A Farm of Mismatched Parts | Getting Familiar with Johnny Damm :: an OS [re:con]versation
'The Science of Things Familiar’ captures “freeze frames” from the history of comic books, crime films, and blues music, all from the middle of the darkest century. Johnny Damm accents the pulpish poetics in both the visual poetry and the phonic milieu, experienced by the masses in each cheap genre made on the fly for everyone.” -Christian Bok
Today we talk to Johnny Damm, creator of ‘The Science of Things Familiar,’ published by The Operating System in February of 2017. Portions of the book appeared previously in Poetry, The Rumpus, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
The name of the book comes from a popular nineteenth century science textbook that claims to explain “the common phenomena of life.” The actual title of the textbook is A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, but on the spine of my copy, the title is shortened to Science of Things Familiar. For me, these “common phenomena” are music, film, and (comic) books. -Johnny Damm
Science of Things Familiar will challenge a lot of folks’ notion of where the edges of poetry begin and end. In your opinion — what’s a “poet”, anyway?
I just read Anne Carson on this subject: “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.”
Yes! And let’s throw in David Antin: “if robert lowell is a poet i don’t want to be a poet.”
Far better answers than I can give, but let me try to get a little more technical. Poet: A text-artist whose medium is language — with both “text” and “language” broadly defined.
Clunky, but that’s a definition for poet I’m willing to have applied. Any narrower of a definition — anything bringing the term closer to Lowell, I suppose — and I’d prefer to simply be thought of as “writer.”
What is the role of the writer/artist today? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the scholarly or creative community and beyond)?
There’s endless possible roles a writer could play, but I vote for social engagement.
Every statement is political, artistic or otherwise, but it occurs to me that the more interesting statements know they’re political.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these pieces (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. 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?
I start with the idea for a project before l begin to work on individual pieces. That being said, I originally considered Science of Things Familiar to be three different projects, three separate books. Somewhere along the line, I realized the projects were stronger — more ambitious and stranger — when read as a single work. Each project lent weight to the other, and they became something new. Let’s call it the Voltron effect.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write? Did you use any specifically in the production of this book or work within this book?
My method is to force together mismatched parts.
For the section “Encyclopedia of Failed Filmmakers,” one half concerns criticism, biography, film scripts, etc. of “failed” midcentury movie directors. The other half concerns an urban cou- ple who move to the rural Midwest to become organic farmers. The constraint I set for myself was that each half always has to remain in play, but they can never fully integrate or match up. The section offers an array of formal strategies to achieve this.
For “Your Favorite Song (Battle Stories),” the mismatched parts are the text and the image. The images are drawn from the visual sound effects of 50’s pulp war comics, and the text explores the racist foundations of the American music industry. The additional constraint for this section, and all the comics work I’ve done since, involves a stack of coverless, decaying comic books I was given a couple of years ago. I exclusively use these comics (all dating from 1952, for some reason) to make my comics.
What does this particular collection represent to you that might be indicative of your method/ creative practice, history, mission/intentions/hopes?
I have no desire to partition the creative from the critical or the verbal from the visual: I hope the book demonstrates this.
Would you like this work to be translated into other languages / do you hope that it reaches beyond our local geographies and communities? What would be the best possible outcome of a broadly expanded reach for this book? Do you think it’s legible across cultural lines?
Sure. This is very much an American book, concerning the way our national past overlays our national present, but I would hope that could be of international interest.
If someone was to find this book in a hundred years, or perhaps even further in the future, what would be the best possible outcome? Why?
They would read it. What more could I ask?
How do you (and do you) feel that poets and other creative people should consider the archive and their role in creating and preserving a (hi)story of their work and the context in which it was created? Do you, as a scholar and/or personally take an active role in documenting/recording not only the product of your creative practice (or that of others) but also the social, cultural, and other intersectional trappings of your process / life / experience? How or how not, why or why not, etc.
I don’t have a good answer for this. The concept of the archive plays a role in my work, but I’ve generally avoided considering its relevance to my work — whether that’s being responsible or not. My temptation is to say that the act of publishing is itself archival and that publishing conditions can represent a legible context. That might be enough for me at this moment in time.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particu- lar in what might be called “Civil Rights 2.0,”which continues to evolve around us. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
It’s crazy to consider that 113 years ago W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the Twen- tieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” and here we still are in the Twenty-First. White supremacy is the founding principle of our country, the house we all live in.
I’m a cis, white, straight man: I have privilege on top of privilege, and my voice certainly doesn’t require amplification. But what I hope I can offer, through research and production, is a little further exploration of this house.
We have to learn to see the invisible structures that enclose us before we can even consider dis- mantling them. That’s too lofty a goal for any single artist, particularly one with my privilege, but I’m all in for contributing to the larger project.