[re:con]versations :: OF SOUND MIND :: process and practice with IMPROPER MAPS’ Alex Crowley
In 2016 The Operating System initiated the project of publishing print documents from musicians and composers, beginning with Everybody’s Automat and this year’s chapbook series, all of which fall under the OF SOUND MIND moniker, and all of which are written by creative practitioners who work in both poetry and music. I asked each of them a series of questions about the balance of these two disciplines in their practice, which I’ll share with you here.
Please consider this template, approaching The OS’s key concerns of personal and professional practice/process analysis combined with questions of social and cultural responsibility, as an Open Source document — questions to ask yourselves or others about process and the role of poetry today.
In this conversation, I talk to Alex Crowley about his work and his debut chapbook on The OS Press, Improper Maps.
– Series Editor / OS Managing Editor Lynne DeSilva-Johnson
Labels and titles make me really wary, though it’s also obvious why they’re useful and necessary. This gets into another inside-or-outside the diorama type discussion — how labels and titles are employed to include and exclude, how they narrow or broaden the parameters of a debate. I don’t believe in any kind of ideal Platonic conception of what a poet or artist or musician might be. To be one of those things do you have to be highly technically trained? What about autodidacts (or “outsider” artists)? Do you have to make a thing that abides by specific rules or forms? I have to be willing to keep these categories broad and open, in a democratic sense, whether or not I like what a particular artist does or makes. Let’s talk about the art and see where it leads us, especially if it makes us really uncomfortable. I’m not always particularly comfortable with doing this (I can be a dreadful music snob), but I see no alternative and I need to be challenged. Otherwise, why are we doing any of this?” — Alex Crowley
When did you decide you were a poet (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I don’t really identify as a “poet” or label myself that. it feels limiting or misleading in some sense. it’s only a part of who I am and writing poems is one particular thing that I do. for some people it seems like it’s a large part of their identity and life-focus, and that’s great, but I’ve never felt that way. poems happen to be something I was drawn to and am continually learning how to make.
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the poetry community and beyond)?
Observer? Commenter? Occasional participant? General interloper? My actual day job — book reviews editor — puts me in somewhat of a gatekeeper role that I have some difficulty reconciling with my politics, and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to be a good citizen and a responsible member of the various, shifting communities I exist in / belong to. If I can get people who weren’t previously interested in POETRY to get into it with whatever intensity, that’s amazing. I was one of those people, so it’s not like some far-fetched abstraction. Also, if I can promote books that I think are worth people’s attention, cool! I take these responsibilities seriously even though I tend to have a hard time taking things seriously.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (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?
This was always a unified work, so in the end the struggle was mostly about order.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written? How or how not?
I do a lot of serialized writing and the drive there is often to exhaust a form or conceit or concept and see what happens. Once I got on a roll with these dioramas, I ended up with 60-something of them and these ones in the book were the experiments that worked. If you have a form that works for you, you should be able to throw anything that’s in your head into them without losing anything. These are fairly straightforward prose poems, though I had rules I was working with to produce them. At this point I don’t really remember what the rules were, but I did have them. (I always have rules and end up breaking them one way or another.) Some time after I finished the bulk of these I tried to write more, but they weren’t the same; I wasn’t thinking the same way as I had been, or I guess about the same phenomena that ended up becoming themes in this book. I wrote prose poems before these and I will continue to write them, but none of these other poems will be “dioramas.”
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 (poems, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
The title comes from the line “Consult the proper maps.” in Diorama 22. These dioramas are all maps to something — a mindstate, a feeling, a meditation — without being so in the most obvious way visually. Maps are a major element autobiographically, or in my own self-mythology. I’ve always been into geography, I love maps as art, and I’ve always had atlases and things like that around (I also waste an ungodly amount of time dicking around on Google maps). A good deal of these were also written while on a cross-country road trip with Keara Driscoll (my girlfriend/partner/accomplice), so altogether these bear some resemblance to an “improper” map and record of an actual journey.
What does this particular collection of poems represent to you
…as indicative of your method/creative practice?
…as indicative of your history?
…as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
In hindsight, these poems are clearly an attempt to work out elements of my own story, the creation of my “self.” They’re also a record of me processing my environment at the time of writing. I am both in the diorama and observing the diorama. That’s the history side, as far as I understand it myself. Practice-wise, these poems are an excellent example of how I work. I rarely write one-off poems, instead doing a lot of serialized work. There was never a concrete checklist for what elements a diorama poem had to contain, but I could feel the ones that just didn’t fit, that were lacking something significant or weren’t risking anything. The ones that never made it this far were just existing, not living. And in terms of living, I think the potential musicality of the prose poem gets overlooked a lot; I wanted these poems to have some measure of that and I think I achieved it.
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?
I got turned on to Lisa Robertson and David Markson at the New School and reading them just flipped how I understood what poetry could be, what writing could be in general. My academic background is in the social sciences, not really in literature, so engaging with writers who were transforming how history, sociology, visual art, even science could be conveyed made an immediate impact. The writings of the Situationist International have been an inspiration for even longer, from back when I was an undergrad. It was theory, critique, and — to some extent — praxis delivered in a way that was wholly unfamiliar and radical when compared with the academic/scholarly (which tends to be a shorthand for dry, lifeless writing) nature of so much else I was reading at that impressionable age. I think a lot of what I do is still some sort of movement in that direction (of making a radical impression and forging some kind of radical praxis, so that I’m not just writing into the void), something I’m always thinking about and working through.
Talk about the specific headspace of being a musician / composer / performer — when and how do you feel you enter a space of consciousness in which “sound” or “music” is the dominant sense?
I’m not sure I ever leave that headspace; it seems to be primary, if not primal. I think sonic patterns in the broader, more abstract sense precede any specific patterns of language. At the same time that all people have this sense, not all have this capability, even if it’s nurtured or cultivated. For example, I love paintings and other visual art, but I’m dreadful at drawing, I can’t do it for shit (and I even took drawing classes when I was in high school and whatnot). Many people aren’t musically inclined and a lot of them write poems! That said, when I encounter new poetry, new writing, if there’s no music, or if I don’t like the music that a piece possesses or exudes, that’s like a first strike against it. That piece has to do a lot more now to win me over. And by “music” I mean a lot of different things, not just does it have a recognizable meter or something (in a lot of cases, that kind of overly formal approach is a major turn-off). Music is life, so a poem has to have its music.
Do you feel that you are ever unaware of sound? (How) does your relationship to sound/music inform and/or affect and/or change other parts of your life / day / experience?
I rarely feel like I’m unaware of sound, which also raises questions about what it means to be “aware” in the first place. That’s a hard word to define, in the same way that consciousness is something we have extreme difficulty defining (I’ve been reading a lot of stuff on AI lately). On a less philosophical level I simply enjoy listening as a form of observation. I used to always walk around with headphones on, but I very rarely do that anymore, especially outdoors. I tend to get freaked when there’s a lack of sound. I grew up near major roads and the hospital in my hometown, so I’m accustomed to the white noise of urban spaces: cars, sirens, the occasional helicopter in the middle of the night. To me, the absence of sound is a danger warning, like there’s a predator in the woods and all the other creatures have gone silent.
Do you consider yourself equally musician/composer/poet? Are there other equally important disciplines, influences, labels or other words you’d want to call our attention to that we might not know that you feel are important in understanding your creative practice?
If we didn’t get asked “what do you do” and force ourselves to fit into easily consumable disciplinary categories, what would you like your title to be, if anything?
Labels and titles make me really wary, though it’s also obvious why they’re useful and necessary. This gets into another inside-or-outside the diorama type discussion — how labels and titles are employed to include and exclude, how they narrow or broaden the parameters of a debate. I don’t believe in any kind of ideal Platonic conception of what a poet or artist or musician might be. To be one of those things do you have to be highly technically trained? What about autodidacts (or “outsider” artists)? Do you have to make a thing that abides by specific rules or forms? I have to be willing to keep these categories broad and open, in a democratic sense, whether or not I like what a particular artist does or makes. Let’s talk about the art and see where it leads us, especially if it makes us really uncomfortable. I’m not always particularly comfortable with doing this (I can be a dreadful music snob), but I see no alternative and I need to be challenged. Otherwise, why are we doing any of this?
Describe in more detail the relationship between music and language in your life and practice. How and when are these discrete influences / practices and how/when are they interconnected? How do they influence each other? Do they ever not?
All my answers are starting to feel like they’re saying the same thing and one is getting lost in the other. This brings me back to the exhaustive quality of serial writing — is each diorama a slightly different way of saying the same thing, like Cubism is the closest we can get to understanding an entity that could see in 4 spatial dimensions.
In terms of your written or text based work, do you “hear” it, speak it out, hear its rhythms, before you write or as you write and/or before you perform? Do you ever memorize your texts / treat them more like a score or sheet music?
My poems tend to come together after I get a line (or two) and start feeling things out, finding how the line flows and what its rhythms are. Each one is different and unfolds in its own way, though I do get certain rhythms or meters stuck in my head and I’ll write to those somewhat un- or sub-consciously before going through and tinkering with this or that. Tone and texture of course are also really important to the language I use, but that tends to come as I start to tinker with lines. Like, if I’m playing guitar, I’ll fiddle with a riff and then as it comes together I’ll mess with levels of distortion or some other effect (delay, phase shift, whatever) and let it all start feeding back on itself, let it grow a bit, tighten up the structure. Should this be a chord here or single notes? How does one or another work rhythmically, where’s the ebb and flow? Is this song going to follow some kind of pop structure or is there something else going on? This all feels weirdly obvious as I write it down, but I really don’t know if this is how other people think or not. I’m sure a lot of artists are much more precise about certain particularities than I am.
Talk specifically about how your musicianship/relationship to sound informed and/or influenced this manuscript in particular, whether overtly or less directly.
I wonder about this constantly and really don’t have a good answer. When I write a poem I need the poem’s language music to set the atmosphere/mood, to mark points of emphasis, to direct the action whether it’s an obvious narrative or not. A song, particularly one that doesn’t have lyrics, or intelligible lyrics if that’s your jam, needs to convey some kind of “emotional meaning” (and I’m leaving that open to be defined broadly, and maybe defining that meaning is what every artist is doing to some extent? if anything has to be about anything). The biggest difference between writing music and writing poems is that for me the former is collaborative as a band and the latter is collaborative in later stages closer to the edit, after the bulk of the germinating work has been done. And depending on where you want to draw these lines, any distinction ends up being rather slight.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. 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.”
The “we” is a loaded term in this question, because given my privileges and position I don’t — and can’t — come at this from the same angle as a lot of my peers and acquaintances in the poetry and publishing worlds. The mainstream publishing industry has severe demographic problems, though there are signs that the fringes are relatively healthy, even thriving. For those of us with various measures of privilege, we simply have to stop and listen. It’s not really any different than what’s going on in American (and Western) society in general. People with privilege and power want to retain it and exclude others from sharing and participating. So to be radical means acting in ways that don’t reinforce and reproduce these severe power and privilege imbalances. There aren’t really prescribed ways of doing this, it’s all an ongoing social experiment. But if I fail in some regard, I have to show some humility and acknowledge it and learn from what I did. I’m sure even this statement I’m making right now exposes blind spots I have, but things’ll be worked out eventually once the socialist reeducation camps are fully functioning.
PRAISE FOR IMPROPER MAPS:
“Improper Maps strikes a balance between the study of our modern life and our active and ever-changing place inside the study. Through the individual and disordered “dioramas” we are both inside and outside an “internet k-hole of uploads” and “floor to ceiling treatments of a fragile psychology.” These poems perform our user experience (as consumers, as tourists, as voyeurs, as dreamers) with skill, while still managing to reconsider what it means to be an ideal user, navigating the burden of its consequences with heart.”
— Jackie Clark
“What are the coordinates for time, space, eggs, homunculi, and shattered lamps? Can we GPS secondhand clothing? How to triangulate the distance between mycelia, car alarms, and a pink lawn flamingo — “exhibits we become by simply living”? Alex Crowley’s Improper Maps — an atlas charting the mind’s architectures — invokes these interrogative dérives. It’s like Joseph Cornell on wheels: immediate, uninterrupted, and yet somehow always zig-zagging. These dioramas serve as a cheat sheet for metaphysics, a curated assemblage of miniature 3D texts, a record of ‘a second’s loss of object permanence.’”
— Claire Donato
“Reading Alex Crowley’s Improper Maps is like stepping into a kaleidoscope (slide show, evidence file, national park, curio shop) where you’re Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon watcher — except this isn’t a prison, it’s your vacation, and you’re not watching people, you’re watching visions turn into Vision, images into imagination, “a pink lawn flamingo signed by Donald Featherstone” into “a wash of bent pentagrams.” These poems-as-dioramas blur the lines, not only between what’s seen and what’s scenery — what’s awkward and what’s miraculous! — but also between reality as we find it and the aesthetic judgments we make about it. “We’ve a vested interest in exchange” they remind us (which is the nexus of value, so the nexus empathetic possibility/entanglement), deflecting and reflecting us as we gape from our distance. “Come for a visit,” they call us, “Get close.”” –Matt Hart
Alex Crowley is a reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and a cofounder of Brooklyn’s MENTAL MARGINALIA Reading Series. He was the recipient of the first annual Paul Violi Award from the New School. Poems and reviews have appeared in Phantom Limb, TLR, Forklift Ohio, BORT Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Handsome, HARIBO, and elsewhere. He is the guitarist/vocalist for the band Warmth and you can find him on Twitter @a_p_crowley
Originally published at www.theoperatingsystem.org.