The Sensorium Shift of Immersion

A Conversation with James Lowell Brunton

OS Collaborator James Lowell Brunton discusses his new book, Opera on TV, out now from The Operating System.

[Image Description: Cover image of James Lowell Brunton discusses his new book, Opera on TV, out now from The Operating System. Artwork by Juan Kasari. Cover design Cover design by Elæ.]

Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?

James Lowell Brunton, author of Opera on TV, transguy, artist, teacher of critical theory and poetry.

Why are you a poet/writer/artist/creator?

Because I have to be. I’m not comfortable unless I’m working on or planning a creative project.

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 started using the word “poet” to describe my occupation around the time I started working on my poetry MFA. But lately I’ve come to rethink that, and I’m focused on the term “poiesis” — the act of bringing into being. I think this term more accurately describes what I feel compelled to do. And because I bring things into being via multiple mediums (words, drawings, and music), I’ve more recently begun to answer that “what are you” question with “artist.”

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)?

To extend on my answer to the last question, I think an artist is someone who brings something — an object, sound, feeling, idea — that didn’t exist before into being. For me, this is at once an isolated activity and a communal (cultural, social) one because the impetus to create comes from within and is an act of self-gratification, but I also want an audience/interlocutors for the finished product. I want other people to enjoy that product with me — to understand it, to get the same feeling from it, to ask questions of it and to take joy in those actions as I do.

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? Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?

I very rarely sit down to write poems with an idea in mind about a finished product. I know that if a group of poems make sense side by side, I’ll bring them together into a collection, but this is never a guarantee. The poems that make up Opera on TV were written during a series a major life transitions: finishing school, moving to a new state, the loss of a close family member, having my first child, and starting a new job/graduate school. I spent a lot of time alone with a sleeping baby in a quiet apartment, and I found myself contemplating a lot of abstract ideas about space, light, and mood, how these things affect our self-perception, how we craft our personal histories, and so forth. Many of the poems became very similar formally (prose blocks) and thematically, and it made sense to see them as a series of meditations. It surprised me how, despite their abstractions, these poems told specific stories about my relationships, about coming out in a particular historical moment, and other topics that felt important to me. So, I felt I had done justice to my subjects in a way that made it feel urgent for me to get these poems out into the world for others to see.

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/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, my writing practice is very much influenced by the work of Gertrude Stein and the idea of automatic writing. I don’t think that we can directly access the unconscious by typing nonsense, but I do think that, for me, making poems is a way to clear space for new ideas, and to do that, I need to just let those ideas surface without much intention. When I sit down to write, I take my pencil or put my fingertips to the typewriter keys and just write — it could be nonsense words, it could be descriptions of what I see, hear, smell around me, it could be a to-do list, but it is rarely anything that sounds immediately like a “poem.” I let those unconscious decisions, that stream of consciousness, set the stage for what might later become a poem once I find a rhythm or go back and look over the words later. I also write better, or more freely, after watching movies, because, I think, of that sensorium shift that being immersed in a film enables.

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.

I wrote the title poem, “Opera on TV,” the day after a trip to the movie theater where my wife and I had just seen a documentary about the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and we were both very disturbed by the images and the enormity of the event. There were ads at the theater for a few Met Opera live performances that were going to be streamed, and I remember the walk back to our car, and the stars and lit up signs, and how lovely everything was. I think the poem came out of that experience of witnessing something devastating and terrifying and being able to walk away — the documentary was like opera in that way, so the advertisements and the experience of the documentary sort of blended in my mind to create that title. I like the work that this title does for the book as a whole because many of the poems address this issue of witnessing versus directly experiencing and our sometimes troubling capacity for things like romanticization and nostalgia.

What does this particular work represent to you…as indicative of your method/creative practice? your history, mission, intentions, hopes, or plans?

This book represents a coming to terms with a lot of trauma I experienced around coming out as queer many years earlier, and it situates my understanding of that trauma in intellectual, historical, and political terms.

What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?

Opera on TV experiments with what a poem is and can do. It blends personal narrative, queer history, and critical theory in diverse forms.

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?

The best possible outcome for this book would be for it to find an audience. I want it to bring me closer to other creative, engaged people in queer and trans communities. I want it to start conversations that will energize other people to create and keep me energized to do the same.

Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism. 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.”

This book is very aware of having a specific audience. Queer people, people who read philosophy, people who think abstractly, people who have heard of Foucault are all perhaps more likely to “get” something out of this book. So, there is definitely an element of class privilege, in terms of access to education, that this book has to own. Several of the poems, especially in the first section, actually address some of these issues about who has access to and legitimacy within spaces such as the academy. But, of course, you don’t have to have read Foucault to think critically about history and politics or to think abstractly — rather, you have to have been in a social position that forces you to feel critical of the way things are. And I think the attitude, the irony, and the humor in many of the poems are more important than, say, a reference to another text, to their overall impact. I’m also writing about queerness in ways that aren’t designed to explain queerness to straight people, which I’m fine with.

About the Author

[Image Description: Image of James Brunton]

James Brunton’s poems and experimental writing appear in Denver Quarterly, Cincinnati Review, Hotel Amerika, and other journals. He is the author, with Russell Evatt, of The Future Is a Faint Song (Dream Horse Press, 2014). James teaches critical theory in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

About the Artist

ABOUT THE ARTIST Juan Kasari has a MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts, Time and Space Arts study programme, is a visual artist living and working in Helsinki.His works have recently been shown at Sinne gallery in Helsinki, Photographic gallery Hippolyte and MUU Gallery in Helsinki, Photographic center Peri in Turku, as well as several group exhibitions in Finland and abroad.

The reality around us is composed of random events, probabilities and intentional events. They are all complex phenomena, whether visible or invisible.We as humans exist in a no man’s land between things and meanings. New things and meanings emerge from the process of encounters and events around us. His installation works renders tangible states of isolation, transitoriness and ephemerality.The artworks are large abstract colour surfaces that avoid both the figurative idiom and narrativity. They are also in a constant state of change. The artificial and natural light, the layers of superimposed video projections and the viewer’s presence all play upon the gallery space and the works, giving rise to new changeable meanings.Kasari’s works are based on Mondrian’s idea of pure beauty that is devoid of figurative or narrative content. The projections employ primary colours and their combinations.In his artistic work, Juan Kasari explores the internal tensions of humanity and microcosmoses. His previous major solo shows (Gated Community and Real White Panthers) were about real-life closed communities. In his more recent exhibitions, Kasari’s visual vocabulary has become more abstract, yet addressing the same themes.

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The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System & Liminal Lab is an open access social practice experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and infrastructures founded and facilitated by Elæ Moss with an ever evolving global network of creative collaborators of all disciplines (and species).

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The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System & Liminal Lab is an open access social practice experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and infrastructures founded and facilitated by Elæ Moss with an ever evolving global network of creative collaborators of all disciplines (and species).