with some sense of the artist himself or herself that emerges from the disorder.

This is the reason museums will attempt to recreate say, Rauschenberg’s studio or Proust’s childhood room—replete with the iconic magic lantern—which I visit in the poem “2009.” I’m making a leap of faith assuming that the reader is going to be interested in my “studio,” but that is of course a leap you have to make in order to publish at all. “2009” gives a good example of the process of the book — describing things I saw while visiting France spliced with the stuff from Bernard the Poet from the Lee/Kirby X-Men, which was something I just happened to be reading at the time on my laptop, so that kind of jarring parataxis is just provided by unedited narrative, forgoing, I guess, the cliché “poetic license,” which, in fact, yields something that is ultimately more poetic.

Ultimately the process isn’t very mysterious. Reviewers have described 39 Years as a complicated text, but I actually think of it as a kind of primitivism, a primitivism which can get misinterpreted as archness, much like pop art can be—its success depends on the reader’s ability to triangulate the level of irony involved, which, thankfully, you correctly identify as little to none. The lack of critical vocabulary about some of the subjects I address is curious, but I think it comes from this general resistance to allowing “junk” culture to intrude upon our sacrosanct outlets of “high” culture—this is nothing new, pop art happened in the 1960s, but in poetry I’d still say there is perhaps still some resistance, people clinging to the high/low distinction—there’s this door for the “low” to enter by way of camp or irony, but it’s a kind of back door. The art critic Barbara Rose famously said of Roy Lichtenstein’s work at a show at the Guggenheim: “I find his images offensive: I am annoyed to have to see in a gallery what I’m forced to look at in the supermarket. I go to the gallery to get away from the supermarket, not to repeat the experience.” Lichtenstein, is of course, holding comic art at arm’s length and putting it forward as a kind of kitsch; this is the way that that culture was able to filter into “high art,” and we especially see this in contemporary poetry that is fascinated with popular culture, but in this arch, critical way—what I was trying to do was something much simpler—just unironically collaging the detritus of my own past in a way that’s not terribly critical or aesthetically edited. A kind of chaos results, but it is a chaos that I find interesting and hopefully the reader will find interesting.

I’m interested in how you bring up a formative interest in the occult and how that might bridge what you describe as a kind of chaos of associative detritus in 39 Years’s method, and your earlier description of the same poem as “very ordered.” So first of all, could you elaborate about the specific occult archive you’re speaking about? 

And, to jump tracks, how this might bear on Allsorts, which, you mention on your blog, had roots in a very sort of procedural, chance-based project? How does this tendency, which I’m reading as a very sort of serious lyric commitment — come together with this more aleatoric, “chaos” or “detritus” oriented formal process?

When I say “occult,” I’m referring to a very teenage version of it — in the form of an interest in tarot cards (which I came into contact with by way of my stepmother and stepsister), astrology, psychic phenomena. We used to play around with Ouija boards and pendulums, as in the poem in 29 Cheeseburgers. I guess in that respect there’s a kinship to Merrill. I’m not sure any of that influenced my aesthetics in any way beyond a sort of Romantic interest in the supernatural. It didn’t manifest in any kind of aesthetic or spiritual practice in any sense.

It’s very hard for a human to arbitrarily produce anything truly chaotic without involving chance procedures — which in the case of 39 Years only happens to be those things that fall within a given year. The free-associative chaos within those individual years must adhere to some king of conscious or subliminal order though who knows whether that order will be consciously apparent to me, or to the reader for that matter. The consciousness at work in 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years is definitely one that is on the verge of collapse — I feel like I am most of the time — but aren’t we all, really? Isn’t that the nature of order in the Moorcockian pscyhomachia of the universe — doomed to eventually be subsumed by chaos but then reconstructed ad infinitum.

To answer your question about lyricism in Allsorts — I am becoming more interested (or I guess perhaps re-interested) in lyricism in recent years and that is reflected in Allsorts. While I apply some arbitrary patterns in those poems inspired by the candy-shapes, with most of those poems there is definitely intent and order and lyricism. Those particular poems are particularly death-haunted and I guess Bowie-haunted, too. I tend to take external stimuli like the allsorts shapes or songs and use them as catalysts for a kind of free-association — this is where my interest in ekphrasis comes from — because a lot of times I feel myself very mired in silence, so in replying to these other works I establish my own voice and place by a kind of echolocation of one work against the other. I suppose there’s something aleatory in that insofar as I am always speaking in relation to something made by someone else that I don’t entirely control, although there is definitely intent and order going on on both ends.

I have a resistance to falling completely into chance and chaos with the work, an urge to try to push the spilling guts back into the opened chest that is essentially self-preservative, the ego trying to maintain itself against the obliterating chaos of chance. I guess I’m not ready to give up the Modernist project completely, though I realize there’s something quixotic about it. I suppose I’m like Proust in that sense of a not entirely aged person clinging to traditions of the past — in this case, lyricism — that happened too long ago to really assert any kind of intrinsic or instinctive resonance. It winds up being this lyricism that’s more like a vague idea of lyricism filtered through Postmodern disorder — sort of your Gamma World mutant king wearing a cardboard Burger King crown and lording over a bunch of sentient rats. That’s a good image to stop on, I think.

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