THE PRIMAL NATURE OF THE DESCENT TO THE GRAVE: AN INTERVIEW WITH M KITCHELL
M Kitchell’s new book, Apart From, feels singular in the most seductive of ways. The writing is sensual and shadowy and is simply better off read than described. It is also good to just look at. The text, which is bloody and beautiful, is punctuated with photographs and a layout which helps further guide the reader through its foggy debris.
I spoke with Kitchell about Apart From, queerness, and his Solar▲Luxuriance imprint.
Where did Apart From come from? The title seems to purposely announce that it’s coming from an intentionally queer perspective, which made me wonder if the book came from a conceptual place, or whether it was a more intuitive piece that took shape as you wrote it.
The seed of the text was written in the mountains of New Mexico, which is an environment I’ve found immensely fruitful over the last few years. Other than the environment, I spent a lot of time in 2014 obsessively reading the work of Marguerite Duras, Maurice Blanchot, and Georges Bataille (the latter of whom I’ve more or less dedicated most of my life to obsessively reading). These three writers all share a fascination with “outsideness,” whether in consideration of politics, social life, or literature & theory itself.
Another major influence came from the French poet Bernard Noël, who is virtually unknown in English due to a dearth of easily accessible English translations (though if one is willing to spend time digging & ordering British poetry journals from the 70s, you can find a lot of his work in translation, mostly thanks to the efforts of Paul Buck & Glenda George). So, really, I found the work of these four authors pushing and pulling inside of my headspace. One could note, of course, that none of these authors are queer in a traditional sense (or at least in terms of sexuality), though I would argue that a lot of their writing is indeed queer. But my interest was in sort of taking my experience with this work and adapting it to what I’m personally interested in: a sort of queer mysticism, meeting myth with the sexually fantastique and adapting this to affect. Though I insist on pushing away from representation, with the intent of creating a sort of space for a reader to jump into and feel something herself.
But to address your question, the genesis of the text was a combination of the “myth” that opens the book along with an earlier version of the CORPS/TEXTE section, written fairly intuitively without any particular destination in mind. This was a sort of “giving up” to the environment I was in. I had re-read the Bernard Noël essay, The Question, (a quote of which ostensibly “opens” the book) in a cave in the side of a desert mountain, and it resonated with a distinct sort of heaviness. It was in this heaviness that I knew I had found the necessary movement to start writing. Over the next five months or so, I intricately dealt with editing and reshaping, to a much more obsessive degree than usual in my work. It just felt right. When that was complete, I realized that I needed a third section, which was then written in the semi-intoxication of the night (which the white text on the black page is ideally evocative of). Of course I spent plenty of time editing again and then shaping into a book itself.
What was it about Mallarmé’s Igitur that led you to wanting to take it apart or relocate it?
Oddly, the connection to Igitur came after the initial conception, when the first version of the text was already complete. While spending time inside of this text I had written, which I knew needed shape in some capacity, I realized that Igitur was already there. So, upon this realization, I spent some more time with Mallarmé’s text and then read Robert Greer Cohn’s book length study of the poem (which, for the record, I think pulls that awful modernist trick of reducing a poem to a sort of formal articulation—it ignores, or even dismisses, the “mystery;” despite this, it’s still great for the way it digs deep into the text). My interest in Mallarmé’s poem was how it is such an inherently primal journey of affect, the movement, the way the page is used, the way language isn’t limited to the representational quality–and looking at that as a model, especially in the primal nature of the descent to the grave (and how to get outside of that temporal linearity), I realized that it would help shape the text as a whole.
With regards to the visual side of the book, the photographs feel extremely purposeful in their arrangement and inclusion–not like they are characters but they are definitely there as literary or anti-literary device, strategically positioned bumps in the road. Could you talk a little bit about why the book looks how it does?
In my work, both as a publisher and as a writer, I’m primarily concerned with the space of the book. But, yes, the design of the book, the way it works, was very intentional, very considered. For me, the shape of a book, and everything the book itself contains–blank pages, title pages, in-between pages, the shape of pages, the color of pages, the space on a page, the shape of the book, the thickness, the weight, the object itself–is incredibly important. And since I’m more concerned with affect than representation, the sequencing of the content within a book is also very important: one section following another, punctuated by an image spread, carries a different affect that, say, no separation, or the punctuation of a blank page, etc. Near the beginning of the book, there are occasionally alternating black & white pages, which was an attempt to evoke a mild flicker-effect, in the way that what your eyes are seeing changes. I can’t moderate the rate of the page turn, of course, as that’s an entirely subjective experience, but I can question how turning a page functions, and try to mess with the page-turn itself.
Similarly, with images, I think it’s always futile for images to be purely illustrative, as illustration inherently adds nothing to a text. I mean, in consideration of that fact that I aim to write in a way that is not specifically representational, I wouldn’t want to add a second level of representation with illustrative photographs. For me photographs function as another element to read, something else to take in that should add to the overall experience of reading. I’m not interested in creating a character for a reader to experience the book empathetically through—I want the reader’s experience to be privileged without any distancing, without any representational mediation. I hate when books exist to create a locatable point where the reader can “relate” to the character. That’s bullshit. I want the experience for myself; I don’t want it delivered second hand.
Aside from the visuals, the book feels cinematic in mood. Are there any visual artists, photographers, filmmakers that really stand out for you?
The artist John Duncan is consistently inspiring to me for a plethora of reasons; a lot of what I’ve learned from him or his work is regularly incorporated into my own work. I think I’ve also learned how to better articulate what it is that I want my work to do by looking at/listening to his work. Arte Povera and Viennese Actionism always play an influential role in my headspace (especially Marisa Merz & Jannis Kounellis re: the former, specifically Rudolf Schwarzkogler re: the latter). The way I’ve experienced Gregor Schneider’s installations exclusively through the mediated space of the catalog/monograph has also influenced the way I set out to write an event or experience.
In Apart From itself, I was trying to escape the hold of photography (in its assumed representational qualities), but despite this there are many photographers I’m fond of that I’d like to mention, if only to support their work: Irina Ionesco, JH Engstrom, Ellen Rogers, Anders Linden, Alexander Binder, Deborah Turbeville, and of course Guy Bourdin. I studied photography in Uni (in fact, I have a BFA in photography), but I often found myself at odds with the program—I was, perhaps, more interested in using a photograph as a semantic unit than as a “thing-in-itself.” This caused an inherent tension in my academic experience until my professor and I came to an understanding of how my interests could meet the requirements of the department. From that point forward, I worked almost exclusively in the realm of “artist books.”
Film, movies—whatever—have always been very important to me, consistently inspiring and a major part of what it is that I “take in.” As I tend to attempt to write affectively instead of representationally, I can’t say that there are any films that I specifically “borrowed images from” for Apart From per se, but I’m always willing to name drop directors like Philippe Grandrieux, Andrzej Zulawski, Konstantin Lopushansky (I just saw his Visitor to a Museum last year and it blew my mind in a way that few other films have), Bruno Dumont, Hisayasu Sato… I could keep going, but I’ll stop. Then of course one must consider the catalog of Eurohorror that I’ll never abandon: Franco, Borowczyk, Rollin, etc. have all permanently damaged the landscape of my imagination in the best way possible. The films of Frans Zwartjes are often on my mind, as are those of Dore O and her husband, Werner Nekes. The violently misanthropic yet oddly enigmatic films of Phil Prince and Roger Watkins (yes, this is heterosexual pornography), especially those starring the once-gay pornstar George Payne, enact a weird hold over me that is similar to the hypnotic hold I feel while watching the films of Alberto Cavallone. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here but, as I’ve said, there are certain names I’ll take any opportunity to release into the ether of the public.
I want to ask you about queer spaces. Apart From feels like a very queer space. I was wondering if there are any other artists whose work creates similar spaces that you a fill any kinship with.
I think that we’re at a point where the definition of “queer” has virtually nothing to do with sexuality, which I suppose is fine, but also feels a little tired to me. In the sense that, you know, why not just use a different word? Of course, it’s an argument not worth having, as language is permeable, and since I rely on the permeability of language inherently I shouldn’t complain.
But, my point in bringing this up is, perhaps, that I’ve encountered more “queer” textual spaces in the work of heterosexual writers. This kinship is felt in different ways. It seems that in the current moment many queer writers, or at least writers that find themselves in a position of alterity, of otherness, find it more necessary to write in a way that is accessible (whether this be formal or in terms of content: hence the abundance of pop-culture allusions in “queer” writing), as the concern is for the narrative to find presence, to be heard, to not be invisible. I think this is very valid, but I’m not interested in my own work placing alterity into the dominant hegemony: I’d rather access these narratives in a way that’s set apart, approached in a mode that doesn’t match the dominant mode. I’m in favor of difference, I don’t want everything to be the same. Of course, I’m not interested in telling people how to write. There is, however, an intersection of queerness & experimentation among the New Narrative writers. Living in San Francisco, these writers (who are very much still alive and active for the most part) are people I see regularly. Though I wouldn’t necessarily situate myself within this tradition, I very much appreciate it. In the New Narrative anthology, Biting the Error, there’s a great essay by Camille Roy about why experimentalism is important to queer subjectivity.
With that said, some examples of “textual spaces” I feel a kinship with, off the top of my head: Liliane Giraudon’s “stories,” especially in Fur, feel very apart from anything else; all of Roger Giroux’s poetry, Danielle Collobert’s Survival, Claude Esteban’s Conjuncture of Body and Garden, each of Anne-Marie Albiach’s books, the narrative space that Margarita Karapanou creates in her novels, the way the minimalism of Agota Kristof’s work overwhelms the reading experience, the way Alain Veinstein’s poem An Excess Taken Back—which is ostensibly ekphrastic, responding to work by Joel Kermarrec—manages to tap into the distinct tone of Harry Kumel’s brilliant film, Daughters of Darkness; the flawed logic that ends up feeding itself in a circuitous loop of narrative in Dennis Cooper’s The Ash Gray Proclamation; the weaving between second and first person and the dizzying disorientation that results in Bernard Noël’s The First Words; the bizarre personal nature of direct address in Summer Dead Tongue (which I read probably 15-20 times in full while working on the third section of Apart From). Beyond this, as I already mentioned, Marguerite Duras (especially in the narrative space that she creates in books like The Malady of Death or, more so, in The Man Standing in the Corridor, L’Amour), Blanchot’s récit’s (especially The Madness of the Day and The One Standing Apart From Me), and of course, the most perfect novel of all time, Bataille’s Madame Edwarda.
The last few years seem to have been really healthy and totally exciting for new writers, from my point of view. What contemporary writers, if any, do you feel a kinship with or have an artistic relationship or bond with?
There is an abundance of work happening right now that I love, that I find fantastic, that I enjoy reading. However, I would not situate my own work in kinship with it. I feel like my work is distinctly outside of the various major currents that run through contemporary literature. I don’t say this as to indicate, “oh I’m so special and unique wow,” but rather, I think it explains the problems that I’ve had both with finding publication and with generating any sort of response to my writing: I don’t offer work that easily falls into a context. When my first book, Slow Slidings came out, it garnered an admirable yes small number of reviews, and virtually none of these reviews mentioned the explicitly sexual “gay” content. On one hand, the element of “desire” was mentioned in one or two of the reviews, so it could be said that I should appreciate that I wasn’t ghettoized/essentialized into the annals of “gay lit” or something, but on the other hand an explicit queerness is a major part of my work, so I am somewhat shocked that it’s never mentioned.
I think the fact that my work refuses a recognizable or “known” queer context is part of its problem: I’m a gay male in my late-20s who doesn’t give a shit about popular culture or youth. Reductively, for the world at large, youth-obsession & pop-culture define homosexuality. I don’t care about fashion, I don’t care about texting, I don’t care about partying, I don’t care about getting laid as often as possible. I’m interested in writing singular, extreme experiences, most often predicated with explicitly queer content. I’m interested in writing that allows both myself as an author and the reader to “explore the void” so to speak. I’m concerned with the book as a whole, affect, and narrative. There is no context to place my work within, which immediately means that it’s impossible to market.
What I’m perhaps failing to say here is this: the role of the homosexual male is inherently constrictive. There are ostensibly two options. You can be infantilized and treated as a tween consumer (this is where the obsession with pop culture comes in), expected to be reliant upon the basest, most immediate instincts. The other option is that you can “suit up” and aim for intellectual respectability, like, I don’t know, Edmund White. The past becomes an archive of bullshit “experience” that one is expected to deny in the face of intellectual responsibility. Neither position offers a place to locate myself.
The writer Beau Rice, author of Tex, which came out on the great Penny-Ante Editions last year, once tweeted a quote at me about being ashamed of other gays or something (he has since deleted the tweet)—my assumption is that this response came from the less-than-stellar review I gave his book on Goodreads, but I think it’s a good example of how people have no idea what to do with me or my work; even (especially) other homosexuals. As I’ve said before, the figures that consistently influence my life & work are Duras, Bataille, & Blanchot—all three obsessed with outsideness.
I think this is important to talk about though, because I’m still here. I haven’t disappeared entirely despite not having a context, despite being virtually unmarketable. There’s a hope, I think, that as freaks, outsiders, we can stick around long enough in a somewhat hostile environment to pave a new path, a much more heterogeneous one. It’s why I carry on with Solar▲Luxuriance, despite increasingly horrible to non-existent sales & response; nobody cares right now, but I’m hoping someone will eventually. I’m hoping that taking the small step of putting the work into the world helps. It’s all I can do at the moment.
There’s an option to buy an Apart From notebook with the book itself. Can you talk a little about that notebook, and explain why you wanted to make it available to people?
The Apart From Notebook was conceived as an extension of the book itself, a sort of “bonus feature,” like on a DVD… it’s a way of talking about Apart From‘s content without actually talking about the content. As such, it’s a collection of images, the Bernard Noël essay that sits at the genesis of the book, some relevant quotations, plus early drafts of versions of the text. In a sense, the notebook is “apart from” the book, which is to say, there’s always an outside.
What else are you working on right now? Your own stuff or things that are happening with your press?
A new book, Spiritual Instrument, is coming out from CCM in May 2015, and I’m excited about that. In a way, it’s an “anthology” similar to my first book, Slow Slidings, in that it collects a lot of work that’s mostly been released on its own in the form of the chapbook over the last few years. Despite this, I spent a lot of time shaping it into a whole that hopefully flows well—basically, I hate it when books sit exclusively as “collections,” so my goal is for there to be a momentum that drives the book as a whole; a hope that the book doesn’t exist purely as a “collected works” or whatever.
In addition to that, I’ve got a more-or-less completed book called The Void of the Unknowable Night that I may or may not be finished with (depends on the day you ask me); I’ve sent it to a couple of presses so far, but we’ll see what happens. As a book it’s more closely aligned with “poetry,” I suppose, than anything I’ve put out other than Apart From. I’m also working on a trilogy of small books, which deal with narrative, affect, & my obsessions with stones, snakes & succulents/gardens. The first one is more or less complete and is called The Stone Carrier. I plan on having it out sometime in the first quarter of 2015.
In terms of the press, I talked a lot about my future plans in an interview with Entropy, but my goal is to focus on both publishing work in translation and expanding the quality of what I’m printing using the Risograph Duplicator I recently acquired. I’ll also be releasing a few contemporary English-language titles that I’m excited about. I put out 18 titles in 2014, and I’ve realized that 18 books is way too many to publish in one year and have anyone care about, so I’m scaling way back.