Interview with Mónica de la Torre
by Ann van Buren
Mónica de la Torre has published five poetry books, including The Happy End/All Welcome (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017), Public Domain (Roof Books, 2008), and Talk Shows (Switchback, 2007), as well as two collections in Spanish published in Mexico City, where she was born and raised. She has translated an array of Latin American poets including the late Gerardo Deniz, and coedited the anthology Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (Copper Canyon Press). She has participated in several multidisciplinary collectives, among them Taller de Taquimecanografía, whose self-titled volume was published in 2011 by Tumbona Ediciones. Her work has also appeared in the volume The Animated Reader: Poetry of Surround Audience (2015), published in conjunction with the New Museum’s Triennial. She was senior editor at BOMB Magazine from 2007 to 2016. De la Torre holds an MFA in poetry as well as a PhD in Latin American and Iberian Cultures from Columbia University. She is the Bonderman Assistant Professor of the Practice of Literary Arts at Brown University
Now in its 50th year, the Katonah Poetry Series is happy to welcome Mónica de la Torre as its next featured reader. In anticipation of her April 8th 2018 appearance at the Katonah Village Library, KPS interviewer, Ann van Buren, talked about poetry and the processes behind both writing and reading. The results of the February interview, conducted via email and Skype, are edited into the following conversation:
Ann van Buren: There are several ways to approach your work. I’d like to begin with the conversations in Public Domain (2008). In that book, you play with texture, meaning, and the tangled (mis)understandings of language from the perspective of language learners and students of public speaking. The poem, “Imperfect Utterances,” is a good example. In it, a barrage of practice exercises, lists, and advice to prospective public speakers engulf the reader and demonstrate the obstacles and absurdities that arise in our efforts to communicate. It’s a wonderful book, one that I’d recommend.
Your latest book, The Happy End/All Welcome (2017) continues to address the gap between the invisible but intended meaning of a situation or an object and our perception of how things are described or how they appear. Happy End… visits the world of the job interview, and the world of design. The book is multilayered in its premise. The first page tells us that its title emanates from an installation by Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), an influential German artist of the 1980s. Kippenberger’s piece, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’, consists of “an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs within a soccer field flanked by grandstands.” It is the artist’s commentary on Kafka’s unfinished work, Amerika, which contains a fictitious description of the interviews faced by immigrants on arrival in the US.
Can you tell your readers what drew you to the challenge of translating Kippenberger’s work, which in itself is an interpretation of Kafka’s work, into poetry? I’m interested in the ways in which the subject matter of their work resonates with you, but I would also like you to share your perspective on translation, not in its traditional sense, but in the sense that humans are constantly translating— across cultures, disciplines, and social settings.
MdlT: In one of the final passages in Kafka’s unfinished Amerika, the beleaguered protagonist, Karl Rossman, sees a notice put up by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma—which bills itself as the largest theater company in the world—announcing that it has jobs for everyone. Throughout the novel we’ve seen him fail time and again at gaining useful employment. This is the narrative thrust of the novel. Rossman is indeed a German immigrant, yet the interview that he participates in within this passage is one of many that the theater company is holding with a giant number of townspeople recruited for an unspecified production. Kippenberger takes the promise of universal employment and applies it to art-making. No type of object is foreign to his installation meant to evoke the very setting in which the theater company conducts interviews with job applicants. Some of the chairs, desks, tables, and props gathered for this job fair of sorts have been made in the studio, others have been found, or gifted to the artist, or rescued from the dump. I love the installation for multiple reasons, one of them being how it translates a fictional narrative into a sculptural/architectural environment. I, in turn, wanted to see what would happen if Kippenberger’s environment was then returned to the space of literature. I applied the principles of universal employment to my own creative process as well. In my book, everything can be utilized, everything can be converted into poetry: errors/mistakes, found texts, recycled poems/blurbs, scraps and residues from other projects. I also commissioned a ghostwriter to write some work for me. Everything has the same status as the straightforward poems that I wrote for the book deliberately. This does touch on notions of foreignness, and my book has a utopian undertone in that nothing is alien to it. Of course there’s an equally dystopian undertone to it in that “the company” is also allegorical of disembodied, larger-than-life corporations
AvB: The Happy End…further contemplates the challenges of translation in its series of poems about design. “View from an Aeron Chair,” “View from a Utrecht Chair,” and “View from a Management Chair” are among my favorites. Were these poems inspired by Kippenberger’s chairs? Each poem seems to explore whether or not experience is in synch with design. The poems could also be read as answers to the prompt, “From where I sit…” as they reflect upon the ways in which one’s seat defines a place in society. The womb chair has “Just enough protection; harnessing / the body, yet prodding it beyond conformity’s threshold.” (29) This chair offers security and permanence, unlike the folding chair, whose very nature is temporary. It says, “Who cares what the future brings.” (Happy End… 62) The chairs in these poems connote more than a brand name or design. In fact, throughout Happy End…, the discussion of office furniture is intense. Another poem, one in a series with the same title, “Yes and No” (The Happy End… p. 53) talks about office design as landscape design. At first, the office designers use plants to divide the spaces, but then they throw out the idea of plants, and replace the plants with synthetic office dividers. In doing so, they also discard the pretense that office space ought to resemble anything like a natural environment. As I read these poems about chairs and offices and their design, I begin to wonder if design is about aesthetics and perception or if it is about control.
MdlT: I am glad that you picked up on the play on parallax views. “From where I sit . . .,” that’s exactly it. I really like design. I’m intuitively drawn to it, and to ideas behind design, particularly 20th century modern design. The objects are beautiful, and are embodiments of very specific ideas. That applies to urbanism and landscape design as well. So much about our experience of the contemporary has been mediated by ideas, ideologies and histories. I’m very interested in those hidden histories, in questioning the object so that I can get to the idea behind the object. At one point, I was glancing at a Knoll catalogue. A lot of the language that I used, especially in the questionnaire you mention, “Yes or No,” comes straight from the catalogue. I was amused by the euphemisms they have for what people do in offices. There is specific (and, as you can imagine, rather pricy) furniture for what they call “huddle spots,” “warm up centers,” and “cool down” places! I thought, Wait! This is an office, not a gym. The language they’re using is hilarious! Then I read an incredible book called Cubed. It’s a history of the workplace.
AvB: That made a splash. I remember the reviews. (Niki Saval, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Doubleday, 2014)
MdlT: That book was great, in part because it’s so thorough. I tend to go down the rabbit hole when I get into a subject. It’s really difficult to stop researching and get to the work, to leave that theoretical aspect aside and to separate myself from the research stage. But that’s where a lot of those ideas come from.
To get back to the subject of chairs though—I got interested in chairs, such as the Womb Chair, when I was at a residency in Marfa, Texas. I was on a Lannan Foundation residency. The house I was in had been remodeled and very tastefully decorated by an architect/designer, Kristin Bonkemeyer, and a lot of the furniture was from places like Design Within Reach or it was original Mid-Century design. One day, I was sitting in a chair, writing a poem, and I thought, Oh! I’m sitting on an Eames chair! Then I went to read, and I realized I was in the Womb Chair. I started tracing all of the furniture in the house. I found it was a wonderful opportunity to actually test if what the designers and copywriters say about a chair is true. So that’s really what I was doing. I used the chair as an interface. Usually, you can’t talk back as a consumer, can you? As I sat in the chairs I asked, You call this chair the Womb Chair. Why is it like a womb? Does it feel like a womb? That’s where those poems came from.
AvB: I love those poems. They have a playful tone. “Furniture Tester,” for example, reminds me of Goldilocks, but Goldilocks the philosopher. I also enjoy the poems because I know those chairs and would agree that they are intended to be what you described, even as they become what you describe, because your description defines them. Or does it? I’ve been thinking a lot about perception. You just explained the origin of what you were doing with the chairs. As I read, I thought I understood what you were doing with the chairs, but I had to piece it together with what I know about those specific designs. I think a lot of your work is like that. It’s cut-up and re-arranged. It is fragmented. It is formatted— as an interview, or a job announcement, for example. As a result, I feel like I’m coming to my own realizations as I read. I’m trying to figure the world out, or going through the thought process of an applicant who reads a job description that oftentimes sounds like it’s out of the theater of the absurd–“Questionnaire for Prospective Chain Smoker” is an example. I wondered if you deliberately work in this style as a commentary on how our thought process works. Are you constantly noticing, as you did with the chairs, that a chair is not simply a chair—it is one’s perception of a chair as one sees it and one’s perception of a chair based upon what one knows about chairs in general. It is also the intention of a designer, as he or she shapes the chair in order that the person sitting in the chair will associate with a certain attitude or feel a certain way. I’m interested in how you arrived at your approach to the chair, and if your use of lists, instructions, and other formats for your poems are a way of putting the reader in a certain frame of mind, much like a highly designed chair might put the person sitting in it into a frame of mind, too.
MdlT: Let’s see. All these objects have form. So I’m interested in how I can enact some of these ideas in forms of my own. I don’t have one form that I keep repeating. It’s almost as if each idea corresponds to form, a different form. That’s part of my research, so to speak. But it’s a different type of research. It’s a research that’s really about poetry. I appreciate what you said about understanding the way in which you arrive at knowledge on your own, through the poem. You think you understand what I’m doing and you relate it to the chair but you may not know whether the chair is real or not; you’re not going to the Knoll catalogue to see where I took that language from, but there’s something real about the language, because I do appropriate a lot of material from real life. The poems may give you the sense that reality is being filtered in the poem through a language that has a special texture. It may or may not be metaphorical, but it feels different from the lyrical language one expects to find in poems, in poems with a capital P. I’m not interested in simply dispensing my own insight. I wouldn’t even know what form that would take. For me poetry is more about engaging other minds in what my mind is already doing, and maybe mirroring thought processes that also are activated when the reader encounters a poem. And what my mind is already doing is engaging with the world around me through language, refracting it. This is really abstract, and I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense. It makes me think of Ashbery’s idea that poetry is not about representing experience but about mimicking the experience of experience.
AvB: It does make sense. Your work is abstract, and I want to talk about the abstract. The abstract element of your work is what makes it fun for me, sort of like a brain massage! Even though it’s difficult, it’s exciting to know more about the philosophical Mónica de la Torre. Which brings me to the question about your poem, “Doubles” (Public Domain p.83-97). In this poem, you take off on an e-mail that was mistakenly sent to you, Mónica de la Torre, from a young woman who was looking for her birth mother, also named Mónica de la Torre.
MdlT: It’s all about mirroring and not mirroring, yeah. Perhaps it’s the piece in which I realize it the most—this question of what something is, or who someone is or is not. Anyone who wants to find out something about me might find that piece online. That piece keeps being activated, in a way, because people looking for me—or any other person by my same name— may land on it and become even more confused. It’s replicating the search, and complicating it.
AvB: The search for identity?
MdlT: For identity or for this person who is or is not me. Maybe it’s going to need to have a part two, because it’s happened a couple of times already that people email me when they are actually looking for one of my namesakes. The person they’re looking for must have a lot of things in common with me, because people who I know have emailed me, but they email me thinking that I’m her!
AvB: That’s funny.
MdlT: Yeah, it just keeps happening. One of my namesakes is a philanthropist. She seems cool, though we’ve never met. I don’t know what happened to the drag queen from Veracruz. She was very active online but it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything on her online. I hope she’s okay. I like her a lot.
AvB: I also hope she’s okay! I enjoyed watching her videos on Youtube, almost as much as I enjoy the poem itself. “Doubles” is very readable, and filled with your characteristic dark humor and knack for picking up on moments that question what’s real and what’s imaginary. That said, I wonder if you intend to raise a deeper question about identity in this poem.
MdlT: Well, yes. Yes, yes, I do. What triggered the poem was a real encounter with this woman’s search. She was searching for her mother. That was complicated. I went back and forth about whether I should use this or not. It’s tragic, and it’s poignant. It speaks to where we are now in terms of the online avatar. We’ve all turned ourselves into these avatars, and if we’re not online, we don’t exist. We thoroughly depend upon our online exchanges to do everything now. That’s there, in the poem, but the poem is about many things. I’m also saying that none of us is exceptional, and even our name, which theoretically is the one thing that identifies us the most, is not unique. I was commenting on that, maybe because of the dislocation of my family and my being here with a Mexican name. People see my name and say things like Oh, what an interesting name. Or they Frenchify it, and say Oh, de La Tour, like the painter! They think that somehow, in the homogeneous landscape of English names, mine is special. This poem is commenting on that; it is saying that it’s not special, that I’m not special. I’m just one of many. When you look up something on Wikipedia and it says “disambiguation,” they give you options for what a thing might mean. This thing might mean a movie, or a song, or this person, or a treatise. So that instability of things, the ambiguity in which they exist, and our dependency on the web to disambiguate them as opposed to making them more ambiguous—that tension between ambiguity and disambiguation is at the heart of my work too. I also address something else that is very important to me. It is this notion that somehow, as a person who belongs to a minority— in my case, a Hispanic minority— there is an expectation that your work must deal with identity. As a minority, you have this burden of representation. To readers, your work speaks not only to your own story but to the story of the minority that you’re meant to represent. So this piece was a way of troubling that expectation and saying, Okay, so you want identity? This is the piece I’ll give you. It’s my identity piece, and it really is not about my personal identity at all. And yet I read some reviews in which the main thrust was that my book was all about identity. I find that perplexing. Once that expectation is there, no matter what you do, you can’t shake it off.
AvB: I understand what you’re saying, even as I’m interested in cultural identity, not only in terms of my ethnic make-up and how it is or is not reflected in my name, but in terms of cultural influences in general. I’d like to know if there is something cultural that informs a poem. But your writing, to me, is conceptual. It seems that when you’re talking about identity, you’re looking at it from a philosophical standpoint and questioning whether anyone, or any thing for that matter, has any identity at all—or if it’s all a matter of perception. Your work is about language, too. It raises the possibilities for multiple interpretations, and begs the question, at times, whether we are actually understanding each other at all.
I really appreciate your talking about all of this. Thank you. I have one more question. I’d like to ask about collaboration. The Happy End/All Welcome was published by Ugly Duckling Presse, which is, in and of itself, a collaborative entity. I was wondering if you would like to talk about that or whether you are collaborating on anything now.
MdlT: Collaboration is such a relief to a writer like me, in the sense that I love to write but one of the things that I dislike about writing is how solitary it is. So collaboration is one of the best ways in which you can get at it both ways. It involves teamwork. There’s this movement when you’re going in and out of yourself in a way that feels really productive. It’s a lovely dynamic because you are working with someone who also needs to be doing that. They also need to be going in and outside of themselves. I really enjoy that. Collaboration is also a way of not repeating oneself. The first book I published was a collaboration with a conceptual artist, Terence Gower, who is Canadian. It’s a book called Appendices, Illustrations, and Notes. It came out ages ago, in 2000. It was such a relief to build upon ideas through the mind of another person. I’m interested not so much in disjunction, but in thwarting predictable thought patterns and leading ideas in unexpected directions— or maybe stopping them and continuing at a different point. That, of course, with multiple minds, is inevitable. When you will it in your own writing, it seems forced and contrived. The way I deal with that, by myself, might have to do with temporal displacement. I’ll work on something, then I hit a wall; I can’t continue. I feel like the path I took makes things become a little too contrived. So the way I find direction or another angle is by distancing myself temporally from a piece. Maybe months go by. I’ve been working on something I started years ago. I can’t even remember when I started it, I started it so long ago. But the beauty of it is that when I don’t look at it through the lens of productivity–like, Oh, I have this project and it’s unfinished and I need to get to it,–it’s not generative to beat myself up for not finishing something fast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. Everything he began went unfinished to the grave because he had so many different personalities. So if you can get past that self-judgment, then inevitably, when you go back to something that you started years ago, so much of the material, experience, and views that you bring to it will necessarily improve it [now] because they are richer. It’s almost as if I collaborated with previous selves sometimes. It’s great. It’s almost like working with another person, since I don’t recognize the person I was, and the choices that person once made. You’ll find a little bit of that in The Happy End/All Welcome, in the poem “Table 35” (p.97). The job interviewer asks, Do you have any previous experience? And the applicant answers, A former self dealt with my unfinished business. I like the idea that you can collaborate with yourself in so many ways; with previous selves, or future selves, or selves that you never were but could have been.
AvB: At the very least, this is self-affirming! It’s also good encouragement for all of the writers out there who are inclined to discard past work or who are isolated and might not see possibilities into the future. Thank you. And thank you for the time you’ve taken to share your process with KPS. This has been fascinating, and I look forward to hearing you read in Katonah.
MdlT: Thank you for engaging with my work so thoroughly.
AvB: My pleasure!
Photo credit: Bruce Pearson