RUSTY TALK WITH JACOB WREN
Print Screen is a fascinating series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center that pairs acclaimed authors with films that have influenced them. This Spring they feature Jacob Wren talking about director Abbas Kiarostami’s seminal work Close-Up.
Wren’s new book Rich And Poor (Bookthug) travels through the mind of a disenfranchised man who decides to kill a billionaire as a political act. The book is told through both the eyes of the assassin and the rich man. Kiarostami’s Close-Up is a fictional film about actual events with the people who experienced the events, thus. Both Wren's book and Kiarostami's film are driven by unreliable characters and events that ultimately play upon the idea of what is art and what is truth in art.
I recently had the chance to talk about his new book, art, politics, literary cliques, and film.
Jacqueline Valencia: I literally just finished reading Rich And Poor and re-watched Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up as well. What brought you to do this for the Lincoln Center?
Jacob Wren : Rachel Rakes invited me to be part of this series I’ve never seen, but seems really awesome.
JV: There is an unreliable narrator in the movie and in your book. What I enjoyed about that is that the man pretending to be the filmmaker and in turn the filmmaker making a movie about that it’s a duality seen in your book, Rich And Poor. These two works explore duality.
JW: It was only when I finished Rich And Poor that it became so clear to me that there were two unreliable narrators. I went back and forth between them. But I do think there is some sense in which all my writing is about paradox or embodies many paradoxes of living that makes it clear that there can’t be a reliable narrator. We’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives. Philosophizing and trying to theorize about life is a kind of unreliable activity.
Rich And Poor is a book about many things, but one of the things it’s about is what we do about capitalism. How can we change it in some way, or can we or is there any possibility, or what are the possibilities? Capitalism seems so overwhelming. Any idea you have to change it or defeat it one can’t be sure it will work. Also, capitalism seems to be able to absorb so much of the opposition. It takes that opposition and makes it a part of capitalism and you can feel it’s hopeless.
I think this puts us in a position of being unreliable, or unknowing, or unsure.
JV: It’s a pretty circular thing because once you make a call to action it gets easily appropriated without one realizing it until it may be too late.
JW: Yeah or it might change things, but not exactly the things you want to change. You’re entering a very unpredictable space.
JV: I noticed the line: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum from these streets.” It’s from one of my favourite films, Taxi Driver.
JW: * laughs * Yeah.
JV: What inspired you to write Rich And Poor besides the idea of capitalism because this reads a lot like the characters in Taxi Driver (Travis Bickel, the disenfranchised taxi driver and Palantine, the politician).
JW: I would say that the origins of Rich And Poor were reading David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years and a lot of the discourse around Occupy Wall Street and this refocusing of leftist attention on the one percent. Also, how capitalism became less of an abstract.
I was raised to think that capitalism was this abstract post-modern machine, in that Foucault sense, invaded all of our discourse and our ways of understanding the world totally. Capitalism may be that, but it’s also rich people getting richer. And refocusing capitalism on the idea of rich people getting richer and well with all the rich people I was thinking, why don’t we just kill them? It’s probably just a few hundred or a few thousand people. Why not the French Revolution?
This unnamed protagonist who decides to kill one specific billionaire—it’s a classic cinematic image for the loner who wants to do something good in the world, but maybe where we question him is in Roberto DeNiro in Taxi Driver.
Jacqueline: There are many layers in watching a film. We have the film that is presented to the viewer and the film that continues playing in the viewer’s brain after they’ve left the theatre. This is one of things that really got me about Kiarostami’s Close-Up. I forgot who says it, but the line that stuck with me was: “Spite is a veil to conceal art.” Some of the passages in your book also stand out in much the same way.
My point is, I wonder if Kiarostami had that in mind, the idea of the film as an extended part in a viewer’s mind.
JW: Yes. Close-Up is such a film about art and what power it has in the world or what power it doesn’t have in the world. And the way art is or isn’t a lie or is or isn’t truth.
It’s a Tolstoy quote: “Ill will is the veil that covers art.”
JV: The unnamed billionaire in Rich And Poor starts a poetry foundation. He forms it as a kind of conceit or way for him to find out what poetry or art is. And sometimes he gets it and sometimes he doesn’t, especially when it comes to activism. It’s really interesting especially with current controversies within the poetry community. What did you want to explore in including that?
JW: I would say all of my books are somehow about the relationship between art and politics. There are positive and negative relationships there. This is one cynical relationship between art and politics.
JV: How about art and politics within Close-Up?
JW: That’s fascinating because you have the con man who is somehow using the power of art to gain something. He’s trying to gain symbolically a sense of self in the world and a sense of power. Then there is the financial aspect to it too where he’s trying to get money.
JV: Do you really think he was trying to get money though?
JW: No, I mean, he probably wasn’t out to get money. He does need money. He’s using everything at his disposal. And he is an autodidact and I’m also an autodidact.
The politics in Close-Up are very complex and very paradoxical.
JV: That’s why it leaves you still thinking after you’ve left the film. This goes back to your book. I think that after a reader reads a book, like a viewer finishes a film, there’s another book inside the readers brain. So as I read your book and I do a bit of activism, it seeps in there and resonates. There’s a big aspect of activism in your book. What do you think will be the next activist wave in poetry or literary culture?
JW: I’m really bad at predicting the future. Whenever I try and predict the future I am always wrong. Definitely we are living in a kind of golden age of protest in the moment. There’s been an enormous degree of powerful effective protest all around the world in the past ten years. Not quite sure when it started. This protest also connected to the fact that the injustices, let’s say economic inequality, are not only becoming greater but more visible and more obvious.
I grew up in the eighties and I think of shows like Lifestyles of The Rich And Famous where this kind of wealth was cast in a positive way. Maybe that can still happen now, but I think people would be more disgusted about it now than they were then when it was romanticized or sensationalized and made for pure entertainment.
JV: I think that nowadays people aren’t listening to the people who are doing the real work out there. I think poetry is very political by nature, but through all the cliques and the award-world spectacle, we don’t hear or get to read beyond what is told to us. There are so many writers that don’t get heard for various reasons (racism and sexism). That’s my biggest problem with the world of literature.
JW: I always think the art institutions, the publishers, maybe who are now called the gatekeepers ... what am I trying to say? The most political work is often not the most successful, sadly.
JV: I guess what I’m trying to say is that we romanticize what we do get to hear, but don’t hear the rest of the people out there. Not everyone is getting their say.
JW: There’s a lot of people out there with a vested interest in keeping the status quo in place. When you have a desire to change the status quo and you don’t see a change, you’re pushing uphill. That’s why it’s so important and that’s why it’s so difficult.
JV: Do you think Rich And Poor is a political work?
JW: Yeah. I mean, almost to a fault. It’s very obviously about politics in complex ways.
JV: It feels and reads like an activist work or a manifesto of sorts, which I enjoy and why I mention whether you think it is political or an activist work.
JW: I hope so, but there’s a danger in activist art to become simplistic. I struggle so much to do something that is both activist and political, but still full of paradox resonance, questions, and being unsure and see if you can have both at the same time.
JACOB WREN'S MOST RECENT BOOK
Hoa Nguyen is the author of As Long As Trees Last, Red Juice, and the forthcoming Violet Energy Ingots (all from Wave Books). She teaches poetics at Ryerson University’s Chang School, in Miami University’s MFA program, at the Milton Avery School for Fine Arts at Bard College, and in a long-running, private workshop. Hoa can be found on the web at http://www.hoa-nguyen.com.
W]hat matters to me in poetry is when poetry risks saying something and addresses the complicated mess that is modernity.
When you are inspired by the personal? Is there a way you go about writing your poetry with it? Is there a process whereby you try to be conscious of the subject you are writing about or do you allow it to flow?
Hoa Nguyen: I guess I do both. I'm writing simultaneously about my mother's life and about Vietnam as a place. Vietnam and Vietnamese women tend to be portrayed as a stereotype and a one-dimensional monolith in the North American imagination (both often serving to center European experiences)—I'm writing in response to these conditions.
One way I get into my process for this series in particular is to work with the I Ching. It also involves many source texts including a small arsenal of Vietnamese folk tales, myths, and children stories—and research.
JV: On social media you're very outspoken when you see an injustice and are willing to take a public stand. It's fearless. What drives you to that fearless place? What matters to you in poetry?
HN: I've always been a champion of and rooted for "the underdog"—probably from my experiences with xenophobia, stereotypes, and ordinary racism. Maybe I'm a bit of a fighter by nature. Nothing makes me see red faster than an injustice.
I've come to think that this, my temperament and resilience and willingness to address things head-on, helped to ensure my survival—that I managed to persevere in part due to sheer grit, despite the disadvantaged circumstance of class and race.
I guess in a related way, what matters to me in poetry is when poetry risks saying something and addresses the complicated mess that is modernity. In poetry, I do not care for the cutesy or exploitive sentimentality or ironic posturing or empty abstraction.
JV: So much in your collection Red Juice spoke to me. Motherhood, contrasts of parental homelands with the American experience, etc. One poem in particular felt like a bridge of childhood and adulthood (“Untouched Bubble Gum Me”). You experiment with experience in it, a playfulness mixed with a keen analysis in just a few words. What excites you about poetry today as an expressive and experimental medium?
HN: Thanks—I'm fond of that poem, too. I love when poems disrupt expectations, are dissonant, cut and bend in unexpected ways, are sonically interesting, and allow me as reader to participate in the meaning-making of the poem.
JV: What are you working on now?
HN: I'm trying to work myself out of a stall on my linked narrative project (mostly that looks like avoidance, ha ha)—and writing each week in the workshop I have run for the last 17 years. Right now, I'm writing through the collected poems of Frank O'Hara (we are in the Lunch Poems section of the work: so great). I'm also prepping to write through the poems of John Wieners—so lots of related reading: essays, his letters and journals, etc.
Meanwhile I'm preparing for a couple of talks, one at Hamilton College, where I'm revising and updating a talk I gave at Naropa's Jack Kerouac School in February that Bhanu Kapil wrote about here. The other talk is on pedagogy of teaching poetry to be delivered in Seattle for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry. And some consulting work in there: reviewing a graduate thesis and a poet's rough manuscript.
JV: If you weren't a writer or a poet, what you like to do?
HN: I think I would be a healer in the Green Witch tradition and continue to read tarot. As someone who is drawn to and has a knack for teaching, I would probably also run workshops for both pursuits.
HOA NGUYEN'S MOST RECENT BOOK
RED JUICE: POEMS 1998-2008
Wave Books, 2014
Description from the publisher:
Red Juice represents a decade of poems written roughly between 1998 and 2008, previously only available in small-run handmade chapbooks, journals, and out-of-print books. This collection of early poems by Vietnamese-American Hoa Nguyen showcases her feminist Ecopoetics and unique style, all lyrical in the post-modern tradition. Nguyen's poems are swift, conversational, playful, funny, angry, fully present and self-aware.
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