Catherine Kasper - Anatomy of a structurally layered society presented as theater; a cityscape as a kind of revelation of a lifestyle

Catherine Kasper, Notes from the Committee, Noemi Press, 2009.


"NOTES FROM THE COMMITTEE offers a mental movement through a cityscape as a kind of revelation of a lifestyle. Offering a world at once very unlike and all too much like our own, a city hovering very much on the edge of itself, these putative notes lull one along into some very odd spaces. There are traces of Schulz's Street of Crocodiles here, Borges's Tlon, and Coover's The Grand Hotels of Joseph Cornell, but these crisscrossing influences add up to a wholly unique and original work" - Brian Evenson

"Read this book – it’s awesome. An anatomy of a structurally layered society presented as theater. The pleasure you’ll get from reading this will make you feel guilty." - John Dermot Woods

"I first came across Catherine Kasper’s writing in Caketrain. It was by happenstance that I found it while flipping through a copy of Volume 6 at Powell's Books in Portland. Somehow my thumb stuck on a piece called “The City.” As an urban planner by vocation, I was intrigued by the first few lines, which seemed to call out to me personally.
“We like to call our city a town in order to emphasize our fond-
ness, our affection for its concrete divisions of insulation and ven-
tilation, its labyrinthine systems of bureaucracy, and its refutation
of human character

The above passage is typical of the dry wit, creative diction, and attentiveness to sound in Kasper’s NOTES from the COMMITTEE, of which “The City” is the first entry. NOTES contains twenty-one pieces of flash fiction and poetry, which range from six lines to a little over three pages. With the exception of two list-style poems, the pieces are justified and indented like prose.
Although the publisher classifies NOTES as fiction, much of the collection reads like poetry. Even in the pieces that stretch out over two or more pages we find alliteration, oblique rhymes, enjambment, and metaphors. Some of the writing feels metrical, despite the text being justified throughout. Even many of the line breaks seem to work like line breaks in poetry.
Clearly, NOTES is a different kind of writing. The book straddles an imaginary fence between genres as it takes the reader on a tour of a cityscape that seems at once familiar and alien. In “The Country,” NOTES blends nostalgia and satire in addressing current events, including our own economic and health care crises:
“In the heart of our city is a well-maintained parcel of green-col-
ored land, dotted with specimen trees, and planted with deep beds
of wildflowers and mowed hay. After the last surge in building,
followed predictably by the last depression––one accompanied by
a plethora of abandoned shops, strip malls, apartments, condo-
miniums, and office buildings––a committee was established to
do a bit of planning to pacify those recently laid-off without pen-
sions or health insurance. It was remembered from ancient myths
that a great deal of distraction was achievable by sending citizens
to the country
…”
“The Country” does not stop there. The narrator also points an accusatory finger. But who’s really to blame - the market? government? consumers? That, of course, remains an open question:
“In the end, the Membership of Merchants didn’t see the use of
investing more than the minimum amount possible, as was their
budget for every single expenditure. Indeed, this policy led to
the manufacture of artificial and unappetizing foods, the replace-
ment, not only of the country, but natural areas with: factories,
offices, board members’ elaborate estates, and land held for exclu-
sive use for the Membership’s recreational meetings.”

Where “The Country” provides an aerial view of a soulless city, “The Doll Makers” magnifies and dissects the power structure that created the city. “The Doll Makers” reads like a surreal prophecy, an Orwellian vision of a future military-industrial complex. Here we visit a factory run by an army of suited men, the high priests (the “chosen ones”) of consumerism. They manufacture dolls in a windowless factory. No one ever sees the raw materials arrive at the factory, and no one ever sees the dolls leave; though we are told there are several doll varieties, including:
an enchanting whimsi-
cal child whose future, like gender, is a designation imposed upon
it by future owners
.”
Kasper is at her best when she deconstructs things and shines her halogen flashlight on the absurd. In one of this collection’s two short list-style poems, the truth is illuminated in this way. The title of “Phrases from Meetings Taken Out of Context and Arranged Here to Evoke Alternative Meanings” speaks for itself.
The overall structure of NOTES works well for its theme of absurdist surrealism. The table of contents, with its curiously illogical numbering of sections and subsections, reads like a warped code of ordinances. Even the typesetting enhances the book; for example, “Procedure I: Certified Documents” and “Procedure II: Compendium,” are set in a small, sans serif typeface, making those sections appear more official.
“Procedure I” describes a kind of administrative purgatory. We can almost hear the ghost of an evil city clerk explaining the city’s zoning permit (or dog registry) procedure:
Procedure 1 requires two to seven weeks for completion. It begins with any
document that must be certified to be an actual document. The document
is taken by hand to the document certifiers, unless it is sent by mail, in
which case, this adds an indefinite two or three weeks of extra time. The
document must be handed off without any words; if words are spoken inad-
vertently they will be ignored, as will hand signals and facial expressions
.”
Where “Procedure I” puts bureaucrats on trial, “Theater Spectacular” takes aim at everyone. It begins with a description of artists making things from recycled materials (“animal bones,” “ping-pong balls,” “painted fishing floats”, etc.), and then it deftly expands into the realm of international trade and labor issues. This piece plays on the West’s suspicion of China, while reminding us that America, too, has a checkered past (and present) and we are all complicit.
“Those who have never visited the Theater Spectacular are
forced to confront a plethora of rumors: that the building is com-
posed of sponge cake and goose down and operated by orphaned
children, that its pulleys and steel cables were hoisted by the same
laborers who constructed the Brooklyn Bridge, that the suspen-
sion mechanism is composed of African elephant intestines bound
in threads spun by silkworms in China
…”
One could easily burnout on this sort of thing. Fortunately, Kasper knows when to ease off the throttle and work the torque in a lower gear. “The Library,” which is part aubade/part polemic, begins like a bedtime story:
“At one time there were libraries situated in every minor town-
ship affiliated with our city. These were fascinating places where
one magically became anonymous just by walking through the
door.”

I found “The Library” to be the most stirring piece in the collection. It is not about bricks and mortar; no, it is much larger in scope:
“…Disallowed public funds, libraries were
gradually extinguished, disappearing until there was only one
library left. Given that all books were deemed “derivative,” this
library has only one book as its foundational holding; this book
is said to contain all books
.”
NOTES has some light moments as well. In “The Committee Concerning Time,” “a select group of citizens” fears that the future is coming up too fast, so they form a committee to slow the passing of time:
"Into the late hours of the night,
each member would take pains to list the various mechanisms
that had been employed in robbing them personally of time…”
I appreciated the placement of “The Committee Concerning Time” near the end of the book, as it serves as a pause, encouraging the reader to consider whether time is indeed running out; whether we have time to save our selves from ourselves.
In the final piece, “Incremental Dissolution,” the narrator describes the final downfall of civilization. In heart-wrenching detail, we hear about the incremental loss of natural resources, the contamination of drinking water supplies, the rationing of life-support systems through market pricing, and the inevitable paralysis of individual expression and thought. But all is not lost. Kasper offers a glimmer of hope in the final line, the third to last word to be precise, just in the nick of time.
Overall, NOTES is well crafted and provocative. Kasper challenges our thinking in terms of accepted literary forms and, more importantly, she questions how we plan our cities and live our lives in an increasingly dysfunctional world. She does not offer any solutions, but she asks all the right questions." - Scot Siegel


"How did you approach this book’s construction? Did one piece organically grow from another or did you plan and conceive of it as a whole?
- I found myself writing sections down whenever I had time. As time is a very spare commodity in my life, that reality tends to dictate the arc of each section. It was only later that I sat down with those sections that I had written that I began to see the work as a whole, and then, to write further sections that seemed to be needed. In the editing stages, I wanted to preserve the idea of “notes,” of a document that would always be incomplete and whose text was a comment on what was not included, as much as what was in this “document.”
I’m interested in the locale of this book’s composition (structure of place seems at the core of the narrative of Notes). What specific places do you connect with writing this book?
- I am interested in urban architecture, in how cities come to be built, as well as city-states. The more I learn about the process, the more I am baffled that any building remains standing, or that any institution is able to continue, given the real inner workings of its systems or lack of systems. This book is borne from that, perhaps naïve, sense of astonishment.
I know that you have a particular interest in the interaction of the visual and the written (we’ve worked together on our own image/text project). The book seems very much inspired by objects and their arrangement. Are you trying to create a physical structure out of the abstraction of words in Notes?
- This is much better said than I could say. I love text and image works, and I have a great admiration for visual artists. I also would like to spend much more time drawing and involved in visual arts activities. I imagine this gets into my writing.
This book was written (presumably) at a time when the abuses of authority affected us quite immediately. While in many ways the narrative criticizes (even mocks) those systems of power, it also seems to celebrate and even enjoy the absurdity of these systems. Assuming my reading is a fair one, do you see this as a political gesture, a way of mitigating the threat of a system by enjoying it for what it is? (This is a truly funny book, sometimes in the vein of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, particularly in the sections called “procedures.”)
- I’m pleased you understood the dark humor here, which seems integral to the world we live in. This book was actually written five years ago, when the systems of power in our country were revealing their particular incapacities and horrors. The book clearly examines all institutions, all Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy. At this point in my life, it is sad to see that most institutions and governments don’t really work through design, hard work, and dedication alone, but through default, through accident. As human beings we have a kinship with absurdity, since if we looked straight into the truth of what we do, the reality would be terrifying.
Much of your published work is poetry, but this is an extended work of fiction. Do you find that you work in different “modes” when writing verse versus prose? What effect has writing Notes had on your subsequent writing?
- I’ve written fiction all my life, only most of it is published in small chapbooks and literary journals, since the fiction I write is what others call: experimental. Just recently, a chapbook of my short stories, Hovering, was published in 2008 by Paul Rosheim’s Obscure Publications. I don’t think of myself as a poet or fiction writer, but as a writer, and for me, the work itself dictates the genre.
Reading Notes, especially “The City” chapter, I kept wanting to watch a film adaptation of the work. Would visual representation ruin the “Theater Spectacular” or “Diorama Alley”?
- Although I personally enjoy the all the sounds of the language itself, a visual representation seems like a wonderful idea to me. Certainly films like those of the Brothers Quay, and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari are also at the heart of this work, like the film Brazil, that you mention, as well as the fiction of Kafka, Dubravka Ugrešić, Calvino, and Borges.
If asked to describe this very complex chapbook in a couple of sentences, I might write: “Notes from the Committee is an anti-hermetic manifesto buried in the narrative of a fearful and stricture-bound municipality. From inside of this anatomy comes a voice asking for free, greedy gasps of carelessly polluted air.” How does that work for you?
- It’s curious to me that you see it as “complex,” since I haven’t thought of it as that. It’s a manifesto that calls for the will to dissemble and/or refashion the bureaucracies we’ve made instead of perpetuating senseless and often inhumane systems. For example, we’ve all known about the consequences of poisoning the earth since at least as early as Rachel Carson’s famous study and book (Silent Spring) from the 1950s. Still, people like to ignore the truth until they’re absolutely forced to, or until it’s too late, even though so much damage could be prevented. Whether that’s due to greed or laziness or a will for ignorance I don’t know. The voice of this book is amazed that others have given up the desire and the right to breathe unpolluted air." - Interview with John Dermot Woods

" Hi, Catherine. Please tell our readers a little about yourself and your primary interests as a writer.
- As for my background, I have traditional training in canonical literature, but also love non-canonical texts, graphic novels, book arts and alternative lit. I’m interested in the areas of science and literature, the visual arts, (including typography and letterpress printing), architecture, cityscapes, and language in all its manifestations. I tend to pick up and read whatever catches my interest at the time.
I really like the structure of NOTES with its architecture of "City" and "Country" and the twisted bylaws, procedures, administrators, and subjects that inhabit this warped world you've created; it is a strange world that looks all too familiar. I also appreciate the way you apply the diction and syntax of bureaucracy, the way the language turns against itself in revealing the white elephants in the room. How would you describe "the big idea" behind the book, and what inspired it?
- There was no “big idea,” and I think I rarely, if ever, work from one. Usually, as with this book, I write a few sections of “something,” and as I edit and revise, I figure out more of what is needed to expand it. Writing is a much more organic process for me. I’m interested in uncertainty and the unknown, the subconscious and the unexpressed. Certainly, I was influenced at the time by the political situation, by political double-talk and manipulation, and by my own experiences as a worker in this country, one who has held a vast number of occupations.
The prose poems (if that's what we should call them) in NOTES lean toward absurdist surrealism. The writing is far different than the poems in field stone, which are much more introspective and, at times, lyrical. Which mode do you prefer? What was your writing process for NOTES?
- I was influenced by Kafka’s short fiction, like “The Bucket Rider,” and by Borges’s many Ficciones. Today, we might call this flash fiction. I don’t have a preference of genre. For me, the work determines its mode, so as I’m exploring or processing ideas or questions I have about the world, a form or hybrid form emerges from the exploration.
I noticed that Noemi Press classifies NOTES from the COMMITTEE as fiction, but much of the collection reads like poetry. Even in the pieces that stretch out over two or more pages we find alliteration, oblique rhymes, and metaphors. Much of the writing feels metrical, despite the text being justified throughout. Even many of the line breaks seem to work like line breaks in poetry. Did you set out to write a cross-genre book?
- My work doesn’t tend to fit neatly into boxes, although I don’t begin with a specific “intention.” I think all language is based in sound and rhythms." - Interview with Scot Siegel

"Thank you for reading my poetry. I’m happy to discuss the poems and I’ll try to be as helpful as I can. I’m not fond of explaining poetry as it seems to me that poetry tries to get at what can’t be explained in words, with words. That’s its challenge and its wonder. I do believe there is such a thing as “emotional knowledge” and “intuitive knowledge” and I hope you feel empowered to apply those.
1. Blueprints of the City: It’s many cities, not just one. It’s about the interests, but final consequences of being a “visitor” anywhere, of arriving new places with distorted preconceived notions, and the dangers of that, and of the reality versus the idea.
2. Monoprints has several female “characters” and voices. Some of these are bits of overheard conversations, some of them are fictionalized, etc. In many of my poems, there are several voices. Some are re-constructed. I like to hear women’s voices since they’re still not heard enough in the world. See the Monoprints discussion below for more.
3. Solar, etc.:
Begin with: Solar plexis: 1. The largest of the autonomic plexuses, lying in front of the aorta at the level of the origin of the celiac artery and behind the stomach, formed by the splanchnic and the vagus nerves and by cords from the celiac and superior mesenteric ganglia, and branching to all the abdominal viscera through its connections with the other abdominal plexuses. Also called solar plexus.
Your questions about “Thirty-three Articles” are wonderful. I think poetry, like life, gets us to consider and ask questions, (when it’s good) and focus on the question. I’m not saying this simply to be evasive. As in the last poem of this book, the questions are more important than any pretense of “answers.”
4. Some scholars argue that the term “avant-garde” is date specific, i.e., pertinent to Modernism. I just write, but others have called my work “experimental.” Few people are linear thinkers, and sometimes, I feel that forcing linearity on work is antithetical to what the work is exploring, or thinking through. For me writing is often “thinking through” something, and that’s emotional/intellectual together; I don’t artificially disconnect these two impulses of the brain. In terms of historical vantage, it also seems to me that to force linearity after Modernism and the events of the twentieth century still seems false to me so far. Writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce made a great deal of sense to me from the first time I read their work and thought, this is what I’ve been looking for, I understand this.
I don’t “push myself” into any genre. I write, and it seems to me that the nature of the work chooses the genre that suits it. I often do not see what is particularly “experimental” with my own work, whether it is poetry or fiction, other than in comparison to what is published by large publishing houses. There is much “experimental” work being published by small presses, just as there was in the twentieth century.
Being a woman writer is probably as difficult as being a woman in this world: there are many challenges, even down to the words we use, and especially in pay inequity. What is also difficult is growing up as a working class person who chooses to be a writer or artist. Few people understand the choice to be part of something that doesn’t pay a salary and is often berated in the popular media. We seem to fear not only people who think, but people who like to think, and give them all sorts of derogatory names. Learning not to listen to that AND to find a way to make a living where you have time to think is difficult for anyone.
5. The colors in Monoprints come from the monoprinting process. I’m very interested in the visual arts. The way the poems are on the page has as much to do with canvas as paper. I’m highly influenced by the poet Barbara Guest in this respect.
In observing a master monoprinter, I watched her lay in each color separately, and in the end, saw the 4 or 5 color print that was a color layer/image and at the same time individual colors: both of these were true at once. My goal was to see if the same could be done with words: I designated colors, sometimes for mood, sometimes in relationship to certain objects or words. This was about seeing how if a poem could work like this visual art process or not.
The locations are “familiar” to me. I wrote these poems while in the location—is that what you’re asking?
This is probably related to your question about inspiration. A writer draws inspiration from everything, I think, no matter how corny that sounds. I love to read, to draw, to walk, to make things. I’m interested in words and definitions, in the visual arts, in the sciences, in natural history, in graphic novels, in museums, etc.---the list goes on.
6.. I probably do write using first person, and in fact, have written many personal essays. I think especially in my poetry I try not to. After Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, and other examinations of the overuse of the first person speaker, the “I” exhausts me, even as it does in this short interview. I’d rather hear your voice, other voices, than my own. That’s where my interest in outside texts, words, and voices enters the poem that is always directed outward into the world, rather than only inward into myself, if possible, so we are all hearing a symphony of voices, dead and alive, all at once." - Interview at avantwomenwriters.blogspot.com

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