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In Conversation: Derek White and Cooper Renner | Word Riot

February 16, 2014      

In Conversation: Derek White and Cooper Renner

Derek White runs Calamari Press & blogs at

COOPER: You’re widely noted both as author/illustrator and as book designer/publisher, but for a moment at least, let’s talk about reading. Your interests clearly range far beyond the minute explorations of daily life in 21st century America. What foreign author is the latest addition to your list of favorites? What draws you in to his/her work?

DEREK: I’m not sure I’m that widely known for anything & don’t mind being somewhat off the radar. And I don’t pride myself with being much of a reader either, especially in regards to what’s contemporary or popular. I usual stumble across books long after other people have read them, for example the only book I read last year that was published in 2013 was Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. I only recently discovered the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera even though he published in the 70s & died in the 80s. I guess I like him because he not only gave me a visceral glimpse into a place & life I would never be able to experience firsthand, but he has a unique way of writing that feels raw & self-taught & schizophrenic … not derivative of anything that at least I’ve ever read … with the exception maybe of Céline. I also only recently discovered Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, which I loved not so much for its language but for the philosophical implications he embeds in the storytelling that shifts your perspective on things (in particular how we think of the sense of smell) long after you put the book down. Bruno Schulz is another one I didn’t know about until I came across his Street of Crocodiles in a second-hand shop … & what a gem of a surprise to read blind & unprompted! How about you? Whenever I look at your read feed on Goodreads, I always wonder where you find out about the books you read? Just now I noticed you’ve recently read Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems & Robert Walser Microscripts … coincidentally I just happen to be headed out the door to go see an exhibit at the Drawing Room of Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches.

COOPER: You may not think so, but to me that is a pretty broad range of reading you’ve just mentioned there. I’ve read none of them (until you get to mentioning my Goodreads feed.) Bruno Schulz’s book I know about, but haven’t read it. And Marechera is an author I’ve never heard of at all. How did you learn about him? I recently read a couple of short books by a southern Egyptian author named Tayeb Salih. I don’t know that I’d ever heard of him. I happened across one of the books at a used bookstore and thought it looked interesting–and a kind of expansion to the world of my reading. I suppose in my case that’s what reading often is–an expansion of my world, an attempt to live another life. Most of my “real” reading–as opposed to, say, a mystery for fun–is probably European and often pre-World War II.

How do I find them? By happenstance, as with Salih, or following a trail from one writer to another. I’m not very organized in my reading.

What did you think about the new Pynchon? Have you read others of his works? I haven’t read anything, though I like that title of his, Slow Learner, which I consider to be a descriptor of myself.

What about that exhibit you just visited, the Dickinson/Walser exhibit? It sounds great. Certainly Dickinson’s envelope poems are amazing, one of the very best things I’ve read in a year or two.

DEREK: Definitely check out the Schulz. Yes, reading as an expansion. Or in the case of Bleeding Edge, a sort of inversion, or re-living … as it takes place in a place & time that I experienced (Manhattan in the early ’00s), so interesting to read his perspective & to think he was/is living amongst us this whole time. Also an interesting take on the transition from meatspace to cyberspace. I’ve read or at least tried to read most of his earlier works, don’t have the attention span for some of the longer later ones … not sure I’d recommend Slow Learner unless you are interested in studying Pynchon’s development. Crying of Lot 49 is a good place to start if you haven’t read him, short & accessible.

The Dickinson/Walser exhibit was great, though I didn’t bring reading glasses, which you definitely need at least for Walser. Reading the books in the privacy of a well-lit home is probably better. They (The Drawing Center) also had some works by Mirtha Dermisache which were extraordinary, if you are interested in things asemic.

COOPER: “Meatspace”! I don’t think I’ve encountered that term before. If it hadn’t been for your context, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to define it. A very interesting way to name the physical world, and somehow redolent of New York City. It’s also interesting to me that your approach to Bleeding Edge was at least in part an invitation to a commentary on something that was your own experience. I often tend away from that very thing.

Now Robert Walser–were you able to make out actual letters or words in the exhibition displays? The Microscripts accompanying material says some of them are only a millimeter tall! Fascinating to think about. So many funny lines, so much intelligence in that collection (New Directions, 2012). I haven’t read much else. I started Jakob von Gunten a few years ago and just couldn’t enjoy. I gave up on it.

You also just introduced me to the word asemic. The Wiki definition sounds like it’s basically “writing” as abstract art: shape and design. Is that correct? I haven’t heard of Dermisache. Tell me more.

DEREK: Mirtha Dermisache is a slippery one to describe. She is (some might say “was” as she recently died) an Argentine artist who pushed the limits of writing & meaning. Writing as abstract art is a good way to think about it. I’d give you an example of her work to give you the idea, but her works are context-dependent, so displaying them here would be inappropriate & change the meaning. Not only is her work “unreadable” but it has no meaning other than the writing itself (which includes the entire dimensions of the page, or whatever form the writing is intended for, hence why it shouldn’t be reproduced).

Not sure anyone can make out actual letters in Walser’s book with their naked eye. Did you hear they discovered a way to transmit text messages via vodka vapor?
… speaking of Perfume. Writers of the future will be able to use molecular communication, like perfumers!

COOPER: Messages in vodka vapor? Never heard of that! Of course I don’t like text messages in any form beyond email, so I guess I’d miss out on that anyway. I suppose this will be a kind of smell-a-text instead of smell-a-vision.

It sounds like Dermisache’s work is in some ways a kind of opposite to concrete poetry, almost a visual pun or joke. Her work seems to approach a page of print as something that can be seen but not made sense of, print as formal object instead of word, a removal of meaning. Whereas concrete poetry, I’d argue, has a meaning, though it may be as slight as a single word such as “wall”, but that meaning is presented in a visual rather than a word-ish way.

Let’s talk a bit about your travels. You get around more than just about anybody I know of (short maybe of John Kerry). You blog about all this, but is there any direct intersection of your travel and your fictional work?

DEREK: Sorry for the delay in responding, I’m down in Tierra del Fuego now, more penguins & glaciers than Internet access. I guess I think of all writing as a form of travel writing … I think I remember Derrida also saying this. Maybe since I’m not good at making things up, I rely on direct experience. Which is not to say I’ve ever really written from experience, at least directly. It has more to do with just a curiosity with this planet that we seem to have ended up on. And being a stranger in a strange land perhaps makes you think outside of the box. A place & a date in time is a good start to any story. What setting are you in at this moment?

COOPER: For a few months longer, I’m down here in far south Texas, just a few miles from the Mexican border. Pretty “foreign,” I suppose, to the midwestern snowbirds who come here for the winter, but not nearly as remote or interesting as Tierra del Fuego. Your idea that all your writing is a kind of travel writing, a kind of planetary curiosity, may in some way be your own version of my interests in reading and writing: that is, not to write about the contemporary American life that surrounds us. Talk some more about this, about the curiosity that goes out rather than in, towards others rather than towards the self.

DEREK: Like you, I’m not interested in reading or writing about contemporary American life. But I’m admittedly an egomaniacal hermit that doesn’t care much about others—curiosity for me moves out to in, towards self-knowledge. I’m not interested in changing or even entertaining the world, I’m just a selfish observer/reader. But yes, also a publisher … at the end of the day, the only thing I want to give back to the world is books.

COOPER: It could be that you’re not an egomaniacal hermit, but rather just a Stoic or Epicurean (in the ancient senses): someone who believes the other can’t be changed, but has to change itself. I think a Stoic might enjoy that description you give: curiosity moving from out to in: self-knowledge. And what that moves you to give back is quite something: books: a potentially relatively eternal reaching out. And I wonder if this isn’t in some ways the definition of the perfect reader: one who places him- or herself into the work at hand, one who internalizes the author’s world as another kind of experience of life. One of the things I’ve been pondering lately, if we want to stick with more or less philosophical ideas, is how much of one’s identity (by which I mean, of course, my identity) is entirely locked into the body I live in, my interface with the world. The Western norm of dualism seems insufficient to me, or rather inaccurate, an insistence on denigrating the one concrete knowable thing we have: our bodies. I wouldn’t however take the next, arguably gnostic step of denying the non-corporeal. Such a step would, it seems to me, go beyond what we can sense.

DEREK: I’ve been thinking about disembodiment a lot lately, most recently because I just finished reading How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles. Not that I would denigrate our bodies—I’ve always valued & taken care of my own physical corporeal self. But I also see our bodies as disposable transient carriers & after all’s said & done, all that remains in the end is information (for lack of better word). It’s interesting to see how this all plays out on the Internet … in one sense it seems a medium worthy of giving yourself up to, a medium capable of merging & amalgamating all of our collective thought & ideas until the information itself is connected & communicating reflexively with itself & human carriers are no longer needed, except perhaps to keep the electricity running for the machines. But of course it’s human nature to hang on to our egos (& also to monetize, which is a whole different conversation…) & the Internet is fast becoming saturated with junk information like Facebook (data that is tethered to ego (not to mention capitalistic intent)).

COOPER: Disembodiment and information are good words for usage with non-corporeality, eh? Does Hayles’ book discuss disembodiment in the metaphor sense of our cyber selves or is she dealing with an presumed spiritual state? I don’t have a problem with the concept of an eternal self–whether in the sense of metempsychosis or reincarnation or other possibilities–but I don’t have any experience of it either. Unlike Blake, I haven’t seen Elijah sitting in a tree, nor have I had an Swedenborgian visions. I rather think I’d like to. But corporeality impresses itself upon me constantly. (A long long long time ago, when I was a practicing Christian, I even swiped St Paul’s phrase “this body of death” and began a poem “Strange how / this body of death delights me.”) I agree that our bodies are transient, but wouldn’t use transient in this case as any kind of pejorative as the conventionally religious might do, in contrasting body and soul. Nor do I think you are doing so. My friend Sheila might argue that this proliferation of selves–a bodied self, a Facebook self, a Twitter self, etc.–militates against the existence of any actual self, but I would definitely disagree with that concept. It is, isn’t it?, a self–a malleable and permeable thing, but a real one nonetheless–that seeks out travel and books and music, experiences with which to enlarge and expand its experiences: a being seeking enlightenment, if you will, rather than a merely hypothetical construct tenuously existing among those experiences. An id, perhaps, determined to become superego.

DEREK: Hayle’s angle is more cyber/AI. And when I say transient, this is from the angle of the information. When we die, we die, only what we create lives on. The proliferation of self is another way of looking at it I guess, to some artists, the likes of Warhol, they themselves are the art. He’s not memorable for his art (at least not in my eyes) so much as who he was. More & more artists & writers now seem to fall into this category. Perhaps they think it will give them immortality. I’m quite happy to be a reflexive hypothetical construct existing tenuously amongst my experience.

COOPER: That’s a fascinating (and not a little humorous) definition of a human self. And it’s sort of funny as well that these so-called eternal issues can be discussed metaphysically and, more or less, technically–in information terms. And perhaps funniest of all that we can’t nail any of it down, despite what the fundamentalists might want to tell us. Would you apply the term “cult of personality” to Warhol and the like, or are you aiming at something deeper–an idea that the life itself is the work of art, with or without fame? Does this serve to maim or undermine the art, do you think?

DEREK: I don’t think much about the type of people whose personalities are the art object. Maybe this is just a way to justify respect for them in my eyes. Tao Lin is an example from contemporary literature—while I get nothing from his writings, i can respect the unique niche he’s carved for himself. I couldn’t say if it undermines the art, it just is what it is. To criticize it would be like complaining about overpopulation. And the criticism is what fuels it. Separating art & artist becomes harder when certain personality traits reveal themselves with artists or writers you really admire, like Celine, or Paul de Man being labeled as anti-semites. Sometimes, if their work is good enough, you can overlook this & appreciate the books for what they are. But yes, the base of appreciation becomes eroded. I’m not sure where this strong attachment of artist & art came from, but it seems to be a fossilized vestige that is hopefully diminishing. It’s especially cumbersome reading philosophy, where half the time they have to speak in quotes because it’s something someone else said first, and the battles of egos & attribution gets in the way of appreciating the underlying ideas.

COOPER: To me what you’re describing is a new emphasis on a kind of performance art, where the artist’s entire life is the art, the performance, the whatever. Perhaps as much as a reaction to the impersonality of the New Criticism of the ’50s as the Beats were. The Beats too had that element of bleed between the page and the person. And that inevitably comes around to your second point, I think, about evaluating a writer’s work in the light of his or her life outside the work: anti-semitism being a very prominent case in the first half of the 20th century particularly. The Ezra Pound case too.

But hey, I’d like to come back around to a less heady issue we discussed a bit earlier: the writer as traveler. I’m reading Joseph Roth’s letters right now (Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, trans. and ed. by Michael Hofmann, 2012) and here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote while traveling as a journalist in the USSR in 1926: “I feel as though I’ve been gone from Europe for six months. I’ve experienced so much here, and all of it strange to me. Never has it been brought home to me so strongly that I’m a European, a man of the Mediterranean if you will, a Roman and a Catholic, a Humanist and a Renaissance man. Everything I told you about myself in Paris was wrong, and a lot of what you told me was right. It’s a boon that I’ve come to Russia. I should never have gotten to know myself otherwise.” This strikes me as being a very concise and cogent argument for travel, not just for writers and artists, but for everyone. How are we ever to truly know ourselves if we can’t see ourselves as foreign, and foreigners?

DEREK: Ezra Pound is one of those that I learned of his anti-semitism first, so never really bothered to read his stuff. And yes, it’s good to step outside of your comfort zone to get perspective. Personally I don’t feel I belong anywhere, I feel like a foreigner in my own country. But I thrive on such discomfort, of being a fish out of water. If you ever feel like you “belong” somewhere, that’s your cue to leave. What’s the temperature where you’re at? I can’t imagine the idiots that decided to colonize Manhattan, it’s seriously not fit for human habitation.

COOPER: The thing about Pound is that his best poetry, almost entirely written by 1925, is superb, hugely better than Eliot, equal to Yeats at least, maybe better. “Personae” has many fine fine poems, definitely worth your time. And it’s a strange thing about so many of the writers of that time–the first half of the twentieth century–that even writers who were themselves Jewish sometimes make remarks that either are anti-Semitic or look anti-Semitic to our eyes, from this vantage point that we are at: the concept of the self-hating Jew. It’s very disturbing and an indication, I think, of how enormously anti-Semitic European and American culture were in that period. (Not that I think it’s truly much better now–it’s just more convincingly hidden.)

I agree entirely about getting out of one’s comfort zone, one’s home, as it were. So many Americans never travel outside the boundaries of our country that it leads to ludicrously incorrect assessments of the world and the people we share it with: the commonplaces that “everybody wants to live in the U.S.”, that we have the best health care on earth, that no one has the upward mobility that we do; commonplaces which are wrong. “Feeling at home” can be, I feel strongly, a synonym for smugness, self-righteousness, complacency, like another American commonplace: “being comfortable in one’s own skin.” We need to be uncomfortable a lot more often, as you suggest. Absolutely.

And as for Manhattan, yes, I agree-the entire northern three-quarters of the United States and all of Canada are uninhabitable by my definition: they might as well be Siberia. Cold, cold, cold. I’m in far south Texas now, and will be for a few more months, and here the “average” high in January is mid- to upper-60s at least. Of course cold fronts come all the way from Canada and drop the highs to the low 40s some days. Still less awful than most of the U.S. “Weather” is a nasty word to me!

Well, sir, since we have circled back around to place, travel and geography, maybe that’s our cue to cut this conversation off and give our prospective readers a break. What do you think?

DEREK: Sounds good, thanks Coop.

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