By Harbeer Sandhu
Photo by Jorge Galvan
Houston is well-known for experimental music/noise and risk-taking performance art, but the literary landscape—dominated by conservative aesthetics and outdated publishing models that look to New York for legitimacy—is rather safe, tepid, and bland.
Poet/translator/interpreter/educator/collaborator/organizer/interdisciplinary artist John Pluecker is trying to change that. Last spring, his ongoing partnership with Jen Hofer, Antena Books/Libros Antena, ran a temporary bookstore at Project Row Houses to showcase the innovative writing he loves, and to create a multilingual community space for collaborative language experiments.
This Wednesday, November 14, Pluecker will be the inaugural reader in the new Indie Penned Events reading series at Independence Studios (419 Janisch Rd, Houston 77018) at 7:00 p.m. FPH recently had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with him.
You didn’t study literature as an undergrad—you came to literature after college. How did that happen?
In 2002, I participated in a creative writing workshop put on by Sehba Sarwar through Voices Breaking Boundaries. Although I have always been a voracious reader and obsessed with language(s), that was one of my first times in a creative writing setting. A group of us continued to meet for a year after that workshop ended and I started writing a collection of short stories. In 2004, I moved to Tampico, Mexico, where I continued to work on my short story collection and wrote a weekly column in Spanish for a local newspaper. I returned to Houston in 2005 to pursue a Masters in Spanish at UH.
After that, another huge moment in my writing was the Writing Lab on the Border, organized by Cristina Rivera Garza, which was open to young, bilingual writers from Mexico and the US. It took place in Tijuana in 2006. (I went on to study under Rivera Garza when I got my MFA in creative writing from the University of California at San Diego.) Rivera Garza is fed by North American avant-garde writing, so she was bringing in all these writers and movements that I’d never heard of before: Lyn Hejinian, Eleni Sikelianos, language poetry, new narrative writing, Robert Glück, Ron Silliman, Eileen Myles… And that was my first time reading any of this stuff. I’d never even heard of language poetry or new narrative, and I got excited because I felt like suddenly I’d slipped into this alternate writing universe. I was upset I hadn’t heard of any of these authors before, and I was really overwhelmed by their work. I ended up re-thinking my writing practice completely and throwing out the short story collection I’d been working on for years. It was really destabilizing for me, and, in a weird way, that become my model of how a writing space should be run. I think it should pull the ground out from underneath you and make you work to figure out where you stand. That can be very unsettling for people, and productive, in the best of cases.
Why did you throw out those stories?
They were all sort of didactic “message” stories. I had my “story about abortion” and my “story about a neighborhood watch gone wrong” and my “story about this gay guy in Mexico maybe committing suicide and maybe not” but the Tijuana workshop changed so much for me. I stopped thinking of writing as this product to perfect and present to the world, or a lesson or a piece of knowledge that I want to impart. Instead, I began to think of writing as a process through which I am discovering something for myself. I remember very well Cristina and others saying, “If the writer is not learning anything through the writing process—if you already knew all this before you started, then so does everyone else—so do your readers.” The point of writing is to find new avenues for thinking in language. So to go into it like, “Here is my storyline; here is what I want to do; now I’m just going to write it,” isn’t going to yield the kind of writing I find compelling.
At a really base level, the reason why I was writing that short story collection was because I wanted someone else to read it and say it was really good: self-validation. It kind of hurts to say that, but it’s true.
Why does that hurt? Every artist wants an audience.
Wanting an audience is fine, but now, when I’m writing, I’m not as concerned about people saying it’s good. I write because it’s a remnant or a trace of a process of thinking that feels necessary to me. And I know that there is a community of writers and readers out there who are working in this vein, and I want to be in dialog with them. It’s a really different impulse to write because you want to be in dialog versus wanting to be a master.
Speaking of masters, I’ve heard you drop an Audre Lorde quote from time to time, “You can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools.” How does this relate to your emphasis on innovation and experimentation?
Audre Lorde’s quote has been in my head for so long that at this point, it is somewhere close to Gospel for me (which makes me very suspicious). I think I initially heard it in the late nineties in various social justice movements and organizations. It seemed to me that it was referring to the tendency to reproduce certain modes of oppression within our movements. I took it as a call to avoid simply reifying old structures and repeating old mistakes.
But in the last few years, the quote for me has also become an aesthetic critique of the forms inherited to us by the “masters” of Western art and writing. A way for me to think through my aesthetic allegiances and commitments, a way to position myself in relation to a wide field of writing. In general, the kind of writing I’m most interested in provides spaces within language to experience and think through woundedness and trauma and strangeness and doubt and mystery and messiness and dirtiness and excess and oddness.
Yeah, definitely. So if you’re going to look at these broken or euphoric states, the way to do that in language is not to write about euphoria or write about brokenness or write about trauma-it’s how do you get the language to ooze trauma, how do you get the language to jump up out of itself, euphorically, and what kind of bodily state does writer need to be in to be writing that, too, which leads to CA Conrad and his somatic exercises. He’s amazing, interested in questions like: Where does the body come into the writing? How is the body in the language? How is the language in the body? How are these things producing each other at the same time?
Another thing you like to do is collaborate with other writers (in translation and in simultaneous collaboration) and musicians and visual artists. Could you speak to your interdisciplinary/multimedia collaborations?
I think the strategies and methodologies of production used in the kind of writing that I’m talking about are the same ones used in other arts: in visual arts, music, dance and performance. I find we have a lot to talk about and a lot of opportunities for collaboration. Also, it’s often a lot more fun and productive to think about writing off of the page, or outside of the book. What can writing look like in a public space? In a gallery or museum? On a boat or at the corner store? I’m into the guerilla public writing activities of people like Colectivo Intransigente or the Cognate Collective in Tijuana, taking writing out into the streets.
Tell us about some of your current projects.
I’ll mention two: so a new chapbook called Killing Current is just out from Mouthfeel Press in El Paso. It’s a 27-page selection from a longer book-length manuscript called Ford Us Over. The project started two years ago in the MFA program at UC San Diego; I was reading a lot of explorer’s chronicles of their voyages through what we now call Texas-mainly from the Spanish and Mexican periods, but also Frederick Law Olmstead from the post-Mexican time — and I got thinking about moments when explorers cross rivers/creeks/arroyos because they use those moments to mark time. I started to intervene particular pages — cutting up, homophonic translation, Oulipian procedural techniques. Then I started doing ekphrastic pieces with some of the images/landscapes, paintings/drawings — and finally doing image/text combination pieces. I’ve ended up making visual works for galleries and improvisation with music as part of the project as well. In terms of the book manuscript itself, I am hoping a press will want to to publish it soon.
Also, I am continuing to work with Antena on language justice and language experimentation work. The installation at Project Row Houses embodied the kind of space that I wish existed here all the time: a bookspace with a focus on innovative and experimental works, largely by people of color and queer and feminist authors. Having that space made for a vibrant exchange of ideas, all of us reading together and writing together each week. Antena continues to grow and there should be some others iterations of it in Houston in the future.
After the “Poets on Politics” event at UH, and the controversy that erupted during the Q&A, wherein poet and UH professor Tony Hoagland dismissed questions about the non-representative faculty in the UH Creative Writing Program by saying, “Students need to learn from people who don’t look like them,” you made some comments tome on structural racism in the UH CWP. Could you elaborate on that?
[Note to readers: Hoagland has previously been accused of dismissing concerns about apparent racism in one of his poems by his former colleague at UH, poet Claudia Rankine. You can read about that starting here.]
Lupe Mendez and Tony Diaz from Nuestra Palabra brought up the fact that in all the years of the UH Creative Writing Program, there has been no Latin@ professor dedicated to poetry or fiction (Ruben Martinez was here for a few years in non-fiction). For me, the reason why that becomes a real site for disappointment and anger is that hiring Latin@ faculty is such a basic step. The kind of aesthetic and political conversation about innovation and experimentation that I’m talking about isn’t even possible because we are not all represented at the table.
One of Tony Hoagland’s responses that stood out for me was that, “We need to learn from people who don’t look like us;” he used this statement to argue that Latin@ students should be willing to learn from professors who don’t look like them. However, his argument really works to prove our point, not his: you should have Latin@ faculty not just for Latin@ students, but also for white students, and African-American students and Asian students. All students should learn from people who don’t look like them at some point. In a city like Houston, where Latin@s are the largest group demographically, the idea that our local creative program has no Latin@ faculty is just appalling.
Finally, could you provide a list of generative strategies for experimental writing for readers who might be interested?
This list could be endless, but here are a few: appropriation, homophonic translation, transpropriation, macaronics, Oulipian constraints, procedural interventions, cut-ups, erasure, formulas, mimicry, (re)versioning, somatic exercises, documentary writing, visual or concrete exploration, centering sound, wreading, site-specific writing, flarf, Google-mining, collaborative writing… Invent some more and let me know: plujo7 at gmail dot com.
Pluecker organizes a series of literary and art events around town at various locations, often at Houston gem Kaboom Books. This Friday, November 17 from 6-9pm, LA-based innovative performance poet Douglas Kearney will be performing as part of the STACKS exhibit curated by Robert Pruitt at Art League Houston (1953 Montrose Blvd 77006). In addition, Kearney will offer a free poetry workshop at Project Row Houses on Saturday from 1-4pm. Both events are supported by Poets & Writers, Inc. Pluecker’s work will also appear alongside his long-term collaborators’ in the visual art show “Sand in the Line” at Sam Houston State University’s gallery from November 5–29, 2012. Visit Pluecker’s blog at johnpluecker.blogspot.com for more information or email him at plujo7 at gmail dot com to get on his emails lists.
John Pluecker is a recipient of an Individual Artist Grant Award. This grant is funded by the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.