“There’s no doubt that there’s a politics of nostalgia.” - R. Kolewe
After reading R. Kolewe’s Inspecting Nostalgia, discovering that his previous life involved working in software made sense. There’s a methodical nature to his approach to poetry, a drive to examine his subject and yet never be quite satisfied with the results. Like a Rubik's cube, the point is not the final result (we already know what that is) but how the thing moves to get there and what we can learn from manipulating it.
It's easy to feel as it we are living in a very nostalgic time. All around people seem to be looking to an idealized past for answers and a way of living, but is this unique to this moment? Or is longing for the past something that has been common in every generation?
Well, considering that Hesiod was writing about the long ago Golden Age in the Works and Days around 700 BCE, I don't think the notion of an idealized past is unique to this moment. And we can generalize that longing for better days once-upon-a-time and talk about the desire for something that is just never quite within our current grasp. That's not a new idea either: it's one of the Buddha's great insights, and he lived around 500 BCE. What might be new in our time is the way that longing or nostalgia has been commercialized and commodified. Think of all those chain restaurants with "antiques" up on the walls and fake "origin stories" in the menus. Recipes passed down the generations, artisanal pickles or chocolate you can buy, online I suppose. Classic rock. Punk rock, even. In a way, even a desire for novelty can become nostalgic: if there is any kind of artistic avant-garde nowadays, who doesn't compare their work to the avant-gardes of the 20th century and say, ah, those were the days, when the new was really new...
But now I'm sliding from nostalgia to world-weary cynicism, which isn't a new idea either. Was cynicism fresher once? Probably.
I guess that’s what I’m wondering, is there a way to break from nostalgia? Or should we even want to? Does nostalgia have value in our society?
Take Punk for example. I think of it as a kind of roots music that nostalgia keeps alive: a derrière-garde, which is as necessary to any good army as much as an avant-garde.
Punk as roots music for anarchists! I love it.
But seriously, it’s important to distinguish the two senses in which we’re using the word nostalgia. Remember, the word comes from the Greek nostos, “return,” and algos, “suffering.” As Milan Kundera puts it in a wonderful passage in his novel Ignorance, “nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” Unappeased because, of course, return is impossible. That’s the Buddhist dukkha, confusingly but conventionally translated “suffering,” which may or may not be the same thing as Lacan’s manque, “lack.” (They’re certainly related.) In any case, this is personal, interior, and, perhaps, overwhelming. Then there’s the “sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time” as the dictionary has it, which is the thing behind all the classic rock stations and retro this, that, or the other.
As for that first kind: can we break from it and do we want to? Well, the Buddhists tell us the answers are yes, we can, giving us a method, and yes, we should, because it prevents us from seeing the world the way it really is. This, of course, is not easy, but then I’m hardly a Buddhist. The whole business reminds me of the scene in David Lean’s old film Lawrence of Arabia, where Peter O’Toole extinguishes a match with his fingers. “The trick,” he says, “is not minding that it hurts.” Ok, maybe there’s more to it than that.
The second? Can we break away from the nostalgia for “better days” that permeates our culture, and should we? Other than becoming a hermit, without internet access, I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it, and I’m not an advocate of retreat from the world even if that’s my own inclination. I think the important thing to ask is what this kind of widespread nostalgia does, and what it serves. The late British cultural critic Mark Fisher, who wrote a great book called Capitalist Realism that everyone should read, links it to the rise of neoliberal capitalism, and its “destruction of solidarity and security.” That sounds about right to me. (See Fisher’s essay ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’ in his collection Ghosts of My Life.) Going back to punk, if the Sex Pistols were correct when they said there was “no future” back in 1977, what else could there be left but the past? Or, to use your phrase, if nostalgia is a kind of derrière-garde, whose ass is it covering? When everyone is looking backward, there’s no threat to the status quo.
So I guess I’m saying classic rock and retro-everything are the opiates of the masses. Along with actual opiates, of course. This is not good. But hey, the stock markets are doing really well, which must be good, for some people, anyway. “You can’t always get what you want,” right? Is that good enough? I don’t think so.
I’m still curious if there is a difference between the two senses of the word. The traditional definition implies a longing for home, or, the memory of home. The more modern definition implies that it’s possible to long for a place and time one has never experienced. But to remember something fondly means not remembering anything negative associated with it. Both senses are a kind of idealization of the past and its distance from the present is causing discomfort. Maybe “Make America Great Again” and “Things were better when I was a kid” are one in the same?
Sure, both senses are about longing for something inherently unattainable: a fantasy, really. And to my mind there’s no doubt that there’s a politics of nostalgia (or a political exploitation of nostalgia) present in Trumpism and its cousins around the globe. Interesting that nostalgia can function politically both as a distraction from things as they are, and as a motivation to change things back to the way they were, which is, of course, impossible. Even if “the way things were” wasn’t a fantasy to begin with.
So now that we’ve defined nostalgia a bit, how did you approach exploring the concept for you latest collection, Inspecting Nostalgia?
You make it sound as if I knew what I was doing when I started! It didn’t happen that way. Actually, I have a deep suspicion of poetry conceived as a “project,” and that’s not just because I read Phil Hall’s essay-poem “The Bad Sequence” (in Killdeer) and thought, omg, so true. Although we poets may describe a book or sequence as a “project” when it’s done (and maybe on grant applications before it’s done) I think most often writing poems is exploratory, chaotic, or certainly it is for me, anyway: I have thematic obsessions, sure, which I revisit endlessly, and sometimes those obsessions orbit around some text or constellation of ideas. For example, the poems in my first book, Afterletters, share many of the obsessions of Inspecting Nostalgia but encode them using the letters of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. In fact the composition of the two books overlap: Afterletters was written in 2010-11, and Inspecting Nostalgia spans 2009 to 2013, although there’s one poem from 2004, and one from 2015, if I remember right.
Anyway, what happened with Inspecting Nostalgia was that at some point in 2012, probably while “looking over manuscripts of unpublished rhyme, drinking my vodka and lime” (ah, nostalgia, but not vodka and lime: more likely a gin martini: I was drinking too many of those at that time) I discovered that I had written a pile of poems that shared a theme, maybe obsession, and (really) there were enough of them to make a book. By the time that book got close to production, I’d written some more, and those got added to the mix. The book wasn’t designed: it evolved.
The title of the book (and the last poem-sequence in the book) does pretty accurately sum up that obsession, though, even if the phrase itself came from a particularly memorable spam email received back in 2004. In those days spam filters were relatively primitive, and for a short while spammers were sending emails where the email body text (usually overlaid by some clickable image, which was the point of the spam) was a collage (which is a kind of nostalgia, isn’t it?) of public domain text, a sort of conceptual poetry really, that was actually kind of fascinating. (I remember one where the body was a chunk of scrambled text from Richardson’s Pamela!) Hmmm, sounds a bit like I’m nostalgic for the spam of yesteryear, doesn’t it? Hardly.
I’m not sure that answers your question, though.
I think it does. It reminds me of Jack Spicer’s description of the poet: as something like a radio that receives “Martian” transmissions and makes sense of them. That sounds a bit sci-fi, but in his introduction to Spicer’s collected lectures (The House That Jack Built), Peter Gizzi emphasizes that the message is, “the best condition for the poem is one of not-knowing, and the poet has a better chance of that with dictation than with self-expression. The better the poem, the less responsible the poet is for it.” How does that statement relate to your process? Is there something else at play (Martians? The Unconscious?) that guides you, unknowingly, towards a theme when you’re writing?
Ah, Spicer’s Martian radio. I love many of Spicer’s poems, but this has always bothered me, because it seems too much like the romantic idea of “inspiration.” The poet closes his eyes, dips his quill pen in artisanal ink, the muse dictates, and he transcribes. Maybe it really does work like that for some poets, I dunno. It seems very problematic to me. One could think about the way “inspiration” and “self-expression “ are often linked to gender stereotypes for example.
But there is the kernel of something in Spicer’s idea, and Gizzi’s identified it: that it’s useful to get the “self” out of the way. Sure, that’s impossible, finally: even if I write a piece of code that collages random bits of text from the internet to make -spam- a poem, hey, I wrote the code, right? There’s always an author. (So much for some conceptualisms.) Am I contradicting myself?
I don’t think so. The problem with the self is that it gets invested in things: words, phrases, ideas, forms. (Other stuff too.) So it’s hard to see that the brilliant line you just wrote is actually more than just a bit jejune. This is why it’s a really good idea for poets who are not directly connected to the divine Apollo’s daughters to revise: in my case, revise a lot. (A good editor really helps, too.) And it’s why it’s wise for those of us whose barely-controlled hysteria is not pure genius to find a way to generate language that doesn’t come out of self-expression.
My process, such as it is, leans heavily on collage as a way of doing this. There’s only a handful of poems in Inspecting Nostalgia that don’t incorporate text that comes from somewhere else. (Hey, when the muses really speak, you listen. But it’s hard to identify the pure product in the moment, y’know?) However, the selection of that text-from-elsewhere (Mars? Google? Spam? Jacques Derrida?) is pretty much intentional, driven by my obsessions.The trick is to identify those obsessions, and honour them, because they aren’t going to go away.
Since publishing Inspecting Nostalgia I’ve been making more use of chance procedures to select text, allowing and playing with random repetitions in long sequences. So there’s intentional collage and then random repetition of it. Myself, I like the result, but opinions vary.
Your first collection of poetry, Afterletters, was published later, after already having a previous career in software. Had you always been interested in poetry? What drew you to write Afterletters?
I actually wrote a much longer response to this question, but decided to cut it short: too much history. To summarize: while I’d been reading and writing poetry since I was a teenager, I didn’t really become serious about it until 2008 or so. Margaret Christakos’ Influency Salon, which a friend dragged me into, introduced me to a way of reading and a community of poets that completely changed my ideas about what poetry was and could be. Nothing I’ve published would exist if that hadn’t happened.
I wrote the poems that became Afterletters when I realized I could use the language of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s correspondence as a way to write about longing and loss in a way that was powerful, but not exactly confessional. Basically, I was reading the letters, which had just been published, and realized these people were talking about exactly the things I was trying to describe, except I kept getting stuck in the slough of my own self: I really didn’t want to write about myself (or did I?) but that was all I had. I needed some kind of distancing mechanism, and using the text of those letters gave it to me.
Are you working on anything at the moment? Or is there a new text that’s attracted you that could be a new gateway?
Oh, definitely! I’ve actually got three things on the go at the moment.
One is sort of done, with lots of rough edges. It’s called The Absence of Zero, and consists of 256 16-line “quartets” (I've been using the word "hyper-sonnets" at times) and 34 free-form “interruptions.” A bit of a monster, really. It deals with time, memory, the fallibility of memory, modernism, and the ruins of the 20th century. Its “governing text” (in the sense that the Bachmann-Celan letters are the governing text of Afterletters) is TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, and its structure is based on a mathematical object called the Riemann curvature tensor, which describes the geometry of spacetime in general relativity. The poems themselves combine and recombine in a fractured, obsessive kind of way driven by chance procedures, the sort of thing that happens when you spend too much time reading and listening to John Cage and looking at paintings by Gerhard Richter.
The other two things are in different stages of incompletion, evolution, or (possibly) abandonment. The first is something with the working title Naturalized. Some poems from it were published in the Literary Review of Canada back in the summer of 2016, and some more are going to be a chapbook from Knife | Fork | Book in fall of 2018. A while ago I described it to someone as a quantum-mechanical critique of the pastoral and that contemptible idea called terra nullius; that sounded pretty good to me, except I really haven't a clue what it might mean. Maybe it’s about the ghost of the idea of landscape. I guess I'm writing to figure this out. But writing very slowly. (Or, maybe, writing fast and throwing most of it away.) But it's not done, nowhere near done.
The final thing doesn’t really have a title yet. I’ve been writing it in a bunch of notebooks made by the Life Stationery Company in Japan (I have a bit of a notebook obsession) left over from the ones I bought when I started on The Absence of Zero. (This great little stationery shop opened around the corner from me back in 2013; they’ve since moved.) I began thinking of it as “those new Life poems.” I was interested in “taking back” the idea of inspiration or epiphany, kind of “un-writing” Rilke. And then I decided I really had to look closely at Dante’s Vita Nuova, for obvious reasons, and that leads... to many things. The idea of “common language.” Troubadours and gnosticism. Oulipo (via Jacques Roubaud.)
It seems that everything I’m writing is part of something bigger, sort of like Spicer’s idea of the serial poem. Sometimes I think there’s a kind of megalomania in that. But then I think, nevermind, these things are deeply uncool but they are almost finished: after they’re done I can write Instagram poems. Or something.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.