THE GIANT SURF GOTH INTERVIEW WITH OSCAR BRUNO D’ARTOIS
The poems of Oscar Bruno d’Artois seem to me like the pinnacle of a movement or trend in poetry that has started to recede or repeat itself. I don’t want to say the word and you don’t want me to say the word, although I think in the interview we may say the word (lots of words, in fact). Anyways, the tongue-in-cheek, very contemporary, very Twitter-like poetry of d’Artois is both extreme and exceptional in its style. The poetic voice is so unique but also so representative of a collective language, an expression so funny and true at the same time. Underneath any technological or historical infusion into this voice, there is a deeper core that is confused, conversational, and comic, all the way that can’t be tied down as easily as the new flavor of the week. It’s something the great poets have been doing since the beginning of time.
I first met Oscar (not their real name) in 2013 at Mellow Pages Library in Bushwick, Brooklyn. In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with overpriced everything, the library was a space that offered everything for free, or at least at-cost of upkeep, from entertainment to books to beverages. Jacob Perkins and Matt Nelson were the people who ran the space, and d’Artois was one of the poets who became a staple of its culture. He was always seen in-person or on social media devouring the poets and writers he found out about from the library, such as Melissa Broder or Mira Gonzalez. Being the neurotic person that I am, I was kind of standoffish to him at first, although I do remember bumming maybe two dozen rolled cigarettes of him the first time we met in the winter-spring of that year, when I still smoked. Then I got to know him, and he was great, almost as greater or even greater than his poetry.
By the time his book Teen Surf Goth was announced to come out from Montreal-based publisher Metatron this past fall, it was clear that he would quickly establish himself as one of the strongest individuals working in the verse form these days. I sent him some questions about the book, and he responded as expansively as almost anyone I have ever interviewed. The conversation is below. Find out more about him and his book via his Twitter or Tumblr.
Your book’s epigraph is a quote by Virginia Woolf. Can you explain how you found this quote or how it was generated?
It’s a misremembered quote from The Waves. It had been ‘stuck in my head’ for years, in the sense that in certain situations where it seemed relevant my brain would sort of repeat it back at me, almost like a mantra. But over time, as my memory of the passage faded, it also distorted the phrasing of it. So I guess it was ‘generated’ by a kind of prolonged game of telephone that I was playing with myself. I actually went on the project gutenberg website a couple of days before my book was published to try to find the quote, but I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t exploded across several pages. As to why I used it, I think I put it in the book mostly so it would get out of my head. Which, so far at least, has worked! So that’s one reason to write a book, I guess.
What’s up with your book title: Teen Surf Goth? What’s going on there?!!?
A couple summers ago, when I was living in Brooklyn, I’d wake up every morning feeling pretty gross, because it was hot as heck, & as often as not I was hungover, & if I didn’t have to go to work me & sometimes a few friends would get iced coffee & go to Coney Island & jump in the albeit kind of gross water. I didn’t have a bathing suit, so I just wore these black cut-offs that were held together by a piece of shoestring, because the button had come off. I had to make sure to wear underwear because they also had this enormous hole in the crotch. In short, they were extremely bohemian.
Anyway, one time we were walking thru the crowd & I remember this one girl shouting to her friend, about me, ‘tina, this fucking hippie just stepped on my foot!’ And, I don’t know why, maybe because Coney is such a weird place, somehow basic & hellish but still appealling all at the same time, but it just made me think about being a Freak at the Beach, I guess. It reminded me of several truly goth teen summers I’d spent walking around this beach town dressed all in black except for my bare feet & hiding in the shade to avoid getting tan & generally feeling sort of alienated & sullen. It seemed like a funny dilemma, in retrospect, trying to stay true to my dark self while still having fun in the sun, and I thought that maybe I wasn’t completely alone in the world in having had to deal with it.
We started making posts about our trips to Coney on tumblr, and using tags like ‘teenage surfing goths’ for them, as a kind of joke. Then at some point we were riding the subway & discussing what it meant to be a teen surf goth or something, & I remember Mike Young, who was in town for the weekend, saying something off-hand like ‘that would be a good book title,’ & even tho the idea of publishing a book was still pretty far from my mind, & I hadn’t written most of the poems that would end up in it, it just kind of felt like, ‘oh.’
I feel like there is a depth of aesthetic in this book, wherein it is very stylized and “branded”, even though I hate that term, which hopefully I won’t find myself using again in this interview. Are you usually concerned or not regarding your voice sounding original when you write poems?
Well, for one thing I think that there’s this need in general for poetry ‘of the internet era’ to grab your attention, to sound different, since it is competing with so many other distractions, like clickbait & porn & netflix & stuff. And then there is also this risk that everyone who is more or less consciously writing in light of that fact will wind up sounding the same. That said, I don’t think that the book is stylized in like an ornamental way. I would like it if it read to people kind of like the sped-up cartoonish voice they use in ‘electronicky’ pop/rap, the one that shouts like ‘hey!’ & stuff, because I feel like I almost recognize myself more in the sound of that voice than I do in the ‘natural’ human voices in those songs. As in, give a man a distortion machine and he will tell you the truth. Having said that, books that are hyper-stylized in a very self-conscious seeming way feel alienating to me, and the poems in TSG are just written the way I type.Which, I mean, is itself kind of artificial if you go far enough back – I wasn’t born spelling it ‘u’ rather than ‘you,’ I guess – but then, that’s all learned behavior, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone’s ever created anything that didn’t come out of an initial affect, but that doesn’t make it ‘not natural,’ because things only become natural with time. Which maybe has to do with living with something. Most of the art I am drawn to seems to come out of a kind of organic affectedness.
You liked Rimbaud a lot growing up, right? And what contemporary authors influenced you reading this book?
Yeah. I was like, kind of in love with him maybe? Well, I didn’t know if I wanted to write like him, or be him, or have sex with him. One advantage of having a crush on a dead person though is that you never really have to figure that out. Also, there is very little chance of them failing to meet your expectations.
Here are some non-dead authors that occur to me when I try think about things I enjoyed while I was editing TSG this past spring/summer: Matthew Savoca, Kanye West, Maggie Nelson, Kimmy Walters, Oneothrix Point Never, Eileen Myles, Paul Legault.
Your book starts out with a poem about being 12 yrs old. It’s also has the word “teen” in the title. Throughout, one can sense a nostalgia for younger times and more playful times. Did you think about youth a lot while writing this, including your own youth? Would you say one of your goals in writing it was to promote people to be playful and optimistic and “carpe diem”?
I don’t know, I don’t want to fetishize ‘youthful innocence’ or anything. It’s more like a nostalgia for an idealized American youth that I never really had. You know, hot, neon, non-catastrophic. But I do feel like there is a ‘teen mindset’ – in the sense of trying to be alive to your experiences & letting thought patterns/emotions run their course no matter how intense/scary, and even though more often than not that isn’t how I live my life at all – that there’s a teen mindset or lifestyle that, as a way that you can choose to try & live, has very little to do with age, and that I can get behind. You know, politically.
A lot of your poems have this rambling narrative or story-telling tone. Do you think you would ever write a novel or something like that?
I often set out with the intention of writing a story and then I kind of forget about it for a little while & what ends up happening is a poem. It’s not like I have an aversion to prose or anything. If people want to think of TSG as a book of (albeit kinda weird) short stories, that’s fine. So in that sense, sure, why not. Any grants?
You have lived in a lot of different places. Has that influenced your poetry (or just you in general)? How has the Internet influenced your poetry?
Growing up in France probably defines me more than I’m willing to admit, even though I’d never claim to be writing ‘from the transnational perspective’ or something. Like I sort of hate talking about it, but maybe that makes it all the more central? As for moving around as an ‘adult,’ it’s mostly just nice to know that I can live wherever for a bit & I don’t have to think of it as a complete overhaul of my relationships or of whatever it is that I think I am doing with my lifeat that time.
As for the internet, even though it was ostensibly reading Rimbaud & French ‘symbolist’ poetry while I was in high school that introduced me to the idea that poetry could be cool, I feel like ‘the internet,’ played just as much of a role. I discovered those writers independently of school, which may have helped, and did so during a kind of hikkikomori-ish period of my life where I was also really into online gaming, particularly an ‘MMORPG’ called Diablo II.
After I graduated high school & left France, I was still convinced that poetry might secretly be cool, but I didn’t really know where to go from there. My idea of what ‘writing’ was didn’t really seem to connect with a lot of people around me in college, and I didn’t have any interest in taking writing classes. I had a few friends who had similar kinds of ideas/fantasizes to me, but I mostly kept any writing I did to myself. I had a bunch of ‘secret’ notebooks & docs & folders on my desktop that were full of it, though, of course. One of the folders was just a bunch of conversations I had had on like, MSN messenger & stuff, and that I had felt were somehow noteworthy enough that I wanted to preserve them. I don’t know what I was saving them for exactly, I just felt a kind of urge to memorialize them. And I also remember vaguely wishing for a way to combine the way Rimbaud & co made me feel with the way those conversations, & also gaming, did, but feeling unsure about how or even if I could do that.
Then at some point in like 2011 I stumbled across an anonymous seeming blog where this person was talking about ‘lit 2.0,’ and I got excited enough about it that I bookmarked the page, which wasn’t something that I did very often. It was only recently that I realized that it was Steve Roggenbuck’s blog, whom I didn’t really become aware of until a few years later, anyway. Unrelatedly, around the time that I was finishing college, a friend of mine told me to friend Heiko Julien on facebook, which I did, and what he was talking about on there also felt pretty exciting to me, although I am kind of scared to admit that now. Later, I moved to New York & eventually found my way to Mellow Pages, which was definitely the first time I’d experienced something like a physical literary community, even while I was becoming more aware that there was also a community of people ‘doing stuff’ online. I ended up meeting a bunch of people through Mellow, including Lucy K Shaw (who encouraged me to submit stuff to Shabby Doll House which, apart from a now-defunct journal that a friend of mine briefly ran called Noncannon, was the first place to publish me), and a bunch of other people whom I now count among my closest influences &friends. So, I don’t know, it seems hard to imagine what my life/writing without the internet would have been like. I’d probably be living on a raft or addicted to meth or something.
One poem mentions “baristas with liberal art degrees reading clickbait.” Do you think most liberal arts degrees are worth their extraordinary costs? Is there some sort of intangible value or is it pretty whatever?
I only applied to college because my plans to start an anarcho-syndicalist commune in a chateau with my high school friends fell through, surprisingly, and I had no idea what else to do with myself. I guess it was nice to have a four year context in which doing basically nothing was socially acceptable. But it certainly didn’t like, help me with my ‘career’ or anything. I went to this weird hippie school where we didn’t really have majors, so most employers have usually decided that they aren’t going to hire me before I’ve even finished explaining what exactly it is that I have a degree in.
You were “a staple” at Mellow Pages Library during its original incarnation. How did Mellow Pages affect you and/or your writing?
I feel super new-agy being like ‘mellow pages changed my life!!’ but at the same time, it kind of did. It introduced me to ‘indie lit’ on a broader & less precious scale than other places might’ve, and provided me with a sense of community at a time when I felt really lost. I think I’d be a lot more cynical about the whole ‘Moving to NYC & Becoming an Artiste’ thing if I hadn’t found it. As it stands, however, I highly recommend moving to a strange place & then spending too much time on the couch at your local indie library, especially to anyone who has no idea what to do with their lives. Or, alternatively, starting you own.
Which is more important: poetry or food?
Both, but never mix!
I often feel that in order to write i need to starve myself a little. Like it has to be a quiet time like the middle of the night and i have to be alone and the idea of eating has to be miles away in order for me to write. Well not always but ideally. I can’t eat before readings for several hours, either, not just because butterflies or whatever, but more just cause for me, poetry allows me to temporarily escape my body (or at least experience it differently), and there’s nothing like food to remind you that you have a body.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy to eat a lot. I spend hours at work refreshing whatthefuckshouldimakefordinner.com, and I like to cook. Recently, I even taught myself to make fricking marmalade, because my secret aspiration in life is to be a stay at home wine mom. But if I am going to write I think I need to feel – and give myself the room to feel – a little hungry for ‘something else.’
Are you glad people have typed the phrase “Alt Lit is Dead” or do you not care?
I don’t know, I am sort of tired of it being dead. Hating on alt lit for being trendy has always itself been kind of trendy & facile, & I feel like the sort of smug consensus over it being dead is just the latest mutation of that. I almost want to start describing myself as ‘alt lit,’ just to get on people’s nerves.
And like, there was just something gross about the gleeful way that media outlets like gawker were so ready to celebrate the ‘death of alt lit,’ which I feel like a lot of people had probably never heard of and didn’t care about until they read about it collapsing anyway. Not to mention the kind of Salem-esquehysteria that occurred within the online lit community itself. Of course there were very real issues of sexual assault that led up to that, which I’m notquestioning at all. I think they were issues that needed to be brought to the fore, & so in that sense it was important to be able to say fuck this, and fuck alt lit, at one point. But I also think that what the frenzy around it revealed was a to be honest kind of dark eagerness to dismantle a community of people the impetus behind which, after all, had been to make it possible for a bunch of young, non-established people to create things and, by supporting one another, to feel supported in creating things. Which I think sets it apart from the cycle of cynicism that tends to characterize most online behaviors & outlets.
And it’s not like the people who were involved with it just disappeared. I mean, I guess that stylistically, maybe there was a kind of snowball effect that resulted in a lot of lazy, homogenized writing that just needed to go. But like, who even described themselves as ‘alt lit’ in the first place? It was a label that was applied to people who were making things, and who continue to make things; the only effect the ‘collapse’ of it has had is to add a more interesting, and urgent, diversity of voices to the pool. But the idea of a loose-knit community of artists bound together by a) a vaguely shared sensibilty & b) a willingness to engage with the online world is not dead. It’s just that nobody knows what to call it anymore.
Your poem “visions of coney” doesn’t seem “like Walt Whitman” but it does seem “descended from his style”….any thoughts on this? Also, how do you feel about Brooklyn. By the way, I’m moving (I don’t know if you’ve been to my current apartment though, anyways…).
I didn’t really write that poem while actively thinking about Walt Whitman. I’ve never read Leaves of Grass in full, to be honest. I don’t hate it at all, but I don’t feel as indebted to it as some people seem to.
As for Brooklyn, I go back & forth. On the one hand it’s the first place i felt able to describe myself as a ‘writer’ – albeit safely within quotation marks – & not feel like I was being 150% delusional. On the other hand, the ‘Brooklynification,’ or whatever, not just of new york but of other cities at large – paris or berlin, say – is obv the worst. In spite of there being a number of aspects to it that I enjoy/are to my benefit. Also, there is this lack of – you know that danish word, hygge? it means like home/coziness/wellb-being, or something – New York seems like the least hygge place in the world to me. Life in Berlin isn’t necessarily easy, but when i go outside I don’t feel like the city’s animus is trying to kill me. But then maybe that is part of why so much creative stuff ends up coming out of there, and why the micro-communities that New York generates are so powerful. Which might make it seem like I’m suggesting that people need to suffer too make art, which I don’t think is true, but… I don’t know. Lately, there seems to be all this snuggling & cuffing & hiding from blizzards going on in Brooklyn, which is making me miss it pretty hard.
How do you feel about selfies?