“Am I a Citizen Consumer or a Child of God?” A Conversation with Poet Virginia Konchan – curated by Eileen G’Sell

Virginia Konchan is the author of four poetry collections, Bel Canto (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2022), Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2020 and 2018); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, That Tree is Mine (Gaspereau Press, 2020), Empire of Dirt (above/ground press, 2019), The New Alphabets (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press, 2015), as well as coeditor (with Sarah Giragosian) of the craft anthology Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2022). She holds degrees from Beloit College (BA), Cleveland State University (MFA), and the University of Illinois-Chicago (PhD). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, and The New Republic, her essays and criticism in American Poetry ReviewKenyon Review Online, Boston Review, Jacket2, and Guernica, her translations in The Brooklyn Rail, Asymptote and Circumference, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Joyland, and Memorious, among other places. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, and her honors include grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Vermont Studio Center, Ox-Bow, The Banff Center, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, and Associate Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, she lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

Eileen G’Sell:  While the poems in The End of Spectacle and Any God Will Do have an implicit political edge, Hallelujah Time reads as a more conspicuous critique of late capitalism—specifically how it reduces our sense of self to our earning potential. Was this a conscious decision or something that gradually happened in the poems? 

Virginia Konchan: Your framing of Hallelujah Time as a critique of late capitalism, and how it reduces our subjectivity to earning potential, is so compelling. Questions of utility and valuation come up frequently in the book (in poems “Joyride,” “Schist,” “Beautiful,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “L’Heure Exquise”), in the sense of personal crises of value (use, exchange, surplus) for the speaker and questions of how to assign value. I think this happened gradually more than being a conscious decision to critique late capitalism: as my life circumstances became more complex, my poems became more political, along the parabola of the personal being political. Poetry is a different economy (libidinal and linguistic) than capitalism, and, as a form of cultural and not financial capital, it has different forms and modes of valuation, validation, recognition, and legitimation:  the inverse of capitalism, which profits the few at the expense of the many. 

I am trying to establish a propositional lyric subject from the grave of post-lyric capitalism, wherein people are confused with products and driven, qua Adam Smith, only by self-interest.  The rhetoric of neoliberalism spins health care and other human dignities as a “privilege,” not a right, and the faux-meritocracy attempts to justify and naturalize structural inequity by blaming the disenfranchised. The unfree market is a poor substitute for the reciprocal witnessing we find in poetry. Poetry is a kind of money, to quote Wallace Stevens: and, I think, a far better return on your investment (of time, labor, energy, and imagination) than many financial investments. 

EG: The wry appropriation of financial language in this response—“return on your investment”—feels itself in keeping with Hallelujah Time implicitly mocking late capitalism, by subverting its very lexis.  

VK:  Late capitalism’s playbook is at least easy to read:  a classic game of might over right, and the merger of financial capitalism with the end of democracy. Its various technologies of power, fueled by the monopolistic Big Tech Five, swallow other systems (economic, cultural, or social), cannibalistically and vampirically, so as to reinstate capitalism and neoliberalism as “realism” with “no alterative” (quoting Margaret Thatcher). Late cultural theorist Mark Fisher coined the term capitalist realism, describing a new “business ontology” in which everything (education, healthcare, human relations) is treated like a business. “Capitalist realism,” he wrote, “cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”  

I’m not alone in thinking poetry could be used as an unexpected political weapon in this struggle, representing the insolvency of language, the sensuous birth of meaning and desire as that which cannot be reduced to information and exchanged like currency, as Franco Berardi discusses in his book The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Berardi, along with Jean Baudrillard, uses the word “semiocapitalism” to describe the emergence of the society of the spectacle in conjunction with neoliberalism’s financial system, a late state of capitalism wherein information technologies such as digital trading make it possible to merge the productive use of signs and information with capital valorization: semiocapital (attention and psychic stimulation) replacing the production of material goods. Another way of saying this, to quote Adrienne Rich’s poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”:  “This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.”

EG: In “Wheel of Fortune,” you claim, “Money is symbolic value/ a broken palindrome,” and then, eight lines later, you ask, “Am I a citizen-consumer or a child of God?” as though the two are inherently antithetical. It strikes me that both of these identities are also, by definition, somewhat powerless—whether to the all-pervasive pull of market forces or the might of a higher spiritual being. And yet your poems don’t feel hopeless to me. The speaker seems to exert quite a bit of agency.

VK:  This strikes me as a secular-sacred trinity: citizen-consumer, child of God, and lyric speaker; the latter doesn’t fall into either category of relation (to the market, or God) but instead exerts, as you say, agency, and presence, and even authorship.  But I don’t read any of the three as being powerless, or hopeless: a citizen-consumer’s “power” may be reduced to rigged elections or purchasing power, what Noam Chomsky calls manufactured choices, but it’s still a privilege; a child of God, while externalizing the locus of power to a Godhead, can be empowered through the Holy Spirit or another form of divine inspiration; and a lyric speaker, through acts of mediumship, channeling, ventriloquism, and personae, can give voice to anyone or anything, from inanimate matter to the very person of “God” or another transcendental signifier.  

EG:  I am also drawn to the concept you mentioned earlier of poetry as a “different economy” based in language and libido—which reminds me both of the Rich poem you quoted, and of what French feminist Hélène Cixous deemed the crux of both female pleasure and creative power: “explosion, diffusion, effervescence, abundance ... pleasure in being limitless ....” Many of your poems circle back to womanly experiences of emotional labor vs. erotic pleasure—or the two simultaneously! For example, in “Afterparty,” “My body is a giver. It hurts.” precedes “My body doesn’t want anything.../ It understands only one theory: the thermal conduction of fire.

VK:  It’s uncanny you should mention Cixous after your question about subverting capitalist language, especially in relation to my poem “Afterparty,” as the ending to Cixous’s fantastic essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” about female drives (vocative, creative, erotic, erogenous) reads: “Elsewhere, she gives. She doesn’t ‘know’ what she’s giving, she doesn’t measure it; she gives, though, neither a counterfeit impression nor something she hasn’t got. She gives more, with no assurance that she’ll get back even some unexpected profit from what she puts out. She gives that there may be life, thought, transformation. This is an economy, that can no longer be put in economic terms.” That process of discovery, whereby a female writer finds, in Cixous’s words, “not her sum but her differences,” entails breaking with what she calls parental-conjugal phallocentrism and imbecilic capitalist machinery: a “discourse of man” that annihilates the specific energy of the opposite signifier and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds.  

And yes: there is that tension in “Afterparty” between emotional labor and erotic pleasure (or the desire for creative fire).  Hopefully they are mutually engendering, not mutually exclusive!  

EG: In terms of that process of “discovery” in embracing the energy of different sounds, compared to your earlier volumes, Hallelujah Time more overtly seems to foreground language’s ability to disrupt, implode, dissemble, and disassemble—which the textual density of each poem, most packed into one page-long stanza, serves to throw into striking relief. Moving so swiftly from high to mass culture, from philosophical speculation to concrete image, from the macro-political to the deeply personal, these dense one-stanza poems force us to reckon with it all without any spatial breaks. Did you, at any point, experiment with dividing these poems into shorter stanzas? Or did it always make a kind of intuitive sense to keep the stanza going, to take the reader with you on each wild ride, so to speak?

VK: Although there are a few poems that are organized differently (in couplets, tercets, quatrains), for the most part I definitely favor the block stanza. If the three principles of organization for the poetic line are metrical, syntactic, and visual, and in recalling the etymology of the word stanza (Italian for “room”), the block stanza represents a density or compactness of meaning, a studio apartment rather than a house, so to speak (which is where most of these poems were written).  I am fascinated by how poets use blank space, and stanzaic variation to aerate a poem’s impact; for this book, however, while the lineation and enjambment choices vary, I went for maximum density in the stanzaic choices, wanting the poems to be apprehended as compressed units of thought and sense whose interpretive valences (those you astutely mention) necessitate a reader.

EG: Your long poem that concludes the book, “Vox Populi,” is organized into 26 separate stanzas based on each letter of the English alphabet, emphasizing how—at the level of the very letter—language levels the difference between “elliptical machines piled up in basements” and “elementary ruin,” or “blamelessness” and “biofuel.” The sheer pleasure of such relentless alliteration and consonance calls attention to how easily the phonic echo of the lyric can coexist with emotional and political fissures of grave consequence. And the poem is titled after “the voice of the people”, as though there might be something inherently democratic in how letters are arbitrarily put together to make meaning. But I realize the title could also be taken ironically, as perhaps the alphabet and the words it has the power to build can also subvert populist aims. How did you go about writing each section of the wonderfully joyful, yet very serious, poem? How did you decide on the title? 

VK: I appreciate what you’re saying about how the literary devices in “Vox Populi” coexist with and heighten the affective and semantic dimensions therein.  It’s a challenge to theorize how sound and image contribute to meaning in poetry, especially because much of it is pre-conscious (when writing), an intuitive synthesis of various elements that contribute to meaning and sense making.  

I wrote “Vox Populi” very quickly, in a week, also in a studio apartment (300 sq. ft. in Chicago), so both the timeline and space contributed to its vortical, propulsive quality. I wanted to write a compendium of the vernacular that would subvert power hierarchies through biomorphism and parataxis rather than vertical linearity, so as to underscore human priorities in an increasingly dehumanized world, beginning with the institution of language. The title is meant to evoke poetry as a democratizing, world-making force, in the Whitmanian sense of a transformative democratic poetics, the democratic sublime as a sustained engagement with the affective and autopoetic dimensions of political life. Jill Magi said the poem was “Marxism singing a joyful song,” and is “truly the voice of the people because the work does not equate ‘people’ with ‘regular’ or ‘regularized’ . . . its raging lyricism smashes capitalism’s irrational rational scales.”  

So I think the title has more to do with a desire to use poetic language itself as a subversive tool, rather than alluding to the arbitrariness of the abecedarian form or a subversion of populist aims.                                                      

EG:  At the end of the book, you list a selection of poets from whom you’ve borrowed a line or image—might this be a form of the “reciprocal witnessing” you mentioned earlier as one of poetry’s tendencies? 

VK:  Absolutely! Forms of acknowledgment and situatedness, and reciprocal witnessing. Saeed Jones conducted an interview with Patricia Smith for The Poetry Foundation last month, wherein Smith says, “The job of a poet is to witness . . . If a poet considers herself a witness, you can’t put a border around what she witnesses.” Nor can one, I’d argue, delimit exactly where one poem begins and other ends, in the psychogeography of our intertextual commons. As Jorie Graham said, paraphrasing an alleged quote by Pound, what matters is that great poems get written, and it doesn’t matter a damn who writes them. I think the idea of a closed, autonomous text belongs more to New Criticism and formalist readings. Contemporary poetry collections, and our readings of them, tend to be more polyvocal, porous, and supportive of multiple valid readings and interpretations. Like fluid identities, along the axes of gender, race, and sexuality.