Jul 142017
 

Grant Maierhofer Flamingos

Flamingos
Grant Maierhofer
ITNA Press, December 2016
ISBN: 978-0-9912196-9-8
188pp Paperback, $14.00

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In a recent article published in 3AM Magazine, Grant Maierhofer explains his personal experience of reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. “Reading FW,” he explains, “is a bodily thing, and strangely so. I tend to find I’ll begin with resistance, certain I’m misunderstanding every letter until suddenly a dreamy rhythm overtakes me and I’m able to stomach paragraphs in breaths. I’ll often slow to crawls in turn and view the pages as discrete, visual, concrete passages rendered as micro- and macrocosmos for diligent poring and slackjawed stupor alike. The text seems to work on these levels because Joyce had thought the bulk of his life about what printed text might venture to do.” “I read Finnegans Wake,” he continues, “as an ode to forms, forms explored by Joyce himself and referenced throughout the text; forms shattered and rendered useless to traditional interpretive means by intuitive, heartily experimental—almost spiritually so—pages of linguistic forest fires simultaneously enacting and subverting their own interpretation; and forms Joyce still saw as viable means of depicting, defining, and recording human experience in a language at once the stuff of dreams, Esperanto, and music to which, I’ll agree, all art aspires.”

Reading and writing are, in fact, bodily things, although not many writers are fully aware of that. I would say that the great experimental and underground literary traditions—what Ronald Sukenick touted “the rival tradition”—are, at least in part, an attempt to re-embody the literary practice. Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper—two of the authors often mentioned by Grant Maierhofer—are recent wonderful examples of this kind of stylistic exploration.

“This work will be a nightmare. You are no detective”—says an anonymous patient in Flamingos. It comes as no surprise that the most accurate words I’ve read about Flamingos thus far were by the Swedish-American poet and translator Johannes Goransson, who has been theorizing about the new “rhetorical punk” styles (using Eloy Fernández Porta’s term) he names “atrocity kitsch.” “This is a noir without the proper detective to piece back together the crime and its narrative”—writes Goransson—“This is self-surveillance under the influence of drugs, art, poetry. Without the narrative cure, the novel becomes sick.” Flamingos’s characters embrace the impossibility of the cure and celebrate the sudden joy of recognizing this impossibility and turning it into art. Art starts when you accept that, as Joyelle McSweeney wrote, “nothing can be undone, but everything can be done again,” because “the Artist cannot remove him or herself from the economy of Violence. Vulnerability to Art is Vulnerability to Violence; that’s what Vulnerability means: the ability to be wounded, to bear the mark of the wound, to suffer malignancy, and to issue malignant substances.” [1]

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Germán Sierra (GS): One of the first things that called my attention in Flamingos—maybe because I have been recently doing some writing on the topic—was its performative structure. Later, I read in your very interesting research notes on Flamingos in Necessary Fiction that you want “an art a bit like life and stripped of tendencies toward understanding, the body and head rendered in text and the text as distillation of body and head — a performative thing.” I believe the idea of performance is very important in your work, and it becomes more evident in Flamingos. In my view, Flamingos could be perfectly imagined as a play—there’s even a Dramatis Personae list at the beginning—in which the characters project themselves on a group therapy-like background. This creates a flexible environment (much like social media environments) where fragments might work as independent monologues but they might also contain dialogues within themselves. You said that the book started with disparate elements and fragments, how did you came up with its final structure?

Grant Maierhofer (GM): This book took very different forms during its editing, and even really composition. I was working with smaller pieces in part because I’ve had an ongoing fascination with the fragment as a potent literary form, especially these days. As a result of this, the larger form would change depending on which fragments in which voice or register were working well. The two big influences early on were Ronald Sukenick and Kathy Acker, with Acker’s Empire of the Senseless and Florida offering an ideal reference point for these shifting, therapy-tinged voices. It wasn’t until I solidified a publisher with this early version, though, that the bigger structure became apparent. My publisher, Christopher Stoddard, offered to have me work with Travis Jeppessen on bringing these disparate parts together and finding coherence, a finished book. What I had were pages and pages of documents, the Flamingo sections written on neon index cards, others written on my phone or saved as separate chunks in Word, and a sense of how it fit to me but little desire to give it what seems a more traditional structural spine, removing this cast of voices and their more aggressive relationship to one another—something about the final text I feel good about, did not want to remove. So Travis, over the course of editing and having conversations, would argue from a reader’s perspective and desire for some coherence to these voices. The result, then, is my attempt to respond to him and any potential reader while hopefully holding onto the performative energy not only of composing, but of the relationships these voices—their passing referenced, syntactic disruption, etc.—have within the text. I think of Samuel Fuller and his Shock Corridor, or Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, or Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces. These are compelling to me because they are overwhelming, and in many ways they’re overwhelming because you have disparate, perhaps opposed, voices or perspectives or even sentences clawing at and over one another for an audience’s time. To me, these seem like somewhat performative concerns. A writer generates something, hopefully to some degree indicative of the hell of being alive these days and making sense of the sea of information. A reader takes this in, and hopefully in that transmission perspective is gained, a quiet amid screams, or even a context for screaming. My favorite writers enact something on this order, I think. As well as musicians, painters, filmmakers. The final form, then, aspired to something like a chorus of escapees from modern life smearing mud on themselves and carving diagnoses on walls. How close anything comes is impossible to know, but this was my hope.

GS: Yes, I understand your process very well, as I usually work with originally separate fragments too. In my last novel, Standards, I spent more time on trying to find the “right order” for the fragments—which, from the beginning I knew it wasn’t the chronological one—than on writing them. The initial references you mention, Ron Sukenick and Kathy Acker, have been also very important to me. I’m especially happy to see Sukenick in this context, as I believe that, unlike Acker, he’s kind of in oblivion now. In my opinion, he deserves more attention. Some of his work is available online, but I’d like to see his books republished. Getting back to Flamingos, I like very much your image of a “context for screaming”—I believe this is a quite good definition of what experimental fiction has been pursuing for a while now, maybe because it’s harder to develop such a context in literature than in the audiovisual arts, where experimentation and risk have been historically much more appreciated. But I agree with you on the idea that we’re at a very special moment for literature, much like it happened from the late 70s to the early 90s when postmodernism mutated into avant-pop. I believe the literary use of language is becoming “counter-spectacular” as a way to provide alternatives to the “reality-as-show” we’re living into, and this is expressed through queerness, radical weirdness, obscurity and, particularly in Flamingos, madness. In my view Flamingos points to the recovery of the de-territorializing power of madness which had been recently re-territorialized by neuropharmacology and neuroscience: the therapy-gone-wrong framework works as a performative representation of our current society as spectacle-gone-wrong. This brings us back to Foucault and Deleuze, of course, but also to Beckett, Ionesco and Jarry. And it seems of particular importance in a moment when “reason” is often presented as “software for the show,” as something quantifiable that could be “traded.”

GM: Absolutely. Your initial comment, too, feeds this larger question of attempting to represent what’s been used as a limiting category, madness, in a (hopefully) more fluid way. I would feel awful if characters, or voices, or moments in Flamingos were easily quantifiable by diagnoses, and I think this is where literature presents unique opportunities that don’t exist as readily in other art forms. Bowie, for example, queered our sense of what the rockstar could be, but it required the extra performative dimension for this to fully resonate—he had to appear. The book is dedicated to Nick Blinko because Rudimentary Peni is one of the best musical iterations of the madness of living I can think of, and yet the feeling of listening to their ‘Inside’ or something, is far different from reading the mania encased in his novel The Primal Screamer, and it’s that difference I hope to pay attention to. I think of pure theoreticians working against heteronormativity versus the experience of reading The Letters of Mina Harker, in one sense a novel that chronicles a marriage between a male and female, but one that queers the institution of marriage far better than pure theory can by leaving in the mess of days, of lived experience. Somewhere, it might be included in James Miller’s biography, Foucault talked about seeing the work he did as closer to fictive, creative work. Sitting in archives and sifting through documents much like Kathy Acker did and assembling reams to counter the force of history. That slippage, that line between pure theorizing and enacting experience, performativity, or even language and experimentation therein, is why I see fiction as increasingly important in our time. It simultaneously offers new ways of reading notoriously dense theorists who worked against our dry, useless institutions, and new applications for reading more akin to experiencing performed art—relentless concerts that tear into the head, witnessing live artworks that ruin the artist like the early Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmission stuff.

There’s been a long tendency of merely aping those who came just before. Duchamp talked about this somewhere, that artists might be better off pulling from random eras and movements—Brion Gysin’s idea of writing being about fifty years behind painting, etc.—and I find that very important. Not all writers or readers are engaging in the established traditions of literature as defined by institutions primarily dominated by heterosexual white men, and I’m of the view that the best work is being done against this. Read whatever you like, of course, but I think it highly important that at least some work attempt to bury any sense of an established canon. For me, that has meant seeking inspiration elsewhere, and the experience has proven the more fulfilling.

I think that what Sukenick did, and those aligned with him and those who followed at FC2, in turn, is probably the most interesting wave in American literature to yet occur, and all of it seems bound up in what I’ve just (poorly) attempting to state. I don’t know or care whether people will read those rather niche texts for fifty, one hundred years, because to me they’ve already reframed my sense of a broader literary culture and shaped my worldview. In some sense, that might make it even more compelling. We can read about the Black Mountain College, for instance, and feel completely lost in what seems like the most important academic/arts experiment in the 20th century, but all the while other students and teachers existed at other colleges in other arts movements never knowing about or at least acknowledging its existence. We’ll always have documentation of this sort of thing, and I believe it’ll always find some audience, but it seems quite alright that they be avid devotees and small movements like punk when compared to arena rock or something in its heyday. Nostalgia will always magnify it in turn, but nostalgia’s a toxic thing. I dunno, I veered off a bit there. These are the things I find compelling and why, maybe.

GS: Yes, I agree with you on the toxicity of nostalgia, this also points to the need to find different ways to think the past, more in the “archaeological” or “genealogical” mode like Foucault did. I find that many contemporary novelists are approaching the past that way, probably also because we’re living in very “aesthetically undefined” times, and we need to borrow aesthetical references from the past—avant-garde, modernity, post-modernity… Returning to your characters in Flamingos (and your previous books), one thing I like a lot is that they’re allowed—they allow themselves—to be wrong. I believe this is a very important feature in our days—when most people are obsessed with dichotomies such as truth/post-truth or facts/alternative facts. Actually, I find that the power of punk (and madness) resides in accepting the likeliness to be wrong but going ahead anyway—the “you-don’t-need-to-know-how-to play” thing, just jump on stage and do your best. In Flamingos everybody seems to admit being wrong—even Simon, the therapist, seems aware of being playing a role: “And I taught them. And I did not.” This is significant because, in my view, the most important thing for keeping a “sustainable” community is not truth, but trust. It’s possible to trust someone even thinking than she or he is wrong, and this is the essence of community and also the cognitive basis for a healthy skepticism. As Fernando Colina—a Spanish psychiatrist—wrote: “Reason is never there, reason is always about to come.” So maybe the punk gesture means that now: allowing yourself to be wrong to be able to catch reason as it arrives.

GM: I’m very interested in all of this, in part because my approach when writing anything has usually been one of immersion. I want to immerse myself in a voice, a worldview, a location, whatever. I don’t necessarily hope to find something close to Truth. I hope to enact something, to offer something, and I think community is a closer notion to it than artistic truth or even coherence. Possibility among individuals. Trust in that possibility. All of this is making me think of Vito Acconci. He started as a writer. Went to the best-known U.S. MFA program and wound up leaving to create situations and performance art, and thereafter to create very community-centric works of architecture and sculpture. He’s indicated that he did this because a growing dissatisfaction with the page as an art space. For me, for all of my dissatisfaction, the page is still my favorite space and words and other materials therein to transmit meaning still pull me more than anything else.

I think characters or even works remaining open to the prospect of wrongness is fundamental. If I didn’t feel this way I might engage in language through poetry alone, or nonfiction alone, but with fiction the assumed relationship to readers is precarious from the beginning, skeptical from the beginning, so there’s a good deal that can be done in terms of empathy, identification, or even anger or outright rejection of characters. I was very interested in this early on, I think, because I started writing while in rehab, and continued as a sort of breather from AA and NA and the like. In there I’d find myself telling stories depending on mood, or circumstance. Say I’m in a room with working-class older alcoholics in rural Minnesota, and I know I need to talk about my anxiety. I might talk about the same situation as I’d discuss in a meeting for addicts under 25, but it’ll be adjusted due to circumstance, and to speak to my anxiety where possible. I’m performing, then. Not dishonest really but calibrated so that I might get the most from a given meeting. Emphasize relationships and trust in therapy if that’s pressing on me. Emphasize relapse if I’m losing my footing and trust people can identify and offer insight. It wasn’t as conscious as it sounds now in retrospect, but it was all unquestionably bound up in how I started writing and came to need literature and art.

I started based on feeling, and need. Elias Tezapsidis talked about The Persistence of Crows and how it didn’t seem written for readers. I think that’s probably true, as most of my early writing was based on an urge to just occupy a mindset for X amount of time and see it transmitted to a measurable form, be it a book, or the early stories from Marcel, whatever. These characters could be wrong, then, or just buried in flaws and even total ignorance. They weren’t created as tools, or at least not pawns, but responses to a loneliness, a desire to open my head up.

After this I discovered writers like Christine Schutt, Brian Evenson, Maggie Nelson and more, so my concerns became more formal and structural. The object became the ideal, I guess, rather than the process and the feelings therein. Being wrong or being flawed is still a priority, as I am a human animal in 2017, but I’m also highly interested in the possibilities offered by fiction, by books, by words presented, not offered by other media.

GS: Your new book GAG is coming out in April from Inside the Castle. Is it possible to know a little about it?

GM: GAG began after my story collection Marcel went out of print. I wanted to destroy that, so I took the very first draft of that book and began cutting it apart. I got rid of huge amounts of that text, and started filling in the gaps with a narrative that’s sort of a nod to Dennis Cooper’s work, among others. Marcel proper is being reissued by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, so making GAG into an entirely new animal grew highly important. My process was similar in this to the composition of the PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual, as indicated in the excerpt “Clog” on Queen Mob’s Teahouse. I would, say, isolate one small section of 100 words or so, inject it with new material, then automatically translate it through Korean translation software or something. Then, piece-by-piece, I’d translate it back so it would be slightly ruined, and rewrite it into a new document. Then I was making collages and adding text or warping it through that. Then the publisher would work with me on visual/typographical elements, and over time this new thing was born to do with suburban violence, ruined language, and distributions of power in America’s very problematic state.

Grant Maierhoff GAG

It’s been a long time in the making, but I feel very good about it overall. GAG and the Manual that’s coming out on Solar Luxuriance are sister texts, so having them released in the same year is a great feeling.

I’ve thought a lot about Dennis Cooper’s work since first discovering it, how he’s basically reshaped the potential of fiction with his GIF novels, and prior to that how The Marbled Swarm reworked how language can manipulate and fuck with readers. I wanted to honor his work and incorporate aspects I’ve loved from all of it in one print book. The GIF stuff, his blog, The Sluts and The Marbled Swarm, GAG was, among many things, an attempt to honor that body of work.

GS: It sounds amazing!  I just went through the first 20 pages or so in the PDF, and I think I got its feeling very well. I am very interested in this kind of composition processes—I experimented myself with the electronic re-translation of texts in some parts of my 2009 novel “Try Using Other Words.” What I’ve read thus far reminds me the destroyed, “dismembered” prose of other contemporary writers—besides Dennis Cooper—I now we both admire, like Leslie Scalapino, Blake Butler, Sean Kilpatrick, or the cyberpunk novels by the japanese artists Kenji Siratori. Cooper, of course, deserves special attention. He’s such a extraordinary figure in contemporary American writing, not just for his own work but also because of his continuous support of the experimental, underground, punk, or whatever literary scene! We all (not just American writers, but also people like myself who particularly enjoy this kind of writing) should be very grateful for his blog and his strong implication with fringe books no matter where they come from.  It would be difficult to understand the American literary environment of the last sixty years without the generosity of writers such as himself, Sukenick, Gordon Lish, Bob Coover…

So you have a lot of books coming out soon! GAG, PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual, and Drain Songs, and I’ve read another three from the madness cycle are on the making: Girnt, Drome and Unacabine… I’m looking forward to all of them!

GM: I think I began writing as a means of leveling out a certain degree of misery I felt at being alive. Going forward, and becoming aware of worldly miseries and the struggles facing everyone, my response has been an odd mixture of wanting solely to champion the work of those who’ve said and done it better than I ever could, and devotion to writing things myself to attempt to process being alive in terms I’ve come to recognize in the works of others—many you’ve mentioned—that seemed, at least sometimes, to call for responses or communion. I read Jan Ramjerdi’s Re.La.Vir and suddenly GAG, a manuscript about fucked-up people in basements and assholes in suits controlling them, had a formal sibling. Sometimes it’s tempting to simply review books and point to Cooper, or Ramjerdi, or Delany, or Vollmann, as brilliant examples of what literature can do, can be in response to hellish situations and experiences. Sometimes, though, that temptation is odder, more deeply felt and sometimes even terrifying, and then my own writing seems to happen. I don’t know. If I’ve been productive it’s been the result of this and a good deal of self-hatred, disgust, and hopelessness. As defined earlier, though, I’m more interested in the extreme fringe-punk approaches of groups like Throbbing Gristle, or artists like Tehching Hsieh, who allow the work to ruin them and accuse them and eat them and harm them in the process, so that the end product looks less like a piece of protest art than Lucifer Rising. I think my writing started more straightforwardly, and I tend to detest my early stuff because of that, but now I’m preoccupied with experience, abstraction, and a kind of deep internal violence that hopefully comes across in these more recent projects.

I was very, very obsessed with Cooper’s George Miles Cycle for several months a few years ago, and even thinking about it now I get caught up in how transformative it was to read those books. As a result, I always dreamt of writing a cycle. It wasn’t until Flamingos was in a second draft that it became fully clear it could be done, so long as it wasn’t just a bad ripoff of Cooper. Madness, or mental illness, and many of the possible and horrific iterations therein, these are ideas I’m more comfortable engaging with as I’ve spent my life on the often ugly side of them. Fiction, in turn, seemed like a reasonable way of not speaking as an authority to anyone else’s experiences  of these things, so the project has persisted.

I think about Elizabeth Young’s close to her introduction to Pandora’s Handbag, which, paraphrased, goes something like: I guess if nobody’s writing the books I want to read then I’ll have to write them. Damn it. That pretty perfectly articulates my state most of the time. I read the work of others I love as much as I can. Sometimes a feeling is too personal or impossible or an idea’s too particular and thus I’ve got to write as well. That’s more or less how it goes.

GS: Your previous book Marcel is now being re-issued by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, which also published your poetry collection Grobbing Thistle. Flamingos was published by ITNA press, and GAG by Inside The Castle.  I love your publisher choices, all of them are small and independent but very well curated, very personal projects. How do you choose your publishers?

GM: In a weird way, although many conversations about the state of publishing are despairing, I feel as if we’re living in one of the most plentiful stretches of time for small presses, for publishers and writers interested in the work and the book as object, as experience, as performance, things are pretty good and compelling. I’ve been lucky to find presses willing to embrace uncertainty and experimentation, and really I’ve found them based on seeking writers and artists publishing through them. Inside the Castle reissued Hour of the Wolf, which, alongside Slow Slidings and Throw Yourself Out and See If It Makes Me Come, is one of my absolute favorite things M. Kitchell has yet written. John Trefry’s work as well, and the aesthetic prompts of the press, were as inspiring as synopses for artworks themselves, and I guess that fed into things in turn. Ditto for Dostoyevsky Wannabe, their approach seemed in line with what my favorite writers do. They’ve also published heroes of mine like Sean Kilpatrick, Gary Shipley and others, so when I wanted to find a press who’d really be on board for something experimental and fucked like Grobbing Thistle, they seemed perfect. Although much of Marcel is more straightforward, I feel it fits well with the cassettes DW puts out, and with the additional stories and whatnot it seemed worth reissuing. Another thing is, I have zero interest in what a lot of–especially U.S.–writers seem interested in as far as fame, or even a massive audience for the work. Presses have inspired me just as much as writers in this regard, with outfits like Cal A Mari Archive consistently publishing incredibly risky, innovative material, doing it with a personal touch that furthers the efforts of its writers, but not speaking to the larger culture of publishing at all, except to push back and whisper fuck you a bit now and again. That interest has led me to write how I’ve come to write, I think, and it’s also led me to the wonderful, strange, queer, outsider publishers I’ve been lucky enough to share work with. Small presses, in turn, are usually run by writers, which might be an ideal model, I’m not sure. Sometimes it can lead to an excess of dreaming that can’t quite materialize, but often it means that the entire experience is performative, engaged, and shot through with the same anger and desire that inspired the writing in the first place.

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Grant Maierhofer is the author of Postures, GAG, Flamingos and others. His work has appeared in LIT, Berfrois, The Fanzine and elsewhere. He lives and works in Idaho.

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German Sierra

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Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido, La Felicidad no da el Dinero, Efectos Secundarios, Intente usar otras palabras, and Standards—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje. His essays and stories have appeared in Guernica, Numéro Cinq, Asymptote, The Quarterly Conversation, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Casper Review, The Scofield, and in more than twenty collective books.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. McSweeney, J. The Necropastoral, Poetry, Media, Occults. The University of Michigan Press, 2015. p. 186

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