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Interview with K. Silem Mohammad

Ashland, OR on June 16, 2014 | Interviewer: Devin Becker

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Devin Becker: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this, Kasey.
Kasey Mohammad: My pleasure. Thanks for coming.
DB: Would you please state, for the camera, your name, your date of birth, and the location we're at right now?
KM: Kasey Silem Mohammad. October 10, 1962. We're at Southern Oregon University in Central Hall.
DB: So, the first section is kind of short-answer. It's meant to get a sense of your digital practices now. So, we'll just kind of go through this and we'll talk more about the composition. So, what genres do you work in?
KM: Poetry.
DB: OK, and that's your primary genre?
KM: Yeah.
DB: What kinds of devices do you own, or have access to for writing?
KM: This laptop, a MacBook. I mean, that's about it, other than whatever scratchpad I might put a note or idea in.
DB: So you use only that one? Do you write on a phone? Do you write on any other things?
KM: Usually not. I mean, the laptop is the main instrument.
DB: The laptop is the main instrument.
KM: Yeah.
DB: And you have an Apple.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: You said you use some note paper sometimes?
KM: I mean, if I'm somewhere and all I have is a piece of scratch paper because I'm in a meeting and I get an idea. But I don't really do that often.
DB: OK, so it's pretty primarily on that computer?
KM: That is mostly it.
DB: OK. Do you ever make pre-writing notes for it, or—?
KM: Because of the kind of writing I do, that usually doesn't come in to play.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Which I think will become clearer when we talk about the actual composition.
DB: OK. In what format do you save your digital files?
KM: Word.
DB: Word doc.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: Do you save individual works as you go along, or do you simply save over what you've written? Do you save drafts?
KM: Oh, no. I don't. I probably should, but I almost never save drafts. I just open up a doc and write over it until I think it's finished.
DB: OK. And what are your naming conventions for your files?
KM: Usually the name of the poem, followed by the file name.
DB: And so, because you don't use drafts, it's just the one?
KM: Yeah. I don't rename it once I've drafted it or anything. It just stays the same.
DB: Do you print out your writing to revise it?
KM: No, not typically.
KM: Well, I mean, I might do that on occasion with something like an essay because it's easier on the eyes. But the poems are usually shorter, and again because of the specific nature of the composition, in some cases, you'll see I can't revise it really well at all if it's not on a computer.
DB: Yeah. Do you ever save any paper copies of interim drafts?
KM: Usually not. I think the only exception to that is maybe I have some paper copies somewhere of something I wrote in college and hope no one ever sees—maybe it's the way they're written. I don't ever bother to try and scribe them digitally.
DB: Do you back up your work?
KM: When I remember, yeah.
DB: And how often do you do that?
KM: Oh, god. I don't know. I probably need to do it right now—excuse me! Really, it's very erratic.
DB: OK. Do you have Dropbox or anything?
KM: You know, I've got a server here on campus. It's a backup server that I save things to. It's very simple. All I'd need to do is drag stuff right now, and I could do it to stop worrying about it. I've also got an external hard drive at home.
DB: And if you're going to archive it, if you're going to back it up, that's where you put the work? And once a poem is finished, do you move it to a different folder?
KM: Yeah, I've gotten kind of lax on it. I need to go in and update it, but typically what it'll be is: I have a folder—a main poetry folder—and within that, if there is a specific categories for certain projects, I'll divide them in to that, like a book project or whatever. And if something is published, typically, I'll put a copy of it in the Published folder, and then there would be like an Ongoing, or In-process, folder.
DB: Yeah. Do you keep print copies of final drafts? Do you print them out?
KM: Not usually.
DB: And how about the media you've been published in? Do you keep the journals in a sort of space?
KM: I do, yeah. I have a shelf full of journals and books.
DB: OK. So, do you have any standard practices for archiving digitally or physically, would you say?
KM: Maybe explain what you mean a little more.
DB: Do you have a certain kind of way you put it on an external hard drive, like you put all your papers, or your books, on a certain shelf and that's kind of like your "archive"?
KM: Yeah. Right, yes. Like I said, I do have a shelf in my living room. It's like most of the journals and books and anthologies I've been published in. And as far as I said for the digital files, yeah, there's usually a "published" folder—which is way behind being updated.
DB: So, have you ever received or sought out information about digital archiving, or any sort of practices in that way?
KM: Not really, no.
DB: OK. Would you be interested in receiving information?
KM: Possibly, yeah.
DB: OK, that was kind of the basics. And so, this gets more to your trajectory as a writer. It starts off kind of getting a larger arc of it. So, how long have you been writing "professionally"?
KM: I'd say since roughly '98 or '99.
DB: And could you kind of give us a sense of the arc of your career over that time period?
KM: Sure. That's when I was just finishing grad school and procrastinating on finishing my dissertation. So, I kind of went back to my long-time interest in contemporary poetry. And I think I had tried to send a few things out to get them published over the years, a few times without any success or sense of direction about it. And then during this time-wasting period, I became aware of electronic journals that were publishing authors I liked. But before that, I hadn't known even how to submit work, you know, to the same journals that would publish the kind of writers I liked. Because, you know, I had tried—for example, 5, 10 years before—to submit to magazines that I knew published language poetry and things like that. And typically I'd get no response, or maybe a slip saying, "Sorry, this journal is no longer in circulation" because the only way I heard about them in the first place was from the library copies. I had no contact with any of the people involved.
KM: So, the internet changed that. I've been published in a few online journals and made contacts with poets that way. And then it was pretty rapid, from an initial chapbook that was published by Kenning Editions—ran by Patrick Durgin—in 2001 called Hovercraft, and then my first book in 2003, Dearhead Nation, from Tougher Disguises Press, edited by James Mets. Then another book that next year by Mike McGhee's Combo Books—A Thousand Devils. A couple books at the end of the decade from Edge, edited by Rod Smith, and lots of journals and anthologies in the middle there. And a few other chapbooks that I've neglected to mention.
DB: And now, the project that you're working on is the "Sonograms"?
KM: That's my chief project, yeah.
DB: OK. But you have other ones going?
KM: Well, that's the one that I consciously think of as a project that I'm in the middle of. Occasionally, I'll write something just on a whim, but yeah, that's the main project.
DB: So, we'll sort of talk about the couple of different steps in the writing process, and then we're going to go through kind of how it was in the early stages of your writing and how it's changed. And so, my kind of way of thinking about it is there's the "compositional" stage—which is where you're kind of creating it—and then you have the "revision" stage. Then you kind of have the "organizational/archival" stage, which is when you're putting it into books and getting it published. So, those are the three stages to talk about, and then how those have changed over the course of time. Sort of like three-by-three.
KM: Sure.
DB: So, when you first started writing—and this is even before you started writing professionally, maybe before when you were trying to find those language poetry journals—what was your composition process? Or, how were you writing? What were you doing?
KM: It's really hard to reconstruct something that long ago. I don't think I have much of a method. I think I was really just kind of feeling around in the dark. So, I took a couple of creative writing classes in junior college. I took one as an undergrad that didn't really work for me. I mean I passed, but it didn't do anything for me. But yeah, I would just occasionally feel inspired to write something. I mean, it was very shapeless.
DB: Yeah. So, how did you come to find the writing that you liked? I mean, to find the language poetry, to find the journals that you were sending out to?
KM: I don't remember what led me to it, but I remember just surfing the web. I think one of the very first journals that caught my attention was Combo by Mike McGhee. They published Clark Coolidge and other language poets and younger poets I hadn't heard of. And at least some of it was online, I think, if I remember correctly. It was like limited digital sampling. And I just emailed them saying, "Hey, I just want to go about submitting work," or something like that. They liked the work, and I was published in there several times. It's the same thing with Kenning, which was also a journal—Patrick Durgin's journal. I think my first publication actually was in Fourteen Hills from San Francisco State. I went to a group reading for the contributors to that issue and met a lot of Bay Area poets. So, I established a connection with—I forget what the original question was now.
DB: Oh, it's fine. That's actually kind of where I'm pushing you. So, your writing styles in the beginning, your ways of composition—they're kind of formless—
KM: Oh, yeah, yeah.
DB: How did they start to progress, then? I mean, what was sort of the next step?
KM: Sure. That's actually pretty easy to answer, because it's kind of, at least so far, been kind of a really distinct, three-stage process.
DB: Oh, great!
KM: Yeah, I can actually answer according to the terms of the question! So, that earliest work—and this would be everything up through the period I'm talking about—was just basically, I don't know how quite to describe it. Organic, or free-hand, you know. Just making stuff up and writing it down. Words would come in to my head, and I would put them on the page. So, typically, I would just type it and it would be like trying to compose a musical piece, or something. Like, what should go after this? How can I complete this rhythm, or set of images? Something like that. And then that began to change with—again, I say 2000, 2001, when I met Gary Sullivan and other members of the Flarf Group—and that itself, that second stage had kind of like two stages. At first, I became acquainted with Gary's writing on an email list that we were both on, and just for a joke he wrote some kind of New Year's poem, or something like that, that he called a "flarf poem." "Flarf" was the invented name for the method. It was basically just writing the stupidest, most shapeless thing you could think of. So it was full of non-sense and obscenities, emphatic noises with no real shape or form other than just, basically, roughly being broken in to lines. He and I and a few other people started doing this just for fun, and we created our own email list just so we could do it. I'm sure the full origin stories out there about—
DB: Just for my clarification—it started on a different email list and then it moved to its own?
KM: That's right. And I guess really it started, if I'm correct—I think this is what Gary related to me—when he sent a poem in to one of those online vanity price things. "Poetry.com." And the short version: he was trying to get rejected. So, he wrote just the stupidest thing he could think of, and it was accepted for consideration for the anthology, which you then pay for if you're actually dumb enough to go through with that. So, that was the origin. Then he just started writing more of them on the email list even after he'd realized he couldn't get rejected, because it was fun. So, a group of us that were on this list, and so eventually, I think it was Drew Gardner who introduced a method in the middle of this shapeless writing of using Google search results. Just going in to the Google page, doing usually a combination search for like two or three terms that you wouldn't expect to see on the same page together and then using that initial search result page as a base from which to collage excerpts. Not following the links, just—
DB: Just the language that shows up in the Google cache?
KM: That's right, yeah. So, my typical process—and this is the second stage, the big second stage where, for 10 years, I basically just wrote Google collages—was I would copy however many pages of the search result page... You know, because I'd click "next page," "next page," "next page" of about ten or a hundred results, and the page would turn in to words, and I'd start chiseling it down. Rearranging it, shuffling the contents, and occasionally cheating a little bit by putting a connector word or something like "and" or "the." Or maybe altering a word that was in just a slightly different grammatical form or something. But that gets back to what we were saying about not doing print revisions because, really, everything's done kind of like refrigerator magnets—just shuffling around. And I guess printing out a page, I could look at the thing and go, "Well, if I brought some of this down here...". But I never did that.
DB: No, right. I mean, it makes sense. It's computer-generated material.
KM: Yeah, and part of the fun of it was using the computer as a kind of canvas.
DB: Yeah.
KM: There was something kind of pleasing about pulling the components around and almost physically moving them around in that digital space.
DB: And when you're copying the page, do you just, say, CTRL+All, grab it and drop it in? Do you get images and what-not with that? Or do you just drag the thing up and just get the text and paste it in?
KM: Yeah. I mean typically, on a Mac, I'd just select the whole page, copy, and paste. I mean, there weren't any images because it was just the result page.
DB: Just the result page, OK.
KM: Right. What you would get was a lot of the, like, red or blue text, or purple text—the URLs and headers and things like that. But typically the first stage of going through the manuscript would be to remove all of that kind of junk-text. I mean it was all junk, but...
DB: Right.
KM: But, yeah, they were just numbers and code, so all I would have left were recognizable words, and maybe numbers.
DB: And in getting rid of that junk-text, were you reading it at the same time, or were you starting to kind of get a sense of what you had gotten? Or was it just kind of a rote "Let's get rid of this and then look at it"?
KM: I think—based on my memory—it would be a rote thing of, just, "First, let's get rid of everything I know is not actual, or in most cases, not useable text." I mean, there might be some little strings of code where I think, "Oh, that's kind of cool just by itself—I'll leave that in," but it was mostly an automatic process of, "Let me reduce it to just letters and black text, as opposed to colored, linked text". And then from that stage—and I don't know how interesting this could possibly be to anybody, but—
DB: I'm interested!
KM: —what would be left after that would be a lot of things like ellipses or dashes, because there'd be partial phrases and then ellipses, and then a beginning of another phrase, and that'd be how the search results would be arranged on the page. So then I might just say, "OK, I might get rid of all or most of the ellipses or dashes." I would also go through—just for the sake of composition—and change case. Select everything and then change case to lowercase just to get rid of all the blocks of caps that were kind of unwieldy. And then later in that process of composition I might change some letters back to caps, but typically, for whatever reason, the default format for the poem would be no caps unless they're required by convention, by which I mean proper names and things like that. I wouldn't capitalize the beginning of a line or anything like that. So, basically, once I was ready to actually start composing the poem I would have however many pages full of lowercase language in black and white.
DB: Yeah. And so for the dashes and ellipses and what-not, would you just do a "find all" and delete them?
KM: Yeah, that would be the quick way. I learned that pretty quickly. I would just, "Find this and replace with nothing" until I'd just have words for the most part, and maybe some numerals.
DB: Yeah. And so that's almost kind of your "pre-writing" stage in some ways, and then you're to the point where you're "composing" the poem, or whatever word you use. I mean, what words do you use?
KM: Yeah. I mean, just because of the nature of the way it was copied on the page, what I'd usually end up with would be something like tercets, or something that looked, on the page, already kind of like tercets. Which is why a lot of the poems—not all of them—end up being in tercets. I would just keep that. And sometimes two lines, sometimes three lines, sometimes longer, and sometimes more longer stanzas. But sometimes just that accidental form would give me kind of a starting point like, "OK, I've got groups of three lines, but I want to move this line from this one up here to this other one and then balance out the other one with the other line or phrase." Like I said, it would be like refrigerator magnets, though sometimes with full phrases instead of just individual words. And in the middle of that process, I'd usually get rid of most of the language—some of the language I couldn't figure out what interesting things I could do with, or that wouldn't be interesting. So, the finished poems might be anywhere from a third of a page to several pages long, but I'd be starting sometimes with, like, ten pages.
DB: And you'd just go and delete, delete, delete?
KM: Mhmm. Rearrange, shuffle.
DB: And so what were the phrases or words, or groupings, that would catch your eye, or catch your ear? I mean, which was it catching?
KM: I'd say earlier in the process it had more to do with the original search terms I used. So, for example, my first book Deer Head Nation involved a bunch of searches that usually included, among other terms, the term "deer head." So, for that, I was obviously motivated to keep deer head a lot of the time so I could keep that theme going. Or, sometimes I would think of a phrase I thought was funny or bizarre and I'd want that to be a title, and I'd want to keep a few instances of those words in the poem. I'd say, I guess, several years further along into the process, I got to the point where I didn't really care if the original search terms showed up at all. I just wanted to create kind of a lyric construct, but one that was limited in its sources to that bank of terms.
DB: What do you think got you to that sort of preference?
KM: No idea.
DB: No idea?
KM: I think just getting bored with the regularity of the earlier process. Which I think worked pretty well for me with some of the original first projects, because they were kind of thematically motivated. You know, the deer head thing was supposed to be kind of a metaphor for imperialism or something, I don't know.
DB: Yeah.
KM: But as I went on, I just really became more concerned with just wanting a verbal shape or sculpture that I found interesting.
DB: And do you find then that those later poems are more "readable"?
KM: Probably not! I mean, that's a good question. I'm laughing, but I mean, you know, one person's definition of "readable" is very different from another's. Because in all honesty, some people would look at it, whether it's an earlier stage or a later stage, and think, "This isn't poetry. This is just spam or something. This is just garbage from the internet." And I don't even think that divide is along the "experimental" or "traditional," necessarily, because, frankly, a lot of the biggest critics of Flarf are experimental poets.
DB: Right.
KM: So, I think it really just has to do with whether a person has the kind of mind that likes "arrangement," in that sense, rather than—let me rephrase that. I think it depends whether someone's drawn to verbal arrangement over-and-above verbal theme. I mean, that's what drew me originally to poets like Clark Coolidge, or other language poets. You know, it didn't matter what it "said" in the traditional sense. I was interested in, like, "Wow! How can you put those words in that place!" So, I don't really know what's readable to the "average person." Because I don't think there is an "average person."
DB: Yeah. I guess—in terms of your own reading, or in terms of your own compositions—when you're making those things, did you find those later poems to be more pleasurable to make? You said there was more of a lyric bent to them.
KM: Yeah, I don't know if other people would see it as lyric, necessarily, but, yeah. I think so. I think, inevitably, it became almost—at least from my perspective—more traditional. Again, I think other people would look at it and say, "You call this traditional?" But I felt like I was kind of going back to the kinds of things that pleased me about older forms of poetry. So, even if the poems themselves have like ridiculous vocabulary and images—you know, junk food, or porn site terminology, or whatever else comes off the internet—I would be looking for rhythm. I'm very influenced by somebody like Clark Coolidge, on that level—kind of like the jazz-influenced mode of composition.
DB: So how are you constructing your lines if you're looking for that sort of rhythm?
KM: I guess the lines are really just determined by the shape of the phrases. I mean, for me, the rhythm comes outward from words. It's not like a pentameter rhythm or something that's determined by a set length. Not in that project. Not in those poems.
DB: When you grabbed a phrase or a few phrases, were those automatically lines, or would you break those into different lines?
KM: It really depends, but usually I do a lot of breaking. I mean, there's a sense on which the whole process is kind of unnecessary, I mean, because ultimately what I was doing was just manipulating the results so much. I mean, I would think all the time that I really didn't need to go to the internet except at the level of just, I think, vocabulary. And maybe beyond that, just for little syntactical clusters, like, "Oh, wow! Look at these four words in a row. I would never have come up with these four words in a row on my own, just trying to think of something." So, what I was looking for was just really a pallet full of colors—colors I couldn't think of by myself, because no human being would think of putting those things in a poem because they're not that. They're something else at that stage.
DB: So, in terms of your revision strategies for these poems, in the early stages you had more—and I'm sort of recapping, here—of an intent towards representing the search in some very fundamental way. And then, later, it started to become you wanting to kind of represent an accumulation and arrangement more lyrically, or more in a way that was kind of traditional, in your traditions of poetry.
KM: But I think the one constant was the importance of the idea that was generated by the search. I don't see the need to mask the method. I think one of the pleasures, for me, of reading other work like that by other people is knowing, "Oh, they did this by using a particular procedure." And I'm still most interested in how the finished work affects me. But the knowledge that it was created in a certain way is something I can't separate, and that I don't want to separate. So, you know, I would frame the work all the way through. If I were to mention it, which I have the occasion to do in the beginning of the book, or whatever—"This was creating using Google search methods"—I think it helps people going in to it with that knowledge. But like you're saying, I didn't necessarily want the search to retain some imprint of all the original conditions of the search. Maybe in the first book, to some extent. For example, in Deer Head Nation, I not only kept a lot more longer clusters—the original syntactic clusters—but I would keep a bunch of ellipses and create visual groupings with them. All these kind of graphic reminders of what the process was. I just felt less inclined to do that as I went on because it didn't seem necessary for the different kinds of poems I was going in to.
DB: Right, right. What about the prose poems in this tradition? How did those come about?
KM: I mean, same thing. But there, the original search terms did remain much more important because, I mean, you have a phrase like "and then she said" or something very fixed and obviously, in order to keep the shape throughout the poem, I'm going to have to keep coming back to that tag. There, the goal is usually to make it seem seamless, like this is the one subject saying something over and over again. So, yeah, that would be an exception. Although, I think I also did some prose poems where I didn't stick that much to whatever original, grammatical framing. I don't remember off hand, how, or which ones, but—
DB: Were these revisions driven by sound? I mean, were you reading them out loud to get a better kind of rhythm or did you have like meanings or themes that you wanted to elicit?
KM: Yeah, that's a good question. I think sound was probably usually at least tied for the primary motivator, there.
DB: What would determine a line break, then, in terms of sound?
KM: That's a difficult question even for like traditional modes of writing, right?
DB: It's an impossible question.
KM: This is one of the things that drives me crazy in workshop when I'm teaching. It's like, on the one hand, wanting people to think about line breaks and what motivates them to do what they do, and on the other hand, getting so tired of getting so bogged-down in completely arbitrary theories of, like, "The Line Break." Because, in some ways, it's like a very important thing, but in some ways it's just totally random. I mean, not in every poem, obviously, and of course, if you're working in a fixed form, it's taken care of. But free-verse or procedural, or other kinds of things where the line breaks are kind of a post-facto consideration—I mean, really, it's just going on my nerve, you know? Just what strikes me at the moment is seeming like a good way to keep the rhythm going, or to create a halt in the rhythm, or to do a little of both depending on where I am in the poem.
DB: So what would be the phrase that you would use? I mean, you said it's "collage," that it's "Google collage". I mean, I've seen "Google sculpt," I've seen "found poetry"—
KM: Yeah, "Google sculpt" is the term I kind of tried to put out there for it.
DB: So that's the one you sort of prefer saying? It's like "Google sculpting"? I mean, sculpting being collage works—
KM: Yeah, I mean "Google collage" works, too.
DB: Do you know what the search terms are for each poem, and is there somewhere where that's recorded?
KM: No. Sometimes I think about that, like, "Why didn't I keep a record of how exactly this came about?" But no, I'm too absent-minded and lazy for that.
DB: You'd probably have to recreate it someday by using a simulator or something.
KM: Oh, you can't! Because, I mean, the internet has completely changed, right?
DB: Yeah.
KM: It's gone forever.
DB: I know—it's so fascinating. So, we've moved from the first stage to the second stage to then the two stages of that, the latter stage of that having run up for about ten years you said?
KM: Something like that, yeah. So, I'm writing just free-form—or however you want to describe it—from '98 to 2000. So that was a very short phase, though the second book, A Thousand Devils, was kind of stuff left over from that stage. So, even though that came out in 2004, most of it had been written quite earlier.
DB: And Hovercraft is also from that stage?
KM: Yeah, that's from that initial stage.
DB: And then the second stage starts with Deer Head Nation?
KM: Mhmm—through Breathalyzer and The Front.
DB: And so this third section, then, is the "sonograms"?
KM: Yeah.
DB: So, how did that project come about?
KM: I should just say, by the way, I'm calling these "stages" just as a convenient way of separating different times. I don't think of it necessarily like, "Oh, this is the, you know, "initiatory" stage and I developed in to this." This is just what I happened to start doing or stop doing.
DB: Yeah—not a compression.
KM: Yeah. So, yeah, Sonograms—I forgot what year. It's been an embarrassingly long time now, because I've been working very slowly on it. I've been a very lazy poet.
DB: The best poets are.
KM: I mean, it would've been finished a long time ago if I kept any schedule. I'm a little over halfway through. I think I started in, I don't know, 2008, or something like that. It was National Poetry month, and I was looking for an idea, just some quick and easy gimmick to allow me to write a poem a day. And I thought I could do something with Shakespeare's sonnets. It's like: go to the internet and find a sonnet, copy it, and paste it in to a Word doc. Then: "Okay—what can I do in the next five or ten minutes using this as my source?" I'd say, "Here, I wrote a poem for this silly tradition." And I'd just start kind of shuffling it and playing with it with my cursor, thinking. And I had been recently impressed by a book by Gregory Bets, which I'm now embarrassingly forgetting the title of. Anyway, it's a book in which he takes a paragraph from a speech and rearranges it multiple times throughout the book just by a letter. So, it's anagrams of the same paragraph. Christian Bök gave me a copy of this—as well as, I think, Gregory Betts, who was with him at the time—and said, "Hey, you'll like this book." And I did. And I thought, "Oh, I want to play around with this," and I suddenly remembered, "Oh, anagrams. Well, OK. This will probably take too long. I'll just start shuffling it around, figuring out ways to break it up." And then I came up with the idea of taking each of the lines and feeding them in to an anagram generator, because that's all that would fit—at the time, it'd be one line. So, I did that, and every time I fed it in, the anagram generator would give me a choice of a bunch of word lists that you could make by rearranging that particular line. I just picked the one I liked the best until I had this poem that was fourteen lines with silly words. So I thought, "Well, OK. There, that's a poem. But, eh, it's not that interesting. I mean, it's kind of cool." And in retrospect, that was another thing I wish I had done, which was save all these initial first stage word lists that I used to create the poems, but I haven't.
DB: The librarian in me is sort of cringing right now.
KM: Well they're just kind of neat poems, like cheap, fake poems on their own. They're just line-by-line anagrams of the original sonnet, but without much syntax or anything. They're just words in a row.
DB: Right.
KM: So, I sat there and thought, "Oh, I'm already ten or fifteen minutes in to it, but it'd be more interesting if I move the letters throughout the poem like Gregory Betts did." So, I did that, and then like four or five hours later, I had been working on these poems for, like, a big chunk of the day. So then I got really hooked on it and started doing a bunch of them. I don't think I kept to the the National Poetry Month schedule, but I did a few of these, and soon it stuck. Now, I'm up to ninety-something, I think. It's embarrassing. Like I said, it's been since 2008—I should have a lot more.
DB: And there are a hundred and—?
KM: A hundred and fifty-four, total. But, yeah, so each poem is just an anagram. And then, I would say, there's a "cheat": I'll use all the letters to create a new poem in iambic pentameter, with the original rhyme scheme—A, B, A, B, etcetera, with three quatrains and a couplet—but then I'll have letters left over. It's almost never a problem that I don't have enough letters, usually, it's just that I can't use them all in the poem. So, I'll use those extra letters to make up a title, but that usually is pretty stupid. The whole poem is stupid, but the title isn't in pentameter or anything. It's just whatever I can do with the leftover letters.
DB: So you started off with the kind of stuff from the anagram generator, and I'm assuming that's not in iambic pentameter?
KM: Right—just words.
DB: So, was that the initial move that first day? You went, like, "Oh, I need to make this match up with the Elizabethan sonnet form"?
KM: Yeah, yeah. That was pretty much it. I think the very first one was the one that's on this little trading card—
DB: Oh, I have that trading card!
KM: Frankly, in fact, it's definitely the worst out of all of them, because it's got sort of a consistence in text and grammar, but it's just complete nonsense. But it was, in fact, technically iambic pentameter, and it technically rhymed. You know, it half rhymed. Then I got much more stringent about it from them on, like, "Oh, I'm going to actually make them construable as meanings even if they are bizarre meanings."
DB: OK. And so from that first one on—from two to wherever you are now—you were like, "Okay, now I'm going to have more structure to them"?
KM: Yeah. I mean, they always have the structure—I may be overstating it. I think the first ones probably, in some ways, are as construable as the others. I think it was just finding my stride for the next few, like, "Oh, I don't have to reach for these, like, half rhymes." Or, I can make that the most determined, kind of fluid part of it, and just then make the absurdities stand out in even more pleasing relief.
DB: I mean, you said they got "better" as you did them, and I'm sort of interested in this from your early Flarf stuff to The Front, too. I mean, I don't know, for my taste, I think it's better. And so, I'm wondering, how do you think of it in that way? Is it just from practice?
KM: I think it really is that simple. I think after the first one or two, I just got more practice working with the pentameter, creating a smoother flow. Really, that's all.
DB: Right. And so now that you're almost at number one hundred, do you have a different way of going about it?
KM: The basic process has stayed exactly the same. I think I changed the generator at one point in the process because I found a better one.
DB: What was the first generator?
KM: I don't remember what the first one was. It was kind of the standard, like the one most people would come to first, I believe. And the way I chose it in the first place was that it was just one that would accommodate an entire line, because not all of them would. Usually, they're better with names, or things like that. But I found one that would take an entire line of iambic pentameter. And then most recently, the one I use now is, I think, the best out of all the ones I've used. It's called "One Across," at oneacross.com.
KM: And it's nice because it's got a little control. I'm sure all the others have probably developed since I've been doing this, too, and they can do a lot of the same things. But, I'll put the basic line in the top box and then I have a little, if I want to, optional box where I can make sure it contains a certain word, if I find a certain word I want to make sure is in it, but I don't like the first few. Because there are sometimes hundreds of options to scroll through. So I can be like, "Make sure it contains lawnmower," you know, or whatever.
DB: So, you can you search and then limit the search in some ways.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: That's interesting. Does it ever produce a perfectly iambic pentameter line that you can use?
KM: I haven't done that yet. I'm sure it's theoretically possible.
DB: Electronic monkeys writing King Lear!
KM: I mean, do you know about the Pentametron? Which is this wonderful Twitter-based website.
DB: No, I do not know about the Pentametron.
KM: It is exactly kind of what you just said. Somebody built a program that just continuously scans Twitter—everybody's Twitter account, apparently—and finds all lines of iambic pentameter. Really, most of them, I'm sure, are accidental. And it finds other lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme with them, and creates this ongoing poem. I can go to it right now—
DB: Yeah.
KM: The one thing about it is it always starts with the oldest part. I wish it were bottom to top so you could always see the most recent.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Oh, here we are. You just go to the Twitter page with that. "Bread cards and sweaty bodies everywhere. The largest arms erect into the air. I'm way excited for the album though, you just a hoe—a stupid, stupid hoe. Tim Duncan is a fucking dinosaur. I'm not a people person anymore. I wanna wear a maxi dress today. I really wanna sleep today away," and so on. It also shows who the original Tweeter was, and it's just random people. So, it's like the greatest poem of the 21st century.
DB: Yeah. Do you know who's behind it?
KM: Oh, I don't know. Whoever it is, I don't know them personally, and I don't remember what their name is.
DB: Yeah. That's fascinating. I know that the New York Times had that one where they'd make little haikus, too. Similar project, not as good. So, getting back—do other people play any roles in all these things? I guess I'm interested in how it was writing to the list serve in that early stage. I mean, in terms of revision and kind of the forces that sort of morphed your poetry—what was that like?
KM: That was great. I think, really, most members of the list would agree that was the most stimulating thing about being on the list—just feeding-off everyone else's excitement and creativity, because it was very much a big hug fest. There was almost nothing critical going on in there, ever. We just try to write stuff to bust each other up. And it would be very responsive—if somebody wrote a poem with farting unicorns, somebody else would write one and expand on that. Like, farting glittery unicorns, you know—the sillier the better. The more obnoxious, the better.
DB: So, that sort of frivolous stuff—the farting unicorns—that sort of silliness was very highly valued on the list serve?
KM: Yeah. I mean, that was kind of the original spirit of Flarf. And I think it's also part of the reason for a lot of the resistance to Flarf from experimental directions. There was a sense that it wasn't taking the struggle seriously enough, or something. Which, you know, I think is what comes out of this, for me, misguided sense that this absolute stone-facedness is necessary at all times. And, there are times where there are legitimate objections, and I'd rather not go in to details. But there are, you know, some poems that upset people.
DB: Right.
KM: And I think it was very upsetting to the people who wrote them that they did upset people, because even though it might seem from the outside like, "Well, weren't you trying to offend people? Weren't you trying to get people upset?" But it was like, "Well, no—not these people."
DB: Right, right.
KM: And I think initially we were very resentful about it. It felt like, "Oh, we're on your side and you're misunderstanding us. These are not racist or sexist or otherwise vile intentions that you're looking at, here." But, I mean, I feel like as time has gone on, I try very hard to be more sympathetic to that response because out of that context that it emerged from, it's easy to see how a poem that mentions certain things in certain tones is almost impossible to separate from a poem that mentions those things in that tone with different intentions. And I think, even past Flarf, things like that are going on right now with some of the younger conceptual writers in this work I really admire, but then I see other poets I really admire feeling deeply hurt by the work they're creating. It's very difficult. I don't have a way to kind of justify any of it, or to put it in to order in my mind.
DB: Yeah, no. It's a tough one. I mean, a lot of your career and a lot of your writing has kind of happened from the internet and on the internet—with the blogging and the commenting—and that seems to have, in some ways, died down a bit?
KM: Yeah, blogging seems to be a thing in the past. For me, anyway.
DB: How did that shape your practice, your writing? You say that you've evolved in some ways about your opinions on some of the content that would be included. Have there been other effects? Could you elaborate more on that?
KM: I'd say what I've evolved in, at first, is not necessarily... I haven't changed my mind about some of the—I don't know what you want to call it—"starting theory". I've tried to become more empathetic and not immediately judge anyone who doesn't get it.
DB: Right.
KM: Or, see, even using a phrase like "doesn't get it" already shows a little residual judgment. There may be more than one way to "get it" in some ways that don't match our intentions, and we need to consider that we're accountable for that.
DB: Right. Well, and so much of the sort of the latter part of Flarf has been sort of the death of Flarf, in some of the blog posts and whatnot. Was that partly the reaction? Just like, "Let it go"? I mean, where does it go from there, I guess, is the question.
KM: I'm not sure how much. I think "Death of Flarf," most of the time, was a phrase we used ourselves just to kind of, like, kill the beast before it killed us, or something. But I think it just ran its course. I think, like any movement, the movement itself had its main value in the way it motivated the members of the movement, and that most of the writers go on to write however they're going to write. And it's influenced by that, but it's not the same. But your original question was about the blogging?
DB: Yeah, and kind of how that influenced your own writing.
KM: I don't know. I think for me, again, the main value of the blogging thing was to bring me in to contact with other poets and having discussions. I think there were a lot of people—in the early aughts, especially—blogging every day, and we were having fun conversations. For whatever reason, people moved on to other platforms, and other projects. And it also ran its course. But I don't know. I mean, I think the main effect was just social.
DB: I guess one question is could you have written the "sonograms" in the way that you're doing without Flarf? What sort of influence was there?
KM: Well, there are certain surface similarities, right? I mean, the idea of the refrigerator magnet process—pasting something into Word and using that as my template. So, yeah, I think in some ways, at least originally, I considered it an extension of Flarf practice. I guess there's no way to say that it is or isn't. There's no definite meaning to that. It is if I say it is, I guess.
DB: Right, right.
KM: But, yeah. It's probably something I wouldn't have done in quite the same way I did it if I hadn't been doing Flarf.
DB: This goes back to some of the questions we were just talking about, but what sort of skills did you learn in doing the Flarf that kind of go into the "sonograms"? What did you come in feeling strong about, and what did you learn?
KM: I think it's what I mentioned earlier—just that approach to arrangement. Finding clusters, finding strings in already existing verbal groups. Kind of being able to sift and sculpt something that was already in front of me.
DB: Yeah. So, I think we've kind of covered some of the general push through composition and revision, but I'm also interested in how you would put together the books, especially if—well, one question before we move in to that. Do you still write in that sort of traditional Flarf way? Are you still grabbing Google responses?
KM: I haven't done it in a long time. I think I did a few kind of like "post-Flarf" Flarf poems for a couple of years after I started doing the "sonograms," but eventually it just—I don't know. I think even the way it's configured on the internet now is such that it doesn't work quite the same way. I couldn't tell you exactly how, but I know the one or two times in the last year I even thought about trying to go back and do it, I thought, "Oh, this isn't the same."
DB: There's a lot more information like, underneath, and on the side. I mean, it's just kind of taken-over in so many ways.
KM: I think, yeah. And part of it is Google has gotten too smart.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Things are grouped according to usefulness, rather than just random occurrence of words.
DB: And who you are, too.
KM: Yeah, it knows me too well, and it's—I don't trust it.
DB: Google will let it appear, and Google will let it disappear. Terrifying. But in those terms, what were you using? Like, how were you composing the books then—like Deer Head Nation and Breathalyzer and The Front? You don't really have sections in those books—they just kind of go through, right?
KM: Really, the only one that's thematically organized in any sense is the first one. I mean, with the whole deer head theme which, like I said, is just a sort of floating metaphor.
DB: Right.
KM: Breathalyzer and The Front are, in all honesty, pretty much interchangeable, in terms of how the poems are chosen or grouped. They're just individual poems. And I actually have a full other manuscript that may or may not get published from that period. It's just been so long now that, even though I actually like some of the poems there, I thought, "Does anybody really want this now? Has the time passed?" It's called Monsters, and tentatively it might come out from Edge Books, but I haven't followed up on my obligations off getting the manuscript in. So, I don't know where I stand with that. I may have screwed it up.
DB: When you were publishing these books, and maybe with Monsters, do you have relationships with the editors where they're revising the shape of the book?
KM: Well, I definitely have a relationship with the editors. But I mean, like Rod Smith for Edge—fantastic editor, fantastic poet. But he's pretty hands-off in terms of the actual creative content. I'd say his input and his helpers' input comes at the level of things like layout.
KM: Yeah.
DB: And then I know you have, also, some e-chapbooks and whatnot. What do you feel about those, and how do you end up with them?
KM: I haven't even looked at them in so long, I can hardly give you a clear answer. I remember some of it was very early Flarf, but again, I haven't looked at it in a long time. I suspect I'd probably just cringe looking at a lot of it. Because I think what was initially exciting about the process is what quickly becomes predictable and crude about it—like, "Oh, look! This text comes off the internet. It smells like the internet! Look at it, you can see internet all over it." It becomes kind of obvious after a while.
DB: Yeah.
KM: But, I don't know. Yeah, I mean that's all so long ago.
DB: And in terms of the digital documents that contain those manuscripts and those books, I mean, are they in a certain spot in your computer somewhere?
KM: I think I just have the original Word documents of them, and then whatever else is out there. Or maybe a .PDF, in a couple of cases.
DB: Do you feel in any way—and this is getting back to the more technical stuff—sort of like "dear" towards them? Or are you like, "These are there, but really, the book's the book"? Like, is there enough value on them that you make sure where they are and that they're valued, etcetera, on a digital format, too?
KM: Well, there's at least that much value—that I know I have copies of them. But beyond that—and again, I'm not trying to be evasive—it's not that I actually am embarrassed, or have strong feeling one way or the other. It's just that I really don't remember that well what's in them.
DB: Okay, yeah.
KM: Because I was just doing so much stuff at that time. I mean, I'm sure if I took a few minutes to look, I'd go, "Oh, yeah! This one. I like this one," or "I don't like this one so much." But I'm trying to even form a mental image right now and—yeah.
DB: So—I do have a few Flarf questions I wanted to make sure I asked, but I think I got through most of them. One of the questions I ask the other people who teach—and you teach, too—is how does this influence the way you teach? What did Flarf teach you that then you tried to teach them, or anything in that sense?
KM: I guess, the single most important thing is just that it has to be fun in some level. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily frame it as "Flarf" in the classroom in this way, but I think one of the first things I try to do in the beginning in the classroom is break down the sense of over-seriousness that sometimes holds people back. So, I'll give them exercises—which people were doing a lot before Flarf—you know: write the worse poem you can. Things like that. Or I might, for a specific exercise, suggest procedure that is relevant to Flarf, but I won't say, "Okay, now we're going to write a Flarf poem." There are, inevitably, times when it comes up, or somebody in the class has heard of Flarf and they say, "What's Flarf?" and the story will get told. But I actually try to hold back on that because too often it results, I think, in exercises that might be fun for the student, and even produce humorous material, but don't necessarily contribute to the kinds of foundational verbal skills that I want people to concentrate on. Or if it does, it doesn't for everyone. For some people, it can be a way to avoid.
DB: Right.
KM: But I guess that's true for everything.
DB: And what are those sort of foundational verbal skills that you're after?
KM: I mean, just really basic conservative things like rhythm, like avoiding clichés. And just writing something where you're not just recycling received notions of what a poem ought to be.
DB: Right, yeah. It's all about kind of getting towards writing something interesting, making something interesting to a reader, right?
KM: And looking in to sources that you might not immediately consider, you know? Encouraging them to read a lot of poetry. Just the really basic things.
DB: Right, right. Just a few more questions. I guess...Eh, no. I think we're good.
KM: Oh, good.
DB: Thanks, Kasey.
KM: Yeah!
DB: That was really great.
KM: It was a pleasure.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Sometimes I'm so croaky—
DB: No, it'll be cool, you know, whenever it shows up. Ah—the off button.
KM: Are we Friends on Facebook?
DB: I don't have a Facebook.
KM: Oh, Okay.