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An Interview with Manuel Arturo Abreu by Caleb Hildenbrandt | Word Riot
Interviews

July 16, 2015      

An Interview with Manuel Arturo Abreu by Caleb Hildenbrandt

I first encountered Manuel Arturo Abreu through the ‘alt lit’ community, in which their infrequent but penetrating public voice exploded into a flood of insights and theory when turned to dialogue. Their recent book, List of Consonants, is the impetus for this interview, but in keeping with the experimental nature of Manuel’s poetry, I’m going to forgo my usual attempt at summarizing the interviewee’s work, and instead use what Manuel calls “an inane lit crit / copywriting about millenials” description:

Abreu’s ‘alt lit,’ post-internet practice updates questions of space and time for the digital era—Where is the ‘original version’? When is a work finished? In self-appropriating their writing and social media presence (much of the text previously appeared in varying forms on livejournal, poetry sections of Mars Volta and Magic: The Gathering fanforums, twitter, tumblr, facebook, and other places) to seamlessly mesh it together with found text, Abreu brings an anti-work, uncreative stance to the table, instead exploring the relationality and plasticity of textual encounter.

Caleb Hildenbrandt:
Your book, List of Consonants, is coming out on June 15th from Bottlecap Press, and from my reading, it seems to be pretty experimental, maybe a little tongue-in-cheek, and seems to bear a pretty heavy influence from internet culture. Other than that, though, it’s hard to infer precedents or even a motive. What are you trying to accomplish in this collection?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
It’s an act of self-plagiarism–in it, I treat all my writing as found text, hacking away at whatever I chose without regard to its native context (be it a novel, a poem, an email, etc.) and focusing instead on merging it with ‘truly’ found text.

I work with found material a lot, but after my friend Michael killed himself in May 2013, I mourned through writing. Not knowing what to do with all the turgid lyricism and purple prose, I decided to treat my writing as found text, editing it to match it with actual found text. I see the result as an autoethnography in fragment, or an ambient novella.

I emailed to gauge Chomsky‘s interest in blurbing me, and in a crucial post-conceptual move (because he hasn’t and will not read the book), he’s agreed to let me use his initial email response as a blurb.

It’s a pink book, matte finish, french flaps, Caslon. 5% of the book is unreadable text blocks, and 80% of that 5% is a ‘shout-out’ to recursion—a list of the list of consonants used in the book, compiled using regular expressions.

so that maybe explains the method a bit
as for ‘why,’ why a fugue of my own and found text, etc, ummm
im into the idea of interrogating the notion of the original

CH:
What does this act of self-plagiarism mean for someone who reads your book but, say, hasn’t been following you on poetry sites or twitter or Magic: the Gathering fora–is this all about the recontextualization as something new, with decontextualization’s typical disregard of notions of inherent ‘value’ of the original texts, or are you curating the ‘best’ bits of what you’ve previously written in a sort of ‘greatest hits,’ or is this some kind of giant inside joke that will only make sense to longtime readers?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
The performance of treating all my writing like found text emerged from wanting to explore
that strange sense, upon re-reading something I’d written, that the words are from a stranger. I sought to juxtapose this uncanny feeling with the feeling that someone else has “taken the words right out of my mouth” and/or “said it better than I ever could.” My textual approach was heavily informed by these moments of ambivalence about identity and origin, and ultimately I see the text not as prose or poetry but as documentation for a performance.

For the reader, the effect of the found aspect is contextual. Points in the text where it’s harder to tell what’s from scratch and what’s found let their ambiguity haunt the reader. The parts where the distinction is clearer serve to ground the reader, hopefully. I want to people to ask what “found text” even means, and what it means to construct self-portrait at least partly from appropriation (if that’s possible).

I did to some extent disregard the origins of the from-scratch and found text, and though some pieces remain largely unchanged. But I certainly mangled lots of my corpus, and I was interested in the emergent meanings of unexpected juxtapositions. How that comes across to the reader is maybe harder for me to say, but I did find that sometimes these juxtapositions helped elucidate, to some extent, how I might have felt in some of the original moments of writing what I self-plagiarized.

actually just remembered my friend’s mom read the book and emailed me about it, it reads like the book’s first review, mayb thats a better answer for ur q abt readers

“Well, I’ve read the book twice now—once while camping in the Utah desert and once in a pub in Derbyshire while waiting for a rural bus after a mushrooming expedition. And both times I liked it a lot, so it’s not place-dependent.

“People always write such bollocks about texts like this: ‘seeringly honest.’ How the fuck do they know? My totally subjective response is that it makes me see some familiar things anew. For instance, how important vowels and spaces are.

“Less subjectively, I think it’s nifty in formal terms. You don’t draw a lot of attention to this in the text, but I like it where you do (e.g., ‘Untitled’). Plus, the really precise play with register through shifts in vocabulary: ‘Love Poem.’

My other reading today was a project proposal about untranslatability and how to make that a virtue: ‘How can we construct a language of understanding which will not distort the other’s reality and which will preserve the other in its difference, but will not be merely its language of self-understanding?’ They’ve come up with this wonderful, elaborate plan to identify the core concepts about being human in different language communities; areas of (in)congruence, of incomplete translatability, of radical otherness; cross-disciplinary approaches … It’s great but they could do with some time spent reading poetry.

CH:
In plagiarizing, or appropriating the words of another, I keep thinking about how the speakers in the book mention, repeatedly, aliens, and the idea of being an alien in a culture. And of course a little while ago you (joked?) about being a “fat trans nonbinary Dominican.” So how much of a role do identity politics play in your above-mentioned “fugue”?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
i suppose i’m interested in what is at stake regarding identity, in terms of how it’s constructed using alien/prosthetic discourses yet acts like an interiority

yet i’m also interested in critiquing that endogenous/alien binary to begin with, by noting identity’s inherent syncretism, or something

CH:
Okay, “alien discourse” I can imagine, but what’s a “prosthetic” discourse look like? Is that like diglot speech, or code-switching?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
i suppose i meant it metaphorically to describe the condition of forming identity (partly) thru language prosthetic in that our discourses are not “from” an interior but appear as such and i mean that in the most general sense that sense of the prosthetic is, i suppose, exacerbated for more marginalized ppl who are coerced into using normative discourses to survive

CH:
If the prosthetic is an external discourse, that would mean… every discourse other than one’s first is prosthetic? Thinking here of Thomas Givon‘s “society of intimates vs. society of strangers” or James Paul Gee’s primary (singular) and secondary (plural) discourses.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
yesss, givon teaches at u of oregon actually i think!

i mean givon’s hierarchies are relevant in terms of context-dependent registers of address but the more metaphysical point of discourse itself being alienating is, i think, true across registers which is not to flatten identity to false consciousness, tho

CH:
Yeah, I I think he does, are you there?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
no i studied at reed college
i cited him in my thesis tho hahha

CH:
Oh, nice.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
speaking syntactically there’s strong evidence of the prominence of 1st and 2nd pov, tho

but i see that as symptomatic of language’s relationship to deixis, as opposed to indicative of intimate/proximate registers of address being less “alienating/prosthetic”

CH:
Sorry, you lost me there–prominent of the 1st and 2nd POV where?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
in syntax

CH:
In which syntaxes? lol sorry, why would the existence of 1st and 2nd pov be challenged?
I only pretend to know about linguistics, I’m a lit major.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
well, an example of its prominence can be seen from the fact that 1st and 2nd person, across languages, tends to have inclusive and exclusive distinction, while 3rd doesn’t

CH:
Oh, okay, so, ‘they’ is always someone else, a group of which I am not a member?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
imagine 2 groups, one w/ blue shirts one w/ red, now imagine a language where “we (with red shirts)” was a single word
so precisely

CH:
Oh, so that’s what you were saying with deixes, the context of ‘we’ has to be conveyed with extra words?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
in a morphologically deprived language like english!
our deictic operations tend to be paratactic– extra words, precisely

CH:
So, give me an example of a non-morphologically-deprived language.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
english verbs are, for example, morphologically deprived compared w/ spanish

CH:
At the risk of asking obvious, Spanish is your first language?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
i suppose i started learning it first, yeah
but the majority of my linguistic ‘critical period’ was spent in a melting pot of langs and registers

CH:
Huh. So given the syncretic, constructed nature of identity, what exactly is, as you put it, “at stake”? Is it possible, for instance, to have a failure of identity construction, and what would that look like?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
ahaha more like is it possible to have a success of identity construction, under normative assumptions abt identity as discrete etc

CH:
Oh, ha, grim.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
hahaha
whats at stake for most ppl, id imagine, is cogent selfhood

CH:
Cogent to oneself or others?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
both/whichever
a piece in List called “we remind each other too much of past abusers” is relevant to this conversation i think– the notion of self/affect as fictionalized

CH:
Oh gosh, yeah, I read that last night in bed and it was horrible, in a good way. You write, “We talk about both being aliens. I saw I was a resident alien until I got my green card. You grin.” That part?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
yeah right before that

“We cuddled in the garage under the stained comforter an
ex-partner gave me. The hum of passing motorcycles
stuck in our throats like years. You told me a story you
said was fictionalized: one of your uncles died in 9/11
and his brother killed himself two weeks later. I asked
which part was fiction. Crying, you answered, ‘my
emotions.’ Later we laugh.”

CH:
A great passage. Sometimes I get the feeling that most of us have more or less admitted at this point (in the culture, in post-irony, in the internet) that our emotions are fictionalized / performative. Can you explain the title? It resonates with lived experience, I’m sure, for many readers, although the connection to the body of the text is impressionistic.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
each piece in the book is like a consonant, an interruption in flow. Vowels tend to be resonant and at the nucleus of syllables, and (to pursue this linguistic metaphor) I was more interested in the ‘consonantal margins,’ the places where airflow was constricted and manipulated, where resonance decreased. My corpus, then, was the mind’s feed itself, this constant, noisy flow of stimulus, whether my internal monologue or my encounters with the world around me. And what I sought were places of restricted flow at the margins of the feed.

oh, i neglected to make concrete what i was saying earlier– ‘prosthetic’ can be a general adjective for language’s function, but i was specifically talking about my experience– gaining more precise tools for articulating “myself-to-myself” in a perhaps-futile performance of cogent selfhood, at the cost of alienation from my native context. i mean here my entry into private school in 7th grade

CH:
What was significant about seventh grade?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
before that i’d gone to public school w/ no white ppl

CH:
In Brooklyn?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
in the bronx
well, the private school was in the bronx just a diff part

CH:
And you identify the school you were at before seventh grade, the public school with no white people, as your “native context”?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
i did then

CH:
Well, what now? Post-alienation, post the beginning of your “perhaps-futile performance of cogent selfhood,” where do you position yourself / your writing?
(Sorry, is that too personal, feel like I’m getting biographical rather than talking about the book but also feel like the book can’t be understood without context.)

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
i mean im down

what now is that i see it’s a performance “all the way down” so to speak

that was my native context, yet i was hiding my good grades from my peers bc doing badly/playing dumb was cool, i was confused abt my racial identity b/c parents were antiblack (dominican republic has a long, racist history w/ haiti) yet all my friends were black except my friend ivan who was also dominican, and my friend ardijan who was albanian

the irony is that my education has given me the tools to dredge so to speak
re-discover the inherent afrocaribbean-ness and “post-queerness” of my positionality that my parents suppressed out of me, by using this inherently-alienating colonizer’s discourse of western rationality etc (or some form of it)

if u meant literally “what i am” demographically, i’m assigned male at birth, trans nonbinary, african diasporic, dominican, american-raised, fat, able bodied, college graduate, low income

i did a project inspired by rafman’s “9 eyes” where i walked thru my neighborhood and other parts of the bronx on google street view, out of a kind of mediated nostalgia

seeing if there was any overlap between my affect and the automatic camera of the street view car

that was in 2012 or 2013

just walked to the plaid pantry to buy job 1 1/4 papers and “angela marie’s crispy peanut butter goodie w/ chocolate,” was trying to think of a new vid project and vaguely decided to film myself performing glossolalia (i was raised pentecostal), was imagining a ‘trailer’ vid for the speaking in tongues vid w/ me saying “my parishioners got touched by god and spoke tongues, but instead of god now we have the internet”

the thing is maybe my book is kind of like the glossolalia of when internet/big data/etc replaces god?

since explaining the meshing process ends up being a “silly archive” as halberstam calls them– purely aesthetic decisions, whose contingencies are purely subjective primarily, yet explainable by/able to explain larger or more general phenomena/paradigms

that makes no sense, been drinking, but w/e

CH:
That mediated nostalgia via google street view reminds me of The Arcade Fire’s “The Wilderness Downtown” video / experiment from a few years ago, albeit with very different (or entirely absent) theoretical underpinnings.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
ha! that one was cooler/more interactive tho, but cheers

CH:
The thing about glossolalia is that it’s not just a linguistic phenomenon but, depending on your dogma, a sign of ‘sanctification,’ like, you’ve come ‘fully’ into the fold and are now ’empowered’ to more fully manifest the dogma. Which, I suppose, has potential parallels to your book as well–do you become some kind of Delphic oracle for the internet once you surrender to the big data? I’m mixing my Greek mysteries and gospel tabernacles here, but you get the idea. Is spontaneous internet text linguistic overflow chatter or prophecy?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
well, i just read this, seems relevant:

“what is mistaken for silence is, all of a sudden, transubstantial” Moten & Harney
my friend rosemary kirton calls what u describe, identifying w/ the algorithm– i actually think my book was a gesture toward that– toward a shift in labor politics and governmentality with regard to the ideal worker, who now is fluid, hybrid, fully exteriorized
in a kind of period of absolute subsumption where affect is either financializable or, like, toxic surplus
i guess i took on a kind of managerial role in making the text to gesture to that
glossolalia is sanctification by means of the holy spirit overpowering one

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
so it’s interesting to think about that loss of control in relation to like, a fanon/derrida type notion of speaking as being “absolutely for the other,” but what happens when the other, or lacan’s big other (who isn’t there unless it is, let’s say), can’t parse the speech (since it’s illegible, after all)?

it’s a big reason why joyce was formative for me, this notion of going up against that exact point at where legibility’s failure seems to open up participatory potential (at least in meaning-making) but also runs the risk of alienating
the predominance of the latter is maybe a cultural or intertextual thing, though, and not so much “in” my or joyce’s text, but then again what is “in” text?

but going back to ur oracle point it is interesting that there was a division for me, in taking a managerial role to select, initially, what i knew would be in it, and then a more conjuring role in letting new rhizomatic things emerge

and the google oracle led me to stumble on manuel abreu adorno, which led to this

CH:
I think the funniest thing about that Medium piece (If I’m allowed to find things funny in it) is that you found out about him by googling your name, though. It’s this tidy synecdoche of the fertile narcissism the internet engenders.

Actually, on the subject of narcissism, I wanted to ask you about some remarks you made in D. Dragonetti’s recent interview with you, in which you respond to recent claims that the currency of ‘alt lit’ is attention, and that attention is achieved in large part through claiming victimhood status (a victimhood resultant either from trauma or minority positioning.) Since you dispute this idea, and are a self-professed ‘peripheral’ member of the scene which has been reading your work, I was hoping you could expand on how you think power and attention *actually* function in the experimental-, fringe-, or internet-lit economy.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
no differently than the mainstream
new techs/modes of circulation perfunctorily replicate older forms of socialization/power structuring

CH:
Depressing.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
hahah true but the fertile narcissism u mentioned has to have two sides

CH:
How so?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
the picturesque tuckedness of abreu adorno, from my google search, comes from him dying in obscurity/poverty

CH:
Tuckedness?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
like, tucked away online

CH:
Aha.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
ok, maybe to give u a better answer– the dynamic of bursts of attention/passion/afterglow fading into obscurity has changed a bit b/c the internet allows constant documentation. but the main flaneur-maudit tension remains, whether one is “in” an experience or “looking at” its documented remains in the cloud

CH:
So, given that, what’s your hope for List of Consonants? As a physical book (indeed, one to which you’ve paid extensive attention vis-a-vis the physical details) with its origins still up there in the cloud, what do you hope will come from it, in terms of you, in terms of your readers, in terms of the flaneur-maudite dynamic?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
i suppose i want the book to stand as a kind of question regarding whether found text can be properly autobiographic in its use– or better, how working w/ found text autobiographically might problematize or prod at the notion of ‘autobiographical’

the maudit still sort of subalternly haunts the text since it’s not like i give explicit autobiographical arcs very often in it, but in making “flaneuring” or rubbernecking more difficult (i hope), maybe the book points to the traces of mauditity (lol) in the aestheticized, rarefied artifact, which like i said before is meant, in my reading, as documentation of a performance
CH:
I’m just mentally translating your ‘maudite’ as ‘damned,’ is that correct?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
i meant like poete maudit, the outsider poet
rilke’s criminal other self
maudite works too that’s a lovely slippage
i dont speak french so i don’t make intentional puns like that

CH:
So in this dynamic, you’re the maudit, and your reader is the (attempted) flaneur?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
the poete maudit is more like a transpersonal current. both of us feel that current in parts of reality as we struggle against just being flaneurs, walking around the city, observing, aestheticizing, idk

CH:
Ah. This feels… like somehow a more egalitarian relationship between author and reader than I’m used to, which surprises me, if your goal is to ‘prod’ the notion of the feasibility of autobiography (since an autobiography, by its nature, elevates the subject above all other writers who would attempt to document / read the same subject). Like, any biography is going to establish a hierarchy of subject above reader, but an autobiography establishes the subject as even more important, because self-sufficient.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
yeah, my gesture wants to show that this self-sufficiency is in fact a fiction, self is composite– yet still paradoxically relying on these received notions of autobiography, elevated discrete subject, etc to get the point across (or try to)

CH:
It occurs to me that I haven’t yet asked you about influences. Any autobiographies out there that you particularly like / dislike?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
some of these aren’t properly biographical– maggie nelson’s bluets, edouard leve’s suicide, shulamith firestone’s airless spaces, fredrick douglass, gloria anzaldua’s borderlands, montaigne’s essays, assata
let me think of more

CH:
hella heavy list

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
hahahah true
i’ve been trying to get a pdf of leopardi’s zibaldone

CH:
That’s… obscure.

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
he was this hella misanthropic italian poet that i’ve been kinda looking at

CH:
So what’s next for you?

Manuel Arturo Abreu:
I’ll be touring in July as part of Trans Planet Tour 2015, along with four other transgender poets (Die Dragonetti, Jos Charles, Jennifer Espinoza, and Sara Woods) along the West Coast, where we’ll be reading with local transgender poets and present innovative poetry to interested parties.

This core group emerged out of Die Dragonetti’s curation of work by these poets for TRANS PLANET, a poetry series at Be About It Press. Some of these works will be republished in our forthcoming tour publication.

The trailer for List of Consonants can be found here.

Further examples of Manuel’s prodigious previous work can be read at, among other places, HTML Giant, Thought Catalog, TheNewerYork, Hypocrite Reader, Medium, Electric Cereal, and The New Inquiry.

The Trans Planet Tour 2015 has a GoFundMe page if people are interested in donating to cover tour expenses.

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