Rodrigo Toscano’s newest book of poetry is Explosion Rocks Springfield (Fence Books, 2016). Forthcoming is In Range (Counterpath, 2019). His previous books include, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater (a National Poetry Series selection), To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in the anthologies Dialectical Imaginaries, Poetry and Work, Voices Without Borders, Diasporic Avant Gardes, Imagined Theatres, and Best American Poetry. Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. His poetry has been translated into French, Dutch, Italian, German, Portuguese, Norwegian and Catalan. He works for the Labor Institute as a national project director, strategizing around issues that involve environmental and labor culture transformation. Originally, from San Diego, and after 16 years, in Brooklyn, NY, this will be his 4th year in New Orleans.
Henk Rossouw: I’m curious about the form of the poems in your forthcoming book, In Range. The voice is, to use your own phrase, “aggressively vernacular.” Looking back at the process of writing this book, what was going on for you in the world at large—and your relation to the world—during its composition? Would Audre Lorde’s concept of self-preservation as an act of political warfare apply here, given the consequences of the 2016 election, or do you see the fierce domesticity of In Range in another light altogether?
Rodrigo Toscano: Ok! You’ve landed on the very nexus of the project. Let’s begin with the title of the book, In Range. What indeed is “in range”? What can be thought or felt to be out of range? In Bluetooth technology, for example, when an apparatus is too far from the signal producing instrument, a robotic voice reminds us, “out of range.” We can come up with dozens of ways to describe the concept of being “in range”, right? We can think of it as spatiality in general, or an inter-personal zone of consequence, or even something regarding social relations at large. Alright, so, the title actually references the genesis of the project. That is, what was truly “in range” for me at that time – what concerns, feelings, thoughts, speculations about life in general; what was the signal through the noise. Well, from the get go all of the poems were set in and around the perimeter of my actual house. This is rather strange coming from a writer whose political ideal is to be as global as possible. It seems like what spoke to me at that time were mainly actual tasks to do around the house. But also, The World is rendered sensible there — as a pressure from the Big Outside, as temptation to be jostled by it. One thing for sure: I was hell bent on being strictly In Range.
You see, for three years before this project, my pen had fallen completely silent. The relentless din of the political surround had worn me down. That, coupled with a spate of illnesses, I had all but sworn off what I deemed to be sheer indulgence of vanities. Anytime I would contemplate writing – for even a second, I’d psychically blurt out “bullshit!” “more refuse!” “more hysteria pumped into a wrecked world.” I was near the Zero Hour. But somewhere in the middle of that meandering fog, I picked up a book here in New Orleans by an author I wasn’t yet aware of. That was Everette Maddox. The book cover alluded to Maddox’s legendary, albeit ghostly reputation here in New Orleans. Described as a kind of bum poet, who was at the same time, actually, quite erudite. Here was a poet who had embraced the lowest levels of existence, and from those regions managed to pen tiny poems that in no way would ever be lauded by any official, or sub-official poetry world. I paged through the book, and poem after poem really spoke to me in my bedraggled condition. Everything was so stripped down. I investigated on my own into his actual whereabouts. The nooks he slept in. The benches he’d sit at. And of course, the bar that he would haunt for the remainder of his life, The Maple Leaf Bar (they actually have his ashes buried in the outdoor back area, and a little plaque that reads “Everette Maddox – he was mess.”) This brief fixation with Maddox faded after about a month or so. Then on April 15th of last year, I woke up feeling really disoriented from a bad night of sleep, and as is my habit, I slinked into my warm bathtub (I usually read books in different languages for an hour each morning). Of a sudden, I reached for a pad and sketched out six teeny poems in a row, meant for my consumption alone. And from there, I kept writing every morning. By May 15th, I had 80 poems. When I reached the last poem, “Ants”, I absolutely knew without question that it was the last poem. It all felt as if I was writing my very last book. It was bare bones, existential, at times sad, at times funny. The poems are in plain speech and simple in form (mainly free verse tercets, with a few couplets thrown in). Every poem, without exception, tackles a paradox either about Living, Doing, or Thinking. But does the book hone to Lourde’s concept of “self-preservation as an act of political warfare?” I would have to honestly say, yes. But it also seems like a calm before a storm. I’m feeling very feisty again, ready to pounce.
HR: Wow, it’s such a privilege to listen to you riff on your writing process, Rodrigo. In what you just said there’s both a sharp focus—an inquiry into what’s in range in times of duress—and an improvisational quality to your thoughts—one thought sparking another—that gives me great pleasure in its openness. It reminds me of why I started following your work assiduously in the first place: seeing you read and improvise from your previous book, with Fence, Explosion Rocks Springfield. Your ability to improvise the tone, the pacing, the repetitions, where you treated this singular book you had written as if it were a script—or, better, a musical score—blew me away. You were a chorus of one. Your improvisation had this jazz-like X quality that I’ll never forget. From what I’ve heard, each time you read from the same book it’s never the same. That’s a feat. In terms of poetry, do you see this improvisation as a way out of—or a way to disregard—the social fragmentation of capitalism, the trademarked world as you say? In the moment of improvisation, you are less subject to the discourse of capital? In other words, do you write with a sense of the choral possibility in each line, a sense of multiple performance versions shimmering behind the seemingly stable text? Why isn’t improvisation valued more as a valence in contemporary U.S. poetics? Is it true you read musical scores in the bath, just to relax? I’m asking these questions in the context of Kalamu ya Salaam’s performance that we both saw at the New Orleans Poetry Festival, where Kalamu is radically underappreciated outside of the city and, at the same time, he can improvise a performance of dizzying freedom, a rare joy to behold.
RT: Yes! That reading by Kalamu ya Salaam was one of the best readings I’ve heard in a long time. He really exacerbated the space. But I should say straight off that I’m not a pure improviser, say, like Steve Benson or Suzanne Stein, or the late and great David Antin. Those folks can poeticize off the page and stay off the page. Kalamu wasn’t a pure improviser that night either. Rather, it seemed to me, what was loose and up for grabs for him was the pace, rhythm, and overall deployment of his composed pieces. That I can relate to. I always make a distinction between the moment of being the composer and the moment of being the instrumentalist. When I read my pieces, I have to interpret them, artistically. That’s my responsibility. As a composer, my job is to lay down structure and overall tone strategy for the poetry. Very different roles. I mean, you’ll see people read as the composer of their pieces, and that makes for a stilted reading. And then the opposite, people play the instrumentalist to a piece that’s not been thoroughly composed, and that makes for a messy experience. Oh, yeah. It’s true. I do read scores in the bathtub. Lately, sixteenth century harpsichord scores. I mark them diacritically with a pencil so that later when I set off to learn the pieces, I understand their compositional strategy (to the best of my amateur abilities).
In terms of why there’s not a premium put on improvisation in American poetics, perhaps a better way to put that is, why is the reading event sensed as a stable situation? Let me give you an example. The other day, I did an 8-minute spot in a bookstore here in New Orleans, along with five other readers. Everything “looked” and “felt” standard – the podium, the host, the introductions, the audience members, etc., but to me everything was up in the air. I sensed everything as being unmoored from whatever plane of “reality” would hold down those elements. Meaning is truly up for grabs in that moment. As to why people are assembled, as to how I arrived at that moment in time, let alone, anybody else. At that moment in time (which is a time elsewhere too, surely), the words I’m about to intone are going to piece together some kind of reality, a reality outside of themselves. And so the words yearn to be aired out in that space. Some towards the ceiling, some to the floor, some out the window, some placed carefully in one particular person’s ear, others sprinkled onto someone’s toes, etc. Some words will die in short order, some will live beyond the event, some will exist in a somewhere in between. That’s my take on poetry readings. A hand grenade going off in our midst is certainly more dramatic, but only in a formal sense. But you’re also asking if my improvisatory way of reading is a politics per say, an interfering strategy that might interrupt the flow of Capitalist logic? Heavens no! I don’t have an immanentist bone in my body that would believe that. Plus, during the day, I work in actual politics (labor, environmental). I have no illusions about what it takes to enact change on the ground. And yet, poetics (mine – everybody’s) does play a role in how we understand communicative constructs. It’s the oldest and still most fundamental technology at our disposal. It’s my contention that poets can and should make good additions to any team of civic functionaries.
HR: Poetry as the oldest and still most fundamental technology at our disposal, in order to understand communicative constructs ... wow, that’s fantastic. Yes, if language shapes reality to such a degree, and funnels power in the form of discourse, then poetry helps us pay attention to it. But I see now that my take on your improvisatory way of reading as a strategy to interfere with capitalism is embedded in an unacknowledged Romanticism on my part, a veiled faith—or, lyric shame—in Shelley’s “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In the poem “Disasters,” George Oppen, long influenced by Shelley, reverses this Romantic idea and writes: “of politics I am sick with a poet’s / vanity / legislators of the unacknowledged world.” Could you read the terrain of In Range as the unacknowledged world? As the words of a speaker who has no illusions about the transcendence (or fantasy of omnipotence) that some of us assume poetry can offer? If so, who or what in your imagination is the In Range speaker addressing? I bring up Oppen’s lines partly because I know that the abundant imitations of his parataxis and spaced-out fragments—“tab-key poetry,” I think you once called it!—grates against your ear. In this moment, while knowing that it changes from book to book, how would you articulate your poetics? And what trends in contemporary US poetry do your poetics take a stand against? Do you have a linguistic freedom that poets like myself, attached like a limpet to an institution and the discourse of “creative writing,” often do not have?
RT: To your first question, as to who, in my imagination, am I addressing by way of the communicative device (“book”) named, In Range. For one, a contemporary – anybody, who’s reading attention span has slackened considerably over the last 10-15 years because of on-line media addictions. Two, for someone – anybody, who’s sick and tired of understanding only 50-60 per cent of what’s read at poetry readings. Three, for someone – anybody, who desperately needs a connection to what’s immediately before them – sunlight, rain, birds, a neighbor, the sound of distant trains, etc., but that the connection itself is felt as fleeting (and very likely vain) as anything else in this world. And then finally, for someone (be it poet or not) who has a real desire (whether conscious or not) to write very small poems, someone who craves basic literacy, whether that person is a “pro” or the opposite of a “pro”. Perhaps also for someone who has relentless tinnitus – actual, or psycho-political. I should say something about Oppen too. His poetry is great at exploring the philosophical foundations to politics in subtle and deep ways. One of the best ever. But I want and demand a poetics that is ampler, more pointed, more varied, and way more incisive politically than Oppen’s. In my opinion there’s a habitual academic groping for Oppen as a stand in for the paucity of a thoroughgoing, humorous, and contradiction rich American political poetry of the 20th century. I can indeed afford to make such fantastical claims, not being a “pro” strictly speaking, which is a very pro thing to say.
Seriously though, I’ll tell you what I “hate” in contemporary poetry: the mass armies of me-me poets. Folks who are trigger-ready to exploit absolutely everything about themselves for a finger-snapping turn of phrase, folks who are on an endless hunt for trauma. Kids learn at a very early age these days that trauma is the sine qua non of all reasons to pick up a pen. Even things that aren’t really traumatic have to be traumatized to give traction to a poem. Developing a communicative interface with someone else other than themselves, most of all with someone not like themselves, is not given a second thought. NOW, I am not saying that personal subjectivity is not an effective vehicle to apprehend wider social conditions (especially oppressive conditions), what I am saying is that those wider social conditions are too often times upended by the me-me impulse to be a – and this is very American – sovereign. The Spirit <pre-posited discourse of trauma> moves through The Sovereign, and thus God <“truth”> is made sensible (and indisputable!) by way of Grace <ready approval by the audience>. In other words, “low” (popular) Protestantism currently rules American Poetry. Existential Forbearance be gone! Quaking and quivering now – at all costs! Other than that state of poetic thingamajigery, everything’s Dandy.
HR: I have tinnitus, both actual and psycho-political—leftover from a bomb blast I experienced in South Africa—and so perhaps I am one ideal reader, among many, for In Range. And I am certainly for a political poetry that is, as you say, thorough-going and humorous and contradiction-rich. There doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between the political and play, serious play, I don’t think. Maybe because I see you as both on-the-move and rooted in a community of poets, a community of choice both in New Orleans and globally, I think of you as the opposite of a me-poet. There’s an old book from the 1970s by Lewis Hyde, The Gift, that talks about the gift economy of art, how the exchange of poetry can bind people together. Whether that analogy works or not, I feel like you make space for others. For instance, the many poets I’ve met and become friends with and been inspired by through you and the locus of your house: like the legendary pool parties you throw for poets and artists to gather after the New Orleans Poetry Festival and ASAP (Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present). So, am I right in thinking that crews, formations, communities are important to you as a poet? If so, is it because hanging out with others—sociality, if we want to use a “pro” Fred Moten word—becomes generative of new work, or something else altogether? And here’s another way of approaching this question: Which other poets are in your artistic constellation? Who, whether living or dead, informs your poetics, goads you, keeps you going?
RT: Oh man, Henk, earlier in this dialogue, I slung the words “hand grenade” as sort of futurist lite gesture to sharpen a point. But those devices are not metaphors, they are born of demonic industries, and have hellish consequences. So thumbs down on that wording. But OK, let’s go on to this Gift thing. I’m quite familiar with the notion of a gift economy as one of the dynamics that bind a poetry community together. Yeah, ok, it operates that way from I’ve experienced. But I think what people really crave (at least I do), is to jump out of these loops and reach people who aren’t part of our immediate community. But here’s the gambit we face when embracing the real pleasures of a supportive community. Too often it’s very tempting to write for the in crowd, and yet, that crowd can provide a vital testing ground for one’s works. I would always advise a young poet (while harboring a loathing for advisors to young poets) to engage a real, in-the-flesh cohort of poets. As with athletes or musicians, you gotta show up and matchup. When I see those Instagram “super star” poets prattling on from their parent’s house, it gets me down, mainly because they friggin’ can’t afford to move on from that situation, hence the overblown feel to their work. It’s outrageous the economic-social conditions they’ve inherited. Thriving in cities, be they so-called “A” cities (New York, Bay Area) “B” (Austin, New Orleans) or even “C” (Baton Rouge, Buffalo) cities, has become onerous, to say the least. So yeah, this healthy tension between contributing to a gift economy and venturing out more widely, is one that challenges us on a continual basis. Though I will say, what’s needed, what should be desirable at all times is a non-toxic poetry scene. I say this because I’ve seen – nay, been part of those kinds of scenes. Scenes wherein a few, select poohbahs gather acolytes for their own so-called “power.” Or scenes where people serially betray one another both personally and professionally. Which brings us to New Orleans. The poetry community here is the best I’ve experienced anywhere. I’m not a historian as to how it got to be this way, but as a relative new comer still (4.5 years), I can honestly say it’s a real gem. I treasure it. The premium here is on people really wanting others to grow. It’s not about competition, or flanking maneuvers, none of that shit has play here. And so it makes me feel like adding to it in any way that I can. So the pool parties are just a minor thing, really, but I do relish giving people a chance to stretch out their feet and interact with each other.
I think that the questions of community formation and as to which poets propel one forwards are entirely separate matters. Of course, one can strike gold by having challenging poets in their midst (which is the case with me here in NOLA), but striking silver or brass or even wood works just as well. I mean it. Matter of fact, when the community health meter is high, pert near everyone becomes interesting. What we’re talking about at all times here is a very short life, and sentient beings trying to make sense of it all. That’s the baseline. Losing sight of that invites greed, envy, and delusions of grandeur. But when you ask me what local poets are currently fueling me, I am hesitant to list them because bestowing accolades among those I consider to be equals in this city, does nothing but encourage hierarchies. I will though mention two gorgeous reading series that are always worth checking out: Dogfish (Jessica Kinnison, Alex Jennings) and Blood Jet (Megan Burns).
My reading patterns have been steady for a long, long time. I have several tracks going at once. I usually read in the morning for an hour or so. And then for another hour later in the day. One track always involves tackling an English language poet (or prose writer) from a distant past (anything, say, before 1860). I do this continuously and without let up. Right now, I am reading James Thompson’s, “The Seasons”. I really believe in getting a regular and rigorous workout in the languages one writes in. Another track is reading books written in a “foreign” language (from any period). Right now I am slogging my way through Bertolt Brecht’s collected works, for like, the 3rd time. I say, slogging, because that’s another type of workout, ultra slow, and weight bearing. Reading news in Spanish or French is another track. Interspersed with these tracks are books on philosophy or history. Studying musical scores is something else I do. And finally, I like to read contemporary poets. Just keeping up with my friends is a challenge! I’m currently delighting in Suzanne Stein’s & Steve Benson’s “Do Your Own Damn Laundry”, Mark Wallace’s “Notes from the Center on Public Policy”, and the anthology, Dialectical Imaginaries, edited by Marcial González and Carlos Gallego. I’ve been a furious autodidact my whole life. I was terrible at school – elementary, junior and senior high school. I tried different colleges at various times, but dropped out, being anxious about getting back to my way of learning. That doesn’t go to say that I don’t highly regard university level education. I hold it in very high esteem, especially liberal arts. And those institutions are currently under siege both by corporate interests, and sad to say, an out of control customer model of education.
HR: Your reading patterns are inspiring. I went to college in my mid-20s, after almost dropping out of high school in South Africa—the history text books were still from (and supporting) the old regime, and the new order hadn’t started yet. This was the early 1990s. So, I admire your autodidactic hunger for daily reading. It brings this fierce joy to your work, which draws me in, even when the work is confronting the worst of the Real. “HEIGH HO!” as one of your speakers says in Explosion Rocks Springfield. And so, your re-reading of Brecht reminds me of the innovations of your book Collapsible Poetics Theater and the way your poems have often accommodated more than one voice or speaker on the page. Or, in Deck of Deeds, for instance—the first book of yours that I read—the persona shifts from poem to poem, to include “servants, engineers, financiers, experimental writers, trust fund poets, soldiers, drug addicts, drug traffickers, sociolinguists, experts, collaborators, spies, politicians, therapists,” to quote Tom Beckett, all of whom “steep in the same petro-hormono-chemically infused linguistic environment.” In other words, your books often have a sense of the multi-voiced crowd, or let’s call it the choral lyric. Your work takes risks and shifts rapidly in form from book to book—and In Range widens your range. On first reading, the poems of In Range seem to me the most lyric (in the sense of a single-voice) of your work to date. On reading the poems again, though, it struck that these short poems are also multi-voiced at the same time—they offer this sense of all the available discourses (media, politics, even gardening) running through the speaker, as if the thoughts of the “I” could be mine. Or, it’s as if the other voices that the poems accommodate in this book are those of the readers, myself included. It creates this tension that keeps me deeply engaged. How do you view this scaling of single to multi-voiced in In Range?
RT: (Laughing) It seems I can’t keep the inner-cackle at bay long enough to produce a singular lyric voice, though you’re right, the poems of In Range are my best attempt at it. I felt they had to be as monophonic as possible, as I fancied being able to scrawl some of them onto a wall while at the pisser in a dive bar in New Orleans. But they’re not shitty poems! They are achieved shitty poems. What do I mean by that? Each piece has at least one content generating mechanism imbedded into it. Classical philosophical problematics, like “appearance vs. reality” “do we have free will?” “why is there something rather than nothing” “what is the meaning of life” etc., are quietly imbedded in each poem, providing a little stage for the poems to play out their quandaries. But then stumbles in the entity I most love to give voice to: The Interloper. I say “entity” instead of “character”, because character too often has an ego to comply with. Entity only is insofar as entity finds and deals with circumstances that suddenly present themselves to Entity. That is, The Interloper creates – by accident, with a dash of caprice. The Interloper has been sprung onto a situation that’s already in progress. And formally, the situation doesn’t have to exclusively rely on readily identifiable circumstances, it can be a free-floating psychic state. What ensues are spontaneous, unscripted responses to the unresolvable contradictions of our personal and social shittydom. And who is the ultimate Interloper at a poetry reading? It’s us! Audience and poet both. And that’s why I’ve returned to The Interloper many times over the years, it provides me unique views into our communicative potentiality as humans. So yeah, by adopting a more monophonic voice in this book, I’m upping the ante by gesturing to a single person: I’m reading for you and only you. Say, if there’s 30 people assembled, I’m reading for just one person, and I totally relish that because I don’t know exactly for whom. But jumping back to what you said. Yes, the sudden exclamation, HEIGH HO! (with the implied “and off to work we go”) that appears throughout Explosion Rocks Springfield is exactly that cognizant moment where one calls out to another, so that two people become one-and-one, not Two as a singularity. In that way, I’m pushing against Aristotle’s notion of catharsis; you know, when people smush their psyches onto artists and art forms, when people pop off purgatives (“awww” “hmm”) at readings. I say, fuck those institutionalized aesthetics, prophylactics. Isn’t it after all, common work (meaning-making in tandem) that keeps us freshly primed for democratic possibilities?
HR: Is the entity of The Interloper one way in which—pretty ceaselessly over the years—you generate new work? I’m asking because, after looking back at what you’ve said so far, I’m reminded why I wanted to begin this conversation in the first place: as a younger poet, though not necessarily “young,” I’m in awe of your ability to keep creative, keep making, no matter what. For sure, I mean the generous stack of your books that I have on my shelf, but I also mean creativity on a daily level, the wherewithal to keep writing fiercely (while also giving attention to a demanding day job in the sphere of political activism and organizing). Knowing that you are allergic, for good reason, to the genre of “letters to a young poet,” for their reinforcement of hierarchy, I’m still curious about what egalitarian words you have to offer to other poets, younger or not, about your sources of creativity? And the relationship between creativity and the labor of finishing a book? For instance, my first book came out of guidance—egalitarian in spirit—from Édouard Glissant: “We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lightning flashes. We approach it through the accumulation of sediments.” Other than just sitting down and doing it—as Roberto Bolaño says, the word writing is the opposite of the word waiting—what else has often opened things up for you, in terms of sustaining your inner momentum as an artist?
RT: I have to say, waiting, seems to be my main literary activity. I usually go years between books. Almost nothing brings me back to the table – not personal strife, not socio-political conditions, and certainly not any pressure from any academy or institution. What usually sparks me into writing is me being caught off guard by a peculiarity of language, a curiosity that won’t let go of me. It can literally be (and often is) one word, or at most, a phrase. And I dote on it, and little else, for a day or several. Then I get an itch to jiggle it around – by pencil (always by hand, the outlines). Then I observe that, take a break, walk away from it, then kick it around some more. After a while, concepts or structures avail themselves to me. And then I listen for the signal to go. Then bang! I go and I mean go. I hang in there, in form (like one would for a 10k run, or playing a demanding piece of music, or ardently making love). I navigate the writing’s contours every single morning and every single evening, until it says, tells me, it’s done.
My advice to young writers is listen to the materials at hand; don’t massage psychological states. Have confidence that your “concerns” will eke out on their own with enough cutting and carving, buffing and polishing of the words. Stay in form, don’t droop, don’t flag, and breathe easy. And most of all, drop the Poet identity bullshit. “Poet” is something someone else calls you. I’ll be honest, even though I’ve published in many places, read at voluminous poetry series over the years, and have had a modicum of success doing it all, I can still very freshly (as I did in my early 20’s) wake up every morning and think, this might be a good day to really try my hand at poetry. And it usually isn’t. And that’s ok. What’s important, bubbies, is, staying in range. Flow will find you.
A Folio of New Work by Rodrigo Toscano
five from In Range