Longing Through The Void: Chelsea Hodson & Jon-Michael Frank Discuss Their Black Cake Recordings
An introduction from Kelly Schirmann, editor of Black Cake Records:
I started Black Cake Records in 2013 out of a desire to hear. This isn’t a new desire, I know; poets are always listening for the dog whistle of meaning. I guess what I did want to hear, though, was someone else hearing that whistle—hearing it and chasing it down. I wanted a forum for field recordings of the chase, and so I started asking poets I loved to send me audio files of what that sounded like to them.
Chelsea Hodson and Jon-Michael Frank are two such poets, and their respective albums, Night Redacted and Diana Ross & The Supremes, are equal parts pain and power. Between Hodson’s noir confessionalism and Frank’s ode to the necropastoral, both poets use sound as a vehicle to both revive and destroy money, sex, substance, self, and other.
The result is something I’ll call Bleak Romanticism; joyous, devastated, reverent, vacant, and (of course) full of longing. I asked Chelsea and Jon-Michael to sit down and talk a little about these releases, from which the following exchange was born. May it make you feel, as it made me feel, like week-old smears of chalk on a playground, like a good long cry with all the windows open.
Chelsea Hodson: I want to start with the first track on Diana Ross & The Supremes—a clip from Blue Velvet in which Frank (played by Dennis Hopper) screams, “You know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker! You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever!” Have you ever sent or received a love letter like that?
Jon-Michael Frank: Absolutely. I’m not sure what else there is to do with the threads of life. It’s so difficult to not be an aesthete in this world. I suppose that’s the outcome of all the dolor and shit. I think everything we do is, or should be, a love letter of sorts. Everything, that is, that’s not pecuniary in execution. That’s where our acts, I think, get abstracted and subverted—through money, the insistence on objectivity in the world. But money talk is boring, you get to the politic, and you rip the heart right out of the thing. So I guess that’s why I wanted to start the album that way, start with a maniacal, threatening heart and then see if poetry can act as a vital sign throughout the remainder. Confessionalism gets a bad rap, but what else is there?
All my poems are love letters, especially the ones that have nothing to do with “love” at all. But yes, to answer your question again, I’ve written all kinds of fucked-forever love letters. To give you some context, similar to now, I listened to The Cure a lot in high school and lost a bunch of family back then, so when I found someone to store love in, I crammed as much as I could into that feeling. I was unremittingly delusional, and perfected all kinds of worlds that way. It’s like that song, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” to me, there’s nothing more beautiful. The mania of loving someone so much that you don’t care if their love is faithful and/or reciprocal is some kind of sad, wonderful apex of human capacity. The ability to love without threshold, it sort of throws all kinds of laughs at mortality and universal law.
The older I get the more this kind of love appeals to me rather than say, the adolescent imaginings of Abélard and Héloïse. I admire the fucking Margery Kempe, incorrigible-and-impossible-fervor-towards-Christ love, where self-preservation is insignificant and the whole directive is to devote oneself completely to that desire in order to efface the self. Like if you think about it, we worship the body yet the body is what keeps us apart.
This line of thinking brings me to your line, “the tree looked like I’d loved it.” I love the monster of it. How love is used as deformation. What kind of love have you experienced like this?
CH: I always feel changed by love, and always for good, even though the process is tremendously painful. The most mysterious love to me, now, is love that I know has changed me but I no longer remember. I think, “I must have been a different person to be able to accept love in that awful form,” but I can’t quite grasp the details. It’s like trying to remember things from someone else’s life—impossible. I can only see myself now, and even then, barely.
JMF: Shit, that’s devastating. Like learning about loss through a scene in a Disney movie as a child, because a) there’s the inevitable epiphany that the world will eventually suck for you, and b) the simulation within which you experience that deficiency isn’t real itself, so it’s a kind of double loss of sorts. I think you’re right though, there’s a reason why Diana Ross sang “Baby, Baby Where Did Our Love Go?” the way she did. Because yeah, where the fuck did it go?
But I do want to say, I love this release. A beautiful longing through the void. It’s sort of similar to what you said about your love in other people’s lives and the self-realization that can or cannot be triggered by that. I think the initial listening of Night Redacted is like seeing yourself on a videotape for the first time and realizing how much of the world is just negative space all around you. It’s freeing as hell.
CH: I’m surprised and excited to hear the audio made you envision something as visual as a videotape. For some reason this reminds me of a line from your poem, “Baby Love,” when you write, “The forest is boring.” Show me a photo of a person in the forest and I’ll look at the person first. Maybe it’s instinctual, maybe it’s narcissistic, but it relates to a line you write a little later in the poem: “No one can mend anybody else.” It’s like, where did our love go? I don’t know. Maybe this other person will know.
JMF: God, I hope that’s true. I wanted to ask you a little about your recording process, since we both seem to want to approach reading poetry from a different perspective, or panopticon, if you will. When reciting and performing poems, we always feel the propensity to add something to them (timbre, theater, etc.), but I guess I like to think about what we remove or omit by reading them, too. Sometimes we forget that it’s paucity that reigns us, not addendum, so what element of omission do you think was valuable when creating the recording of these poems?
CH: Well, I don’t feel the need to be theatrical when I read poetry aloud, but I always appreciate when it’s done well. For example, I love in your poem, “Where Did Our Love Go,” when you say “so long” to various things, and it gets louder and louder, urgent and more urgent. I want to scream back at you, “So long, cherry blossom!” As for omission, I imagined the speaker of Night Redacted talking to one person in one breathless gust, so that leaves little room for much else.
In your poem, “A Place In The Sun,” you write, “The best we can hope for is to die before the people we love die.” What else do you hope for?
JMF: Hope has that stagnancy to it, you know, the whole fucking swampiness of it. I think the grind of creation is the physicality of hope, and everything is done better physically. Thoughts are inert, and mindfulness shows little to no outcome aside from emotion or pathos. Feelings! What have they done for us? Fear ushers us away from shit and then we’re afraid to be alone. It’s like when you write, “Are you lost girl” / I will not be.” That line is a neon anthem to me; you can live your whole life under those auspices; you’re breaking poetry with Beckett right there: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” There’s hope in all that. You get a soda at the store, there’s hope; you put your dog down, there’s hope; you wear the blondest wig in the world, there’s hope. So I guess I mean to say that, because of activity, I don’t really do the whole bide-and-hope thing anymore.
In “Your Honor,” you write, “truth is a career / something can be crawled toward but never / reached.” It makes me think of that David Shrigley “Career” comic. It’s also something that plagues pretty much anyone who attempts to come to any kind of realization about anything. And I know some theorist, or brain, has said this better than me before but the idea that we can’t reach truth, or that there is no truth, is a kind of truth itself, isn’t it. How do you think we reconcile that? Or is it even possible to? Or is that what sitting around in a field and staring at azaleas or milkweed is for?
CH: I can’t tell you how excited I was when I heard someone’s job (at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN) was to study truth. I liked thinking of someone so much smarter than me, driven by logic and facts rather than emotion, trudging through the same mess that artists happily and unhappily wade within. I’m less interested in the truth now, and more interested in emotional truth, or what feels real, even if it isn’t (and even then—what’s real, what’s not, we could keep going forever). I just rewatched Tetro, and I read this quote Francis Ford Coppola said when he was asked about the autobiographical elements of the film: “Nothing in it happened, but all of it is true.” I suppose I hope for the discovery of more truth, but not the whole truth.
JMF: I also see a kind of dispirited providence in the end of “Finding Out” with “it’s true my body could / write a poem that said everything / but then you’d think you knew / me & I’d think I knew you / & then where would we be” and similarly, in my poem, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” with “what if we were actually pretty fucking great / what then.” The similar moves we make here are compelling to me because we seem to find a kind of meditation through defeatism that necessitates and, dare I say, beautifies the motivating force of ache and impossibility in our lives. The idea that if things were easier, what the fuck would we do with ourselves? Do you feel comfortable with where we are in that sentiment? How about with the sad reality that we must use our poems to expose what our lives cannot reveal?
CH: Yes, that line of yours stuck out to me as well. “What then?” What do we do once we’ve acquired the thing we want? Usually, I find I didn’t even want it at all. And that’s a similar question I ask in “Finding Out”—what do we do once we know each other? It’s like Sylvia Plath writing in her journal, “I like people too much or not at all.” Once I’m drawn to someone, I want to know them completely, and that can be terrifying in its own quiet way, because, inevitably, something will disappoint us both. It’s so much easier to romanticize the idea of someone.
Do you think you romanticize Diana Ross? What do you like most about her?
JMF: Honestly, no. I think I romanticize pretty much everything else. When I hear Diana Ross, I feel like I’ve been the same person my whole life, like all my feelings are linear, like there’s no such thing as childhood, dynamics or cultivation at all. I guess that sounds pretty romanticized itself but I think that’s the way it really is—and it’s everything else that’s belabored, fantasized, fetishized. Like through some other discourse of exteriorization, or self, we’ll get somewhere untapped, unsullied, or new. I guess that’s what I love most about her. With those songs, I’ll never lose any part of my life at all. There’s an immortality in nostalgia that people often resent or overlook, but what’s the point of begrudging it if we all have to die eventually anyway? We might as well experience any kind of endurance while we can. For me, that happens in those old Diana Ross songs from my youth, they curiously sound the same as the ones I hear now.
You can listen to, share, and download Chelsea Hodson’s Night Redacted, Jon-Michael Frank’s Diana Ross & the Supremes, and many more poetry records, for free, at blackcake.org.