What is Uut Poetry? An Interview w/ Brooks Lampe
Sit across from Brooks Lampe and the feeling of a mind in feverish motion is palpable. He is good at biting his tongue, but there is a sense in which he is all the while taking in your words, deconstructing them, and building an alternative universe upon their raw material. Perhaps that is because he does this daily, publishing surrealist poems on his blog, Uut Poetry, which is featured on the Tumblr spotlight page as one of their most-read poetry blogs. I was curious about why he publishes his work online and how he sees surrealism as contributing to a critique of contemporary culture. I appreciate Brooks for being so generous with his time and for this wide-ranging discussion.
TF: Brooks, thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
I’d like to begin by asking you to help me understand your motivations for starting Uut Poetry. Partly you seem to be using the website as a means of investigating, as you put it, “contemporary American surrealism” and its sources. But partly, also, you seem to be using the website to create “contemporary American surrealism.” Which do you see as being the primary motive for the site?
BL: That actually is spot on, and it reflects the two sides to the same coin I experience in my life as a scholar and a poet (or as a scholar who also writes poetry). As a scholar I'm interested in discovering and recuperating what I see as an underdeveloped history. As a poet I'm interested in re-imagining and extending the surrealist tradition, broadly conceived. Uut Poetry is the convergence of those two motivations. So it's both.
TF: In that sense, does a scholar of poetry also need to be a poet, or at least write poetry?
BL: Not necessarily, but it helps. I echo my dissertation director's sentiments that as more and more English departments become preoccupied with theory, close, critical reading and aesthetic analysis is moving to the creative writing departments and programs. To be a genuine scholar of poetry, I think you need more than theory, so you may find yourself, by virtue of circumstances, in a room with poets.
TF: I agree that theory seems too often today untethered from what it seeks to explain. But surely, surrealist poetry poses certain problems for explanation. You write, for instance, about it being “the guttural declaration of existence” and “the primordial bastard sibling of the id”. For those of us who are not as familiar with this poetic tradition, give us a sense of its appeal and what draws you to it, especially its logic and syntax defying moments.
BL: Surrealism's appeal to me is its immediate and visceral quality. It's got the same gut punch effect as a great Emily Dickinson poem or the last line of Plath's Lady Lazurus. In graduate classes I started to see more and more often that the poetry I liked mashed disparate realities together in jolting incongruity. Surrealism explained (or at least theorized) why I liked that.
And its appeal is incisively modern. It declares war on poetic and narrative logic as part of a larger concern with modern culture. Its most important contributions--automatic writing, free association, radical juxtaposition--were experiments in uncovering the parts of our lives buried under the detritus of mundane, social and rational existence.
Or at least that's part of it, the more popular part. What also came out of surrealism was a skepticism of ego. In their desire to escape or bracket off this self-conscious impulse, the surrealists came up with a slew of writing techniques meant to restrict and undermine the writer's control. Chance methods and collaborative writing games, such as the exquisite corpse game, come from this. And that's the impetus for many of the writing projects on my blog. They aren't meant to stimulate expression but rather to restrict it, allowing the results of the materials used to perform their own arbitrary magic.
I'm fascinated by the paradox too: on one hand surrealism wants to release and express the subconscious; on the other hand, it wants to restrict expression and let in reality as unfamiliar and surprising. It's still a powerful approach to writing that flips the tables on how we think art is supposed to work, and this, if nothing else, serves the purpose of defamiliarizing poetry and the writing process.
TF: You mention that surrealism was an attempt to question the role of the subject, the ego. But it seems that late capitalism has more or less caught up with the way nineteenth and early twentieth century artists and intellectuals sought to complicate our relationship to our ego? I mean, the production of desire that we witness on such an infinite scale seems to be working so far back behind conscious, rational experience. Is there a sense in which surrealism is now complicit in this process, or does it still have some resources available to us to rethink our present situation or at lease provide a critical space in relation to it? And if so, how does this happen on a human level, for instance, in the experience of reading a poem?
BL: Yes, there is a danger of complicity. Breton hoped for the integration and unification of the self through language. He saw his cultural situation as psychologically disintegrating, and surrealism was an attempt to counteract and transcend it. I can see how one could think that 21st century capitalism has evolved to the point where it now can be trusted to provide an experience of integration and unification. Surrealism for such a person may not read like the experience of a better, alternative vision of life but an imitation of a life already in progress.
If we set aside surrealism's questionable theory of consciousness and language, we could say that it might be used as a sort of measuring stick for cultural progress--the more a surreal poem (imagined as an unmediated articulation of the self's subconscious desire) overlaps with our actual psychological experience of the world, the closer we are to a Utopian society. In that sense, it is politically neutral--if capitalism gets us there, so be it.
The problem in my opinion is that capitalism provides only an illusion of unification, and thus surrealism continues to stand outside of social reality, providing a point of critique. Surrealism's vision of the unified self and "convulsive beauty" offers an alternative to late capitalism's shallow imitations--hedonism and sensationalism.
The way this works out in reading poetry? It doesn't work. The average reader finds it very difficult to identify with a surrealist text, even after they making headway into understanding its premises. This, one could posit, is proof that a gulf remains between reality as imagined by late capitalism and reality as imagined by surrealism.
TF: One of my favorite poems on your blog is less a poem and more an essay, which you call "How to Write a Poem" and in which you say that "Logic is the enemy of a poem". I'm hoping you can connect this up with the idea that poetry can provide this unifying vision you described. I mean, discursiveness has mostly been thought to lead to deeper insights and, ultimately, a more holistic self, community, world. But this poem "argues" the opposite, that the fleeting, momentary, and non-conceptual deliverances of sensation are a more direct route to this unification.
BL: Almost all iterations of modernism saw the need for including the arbitrary, the fleeting, the fragmentary, in a unifying vision of experience. Most do so primarily as a corrective to the rationalism and explanatory forms of discourse that have predominated since the Enlightenment and necessarily leave out some aspects of life. Logic is the enemy of a poem because it is the business of poetry to point toward that which is not accounted for in even the most sophisticated explanations of the human experience.
But there is an additional sense in which surrealism looks for unification over and above logic. Surrealism is fundamentally analogical. All things are related but indirectly and inexactly. This is the point of the juxtapositional method: two things or words placed in apposition don't go together. They create friction, cannot be ordered or made coherent. Subordinating or subjecting one to the other is only possible through an act of force. The world is not to be dominated through systematic thought but to be appreciated and experienced as mystery. Logic orders and controls; surrealism accesses the universal experience of disorder and inability to control. This is a vital aspect of being human that modern life has tried to alienate us, or "save" us, from. Surrealism unifies by recognizing that we can harmonize with and perceive beauty in disorder.
In the context of the poem, which is about the writing process, I simply meant that if you're thinking about the next "logical" step, in the sense of weighing or plotting your next move in a way that can be rationally justified or explained, you're missing the point. You can make direct, discursive arguments in poems, but that's not what poetry's especially good at. Most writers have been trained to think that the writer is obligated to explain his or her creative decisions. This may or may not be so, but thinking about this as you're writing is backwards. Write in a state of freedom, then explain, revise, critique. Don't get the cart before the horse.
TF: And I suppose that many poems written today do this. On your site you’ve been particularly vocal, for instance, in your distaste for sentimental poetry. Is this just a product of the public nature of Uut poetry, that it needs to be educational, at least minimally?
BL: No, it's what I think, at least at this stage in my exploration of poetry. Perhaps my anti-sentimentality campaign is accentuated since I'm speaking to a Tumblr audience, which is younger and, I think it's fair to say, full of angst. I want to help them escape from the angst. Poetry can do that, but it occurs just as much through its distancing and artificial qualities as much as through its expressive and emotive ones.
At the end of the day, I believe in a balance. Poetry has been split into nasty civil war between the sincere, confessional, "real" expressivism of slam, spoken word, and song lyrics, and the erudite, abstract mode of academia. Obviously, you need both. Perhaps surrealism offers a kind of synthesis--though the thought hadn't occurred to me until you asked that question.
I wouldn't call my counter-balancing emphasis away from sentiment "educational" exactly, but it's interesting that you use that term. I'm just sharing stuff I've thought, noticed--my opinions and tastes. My site is a product of the social network, blogging culture/generation. Some have told me it has inspired them, which I guess means they are learning a thing or two.