Cecilia Corrigan - a series of punchlines of non-set up jokes self-avowedly sketchy and 90s, sort of sloppy and bananas poetics: 'Oh look can I get a volunteer to call me ‘the enemy of all things good and holy?'
“Cecilia Corrigan’s poems dissolve into the real the way foam laps against a giddy shore or greasepaint becomes part of the skin or the mercurial is denied entrance to the dispensary. Titanic makes whimsy infectious.” —Charles Bernstein
The poet’s thoughts about the unfolding poem appear often: These Sentences are getting more complicated in this poem, now; The ‘you’ is shifting in the poem; So many abrupt changes in this poem! By reminding the reader of everything that is happening as it is happening, Corrigan creates a real-time temporality that slaps your imagination on the wrist just when you were about to suspend disbelief. Spooky, twisted, and strong, each of these observations seems to be Corrigan’s cannibal who eats her own body.
The narrator of True Beige has a brassy voice, eager to leap off the page and into a throat.The read-in-my-head text simulates a read-out-loud text, aperformance. There’re only two possible outfits I could wear which could be appropriate for the performance of this poem brings me right there, in the audience, watching the poet in her outfit, gesticulating. When I read, Oh look can I get a volunteer to call me ‘the enemy of all things good and holy?’ I’m like “Ooh! pick me!” Because I do want to call her that.
The narrator further transforms the reader into a listener with these deliberately audible emphases: liiiike, It is so uhhhh?,MATH
Settings and narratives in True Beige arise and drift off. Cecilia is in front of a classroom, she gchats with Trisha Low, writes little essay fragments on Spinoza, makes outrageous requests of interns. A breathless female character shows up at a library, then at a Delray Beach restaurant, a brief glimpse at cinematic clarity. These tantalizing moments of story fade in and out – well-placed and oddly erotic distractions from the main work of the poem, which is, invariably, the writing of the poem. Corrigan shows us everything about this process with unflagging irony: Ok. insert dialogue from maybe a movie?, Oh should I mention something German now?
Roman numeral sections and poems within poems provide some structural organization of the work. Corrigan calls her Roman numeral use a bad habit and a lazy self aggrandizing style, an admission both shameless and accurate. The poems in poems are tricky though. The narrator will periodically find a poem under a floorboard, or a rock with a poem tied to it will fly through the window, and the reader will be momentarily fooled into thinking that this is the entrance of a brand new poetic voice, only to hear the same the narrator’s voice, hidden behind the italics. This move comes off as egotistical, but also honest, like the poem itself. Corrigan’s narcissism is so explicit that it evades judgment or criticism. She writes, I couldn’t stand being around anyone who didn’t think I was the best and most enchanting person ever. You can’t argue with that. It’s beautiful.
The persistent but complicated feminism of True Beige rings true to the scenarios in the life of a young-privileged-white-academic-female (I would know, I’m one myself). The female narrator fluctuates between outrage (he was looking at my shirt ‘yeah I know it’s see through fuck you I’ll rape you’) and apologetic doubt (sorry to be so negative, does this make any sense?) and a combo of the two (Yeah, I’ve looked at other women. Yeah I hate my body. Ts’a lifestyle choice). A lot of her feminism shoots arrows directly at the patriarchy of the poetry academia scene as well. I delighted in her line Do I sound like Bruce Andrews yet?, a sarcastic jab at the broetry (poetry bro) community that fawns over the straight-white-male poetry canon.
Miranda Mellis interviews Cecilia K. Corrigan
To explain what I mean by “exercise.” I felt like I each time I started to write, my education (both academic and social) was influencing my choices in a way that felt smothering. Every reference or allusion felt like Winnicott's transitional object, and I wanted to test out what would happen if rather than grasping, I just noticed my desire for the safety of either obfuscation or derivative literary devices, while resisting giving in to either one. So the exercise was to notice every impulse and try to record it as it was happening without allowing myself to relate it to the poem as a whole, or to justify it with any kind of intellectual apparatus. It was an experiment, not a political choice. I'm not “rejecting” anything here, just acknowledging that I'll never really be able to inhabit or possess the things I admire or desire, and it's frustrating. Winnicott might say I had to try to destroy the objects of my narcissistic attachment, once I learned they were external to my body. “The price has to be paid in acceptance of the ongoing destruction in unconscious fantasy relative to object-relating” (DW).
Turning away from successive voices manifested in a tendency to use disjuncture, to deconstruct, to write in a way that could, as you point out, be considered “feminine” as per Cixous or Irigaray. This style of attack also frustrated me, as yet another distancing device which I discard, return to, fall back towards, and so forth. That particular voice in the text continually performs and rejects the “talking cure.” The piece comes to the same breakthrough over and over again but experiences no release. The breakthrough is this: that overcoming my distaste for sectarian aesthetic groups is an impossibility, but also that a radical stance seems the only way to protect myself & my work from the pull of the aesthetic & social “middle” (those atavisms you mention).
Or, in Mulder’s words, “I wanted to believe. But the tools had been taken away...They closed our eyes. Our voices have been silenced. Our ears now deaf to the realms of extreme possibilities.”
MM: I understand you have written for HBO and there’s a certain split or tension you feel in navigating between the rough tangle of poetics and the smooth artifices of the TV serial. Yet there is something to your “non-set up jokes” that one hears in the better television writing these days, something of the tang of poetry, especially in HBO programs that push the medium. Though you’d miss the missing half of the quotation mark, I could imagine some televisual, half-finished “I” performing your line Remember when I was like “I. On “Enlightened” last Sunday, Mike White’s character Tyler, in an extended, poetic interior monologue, describes himself as “the ghost” and “a pearl” that no one sees. Do you see your poetic practice as also a training for writing literary television, and is there any vice versa?
CKC: Generally, writing for television, (in my totally green experience) is much more focussed on keeping things tight and above-board than poetry–and I worked for the very poetically-minded show runner David Milch– but I think you’re definitely right that the two are starting to have more in common; to be, if not bedfellows, at least friendly acquaintances. Not in every case, but certain entities in both fields are starting to use their commonalities as advantages. David, my boss on the show, did a show called John from Cincinnati that didn’t do well ratings-wise because, well, it was a bit strange, but I think followed a very poetic logic, more than anything else I’ve ever seen on television. It could have been like, Bruce LaBruce or David Lynch! I just love it, it’s really a beautiful show.
The most important thing that I think television and poetry have in common is that they’re regulated by set, discrete time limits, which break down the larger whole into small parts. I’m saying episode is to season as poem is to poetry book. To respond to your question about training, I’d say I aspire to imitate television in my poetry or, to be less cute, to plunder the tactics television uses to control and compel its viewer.
Poetry is a perfect space to set up multiple voices, it’s a form where the page is a lot more like a screen than a page. I describe switching between voices as changing channels. It's an obvious metaphor but appropriate: the juxtaposing scripts and chatter are in part attempts to recreate the feeling of switching channels, gchatting, reading an article online, and eating, all at once.
Alternatively, this is what happens in True Beige: somebody's sitting in a small space between their bureau and their bed with their laptop on their knees, digesting food and talking to multiple people on gchat at the same time, and they're getting accusatory emails from probably an ex or a parent. The overarching character speaking here is a sad clown who’s not getting any laughs, could be a creepy clown too if that’s your thing...
About the transition to a more performative tone. At a certain point, I got fed up with all these voices stammering in frustration, and intervened, shifting the tonal aphasia towards exploiting this textual weakness by using the voices as character foils for one another: jumping between the academic and the confessional etc. It's hopefully a little funny. I like to think of the tone as vaudevillian; that the piece creates a sort of stage for my own embarrassment, and pursuant rejection of said embarrassment through bald-faced showmanship.
I have a great admiration for writers whose work is replete with a nervous energy that communicates both self-control and extreme risk, whose work takes its goals seriously while at the same time knowing it might be laughed at and treated like a clown. I like thinking of this project as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of my dogmatically skeptical heros, like Wittgenstein for instance. He’s a total superhero of neurotic self-reflection, in the way he flinches looking at his subject while attempting to get a grip on it. He had reason to flinch, going after the core problems in language and philosophy, whereas I don’t have that much to be nervous about, I’m just trying to find a way to write some kind of subjective relatable experience.
You mention the tension around assimilation, as to whether it’s inevitable and part of being culturally naturalized. I thought that was interesting, because a large part of the original exercise was to notice what I resisted, “naturally,” and to notice those things towards which I was drawn which seemed “unnatural,” like heuristics or apparati. To some extent there’s a desire to find out what’s a priori in my mind, and what is “artificial,” what’s been planted there. I just realized that for all my crushes on cognitive science and philosophy of language, this is a bit of a Cartesian exercise after all.
I was writing this while reading some of Sontag's journals, and I pillaged little things from her, which are threaded through the piece. She was so self-aware, constantly analyzing things she’d thought or said in the past, and so hard on herself! I've always been really interested in people's notebooks and journals, like I remember when I was about 12, I read The Great Gatsby, and I went right out and found Fitzgerald's Notebooks. Now I remember his little notes more clearly than I remember the details of Gatsby, and it's been just as long since I've read them. I've always been obsessed with the personal notes and marginalia of artists and intellectuals that I like, because I guess I think that those are their “real” thoughts. Or maybe it’s just comforting to me to feel sort of kinship with people's self-reflexivity, especially people I admire. I think people’s personal notes and correspondence can allow great intimacy, while sidestepping the sort of schlocky taste that can make “Confessional Writing” so hard to swallow. In this piece, I tried to play with the idea of intimacy between writer and reader by including things like gchats and (what appears to be) information about my personal life. I wanted the invasion of my personal space to transition from being implicit towards being explicit, and ultimately, for the reader to feel like they’re watching someone being pulled apart right in front of them when they read it.
MM: There are a crowd of men in the poem, several deranged, invading letters from creepy sources, wrapped around rocks or hidden under the floor, and then there are a few scripts in the works, including a parody in which the narrator wants “men’s styles to move from “dry” (objective, action oriented) to “wet” (emotionally bogged down, introspective). And this latter piece is “set in 2003, because I think it was the “emo peak” of our culture in terms of expressive self-pity.” Bagdad was invaded in 2003, and millions of people protested; more people than had ever protested at once, protested that invasion globally. The ideological freight of the “objective, action oriented” man was epitomized by the dissimulating, spectacular postures of the Bush administration with respect to the invasion. And people were “emotionally bogged down,” depressed if not in despair that Bush had come into power despite not winning that office. “All desires are for imaginary objects,” you write, paraphrasing Spinoza. The “objective, action oriented” and “dry” men above enact the Spinozan “tendency of cognition to form perceptions based on self-preservation rather than clear and distinct truths.” We believe what will preserve us, not what we can verify and “The fetish itself is a cosmology,” you write, “the fantasy of another object in another world.” Your gloss is breathtaking and marks a turn in the text. And you double your point eloquently: the fetish, as another object in another world, is never attained, e.g. the War on Terror” is never won because terrorism is a fetish, as is democracy. Speaking of receding horizons, at the end of your piece there is a funny/upsetting snatch of dialogue in which “any anthology of women’s writing is going to fail” because it’s historical, remedial, a supplement–“another object in another world.” What kind of fetish is feminism?
CKC: You’re right, there are a lot of scary men in this poem, as a matter of fact they’re all a bit creepy, unless they’re being puppeted, like Leo Bloom or Spinoza.
There’s also a lot of different channels playing at the same time. As I mentioned, the piece is sort of meant to feel like channel-switching. In addition to the way I try to rip off television’s best qualities, I’m fascinated by the logic that governs our attention when we switch channels. I think the way we engage with multiple browser windows and multiple tv channels follows a poetic logic. When you’re in a deep tv-watching or internet-watching zone, the moves you make from channel to channel or page to page are governed by choices which draw on both our intuitive and rational motivations. If I could visualize how multi-tasking (allegedly my generation’s modus oprandi), writes itself on the brain, it would be discursive but not incoherent. Leaps from aesthteic object to object are made through metonymic association and relegated by time-constrained chance (for the television), or habit (for the internet). The aesthetic and informational objects we jump between leave a causal trail, whether or not we’d call these choices conscious.
Recently I heard this cognitive scientist saying that single-player shooter games like Call of Duty are actually better for the brain’s informational processing than multitasking of the sort I’m describing. So maybe, as a poet, I’m attracted to trying to describe or recreate the experience because it’s a totally empty act of curation, a waste of cognitive labor. It’s trying to be ambient in a more amped up, caffeinated, hungover way than, for instance, Tan Lin’s work, which has somewhat similar goals but is generally much more beautiful and well-wrought, less frustrating.
Speaking of CoD. I like what you pointed out about my choice of 2003 in terms of the invasion of Baghdad. I did think about those events as having a direct relation to the time period’s pervasive cultural affect of “(scr)e(a)mo,” but in terms of 9/11. I think the mood of that time, at least domestically, was adolescent, the frustrations more sulky than pragmatic. As you rightly point out, it was a time when realities were warped in the service of personal agendas, with its dissembling political posturing and manipulation of mass public emotions. The public performance of self-deception, in the corporate media and the government, was everywhere. In that sense, imagination ruled the nation! The politics in this piece are diced and mixed like everything else, and I appreciate your very cleverly teasing them out. The channel in the piece when I describe this script is meant to be in part an act of self-deflation, as the participant in a long-standing Joycean tradition of overladen, imitative narratives. The desire to contain history is as inevitably frustrated as the next imaginary desire, as said history is a malleable object, endowed with whatever qualities are most amenable to one’s own self-preservation. Perhaps the connection is that democracy is like all other fetishistic desires: the repetitive attempt to grasp the immaterial. Fuck it, the sigh of cerebral frustration, becomes Fuck me, insisting on the material body.
It’s important that 2003 was the year I started high school. I had a tough time adapting to the American suburbs, as I’d grown up largely outside the country, and having 9/11 and Iraq as a backdrop to my adolescence only increased the feeling of alienation. Maybe that’s the real reason the unholy alliance between Bright Eyes, Xiu Xiu, and George W. was forged in my brain.
Spinoza was also alienated from his peers; he was excommunicated from his synagoge. The rabbis of his community were way harsh, decreeing that "no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him." So basically he was a social pariah. He moved to this little house where he worked as a lens grinder. Eventually he died from inhaling all the tiny shards of glass.
It’s not really clear why he was excommunicated, it’s generally assumed it was because of his writing, though the decree also refers to his intriguing “ monstrous deeds” and “evil ways.” Given this treatment, he was incredibly empathetic to the human tendency towards hubris, and miscommunication in his philosophy. I mention him as one of the men being puppeted here with affection. I love that guy.