In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame: Levi Bentley & Ted Rees In Conversation
I’ve been running into Ted Rees all over town for the last few months, at pretty much every poetry reading I’ve been to since he recently returned to Philadelphia. It’s his hometown, but he’s far from complacent about the literary landscape. His enthusiasm, humor, and inquisitive energy are infectious and welcome forces. He is a great example of what’s exciting about poetry in Philly, which has a rich working class literary tradition and a robust experimental scene.
Ted has a wild and hairy autodidactic intelligence sprouted in Philly under the influence of poets like Yolanda Wisher, who was his high school teacher, and grown feral under the freeways and forests of California. I had the pleasure of catching up with Ted Rees about his most first poetry collection, In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, a breathlessly pleasurable incantation just out from Timeless, Infinite Light. Trash-strewn landscapes, mildewed couches, and a vocabulary of candied regionalisms make for a text as fun and funny as it is serious, as thoughtful as it is intrepid.
LEVI BENTLEY: The use of baroque language to describe a landscape such as you use throughout In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame is a technique that comes to us, it seems, from the tradition of the Bucolic, but the objects you chose to dignify are often forms of detritus or trash. “The containers’ brief repose past concertina wire,“ for example, imbues what I imagine to be a styrofoam lunch container with the same attention as a resting butterfly or leaf. What are the politics of this kind of attention?
TED REES: I like the idea of the styrofoam lunch container, though if my memory serves me, I’m pretty sure I was referencing the stacked containers of intermodal freight trains that Allen Sekula so beautifully documents in his film, The Forgotten Space. But your reading drives at a similar impulse in the book, and that is to focus on what is unremembered, obscured, or discarded as a method of interrogating logics of capital, as well as our relations within those logics. There is a difference, of course, between a leaf and a styrofoam container, or a towering cypress and a freight train, but they exist in the same zones, right? Simply ignoring the styrofoam container or the freight train doesn’t make them disappear. If we give attention to these material realities, then we are proclaiming that we notice the preponderance of carcinogenic and environmentally unsound polystyrene materials, or that we are hyper aware of logistics networks in serving the smooth functionality of neoliberal global trade. In other words, the leaf is not enough— we need to give attention to the atmospheric soot that settles on the leaf, to the invasive species that is decimating the leaf’s tree, to the clearcuts of thousands of trees for lumber so that more tract homes can be built.
LB: One of the other dominant senses I get as a reader is one of domesticity on the move within the also fluid formations of capital. “Architecture firms” and “In adaptation’s stew, the wild geese flutter” you write, as well as, “Thus sleeping under the overpass is as sleeping next to the ocean.” Were you traveling, sleeping under overpasses, and drinking kalimotxo on “slippy couches” during the writing of this? Where were you located and where were you going?
TR: To say this book is a “California” book would be an understatement, for while there are elements of the third section (“Threshing Hem of Storms”) that are located elsewhere, most of the book is located firmly in Northern California. Oakland and the Bay Area form a frame for the book’s first two sections, with Siskiyou and Humboldt counties playing large roles in the third section, and the Northern Sacramento Valley situating the fourth section of poems.
In addition, to say this is a book about precarity and mobility would be an understatement. In early 2013, my partner and I were put out of the group living situation where we’d been staying in Oakland, and so we pooled together all of our savings and bought a used fourteen-foot U-Haul box truck. Over the course of several months, we stayed in a friend’s squat while we outfitted the truck with a door, a sunroof/breather, a lofted bed, a kitchen and sink area, solar power, and so on. We made it into an RV, essentially. For more than a year, the truck was our home, and while we travelled around the Bay Area quite a bit at first, we eventually settled next to our friends’ art-punk warehouse space in West Oakland. I showered at the gym. We did toilet business in gas stations and coffee shops and other pseudo-public private places— I’ve pooped in some gnarly locales. When it rained, the truck had leaks, so we had to park under the elevated BART tracks or under the freeway. It was really difficult and stressful, but also introduced us to a whole different way of thinking about city streets and urban space, living together, the ways in which freedom from the yoke of landlords and bosses can alter one’s social relations. We became tight with other vehicularly-housed folks, of which there are many in the Bay, and I think that both of us look back on it as a glorious if occasionally stressful part of our relationship with each other and the world around us. So, yes, we were moving around a lot, drinking a fair amount, engaging in party and poetry and punk communities, and really doing it up.
Eventually, when we had enough money, we began renting a room as a studio in our friend’s house full of punks and retired trainhopper types, but we slept in the truck for that entire period. A bit more than a year passed, and we moved to Siskiyou County, which is the central northernmost county in California, to act as caretakers for a hobo museum and cultural hub that we’d been visiting for years and years. When that didn’t end as expected, we stayed in the county for a while on an off-grid property owned by our friend, at about 4500 feet above sea level on the eastern flank of Mt. Shasta. There was little direct sunlight and thus, little power. The kitchen had been dismantled, so we cooked in an outdoor camp kitchen, and once it got dark, we read and listened to tape cassettes and talked in the truck. That was the last period where we really lived in the thing before moving it to the Northern Sacramento Valley, where it eventually got scrapped because working on its problems became prohibitively expensive.
All of this is to say that for years, we had the truck, but we also moved around a lot, sometimes without the truck— long periods were spent working on weed farms in Humboldt County, travelling in the Bay, riding freights, etc.
I’m glad that the feeling of movement comes across. It has been a huge part of my life, for better or for worse. There’s an old hobo song that goes, “I’m the wondering son with the nervous feet,/ That were never meant for a steady beat;/ I’ve had many a job for a little while./ I’ve been on the bum and I’ve lived in style;/ And there was the road, stretchin’ mile after mile,/ and nothing to do but go.” While I’ve settled a bit, there’s a lot of the song that is still in me.
LB: You often use highly specific terminology and elevated vocabulary to speak about scenes that seem like they may be in direct contrast, mixing sacred and profane in a way that’s surprising and charged. I’ve seen tactics like this before in New Narrative and The Girlesque, with the added distinction that the scenes you discuss are often even “below” the attention span of what we would think of as “low culture.” I know you’ve talked about being influenced by Robert Glück for example, but this seems to have an added turn. Although not unrelated to his brand of philosophizing in a state of abjection, you often choose to keep your body out of it. I’m curious about how identity figures for you, how is it relevant and irrelevant to your work? And what would you call the realm of “unmoored shopping cart cages strewn about” and “pissed mattress(es)”?
TR: Interesting question, as I don’t think my body or “the body” is kept out of my work at all— much of the time its presence is implied or suggested rather than explicitly at the fore, but it is there.
I think there are a few possible reasons for this swerve, as it could be read, but one is perhaps most present for me. After reading so much about the body and considering it quite a bit in older works, I don’t find writing about my queer sexuality to be all that interesting for me— I’ve read everything in Polysexuality and my fair share of queer theory, and I’ve had erotic stories and poems published here and there. These sensual realms just aren’t where my writing interests are situated at the moment. Queerness as a political position against the state is a subject I am more invested in, and I think that interest is more obvious in the poems, where I rail against this century’s “calcifying of the somatic,” and so on.
The realm you mention can be considered part of what Gilles Clément would call “the third landscape,” or the friches and the délaissé, those neglected and forgotten spaces that are unattended by humans, yet often display the ravages of past human interaction. These are queer spaces insomuch as they are both resistant to and absorptive of the excesses of capital, which is why I find them so fascinating— think gutters, ditches, medians, abandoned lots, freeway overpasses, as well as more wild locales such as forests, wilderness parks, and the like. As you know, unofficial dumping grounds in most urban and even rural territories often consist of a collection of mattresses, shopping carts, and other assorted garbage, and to make note of this unfortunate reality seems necessary if one is going to write about landscape in any way.
LB: Thanks for entertaining what could seem like a goading or provoking question. As someone from a middle-class background, the subject of your writing seems like it could, if one were not paying attention, skirt adventurism. These poems seem very different to me than poverty tourism, however, the depth of attention and relationship hinted at throughout, for example. It brings to mind Linh Dinh’s deep and political attentiveness. How would you articulate the line between agency and authentic experience in your work?
TR: A few years ago, a friend brought up the fact that even though we were both poor, we were also both raised in middle-class families, and thus retained many of the privileges afforded those who grow up in such situations. It’s a point I agree with, for while it encapsulates the downward mobility of many of us born in the late 1970’s into the 1980’s, it also allows for the reality that class privilege is maintained through any number of different factors. Thus, while I’ve been broke or close to it for a lot of my adult life, I’ve also had the ability to move between worlds in ways that a lot of people cannot because of my education and life experiences. For example, when we were living in our truck under a freeway overpass in San Francisco, I was working part-time in a luxury retail environment, slathering expensive product on enormously wealthy people from some of the richest neighborhoods in the City. I couldn’t pretend that my life had ever been anything like theirs, but because I had friends who grew up in such highfalutin environs, I was able to convince those people to part with their cash, and I wasn’t bad at it. I’d had some trouble with the law, my partner was working gigs, and much of the money that we had came from that job. In other words, my middle-class background gave me the ability to live and eat and support another person in a situation that wasn’t altogether wonderful, but was certainly preferable to living in a tent on a sidewalk or highway median.
Since a lot of my time has been spent living in or around “the third landscape” mentioned in my previous response, my work has been able to meditate on the realities and vagaries of such spaces. Part of this is that I have often been unable to afford to live in other situations, but another part of this is that I am deeply uninterested in middle-class values and lifestyles. Bohemianism gets a bad rap, and often rightly so because it is so wrapped up in dilettantism of all sorts, but I think there is something to be said for the “louche but informed bohemianism” that was espoused by the late Peter Culley, for example. While it is impossible to slough off certain elements of the agency afforded me by my upbringing, that doesn’t mean that I must embrace the values inhered within that upbringing, and can actually attempt to live against such values as much as possible. I’d like to think my work is against those values, that sort of comfortability, even if the language or images of that resistance is somewhat erudite or inaccessible. I hope that sort of answers your question?
LB: I feel like being transparent about this stuff is so important. As someone who grew up in poverty, got kicked out of my house and became financially independent at 18, but has white privilege and the autodidactic bent and education to not appear poor if I try, it’s an interesting intersection of worlds and constraints that is so often not legible.
TR: Yeah, I think being transparent about all of this is really important, too! Great question. I’ve resisted writing a non-fiction book about ‘living in a truck’ for the reasons that I elucidated in my response.
LB: I know music is a very important influence for you, as are the legacies of other poets. You have an encyclopedic knowledge of various contemporary avant-garde and experimental circles throughout the US and Canada at least, not to mention a general familiarity with a ton of worldwide historical avant work. If you had to pick a few albums and books that were formational for this particular book, what would you say the musical and poetic soundtrack of this book was for you while you were writing?
TR: Books are a little easier for me to pinpoint, as a lot of my influences also provided epigraphs, so that Leslie Scalapino (particularly Defoe), Ken Irby (To Max Douglas), and Lisa Robertson (particularly Cinema of the Present and Occasional Work and Seven Walks…) were certainly in regular rotation around the time I was writing most of In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame. The works of Will Alexander (Asia & Haiti), Fred Moten (The Little Edges), and Peter Culley (Parkway and The Climax Forest) were also important to the book’s writing. Of course, a lot of other writings helped shape the book, but to go through all of them would be a somewhat tedious exercise. I often publish a list of the books I’ve read during the course of the year on December 31st, and so that is probably the best way for curious readers to see what has been influencing my writing during any given period.
Music is more difficult, as my tastes are kind of all over the place, but a few of the artists who served as a soundtrack to the book’s writing— and I know because I checked my music player and Youtube history— include Grebenstein, Basic House, Stars of the Lid, Wolves in the Throne Room, OM, Underground Resistance, Bookworms, DJ Rashad, FIS, Gabriel Saloman, Group Inerane, Jon Hopkins, The Necks, Future, Julius Eastman, and a LOT of hyphy music and radio hip-hop because that’s the only pop music that I find palatable.
Now, whether those musical influences are evident in the work is another question altogether. The industrial, raw techno of Grebenstein and Basic House might come through in the first section, and a number of Future and hyphy references show up in various places, but I think a lot of the aural influences are more about creating an atmosphere around my space when I write, so any specific artist’s impact on the work might be really dispersed or subtle. Interested readers and listeners can check out a playlist that I made with some of the music I was listening to while working on the book. It’s worth mentioning that I also used to write about music professionally, I’m very sensitive to how music does or does not fit into a given poem or piece of writing, but I hope that the sonic element comes across in the work.
LB: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about this slow-burning, wide-ranging work. It’s been such a privilege to engage and re-engage and ask questions that open particular approaches and readings further for myself, and hopefully for others as well. There is so much more to dig into than what we have time and space to touch on, but I hope that the generosity and approachability of your answers on these few broad points will encourage anyone who is leery of the book’s density to engage with the music and trust their interpretive capacities to let this really joyful and teeming text unfold with time and attentiveness.
TR: Thank you for spending so much time with this work— it’s always a deep pleasure to engage in a discussion with someone whose work and mind for poetry I truly respect, and who is also unafraid to pose challenging questions about the work and the process behind it! Cheers to you.
Ted Rees is a poet and essayist who currently lives in Philadelphia, but spent nine years living in various locations throughout central and northern California. Previous publications include The New Anchorage (Mondo Bummer 2014), Outlaws Drift in Every Vehicle of Thought (Trafficker Press 2013), and Like Air (Bent Boy Books). Recent work can be found in SET: a journal, The Recluse, Full Stop Quarterly, and From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice, eds. Rob Halpern and Robin Tremblay-McGraw. Forthcoming this year is the hybrid chapbook, the soft abyss, published by The Elephants.
Levi Bentley organizes the reading series Housework, edits the journal Boneless Skinless, and is a member of the artist collective Vox Populi. “Bucolic Eclogue” was released from Lamehouse Press in July 2016. Chapbooks “Obstacle, Particle, Spectacle”, “&parts”, and “Stub Wilderness” were released from 89plus/LUMA Foundation, Damask Press, and Well Greased Press, respectively. Vitrine released their tape “Red Green Blue”. Poems have appeared through 491, Apiary, Bedfellows, BlazeVOX, Boog City, Elective Affinities, Fact-Simile, Gigantic Sequins, No Infinite, Madhouse, Maestra Vida, Magic Pictures, Painted Bride Quarterly, Small Po[r]tions, Stillwater Review, The Wanderer, Tinge and Truck.