The Collapse of the Poetry Economy — an interview with Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl

16 Mar

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, founding member of the Nýhil cooperative, is an Icelandic poet, author of three novels, and an avid translator of foreign literature. He works with performance and sound-poetry, and regularly dabbles in the dark arts of the concrete. For more information about his performances and writings go to: http://www.norddahl.org/english/about/

SM: I detected a kind of “mea culpa” in a couple of the essays in your forthcoming collection, Booby, Be Quiet! (from Nihil Interit / poEsia-series, Finland, September, 2011) about Icelandic artists accepting money from Landsbanki Islands, the National Bank of Iceland.  I had a huge argument many years ago with a musician from Chicago who said artists should never accept money from corporate entities (whether for-profit or not-for), and meanwhile he had done that exact thing.  And then my overall feelings about the relation of the money economy to the art economy are fraught, too … I think maybe we are verging on a class issue, no??  Class seems to be the 800 pound gorilla in the room, always.  In most of your essays you seem to touch directly on this, or carom off it, or refer to it, and I was thinking that maybe it’s time poets start talking — really discussing, in normative syntax with traditional grammar — about these “economies”?

EON:  Yes, it’s a crazy relationship, money and arts. But I’m not sure the money actually “taints” the art — not as such. But it does screw up the perception of it, at least in the short-run, creating for it a frame of reference which may or may not have anything to do with the actual work (the “meaning” of the work or the “function” of the work, the “mechanics” of the work, may disappear behind the corporate idea, in a “positive” “medici” “feel-good” way for some and a more dyster, capitalist-horror way for others). But that being said, I tend to also feel that we need to look at it from the corporate world — I thoroughly disagree with the grand-capitalist system (not that I’m against buying and selling, as much as I’m opposed to “owning” on a grand scale, limitless “owning”) — so whether or not to (again) allow a bank to sponsor my book or a series of books I have a part in is not so much a question of what will it do to my art (I hope my book will be rid of the stamp in a few more years, that it’ll get to stand apart and get reevaluated) but what it’ll do for the bank. And I’d like to do as little good for banks as I can get away with. All this being said, we’re in a shitty business and doomed to eternal poverty and I’d much rather spend my money on an iPad than a print-run, I’d much rather spend it on having writing-time than a print-run — but I don’t get to decide the dynamics of the world and I have to be aware of what my participation means, what happens if I press this button and what happens if I press that  button. I can then learn “to live with it” — but not until I accept what it means.

SM: Okay, I want to break that down a bit into questions … firstly, about “meaning,” “function” and “mechanics.”  If I’m reading that correctly, you’re saying that the presence of money around a work creates a frame of reference which may or may not have anything to do with the actual work — and the meaning of the work may disappear behind the corporate idea.  But as you know there are various kinds of monies that can exist around a work: monies given by corporate entities that want to have a say in the work (like movie studios, for instance), governmental agencies (here in the states it’s the National Endowment for the Arts and state-run arts councils) and monies given by private foundations. Usually, with grants given by governmental agencies and private foundations, the artist is relatively free to do whatever with the money (although the committees that decide who gets the money may be biased — for instance the NEA really doesn’t fund the kind of projects it used to, after the debacle with the “NEA Four”: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NEA_Four and http://www.franklinfurnace.org/research/essays/nea4/neatimeline.html). Before the situation with the NEA Four — and, really, even now, if you get the grant — artists were pretty much given the money to do with what they wanted.  In that case, how would monies impact the “meaning” of a piece?  I guess what I’m asking is: if you’re given the money to use as you see fit, with no restrictions as to how it should come out, does THAT impact the meaning of the work?  Or its function, or mechanics?

You also wrote:  I tend to also feel that we need to look at it from the corporate — I thoroughly disagree with the grand-capitalist system (not that I’m against buying and selling, as much as I’m opposed to “owning” on a grand scale, limitless “owning”)

Ah, but in a democracy, ownership is relative, yes?  If developers can purchase “air rights,” then you and I purchases copies of “Howl,” right?  I see you made a distinction there between just plain “owning” (a pot to piss in) and “limitless ‘owning’” (air rights, eminent domain-enabled land-grabbing, etc.), but can a distinction be made?

You also wrote:  Whether or not to (again) allow a bank to sponsor my book or a series of books I have a part in is not so much a question of what will it do to my art (I hope my book will be rid of the stamp in a few more years, that it’ll get to stand apart and get reevaluated) but what it’ll do for the bank.

And that kind of goes back to what I was writing to you earlier about artists having carte blanche in terms of how they use the money, which is the case in some situations.  I mean, really, there are all kinds of situations (Michaelangelo & the Medici; Vincent van Gogh & his brother Theo — both those artists having very different relationships with their patrons) and of course these situations have changed over time as economies have changed.  I know a few artists now who get money from other people, but my feeling about their relation to their lifestyles is that they’re a little embarrassed … I don’t know for sure, but I get the feeling that they prefer their sources of income remain un-discussed.  On the other hand, when I was younger, I knew artists in the same situation, and it wasn’t such a big secret.  But what I’m talking about here is singular individuals (but perhaps with family backing) helping other singular individuals, and you were talking about corporations, like banks.  Although you said in your book of essays that a few crowned heads were funding Icelandic artists … I guess I’m trying to decide whether there’s a difference between a person getting money from another person and a person getting money from a corporation.  Grey area(s)?

You also wrote: …  I’d much rather spend my money on an iPad than a print-run, I’d much rather spend it on having writing-time than a print-run …

In other words: time is money?

And lastly: … but I don’t get to decide the dynamics of the world and I have to be aware of what my participation means, what happens if I press this button and what happens if I press that button. I can then learn “to live with it” — but not until I accept what it means.

In a world run by invisible corporate entities, though, can we know what pressing those buttons mean?

EON: Money may be given to artists to “do whatever they want” but it’s then only given to artists likely to produce certain types of work which the committee (or whomever decides who gets the money) likes. So the burgeoning artist will inevitably ask himself/herself “what can I do to get my hands on that money” and may then either do that or strive not to (in order to remain “pure”); either way the grants and the awards and all of that is already at play, pushing and pulling on both content and form, not to mention creating a certain type of hysteria amongst poets (which is very evident in the amount of self-promotion and networking conducted by poets on Facebook – I’m not dissing it, necessarily, but it looks a bit like the symptom of societal illness).

The meaning doesn’t always disappear, often it’s just distorted, sometimes for awhile, sometimes forever. But aligning yourself with anything (with or without accepting money) is always going to be problematic — and not aligning yourself with anything is stupid and impossible. Pound was right in sticking up for what he believed in, no matter if that was fascism, and I’m right in thinking he was a dick for doing so — Pound’s poetry would not have been Pound’s poetry had he been somebody else, and yes a lot of it is fascist poetry. And if one is a Sony kinda poet, one should get Sony kinda sponsorship – one shouldn’t accept money from any program one is not willing to defend (at least in principle — I don’t mean defending all choices of the money-giving committee past, present and future, but the existence of the fund as such).

First they get you one the way in, and then on the way out — the fund influences the work of anyone seeking funding from it (perhaps not as overtly as when Viking-era poets would praise their kings, but still), and by accepting money from the fund you accept that you are a carrier of it’s principles. If these are Pringles corporate principles, make sure you’re really OK with the ‘once you pop you can’t stop’ philosophy; if it’s child labour, make sure that’s your thing; or, as an alternative, you can be a proud self-embracing sell-out (just don’t whine when I call you a dick).

As for the distinction in owning one could try and take a variant on Mills stand on freedom, and say something like: as long as you owning something doesn’t deprive me of owning it, you can have it. So that a hardcopy of Howl in printed form may be mine,  but I have no right to deprive you of a digital copy — like I have no right to forbid you from sharing an idea (I can ask nicely, if I plan to use it and want to be “first” — but I cannot ban it without copyrighting and copyrighting is just shitty behaviour).

Added to this, it’s not a proper democracy in a capitalist economy, unless everybody has the same income.

You asked: I guess I’m trying to decide whether there’s a difference between a person getting money from another person and a person getting money from a corporation.  Grey area(s)?

And: In a world run by invisible corporate entities, though, can we know what pressing those buttons mean?

I’m taking these as sort of the same question, knowing about buttons and grey areas. I think knowing about the exact functions of the buttons is hard, but we can make educated guesses (or autodidactic guesses for that matter). And I think the problem isn’t that we don’t often know when we are in ethical grey areas but that we use the grey to excuse ourselves. We mask ourselves in grey. And not just artists, everybody. When one buys t-shirt sewn in China we think that all factories in China can’t be slave driven and people need to work and once upon a time we were also poor starving seamstresses and in time the small hands sewing our t-shirts will also get to fidget with iPads (other than putting them together). And even the heads of the corporate entities aren’t really responsible for whom the contractor in China hires to sew and assemble. And the contractor in China has to keep people out, accepting bribes and favours for positions in the slave factory, ‘cause yes it’s better than starving — so whose fault is it then? And the Hollywood superstar posing in the t-shirt on billboards or the alternative grunge band recording their albums on the iPad in exchange for Apple sponsorship or whatever, they’re just promoting a product they believe in while trying to make the payments on their houses (for who knew being rich was so expensive?). And experimental poets want to have all the gadgets because we need to be making e-books to be cutting edge — am I supposed to throw away my Macbook Pro and write with pencil and how am I supposed to know who made the pencil and that they got a decent salary (and besides, buying fair trade is far too expensive, I’m a poor poet and I’ll need to wait until the prices drop)?

Getting money from a person — depends on the person. And buttons — we can try and ask ourselves honestly, in the brutal kind of manner, and see if the buttons stand up to scrutiny. There’s no being completely independent, there’s no world where doors have no buttons or knobs that need no pushing and no turning. But that doesn’t mean one should just shrug one’s shoulders — that one shouldn’t be crazy indignant and try to be at least somewhat independent. It’s like everything else. When you talk to someone, there’s no knowing beforehand whether or not they’ll freak out at what you have to say, but most people still try to engage in meaningful conversation which belittles neither party. Artists have to live like everybody else, but they should neither be whores for everything and anything nor dicks in support of evil.

And finally, about time being money — money and time don’t have a one to one relation, money is sort of rent and sort of food and rent and food sustain the body during time. Does that make sense?

SM:  Yes, but money and time are a kind of capital, right?  And both can (be) collapse(d)!

EON:  The greatest difference is of course that whereas we’re continually trying to keep money from crashing (and not succeeding) we’re continually trying to collapse time (and not succeeding). Much poetry is based on collapsing time, if not all poetry — of rendering past and projecting future while trying to maintain several presents.

SM:  Okay, let’s go back to what you were saying at the beginning, about: the burgeoning artist will inevitably ask himself/herself “what can I do to get my hands on that money” and may then either do that or strive not to (in order to remain “pure”); either way the grants and the awards and all of that is already at play, pushing and pulling on both content and form, not to mention creating a certain type of hysteria amongst poets (which is very evident in the amount of self-promotion and networking conducted by poets on Facebook — I’m not dissing it, necessarily, but it looks a bit like the symptom of societal illness).

But then we are all afflicted by said illness, right?  ‘Cause I have a blog, you have a site, etc.  It seems to me that the Internet-based self-promotion and networking isn’t just the same chapbook/newsletter/glad-handing-at-readings that has always occurred … it’s just done now via the “there’s no (t)here (t)here” Interweb.  This seems kinda obvious, really.  It’s possible now to be involved in a “movement” that doesn’t even exist in real time.

EON:  All I’m saying is that that should not be an excuse for anything – we should try to be aware of it and deal with it (for or against, left, right, forwards backwards, this is a serious form of dancing). Instead of acting like there aren’t walls in the house, because we’re such fucking independent artists nothing can touch us.

We may also over-estimate the facetime of ol’time poetry cooperatives. There was a lot of living in Paris and Tangiers and New York and wherever, loads of letters moving about and telephone calls. Probably there were shorter times, up to a few years, of intense face-time — but it’s all sort of … I ‘m thinking about the Beats in particular, compared to Flarf for instance or Conceptual Poetry or the Swedish Language Materialists, Nýhil in Iceland or even the whole European post-avant society (which is an unorganized network of hundreds of people, who’ve heard of each other and have some sort of idea of each other, and some have correspondance etc. but not really a “group” per se). For one thing, the Beats had several places and several times, with different individuals being center-stage at given times (my feeling is that the Beat scene was wherever Ginsberg was, and whomever he was corresponding — not to mention sleeping —  with, although that is quite the sweeping simplification). I’m rambling. I don’t know how it’s different — although I do feel that perhaps poetry (art, literature) in the olden days was more submerging, that people put a greater emphasis on becoming their art, being true to their art not only in the art but also in everything else. If you cooked, you cooked Beat, if you taught grammar, you taught grammar Beat, if you raised children, you raised them Beat. I have a feeling it’s generally more careerized now, although the great mist of myth may have something to do with that, my feeling may be all wrong, and perhaps people just used to be better at projecting the correct image — whereas our hypersensitivity to image-making, our keen understanding of it, due to the growing intensity of media, may make it much harder for us to project the image we’d like, as we’d look like poseurs, everybody knows from last Christmas’ Facebook-photos at mom’s that we’re not always crazy cool, that our crazy cool is an act — the strongest facet of our identity has become the crisis that we’re having with our identity – I can’t even leave the dishes till tomorrow without feeling like a 1950’s Mad Men misogynist, if I have a beer with dinner, am I then an alcoholic, what if I really, really, really like the beer with dinner? Then I must be a drunkard, right? So I don’t have a beer with dinner, almost never, and it makes me FEEL LIKE AN ALCOHOLIC. Anything we do, we’re guilty. It’s like Kierkagaard (god bless him): “Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it. Laugh at the stupidities of the world or weep over them, you will regret it either way. Whether you laugh at the stupidities of the world or you weep over them, you will regret it either way.”

SM:  In your great new book of essays, Booby, Be Quiet! you wrote:

the present worships an outdated past, even at the cost of a living present.  And it thereby despises a large part of what was intentionally meant for the moment it lived, that which lost the great fencing match of noteworthiness … and became ‘nothing . . . All art which dares not step outside its present — outside the senses and paths of governing tastes — all art which intends to get positive reviews or a consent, all art which dares not change, malformed and get destroyed — all art afraid of failing, horribly even, afraid to be ridiculed — dares not own its own contradictions — is in my mind mostly a waste of time.  It reduces its own possibilities and serves art history more than art.  It … does not practice honesty towards itself but serves an idea of an imaginary taste of a set of imaginary people we call the audience, viewers, readers, lovers of poetry’” (from “The Metaphorical Crisis”).

For me, this touched on issues you raised elsewhere in the collection, and I especially like the comparisons drawn regarding the collapse of the Icelandic economy — it made me think of these two “economies”: the poetry economy versus the money economy.  In the poetry economy, it could be said, poets worship an outdated past, even at the cost of a living present.  And there will be poets who will disagree with this, experimental/avant poets who believe their work pushes a kind of “future” forward, but even the most avant poet right now probably feels (if they are willing to admit it) that certain poetries have become so institutionally-canted that there is a new audience/viewer/reader: the academic corporation.  And just as the collapses of the Icelandic economy and our own (in terms of the mortgage crisis: we were promised a golden future!) were based on corporation-created/driven ambition, I tend to feel the collapse of the poetry economy — where actual living human beings create poetry for other actual living human beings — is just this same thing.  Who are we writing for/to now?  Who is creating the work, and for what purpose?  Who is receiving it?  Where are the audiences?  Where is the enthusiasm for poetry among the poets themselves?  The golden future that is supposedly out there for poets consists of academic presses, academic jobs, if one’s work is institutionally canted.

EON:  The academic corporation as reader of academic poetry is sort of like the economy of pure service – where I make a living from selling you a coffee cup in the morning and spend my income on buying coffee at your café in the afternoon. It’s somehow both completely degenerate and Zen-like perfect, and I have the feeling that if anyone mentions this in full earnest (that society goes on without us, knows not of us and does not care) the whole thing will crumble. Personally I’m not interested in writing for an academia (nor am I interested in ‘condescending’ by ‘simplifying’ for a common audience, whom I refuse to see as inherently stupid). I’m interested in making holes in the world, to peer through.

I would like an audience, and I would like to help them peer through my holes. That being said maybe we need to start thinking of poetry not in terms of audience but purely in terms of an action, an act — almost like prayer — something for everyone, to be a part of everyone’s life. So instead of publishing poetry books poets could teach people poetry, or sumphin. If they need to make a living of it (because of course anything which belongs to everyone cannot be a living for anyone). And maybe we could still have poetry books, like we have books of mathematics and calculus and grammar — all of these things which we all have some sort of grasp on and use every day for ourselves, our joy and our betterment — for the academia. Although not me, I’d write for the general public because I want to be popular. :-)

I don’t think poets are necessarily very enthusiastic about each others work — they may support it (‘buy his book, he’s a great guy’), but I rarely seeing anyone jumping for joy about somebody else’s poem. Every other Facebook-friend of mine is a foreign poet and the only poetry they ever share is their own (this mostly goes for me too). With the hostile takeover of triviality in popular media and popular art, perhaps poets have forgotten about fun, about charm, about joy, about attitude, about intensity, about popular iconoclasm, about naughty words, about the beautiful horniness — and driven anything that might attract an audience looking for something other than (supposed) supreme intelligence out of their poetry and into the waste basket of failed work, never to see the light of a backlit gadget screen (nevermind print or e-ink).

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