Dream, Chew, Leak, Stumble, Spiral, Listen, Trace, Touch, Return.
A Conversation with Brent Armendinger
OS Collaborator Brent Armendinger discusses his new book, Street Gloss, just out from The Operating System.
Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today!
Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
I’m Brent. I use he/him/his pronouns. I’ll try to use this space to tell you some things that aren’t in my bio. My first name is my father’s middle name, and I grew up in the house where he was raised by his grandparents in Warsaw, a very small town in Western NY. My dad worked in a factory that made parts for Ford, and my mom was a legal secretary — now they’re both retired. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I’ve lived in Annandale-on-Hudson (Bard), San Francisco, and Ann Arbor, and now I live in Los Angeles with my husband, Joe Gallucci, who is a media archivist and crossword aficionado. We got married in May of this year and our processional was “The Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog. We both hate capitalism and sometimes fantasize about opening a queer bar called Comrades and Curmudgeons. What else? I love deciduous trees, succulents, oxygen, handwriting, palimpsests, twilight, etymologies, ice cream, swimming, and of course, poetry.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist/translator?
Writing a poem, for me, is a way to practice being attentive to my surroundings, as well as a way to open myself to impermanence and not-knowing. I’ve likened it to walking across quicksand. As soon as I think I know where the ground is, it changes. So it has to be more about moving than standing, and it’s not so much my legs that are moving but the ground itself, the quicksand.
Certainty is momentary and there are these instances of sinking, sliding, falling, floating, in which I find myself writing towards the strangeness that is simultaneous to facts. As Anne Carson writes, “what we are engaged in when we do poetry is error,/the willful creation of error,/the deliberate break and complication of mistakes/out of which may arise/unexpectedness.” 
As a translator, I’m an amateur, and this book arose out of following my errors, my not-knowing, into the streets.
 Anne Carson, “Essay on What I Think About Most,” Men in the Off Hours (Knopf, 2000).
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I don’t know that I can pinpoint an exact moment, and the truth is I prefer to say that I make poems. There are, however, specific people who helped me experience the magic and possibility of poetry when I was young, such as my fifth grade teacher, Bill Heller, my first poetry teacher, Robert Kelly, and Adrienne Rich in her book What Is Found There. I’m grateful to each of them for showing me that I could be with, in, and alongside poetry.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)? How does this interface with what you do as a translator and/or in your pedagogy?
I think that poetry can model an ethics of encountering what we don’t immediately understand, both about ourselves and the world around us. I talk about this a lot with my students, because young people are still being taught that there’s something wrong (either with them or the poem itself) if they don’t “get” a poem on the first reading. I like to remind them that a poem is first and foremost an experience, that the world is full of things we don’t understand, and that it’s good to practice not turning away from those things. As a poet, I think my first responsibility is to give agency to language itself. As Robert Kelly writes, “[n]ot to use the words to sell yourself or your ideas.”  This is, of course, the task of a lifetime.
I also think it’s my responsibility to write from and alongside our times, from the minutiae of everyday existence to some of our most pressing struggles, not from a place of comfortable distance, but of intimate contact. This means, as Brenda Hillman has written, leaving the writing desk “to engage with others in public spaces. It is then the potential of each word comes forward.” It means showing up for striking teachers and for my neighbors who are being displaced. It means engaging not only with human neighbors but with plant and animal and mineral neighbors. As a teacher, it means making more space for poetry to be in the world. My students teach me things all the time. They are capable of doing things with language that I simply can’t, and finding ways to nurture that is one of the best things about my job. As a teacher I face the same questions that I do as a poet — what does it mean to honestly communicate, to ethically respond to the facts of another life?
In this book, as a translator, it means giving my attention to writing that is very different than my own. It means really engaging, with my body, with the public life of language, with the city of Buenos Aires and the people who live there.
 Robert Kelly, “Writing Is,” Red Actions (Black Sparrow Press, 1995).
 Brenda Hillman, “Reportorial Poetry, Trance & Activism,” Practical Water (Wesleyan University Press, 2009).
Talk about the process or instinct to move this project into book form. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle? How did this unique hybrid of translation and personal practice evolve?
Originally, I traveled to Buenos Aires because I was interested in learning about and working with Eloisa Cartonera — a collective of writers, designers and activists who make very simple, inexpensive, beautiful books out of cardboard that they buy from cartoneros, people who collect it on the street to make a living. Founded in 2001, originally as a response to the economic crisis, their work has spawned a revolution in cartonera publishing throughout Latin America and beyond. While I was volunteering with the folks at Eloisa Cartonera, I also decided to do a writing project. I envisioned this as a way to connect more with the city, and I knew that I wanted to incorporate translation somehow. I’ve always been interested in site-specific work, ritual, and unconventional ways of understanding geography, but this was a definite turning point in bringing these kinds of procedures into my own poetic practice.
I loved being led to (and by) poets whose work was new to me as the project unfolded, and I loved meeting the poets themselves and discussing their work with them. I was drawn to Alejandro Méndez’s haunting queer lyrics, to Mercedes Roffé’s use of surreal and poignant instructions, to the immediacy in Fabián Casas’ conversational, edgy poems, to Néstor Perlongher’s irreverent and erotic wordplay, and to Diana Bellessi’s philosophical meditations. I loved that while translating their poems, I was made to do something with my body and that I couldn’t predict where they would take me. It felt important that I give up some of my own autonomy as a North American engaged in the complicated act of translation. I also became very interested in the idea that words are physical and that language is actually embedded in the street. I’m thinking here of the artist Joseph Grigely, who writes, “Imagine if every word we spoke became palpable and dropped from our lips as we spoke.” 
So how did all of this turn into a book? What you are currently looking at has gone through many, many iterations over the last several years. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to take 3 separate trips to Buenos Aires in order to work on it. As the book began to take shape, I had to think a lot about form, about how to create a visual manifestation of my process for the reader, while maintaining the integrity of the poets’ work. Yes, I was doing this very experimental thing, but I also wanted the translations themselves to be as faithful as possible to the original poems, and that of course is not easy, especially with someone like Perlongher, who delights in double- and triple-entendre and incorporates dialect and other languages into his poems. But there’s something amazing about stepping into a syntax that’s so wildly different than my own, feeling it push against the limits of my voice.
As the book evolved, it became more and more a way for me to think about translation and language itself, about the ways it lives inside the body and moves between bodies, about cities and the slippage between private and public experience. This book only contains about ¼ of the raw material I generated while working on the project — I have several notebooks filled with my notes from other walks and translations. It wasn’t easy for me to let go of all of this, but at a certain point I began to feel myself forcing the work beyond its organic stopping place. I also wanted the book to have some spaciousness, to not just be a crowded compendium of everything I did. I don’t think a book can or even should be perfect, but I’m really happy with where this one landed.
 Joseph Grigely: St. Cecilia (Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, 2007).
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the work itself was being made? How or how not?
I didn’t really conceive of it as a book in the beginning, but as I continued to work on these walking translations, it became clearer and clearer that something was coalescing.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work, beyond this project? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
I’ve been incorporating a lot more ritual practice into my writing, and I have been particularly inspired by CAConrad’s brilliant (Soma)tic exercises. I love the experience of consciously living with the raw materials of a poem before even beginning to write. A couple of years ago, I did a series of walking meditations in the Arroyo Seco, a paved channel that flows near my apartment in Los Angeles. I dressed in all red and carried a red umbrella, meditated on the drought and the people who were living on the banks of the Arroyo and had been pushed out by the city. I generated lots of language, and then I shaped this into a little collection of mesostics, a form invented by John Cage. Last fall, I had a residency at Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks, and I decided to visit the same 13 trees over a number of days, generate a couple of lines for each, and then collage these into poems. I loved the durational aspect of this, the experience of continual returning, of opening up to something I hadn’t noticed about each of these trees before.
I work a lot with collage. In my first book, The Ghost in Us Was Multiplying, I made a number of poems by combining writing from looking out windows and responding to photographs in the newspaper. I also do a lot of re-ordering and writing between the lines, and I really like writing poems backwards, word by word, which is a technique Carmen Giménez Smith introduced to me and my students when she came to visit my class a while ago. I also love syllabics, especially as a generative tool — I find it’s a great way to push me beyond my ingrained cadences.
I am fortunate to have been nourished by the work of so many different creative people. Among my teachers, those who were particularly instrumental to my growth as a poet include Robert Kelly at Bard, Carmen Giménez Smith and her San Francisco workshop, Thylias Moss and Anne Carson at Michigan, and Brenda Hillman at the Napa Valley Writers Conference and the Community of Writers. There are far too many writers whose work is important to me for me to name, but in Los Angeles, I feel a special kinship to the work of Sesshu Foster, Amina Cain, and Jen Hofer, whose practice as a translator and language justice activist is deeply inspiring. I’m also super lucky to have wonderful poet-friends like Rae Gouirand and Jessica Rae Bergamino who help me keep returning to the page. What else? I find that visual art really helps me reconceptualize the way I approach writing. A few artists whose work is essential to me are Agnes Martin, Yoko Ono, David Wojnarowicz, Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha, Cecilia Vicuña, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Finally, I am so inspired by my neighbors and comrades in the Los Angeles Tenants Union, by the creativity it takes to survive and fight back against displacement.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
The title is partly a play on words, as it takes “gloss” from glossary. I’m also thinking about gloss as a sheen, a filmy, ephemeral substance that adheres to a surface, the way in which a word might adhere to a street. The section titles are all taken from my translations of the original poems into English. I chose them fairly intuitively. The individual prose poems are all titled with the words they’re attempting to define.
What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/ creative practice? your history? your mission/ intentions/hopes/plans?
As I mentioned elsewhere, this book represents a fairly significant shift in my practice given its coming to be through a conscious use of ritual and procedural poetics. I think it’s certainly still connected to my previous work in terms of the intuitive approach to language, the syntax experiments, the queer content, and the overall emphasis on the body. As a poet, I’ve never sunk into sentences before in the way I have with this book, so that has been exciting. I’ve also never incorporated translation into my practice to such an extent, and I’m interested in the possibility of deepening that by working on a single book by one author. Ultimately, this book represents my intentions to take risks as a writer, to follow language in unexpected directions, to give attention to the work of other writers, to bring the body into poetry (and vice versa), to expand and deepen my perceptions.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
Dream, chew, leak, stumble, spiral, listen, trace, touch, return.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
I hope that people will read it, of course, even/especially people who don’t consider themselves to be poets. I hope they’ll think about the layers and layers of experience that exist in every physical location, including the intersections they pass through every day. I want poems to replace Google Maps! At the very least, I hope people are inspired to move around without a map telling them what to do (map here could be replaced by many emblems of authority). I hope they’re inspired to interact a little more with strangers. I hope that readers are led to more work by the different authors I’ve translated and to Argentinian poetry in general. I hope the book can contribute to conversations about translation and experimental approaches to the craft, about ritual and procedural poetics.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social and political activism, so present in our daily lives as we face the often sobering, sometimes dangerous realities of the Capitalocene. How does your process, practice, or work otherwise interface with these conditions?
These conditions enter my poems because they’re moving in and through every one of us. When I write about/from/alongside them, I’m trying to create a space of contact, as much for myself as for my readers. I’m trying to really be here, in the midst of all of it. Several of the poems in my first book attempt to confront the abuses of the US military, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. I went to a lot of demonstrations in the time when I was writing that book, and I’ve honestly been shocked at how the anti-war movement has all but disappeared in this country in recent years. Props to Code Pink for keeping up the pressure! There’s also a long poem in my first book that responds to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and there are poems about my experience being queer and HIV+. In this book, it felt necessary to confront the legacy of the dictatorship in Argentina, including how the United States enabled it, as well as the role of hedge-fund investors in strangling the economy. There are also poems that reference police brutality and drone strikes, because the realities of my country don’t leave me when I leave its borders. A lot of the poems I’m writing now are haunted by the climate crisis. Of course, it’s not enough to just write about these realities, to point at them from a distance. And besides, pointing doesn’t make for good poetry — we have to let the experience live inside us. We have to show up in the ways that we can — maybe that’s by taking to the streets, maybe it’s in the often less glamorous work of organizing, maybe it’s something else entirely. Writing and reading are ways to practice “being with,” and while insufficient on their own, I find them to be indispensable.
I’d be curious to hear some of your thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, ability, class, privilege, social/cultural background, gender, sexuality (and other identifiers) within the community as well as creating and maintaining safe spaces, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos” and/or disciplinary and/or institutional bounds?
Community is real, ongoing work, and it has to include as many different voices as possible, especially those who have been marginalized. I also think spaces for particular communities are crucial for individual and cultural survival, and it seems to me these spaces actually expand what’s possible in our larger communities. Of course, there’s a difference between a community and an institution, and for me, it all comes down to power and access. On that note, I’m particularly inspired by the radical work The Operating System is doing to change the culture of publishing and break down barriers. I couldn’t be happier that this book has found a home here.
About the Author
Brent Armendinger was born in Warsaw, NY, and studied at Bard College and the University of Michigan, where he received an Avery Hopwood Award in Poetry. He is the author of The Ghost in Us Was Multiplying (Noemi Press, 2015), a finalist for the California Book Award in Poetry, and two chapbooks, Undetectable (New Michigan Press, 2009) and Archipelago (Noemi Press, 2009). His poems and translations have appeared in many journals, including Anomaly, Asymptote, Aufgabe, Bloom, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Ghost Proposal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, LIT, Puerto del Sol, Volt, and Web Conjunctions. He is a recipient of residencies from Blue Mountain Center and Headlands Center for the Arts. Brent teaches creative writing at Pitzer College and lives in Los Angeles, where he is an organizer with the L.A. Tenants Union.