April 07, 2010
Activity does not derive its meaning and its value from an
ultimate and unique goal, as though the world formed one
system of use-references whose term touches our very
existence. The world answers to a set of autonomous
finalities which ignore one another. To enjoy without utility,
in pure loss, gratuitously, without referring to anything
else, in pure expenditure—this is human.
– Emmanuel Levinas
My artistic activity has been premised on the art object’s capacity to be, rather than a receptacle of experience, an experience itself. That is to say that in poetry, I select, orchestrate and calibrate a number of poetic techniques in order to produce an experience that, outside rare instances of such visceral clarity, could not be had in life as its common days are lived. Without a gift, a fondness, the material nor the temperament for the anecdotal style, but with a deep appreciation for craftsmanship, well-designed processes and philosophical vantage points, my creative impulse has been mostly based on a desire to construct—and the book, a ready and wide open site of possibilities for construction, has since 2004 been my main unit of composition.
In general terms, my approach might be described as architectural: the poems often involve space and impossible images, and a large part of the process goes into finding and developing structures that could most immediately put one in impersonal yet intimate contact with generative tensions and currents that I wish to articulate and express. For example, my second manuscript, initially called Fili and later retitled as Onward Said the Sea, transforms the reader instantly into an active agent of meaning as the book immediately locates him or her in a multi-directional, multi-level linguistic space, as each page of the long poem presents three lines that braid together, page after page, to produce a long poem, where each line-level denotes a disparate (though related) lyric poem. The structure, in other words, is a manifest embodiment of the problematic that the book apprehends: the unmoored liberalism in the individual imagination of fate, in the twin context of post-historical civilization and a material culture devoid of any meaningful direction. The generative first operation is also significant: the lines of Onward Said the Sea were produced by erasing material from selected chapters of the first English translation of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo. Without meaning to suggest that the poems do not work as poems, these attendant facts about the book—the erasure of text and fiction, the material sourcing, the fact of the translation, the choice of chapters, the heroic pedigree of the source text’s authorship,
as well as his absence—add layers, metaphorical and contextual, that I would not wish the meanings in the poems to be understood without.
Formal devices in my work, then, are a gestural, material part of content, which develops inseparably from the work of choosing particular techniques. Both activities—the formal and the topical—are guided by an intuition of an imagined atmosphere of a book, the terms and sensations of its focus, and the motion of a human consciousness in passage through it. The poem, then, not as a container of past experience, but a zone, a duration, a mass of motions—an orchestrated experience of language, thinking and temporality that, for all its experimentalist attentiveness, retains an ineradicable attachment to the classical values of pleasure and moral seriousness, and a convoluted, spiritual honesty, evinced by various kinds of precision that I hope I achieve. It is a poetics of generosity and embodiment, where the poetic undercry is not so much “Listen to me” as much as it is “Here we are,” and the “here” depends on the book.
More than a compilation of poems, Easy Rose is a conceptual, book-length exploration of modern perfumery, distinguished from pre-19th-century perfumery by its reliance on the scientific discovery of synthetic fragrances with which the production of “fantasy scents” (scents that could not be found in nature) began. The idea of writing a book about perfume came about just as I began, in 2005, to feel that distinct sensation of a book project nearing its close, and as the manuscript that I was finishing work on at that time dealt with a host of weighty issues—among them, that of human attachments within large, even eventual, uncertainties, a predicament whose most logical outcome is an indifference that must be resisted—I wanted, and perhaps needed, to rescue myself via delight from the potential horror of a permanent disenchantedness and dread. Perfume, a fascination for which I’ve had since early childhood, eventually presented itself as a subject.
Initially, the book was going to be called Eau de Toilette, and it was going to be about friendship, which I noticed has never been handled in poetry in any artistically compelling way. But as I conceptualized the book and thought about friendship, I felt that the idea of friendship itself resisted scrutiny, no matter how lighthearted. My earliest notes toward the book, beginning efforts to incorporate humor by affecting an extremely casual speaker, twisting vernaculars and teasing the reader with them, also, within a short span of time, became, to me, perfectly terrible. They had a coyness that made me cringe, the playfulness was glib, somewhat presumptive, and rather than allowing the flaws to steer me toward revision, I decided to simply walk out on them. A number of more heartening projects came my way, some in visual art, and only last last year did I slowly return to the project, ditching the bulk of preliminary notes, clearer about my refusals and the terms of the interest.