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Brandan Griffin’s Impastoral
Interviewed by Anastasios Karnazes

Brandan Griffin’s debut Impastoral, out from Omnidawn in May, bodies the nature averse tendencies of ecopoetic trends by turning the site of the book into a space for phrasing out new natures or subjectivities within its environment. His letters and words are real traces of real organisms.

I remember our friendship beginning with walks through Central Park. We would often walk the whole length of the park, our conversations spreading and multiplying like a protoplastic mass, though I cannot remember ever encountering any other organism– no raccoons, squirrels, or starlings I think of when I think about the park’s creaturely life. Perhaps the conversations obscured my vision like how I imagine having a baby makes you blind to the cries and fits of other public babies, though I could be wrong.

At the inaugural moment of his first book, I wanted us to conceive one of these masses together, so we recorded a new conversation through a proprietary videotelephony software program, transcribed using a speech to text transcription and translation application using artificial intelligence, before editing into its current form.

How would you define your style?

I framed it to myself later on as learning how to type. Like when you go from knowing how to ride a bike to really knowing how to ride a bike, so you can do BMX stuff. When you get your MFA, you're learning how to write but it's mostly just putting words in the right order and putting in linebreaks, but after that it’s learning how to actually arrange letters. It was a new thing that I had to teach myself. Now I sometimes I call it hologlyphic typing. But that's something from later poems that aren't in the book. But yeah, I guess an emphasis on the glyph, the individual character, and then holo meaning everything and holographic as in being able to inscribe higher dimensional space on a lower one. How the arrangement of glyphs is able to capture some higher dimensional space of phenomenon or experience.

What brought you to the letter or glyph specifically.

As a poet, you pay attention to things on a smaller scale than you do if you're writing prose. So the logical conclusion is just to keep getting more and more fine grained. As far as I can tell, a letter is basically as small as you can get. But maybe, in the future, I don't know what people will be like making poems with… half letters or strokes. But beyond the letter, you're just doing a pure visual poetry. The limit to where you're still writing a lyric is the letter.

Your writing’s attention to the glyph feels new and old. While reading your book this time, I noticed more Medieval and early religious references, which is also a period where normative spelling is not a thing. 

Do you think there's looking back in the new formal awareness?

With the medieval stuff, the spellings definitely attract me as, to our eyes, this aberrant, mischievous, like totally wrongheaded way of approaching language, totally non standardized. When you look at Middle English spelling there are so many different dialects and uses of letters. I think it's weird because the Middle Ages in our imaginations are once this authoritarian, ecclesiastical society, monarchy, but on the other hand, there's all these ways in which things were totally up for grabs. And there was such an imagination about how the world works. So with the drolleries poem, even within the monastery, which is like this very rigidly structured place, there's this room for play within the manuscripts where they would draw rabbits throwing burning oil down on to people and jousting rabbits on snails and stuff like that. And the attention to form in medieval writing and society is interesting because all these medieval poems are really highly structured from the level of the stanza and the line to the arrangement of the whole poem.And then to my, I'm not a medievalist, but to my imagination, it expands outward through medieval society, because medieval society also has this structure that mirrors the cosmos, and then within the poem, that's the same thing. The monastery is again this rigid, unicellular organism or something.

So, it's a different world that we can see through our imaginative modern eyes as this weird, cosmological, really dirty organism, you know, you look back on it, it's filthy, and really spiritual and deranged. So in a way I think it becomes a figure for thinking about life forms as these things that are both a cell or an organism that’s tyrannical in its organization of itself. But then there's also this leaky, dirty playfulness. If you zoom out from the great cosmological scheme of the society down or zoom in down to the spelling of individual words, all of that is there to our modern eyes. Yeah, does that make sense?

We both care about the specific conditions of writing, as in a keyboard, or a sheet of paper and pen, or a scroll, and want to bring that into the text.

Well, I was just gonna say the other thing about the Middle Ages is that it's the last period of writing before the printing press, which is when typing begins. Because as we all know, Gutenberg was the first person to type. So I think that's this cut off point. Writing is this other separate organism. That was the time of writing. And after that, the Renaissance and then the beginning of typing.

We have to remember that typing is not only what you do on a keyboard, but also the standardization of letters.

The letters come out of the monk, whereas the typesetter reaches into the container for the S's, and pulls out an S, it comes from outside of them. And they have to make do with that, in their own way which is different. So on one hand, you have this structure where the hand becomes this sort of beak or a bird feather that letters flow out of continuously, but for the typesetter, it's the fingers reaching in and grabbing things, which eventually become our fingers reaching onto the keyboard. So it's different, the monks had to standardize their own handwriting to make it beautiful and legible, but it’s a different kind of standardization for the typesetter.

In the monk’s case, every S they write is a different S. Whereas every S we type is supposed to be the same. Do you think each time you use a letter in Impastoral it's the same?

It matters that things are arranged in words like, where the word makes the letter different. The U in “slug” is different from the U in “pluck.” The contextualization creates an identity for that moment. And if you spell slug with two U’s, that's a whole new thing. And those U’s are doing a whole new thing. So the relationship between part and whole is important. And it makes this way of thinking about typing less like Kabbalah or numerology, where letters have this transcendental value. To really embrace typing, though, you have to see letters as very much specific and context dependent. Which is different. I don't know how that would relate to different medieval attitudes towards writing. Kabbalah is a more medieval phenomenon. And it's a handwritten phenomenon, as opposed to the typist's way of organization which is very worldly and specific.

Also definitely with printed pages there's no original, there are only copies. Even the typeset isn't an original because it's backwards. It's mirrored, so it can print in the right direction. But maybe we think about monks writing on a page as being in some way an original even though they often copied from other manuscripts or transcribed from oral traditions.

Also the page they're writing on is an animal, it's one copy. I don't know how many skins it takes to make a book. Hundreds. So it's different even in the material of the copy. With paper, all these trees are pulped into one mass. It's not that this page is a foot of skin from one animal. So it becomes about mass production, we type on these mass produced laptops, using these fonts already designed for us that everyone uses.

We really just went vegetarian. But the switch from animal to tree is also from single organism to genus amalgamation. From murder to genocide.

I'm not gonna condone the final four words.

Let's edit that out… Now, the computer is made of metals, rocks, and minerals.

I love the printing press as the beginning of vegetarianism assessment. But also you could understand the transition as moving from hunting to factory farming. The specificity of lives changes, wherein the Middle Ages if you kill an animal you kill a specific animal, but in modernity production is dispersed and hidden, and lives blend together. And then the mineral thing, definitely, the inorganic is really important, rare metals, common plastics. Also energy, electricity. There's so much to do in terms of thinking through what it means to type a poem and how to make a poem that shows that it's been typed and show something about where this current technological situation puts us in material terms and also imaginative terms, spiritual terms, I feel like your writing, Taso, really addresses where this combination of material reality and the crazy virtual and affective spaces it puts us inn, how those two combine in a new way. I think about it more in terms of how we can use this technology to help us think through ways that worlds might be put together. There's always that drive to on one hand conjecture an infinite virtual realm that is neither human nor inhuman but to which all things have access and then on the other hand the drive to create many distinct worlds that are only inhabited by certain kinds of beings.

There are many microorganisms in the scene of your poems, and yet they feel in sync with the macroorganism structure of the poem.

Starting from the very smallest units, with the letters, was also a way of finding how to write a line again, because, once you're just throwing letters together in ways that they shouldn't be appearing, you start seeing how many spelling's a line can hold until it becomes too much to look at, and then a stanza. Once I admitted that the writing was going to be super visual, it was easier to think about what a line is. Poetry often has this lie about what it is, where it appears on the page, but you're not really supposed to see it on the page, it’s supposed to be this thing that exists as a voice. I never really understood what a line break is, in that I can't actually hear the line breaks, when people read poems for instance. But once I saw it as purely visual, and built from the ground up, it made more sense.

So the line depends on how many versions of a word you can fit without visually bloating.

The gesture of repeating a word with different spellings to me is about this feeling of trying to get the word out in the right form, but not being able to. Writing a word that was so muddled, that you wouldn't be able to know what it was unless I repeated it in a more mundane form. That too has its own little rhythm and gesture to it within the line.

And it's like, what if you couldn't press backspace, because that would be a lie about the relationship between your text and time. Normally when we edit, we press backspace all the time, it collapses all these times of writing into this transcendental time, or the poem is always in this final form. What if, the lines at least attempted to track what it means to type and try to type again, a little bit more, which is like an organism, that can't just press backspace and go back to you know, t = -1.

A really interesting part of writing in general is the way that all these drafts accrete on one another and then become this finished draft that's much better than the previous ones. It's done through this lie about time, where it's supposed to read like it was written in one go. If you care about conveying the revisability of text in the reading process, you have to perform revision, since no one wants to read something that's all your drafts and revisions. But can you compress your point about revision enough to capture it in a way that feels real? I think that would be the art of it.

In “Probe,” there’s “I am what I'm going to do.” At first, I had a question about the determinism. But then I realized that it's future tense, so now I wonder, does that match up with what you say about revising the word along the line?

That poem performs this revision or self interruption in a different way. There's a few points where it will cut off and become a little fragmented or jagged. I don't think I'm a determinist. But I also don't think I would know what any of us should be, I don't even know if we know what we mean when we say these things. Though I think organisms are like machines, and machines are like organisms in a lot of ways. If we imagine a world that is built up out of experiencing little tiny phenomena, or experiencing units as its fundamental parts, we could imagine building machines out of little effervescent phenomena, until they become molecules, cells, and computer parts, etc. So would those phenomena that we turned into machines be making decisions? Or would they just be doing things, and what would the difference even be? But anyway, in that poem, the probe has this mission. If you're a probe sent out into space, you actually don't get to accomplish your mission for years. And then Voyager won’t finish its final task for 4 like a few cosmic cycles or so. That thinking is kind of like teleological, part of the thing's identity has to do with what it's ultimately set out to do by whoever created it. Which is a halfway point between determinism and freewill. The voice in that poem definitely is an independent, thinking thing that is aware of what it is going to do and then that what it's going to do makes it what it is and that it was created to do so. But also, the carrying out of that task gives it some inner life. What's your sense of this whole issue?

I want to ask about the difference between your organic creatures and inorganic ones. Interestingly, the inorganic, or the probe has a more human relationship to its life. The typical organism poem seems to have a multi-vocal sense of itself. What's the difference between writing a machine and writing an organism?

In this book there is this riot of slimy creatures that are spilling out of each other. Even the plant poem that's written to my house plant isn’t a self contained thing. In the writing itself, I ended up imagining the house plant as being full of these other life forms in various ways. I feel like we know life better than we know machines and just in the fact that we're lifeforms, rather than like probes, means we have a sense of our own body, that we’re a somewhat unified thing, but that’s also out of control in a lot of ways. Most of our organs are doing this independent thing inside that we would have no idea of, we don't even feel what they're doing. I was helping a student with her anatomy and physiology class. And we're looking at these diagrams of parts of the body. The rudimentary way of thinking about having a human body is you're this soul, you have your brain, which is this squiggly looking muscle, and then you have some other muscles and some blood and some bones. And then that's basically how the world is structured. But there are so many levels of complexity before you ever get to that. So we live with this aspect of being made and part of so many complicated things. But with a machine, it's a different thing, because we're not made in a factory. When I wrote that probe poem, it's more like this being doesn't exist by virtue of millions of years of evolution, and really messy killing and intercourse and stuff, it exists by virtue of a human plan that was executed, probably in the course of several years. So it's a different kind of entity that exists more by virtue of human rationality, rather than the natural rationality of evolution. In that moment, it's meant more to be like this kind of foil to the human. Like this other human looking back on us and understanding why it exists and who we are. That was where I was at with technology, and that's the most technological poem in the book.

There's this question of, if you’re considering the history of life on Earth, what do you do with technology? How do you envision what you should do with it? In some ways, technology recapitulates structures that evolution created in a much longer period of time. The bodies of arthropods become wrenches. So we're trying to do a similar thing, but within the scope of human lives. But obviously, evolution is really mean and cruel. Look at the way life is, even before climate change. It's pretty rough. So, what do you do about technology? Considering all that, do you just continue to recapitulate the structures of the natural world? But then, on the other hand, just having faith in some sort of non-material, human rationality is also a bad bet. And I think that's part of “Probe” and “It goes on inventing.”

Can you say more about technology recapitulating structures?

Human technology seems to recapitulate innovations that evolution has made, not necessarily mirror images, but there's some sense of us trying to do things within the span of 100 years that took evolution 5 millions and millions of years. And I think that also goes for cognitive things. There are ways in which evolution has memory and goal directed behaviors that like our brains kind of recapitulate. But I guess I'm trying to think about what our relationship to that process is, which is not necessarily ethical, or moral, or leading to a good outcome. Do we just continually make things that help us get better at killing or get better at extracting nourishment from the environment? Or do we find a way forward beyond? Beyond the natural, if technology is actually just an extension of the natural rather than a foil to it? I don't know if this is an argument that the book really, is making but…

How is it different?

Where I'm at now, I want to write something that gets us beyond what seems like has to be the case, because of how life on Earth is, killing and dying and eating each other. That's how things seem like they have to be. So that's what most of our technology is about. Technology in that case is just an extension of what evolution has made us, but can we write ourselves into something that's still context sensitive, but is seeing contexts that are not connected to that evolutionary plan? Impastoral is more concerned with the the terror and beauty of evolved life forms. And then the same thing with technology. And also how technology reflects who humans are, because in that book I didn't really want there to be any humans. Except I guess insofar as technology is kind our imprint on the natural world.

You suggested that there is some other more recent relationship to technology?

I think just imagining even more disjunctive worlds, that's my impulse, going further and further down the road of worldly disjunctions. But you have to write yourself to the limits of whatever world you can see, in order to get to the next one. And beyond that. Can there even be a world without killing or dying or eating each other that makes sense in relation to this one? And how can we understand composition? Our facts of being composed by other beings and other beings being composed by us? Like, what role does that play? And then these other worlds? Because I think the problem of life is that we are made of other living things, and we eat other living things. And that's all tied up. We're not just discrete actors separated by empty space. Everything's on top of each other and relying on the death and transfer of energy from other living things in order to move on. So, how can we imagine worlds that are like that, but that are better? So typing…

Yeah, it reminds me of the sparrow typing in the puddle. 

We're at the weird moment where technology is obviously ruining the world, but it's also the only way of thinking about it and knowing that it's ruining the world. So you have to find something to do with that.

Can you spell that out for me? How is that the case?

Environmental degradation and all the things we do to get our computer parts, and the things we do to people in order to get those computers made, factory farming, industrial agriculture, all these things are really bad for people and for the other animals and plants in the world. But we use computers and satellites to see that these things are happening. So, how do you as a tiny human being use your computer to see other worlds that make sense in disjunction with ours? For Impastoral, the other worlds were just 6 other animals and other plants and stuff, worlds within our world. But now, I think about how I can take these worlds and not just rebuild our world, but build a world adjacent. And then also, how can I understand how our world is built? Impastoral doesn't really construct like a world, at least not in a rigorous way. It's just these distinct creatures that are leaking into each other. There's not really a sense of any formalism or rigorousness to how you would piece them all together, but can we start thinking about that? And I think when we understand how things are made of other things, that also helps us understand what's right and what's wrong in some way. If you know that the way a cow is constructed leads it to meaningful experiences that changes how you're going to treat that cow.

That reminds me of Four Concretures. Because that's a book where each creature has a definite relationship. Or connection.

There's something lost because Impastoral let's writing be writing more so than Four Concretures, because it lets it jump around, and pull in more things. Whereas Four Concretures is very rigid, where either this writing reflects this particular state of the world, or it doesn't. So, there is less room. Some writing has this static cling to it, where as it goes along, there’s more than just one person talking, it's polyvocal, and full of references. But the more you get into piecing together different voices to form a clearly defined goal, you have to excise lot of that. But it's worth trying. And you have to get through the early stages of experimentation to find the richness again. That book is an example neither organic nor inorganic and has less of a distinction between the living and the technological.

Minerals, rocks and stuff. Dirt throws that distinction in for a loop, because dirt is obviously living and yet it's also computer parts.

What do you think is the relationship between the organic and the inorganic?

I try to forget about it. Now I try to imagine it's all technology.

Rainbow Sonnets is like the mirror image of what I'm doing. Well maybe not the mirror image, but it's at a different stage of the process. It's more about thematising the possibility of arranging a world from the digital. Half of it is you typing the environment. And the other half is the environment typing it to you.

It's interesting that neither of us think there is a way without technology. Neither of us thinks you could just get rid of it and have a psychic, intuitive recognition of the world around us. Would you agree with that?

Technics are important. You can't really do anything without some sort of technology. And speech. All of it involves some sort of technique, and manipulating some kind of machine. So for us typing a poem is not this horrible thing that's ruining poetry, and it should be written with quills instead. I'm also not looking at technology with rose colored glasses. I want to have a different way of thinking about what technology is, because us using a computer to have a phone call or write a poem or play a game is not the same as strip mining. They're connected. But what we do is a very different thing. And is opposed to those things.

I have more questions. I'll just say them really quickly. And then we can strategize later. These are questions I got from some pretty famous poets from around the world. One of them asked how many keyboards are there in your book.

I would probably say one and hundreds.

Is there a difference between a keyboard and a life?

I would say that that is like asking if there is a difference between water and thirst.

Is there a difference between a poem and what it describes?

Unfortunately. To me a poem is more about the speaker, as opposed to its content or its author, because that's the being that's arranging these letters and these words in this certain way, and that's what the poem is really telling you about,

That's what I see especially in what I'm calling the organism poems in Impastoral. What you're getting is the speaker, but the speaker is also itself the content. The voice is the material of the organism. Is that true?


What is the difference between composition, decomposition, deposition, compost, and posting.

For my purposes the composition decomposition difference is like the relationship between part and whole, composition is seeing the letters come together in the word, but then decomposition would be seeing that the word is made of letters. And the word is threatening to become letters, to become parts. We are composed of organic materials, but at every minute, we are threatened to become compost. If we don't eat and look both ways before we cross the street. Deposition…

I would never spell a word incorrectly, but for people who want to do that, could you provide a list of writers beside yourself?

Caroline Bergvall, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Jos Charles, Peter Inman, Velimir Khlebnikov, cummings, Celan, Cathy Park Hong, Seuss, Bill Bissett, Vicente Huidobro, Michael McClure, Joyce, Ernst Jandl, Steven Alvarez, Mayrocker, Derrida, D&G, Aase Berg, N.H. Pritchard, Russell Atkins, William Langland, Chaucer, the Pearl poet, Madeline Gins in some sense, Saroyan, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Chatterton, Apollinaire, bpNichol, Stevens, David Melnick,. And she doesn’t quite belong on this list, but I also want to add Leslie Scalapino as a guiding light. .

Quite the variety. There is a physical difference between reading a poem and viewing* a visual poem. It seems difficult to place something at the edge.

But because it's hard, there's actually a lot that hasn't been done. And they start to become different disciplines. Visual poetry starts to be more about graphic design. Whenever you're trying to go between two art forms, there's the technical knowledge that you either have to teach yourself or decide you're not going to do. People tend to fall into one or the other. There's not a whole lot of stuff that really has dove in on both. Even Susan Howe will do like concrete poems and then textual poems, but won't necessarily do much like mixing them. She's interesting, because her little poems, like ticker tape look almost look like how her earlier poems read, like snatches from archives. That is kind of like threading that gap because it evolves from a lyrical poem.

I was trying to ask a question about archive earlier. When we think about computers, we think about perfect storage, and a higher dimensional sense of retention. But in the case of my writing practice, my archive is a standard deviation smaller than it would be if I were writing on paper. When I edit, there's no retention of me having edited something. I just delete. Do you worry about your own archive?

I have these poems that are just 50 drafts of the poem in one document. I kind of like it like that. Because you can just scroll down and take a look at what you did.

So when your ability to write, or to explain your writing, or recall your writing ceases, there's no worry about data loss.

No, none… The archive question is interesting. And what role it plays for you and your life, a security blanket or something, knowing that you have all your writing. Or some hypothetical archivist can see your drafts. I think I'm not really concerned about someone else being able to see my work. I'm terrified of deleting something that could actually turn out to be good. It's more for my neurosis while I'm writing.

Anastasios Karnazes is a doctoral student in English at SUNY Albany and editor of Theaphora Editions.

Brandan Griffin is the author of the chapbook Four Concretures, and his poems have been published in Tagvverk, Chicago Review, and Word For/Word. Impastoral is his first book.