Moments of waste. A conversation about Tarot and poetry
Moments of waste. A conversation about Tarot and poetry
A few hours before The Green Lantern Press’ Fundraiser event, NEW AGE NOW, Lara Schoorl and Evan Kleekamp talked about Tarot, poetry, and systems (inspired at least partly in the free readings Kleekamp provided on Dec 2nd). Evan Kleekamp is a writer living in Chicago. His poetry and essays have appeared in literary journals such as Pinwheel, Drunken Boat, Adult, and Vinyl Poetry and Prose. He is a frequent collaborator with Les Figues Press in Los Angeles and Green Lantern Press/Sector 2337 in Chicago. His chapbook, 13 Theses on State-Sponsored Black Death in America, is available through Kastle Editions. Lara Schoorl is an art historian and writer from The Netherlands based in Los Angeles. Her writing recently appeared in the co-authored book the end of may and in Sisternhood, an anthology of non-native Anglophone women writing in English curated by Nadia de Vries. She is the Publicity Manager at The Green Lantern Press.
Lara Schoorl: While driving alone along the central coast, I was thinking about what to ask you, in the midst of looking for campsites in Big Sur, CA to set up a tent. This made me think about where “my” home is—something a lot of people have recently asked me about. I sometimes wonder if my astrological chart provides a language to think about my character(istics), my inner drive, and way of living (rather than that it directs or explains who “I” am). I already know my own traits, because why else do I move and act the way I do? But sometimes it’s nevertheless hard to describe them or articulate were that drive comes from. What do you think astrology does/is? And how does Tarot work in this sense?
Evan Kleekamp: When most people are asked about Tarot or astrology, the word “system” does not come to mind. Our head goes to the astrology section in the newspaper or our friend who obsesses over the symbolic elements on the Tarot cards. I’ll admit that I’m more familiar with the Tarot than astrology, but I approach the cards as a system just as astrologers approach astrology as a system. I believe—though this is an unpopular belief—that the Tarot has a purposefully organized structure. What most people consider a flawed form of logic, I see as a machine operation: I cut the deck and allow chance interactions between cards to create a map populated by archetypical examples. These archetypes connote more information than a simple designation could provide in the same space, but at a loss of specificity. I like to think of this as a transactional cost typical to compression: a file becomes less mobile the more information it contains; so we condense our files to move them. This is where I step in as an interpreter. I use the associations and archival links buried deep into Tarot’s organization and translate what I see into an expanded narrative. For example, anyone who looks closely at the Tarot will notice multiple counting systems at work. These ways of counting are only pertinent to the reader or interpreter, who must convey their meaning via story—a far more accessible means of transferring information between people.
With these concepts in mind, I like to consider the Tarot as an empathetic system. Like astrology, it is a useful and meaningful way to look at humans’ behavior or human ecology as structurally—and thus necessarily—flawed. I am quick to remind people who express discomfort or disdain about these systems that we live in a world where these technologies were invented out of necessity. What the naysayers don’t understand is why they remain necessary.
LS: That makes a lot of sense and I wonder if everything that is invented or created, perhaps everything that is perceived and considered by humans is a system? That we can’t live without narrative or what that chaos would look like (beyond postmodernism)?
EK: Astrology and Tarot do not value what we consider fact; they value the cataloging of human emotion, which they absorb, preserve, and deploy via narrative. My personal practice links Tarot with psychoanalysis by way of Alejandro Jodorowski and Jacques Lacan, respectively. When I’m giving a reading, I’m often attempting to create a narrative screen that allows me to peer into the psyche of my would-be analysand while eliding the narrative they would like to create for themselves. It is a way of veering toward the real by way of the virtual. We see a similar technique deployed in words of fiction like W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which question the boundary between fiction and reality in narrative. My goal is to create the surface where I can the action of a mind occur, and from there generate a sort of invisible map that, because it is invisible, shows what is invisible.
On the topic of surface and visibility, I recently reread Joan Didion’s “On Morality.” For a moment in the essay—it seems will be discussing moments later—Didion describes the desert as a surface on which action occurs, which is distinct from my own impression of the desert, a place I spent much time as a child. The desert was always a zone to me: a three-dimensional space that extended beyond the sky and continued into into the recesses of the earth; it was a space that resisted human occupation by various means of exclusion—exclusion that I witness at the level of terrain. As a system, Tarot creates a similar environment that asks us to read people as exclusionary terrain, to look for guideposts and markers that reveal signs or give us passage into otherwise impenetrable areas. But the catch is interesting: You don’t use your subject to reconstruct this area; you use a not-so-randomly generated set of cards to ghost your way into a landscape. Few people understand that the Tarot needs be laid out as a map before being read; you have to see the complete picture the deck offers, otherwise you are giving out faulty directions in a space that you do not understand. Once you know the lay of the land, you can move across this landscape and the psychological space it reflects. If you’re lucky you might even unlock a way of seeing what was previously unavailable to be seen.
I wonder if you see any connection between trash and abandoned systems like Tarot or astrology. Much of what we designate as trash exists in a physical medium, but I’m curious: What happens to concepts, philosophies, and beliefs once they’re deemed obsolete? What happens to the histories and stories we leave to the wayside? What happens when information becomes trash?
LS: They remain, the concepts, the stories, beliefs, the information, but no longer used as such. Or used differently, considered past and as moments that then lead to something else. Similar, or perhaps even the same as when you said that there are systems that we invented and live in/by (i.e. narratives, agreed structures built from words, because language and narratives are how we understand what we mean). I have to think now of Fredric Jameson and his disagreement with Jean-François Lyotard saying that postmodernism was the end of grand narratives. Instead he says that grand narratives, although untrustworthy, continue to exist below ground. That makes total sense to me. Styxes of past sytems. You can’t really erase the past or disregard prior knowledges, this answer is proof of that as well. In order to respond to your question, I am digging through all different knowledges in my mind and am folding them into each other here in a new narrative or thought: an underground river that flows with have-been knowledges. I am also reminded Klee’s Angelus Novus. About the storm that is blowing in his wings Benjamin wrote: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” The pile in front of him is the past, it doesn’t fade, it accumulates. Is this similar to Bergson’s memory theory, the cone and durational flux? Everything is new because every new thing contains a (slightly) longer past? Everything I know seems to carry a past or memory within it and I add to and adapt it when using it, like rings that grow in water, like how trees age. Or that is how I perceive. So for me trash becomes (part of) a foundation or a current. Trash not as a place, not as something stopped or held up, but a part of a movement or journey.
Another kind of non-physical trash that I have been thinking about is emotional trash, feelings of people that are also part of systems and structures. Often there is not a place to discuss the effort or energy that emotional labor asks for as it is not considered worth or productive talking about. Recently I talked to Sabrina Greig from Sixty inches from the center about the online exhibition, Institutional Garbage, that Caroline Picard and I co-curated and Sabrina pointed out how the exhibition might shift the focus of importance in (art) institutions from highlights to the bearings, beginnings, process and failures that comprise more than an eventual result, artwork, exhibition or project.
Can we talk or think about Tarot, systems and trash in relation to poetry? Sometimes when I read poetry it seems as if these words written by other people combine thoughts with language for me in a way that I had not been capable of but somehow already knew. We once talked about this in relation to C.D. Wright’s and Lorine Niedecker’s work. Perhaps also Anne Sexton in your case?
EK: After I left my MFA program I said poetry was dead to me. And then Donald Trump was elected, and I felt even more truth in this statement. Anne Sexton is dead, but poetry is deader. (I don’t mean to suggest that poetry is undead or beyond death. I mean that is has become a boring enterprise for me; it’s not even meaningless.) However, I am interested in the effects of poetic influence. Writers who can manipulate language to create deep, and sometimes instantaneous, emotional short circuits still inspire me, regardless of genre. I think my two largest poetic influences are Tomaž Šalamun and Vanessa Place—two poets who have been more or less cast aside by the larger poetic establishment in the United States. Without risk, there is no such thing as poetry. With so many organizations and institutions devoted to the production and commodification of poetry, I wonder if it is even possible for poetry to occur, even as we enter what appears to be bleak times. (What a sad fact: without a prohibition against poetry, we have no means to produce it.) Šalamun and Place are studied masters in violation, and that is where my love for them stems from, but for others this is an excuse to vilify them. Sexton might have been the first poet to set off this tic with me, but her influence over me has since waned.
We met while occupying different spaces of the academia: You were studying Art History at The School of the Art Institute while I was completing my MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia. Much of our conversation revolved around poetics, conceptualism, the baroque, narrative, epistolary writing—heady concepts that seem to negate or at least rub up against what we consider the New Age. What draws us, as artists and historians, to these equal and opposite domains? As a person who is able to move between these of vectors of belief and thought, do you see zones of productive tension between them? If so, where?
LS: See, I think that because we come from different fields (despite both within humanities) that I have a different understanding of the word or concept of poetry. Since I never did a BFA or an MFA nor was I in a literary program but always in art history I started learning (about) poetry from the position of an art historian. I consider representation and meaning making poetry, and that can be visual and textual. Poetry both reading and writing it makes me question words and concepts. What I call poetry seems to be what you refer to (more correctly) as poetics or poetic influence and maybe I am wrong in calling it poetry. Yet, paradoxically that word (poetry) to me seems less loaded and predetermined and in addition to (and perhaps because of) it being overused poetry is also underused (for example, when a Hallmark text is called poetry). This gives me a lot of space on what I think poetry means or is or does. To go back to the questioning of words and concepts…For example, baroque and conceptualism, which I have studied in art in the 16th/17th and 20th/21st centuries respectively, looking for those movements in contemporary poetry I saw and was searching for similarities between those two perspectives four centuries apart. Both are part of history and happened in different times, but I think both also always were already present and still are. Saying this might make the whole conversation obsolete, because everything was and is always already here and (re-)appears in different formations and then what it there left to talk about. Should we then not just try to perform each moment better than in the past, especially after Trump is elected president. For me poetry which thus can be writing in many formats as well as other forms of art making, writing and seeing it becomes a way, for me, to learn about ethics and to add a stance to them. I do, however, at the same question the value of it, because being in the arts and humanities makes that my life is flexible in a way. I can go to meetings, lectures, protests, etc., but what about doctors, who do treat people equally. (Not considering the fact that in this country access to healthcare is inherently unequal and not everyone can see a doctor, but in the hospital or physician’s office people are healed and saved and cared for). Still, I believe in poetry too and its ability to act or change. Like when my friend Mia shared Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me?” after the elections and there are many more poets such as Niedecker and Wright that encourage me to write, to do, to move. Again, this might be what you call poetic influence rather than influence of poetry. Although it is more than just the ethics and language theory, I value aesthetics too, the chosen and milled over words and thoughts by an individual attempting to put a part of her body outside in the world.
EK: As I wrote the question above, your investigation of Lorine Niedecker and C.D. Wright came to mind. While not exactly engaged or associated with New Age spirituality, these two writers open up a space for the spiritual that many would probably label as New Age today. (I guess what I mean to say is that by being spiritual in a nontraditional sense, they open themselves up to the accusation that they are too spiritual, which seems to the the larger social critique of New Age thinking.) Is poetry a form of being spiritual? What does it mean to be spiritual in a time of mass data? Or, more precisely, to be spiritual in a time when even data is a form of waste?
LS: This ties in again for me with considering poetry as meaning making and representation. Language might be spiritual for me. It is intangible, I will never understand personally when conceptualists consider a word as an object or material thing. I understand what they mean by it or why they think that is, but it is not how I see words. Words for me maybe are more like appearances, sometimes I understand them, sometimes they become part of my vocabulary, often I forget them, my understanding of them changes and their meaning changes over time. Words are always shared by the person who says, writes or thinks them, by all readers and listeners and by their history and etymology. This latter part, their etymology and their form (built from letters), place part of them in the physical world. So, they are part of objects and bodies and amplify them, but for me words mostly live in a space between those bodies. Maybe a quavering shadow of a palm leaf is a good metaphor?
To answer your question more precisely: perhaps to be spiritual in a time when data is a form of waste is another way of organizing collaborative chaos in one’s personal mind? This seems selfish or not very productive but perhaps necessary in order to do more or be productive as there is (always, of course) more waste than there was before; one needs to find a way to move along with it first. Then, writing or creating something out of a spiritual experience might be a way to make it not solely an individual experience, but becomes a sharing of ordering chaos?
I have shared these lines by C.D. Wright from her poem “Crescent” many times, they show me our presence on the world and the presence of the world as part of something larger that no one understands. We should think about that, but also not get lost in thought, because we are here in the flesh. We should think about the far and the future, of course, but also what is near and at close distance, the smallness of space:
“Later beneath the blueness of trees the future falls out of place: something always happens: draw nearer my dear: never fear: the world spins nightly towards its brightness and we are on it.”
And a vague question for you: since we have been talking about moments, what do you think a moment is? I think I think of moments when I think of you, both in a temporal way as, for example, you react very well in moments—I’m thinking here about your tweets and Facebook statuses that seem very sudden. But also, because we have spent mostly just moments together. We were never in a class or program together and usually worked different days at Sector 2337. Even our collaboration now (the beginning of a chapbook publication series) happens instantaneous. Do you think moment is the best word to use in this context? I have a feeling you might describe it differently.
EK: What do I think a moment is? I think I might be the person most incapable of answering this question. I often suspect that I am incapable of feeling or experiencing time. My social media presence might suggest the opposite case. From what I’ve been told, the people who read my posts get a sense of urgency, but what I’m aiming for is a reminder issued from across the room. (You have to find a way of being loud without going full volume, otherwise you will not be heard. You have to proceed by means of various paradoxes and contradictions. This is my favorite part of the process!) Often when I’m writing and I’m at my most vulnerable—and thus need to post—I’m not feeling like I’m in a moment, but that I’m endless expanse of time that I truly wish would end. (I guess I should note here that a series of my Facebook posts have been collected in a chapbook titled 13 Theses on State-Sponsored Black Death, to be published by Kastle Editions in Chicago.) I know this is a precarious difference to propose, but it means a lot to me. My reaction to the crises at hand, if they are crises, is not a sudden or instantaneous recognition; if a moment exists, it exists as the part of the event where we are given the ability to see the structure and positions we occupy. In the case of Trump’s election, we can no longer deny the conditions our country has created for itself. But this doesn’t mean a moment is reflected in reality, it means that we are forced to reconcile our subjective ideas with the realities at hand. But again, we not in a moment, it’s nothing new; we are in the continuation of past events. (Like Lacan, I consider capitalism a euphemism for feudalism, something that I hope is more clear with the election of our impotent prince.) I guess the short answer is that I believe moments are fictional, but we rely on fictional devices to mediate our existence. Because they are not real, they are useful to us.
LS: Lastly, can you tell us a little bit about what you did during the Green Lantern Press Fundraiser? How do Tarot and art relate to you, or is this an even broader question and ties it in in the conversation of art today and politics. Although politics today in America has become a new and necessary conversation..
EK: During the fundraiser I was tucked away in a small room reading the Tarot for any curious parties. To repeat what I said above: I see Tarot as tool to create emotional linkages. At its base, it is an act of storytelling where the story is improvised in accordance with a handful of signs randomly culled from a larger set. We often accidentally approach truth in this process, but it is an emotional truth, not a fact, and it exists only in the mind of those whose cards are being read. (Although sometimes I am given a refracted version of this image when I look into someone’s eyes or read their expression.) I am not an expert in politics, nor do I want to be, but I do have a deep connection with aesthetics, which is not just style but value. Aesthetics asks us to consider what it is we value and why. Tarot is the part of my artistic practice. I use it to commune with the unconscious landscapes that reside within all of us and probe those systems of value. Like Dante who begins his inferno with a confession that he is lost, I throw myself into these blind spaces. But I’m there with the goal of remaining as lost and blind as possible. I am there to demonstrate that what we experience as emotion is the inverse of the visual.