Proudly Fraudulent: An Interview With MoMA's First Poet Laureate, Kenneth Goldsmith

by Mark Allen

Kenneth Goldsmith (born 1961) is an American poet. He is the founding editor of UbuWeb, teaches Poetics and Poetic Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and is Senior Editor of PennSound. He hosted a weekly radio show at WFMU from 1995 until June 2010. He has published ten books of poetry, notably Fidget (2000), Soliloquy (2001) and Day (2003) and Goldsmith’s American trilogy, The Weather (2005), Traffic (2007), and Sports, (2008). He is the author of a book of essays, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in a Digital Age (2011). As editor he published I’ll be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews (2004) and is the co-editor of Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011). He resides in New York City with his wife, artist Cheryl Donegan and his two sons. I emailed Kenneth about his work, and his new book Seven American Deaths and Disasters.

(The above introductory paragraph was lifted directly from the Wikipedia page on Kenneth Goldsmith, except for the last sentence. If you’re wondering why that’s appropriate here, keep reading.)

Mark Allen: In your new book Seven American Deaths and Disasters you’ve transcribed radio and television reports of national tragedies like JFK’s assassination and Michael Jackson’s death. I found the book riveting, melancholic, surreal, mundane and informative. Why commemorate these events in this way?

Kenneth Goldsmith: These transcriptions are from airchecks of major disasters unfolding in real time. Listening to them, it made me wonder: what are the words we use to describe something we never thought we’d have to describe? These DJs woke up thinking they were going to the station for a regular day and then they were in the position of having to narrate, say, 9–11 or the Kennedy assassination, to the world. They were completely unprepared and in their speech, you can hear this. It’s stunning. The slick curtain of media is torn, revealing acrobatic linguistic improvisations. There was a sense of things spinning out of control: facts blurred with speculation as the broadcasters attempted to furiously weave convincing narratives from shards of half-truths. Usually confident DJs were now riding by the seat of their pants, splaying raw emotion across the airwaves: smooth speech turned to stutter, laced with doubt and fear. Unhinged from their media personalities, these DJs became ordinary citizens, more like guys in a bar than representatives of purported rationality and truth. Opinions — some of them terribly misinformed — inflected and infected their supposedly objective reportage. Racism and xenophobia were rampant — somehow the DJs couldn’t help themselves. Technical fuck-ups abounded: on-the-scene reporters were nowhere to be found, cell phones went unanswered, audio clips ended abruptly, eyewitnesses were absent. And then there was silence — the greatest fear of broadcasters — lots of dead air. It was as if the essence of media was being revealed whilst its skin was in tatters. Unwittingly structuralist, the whole thing felt like a Godard film. I felt I had to transcribe and capture this amazing speech on the page, hence this book.

I recently learned Werner Herzog teaches a screenwriting class where a required reading is The Warren Commission Report on JFK’s assassination, which he calls “the ultimate crime story” and an excellent example of a screenplay based entirely on how it’s written, and it’s a government document.

Wow, I didn’t know that but it doesn’t surprise me. Herzog, more than anyone knows that real life trumps fiction every time. A great document along these lines to read is the transcript of the Richard Prince appropriation deposition put out by Greg Allen of I think it’s the most comprehensive and instructive manual ever written on appropriation. And beyond that, it’s a work of appropriated literature authored by Allen. (I’ve written a long essay about this work here.)

Your 2000 book Fidget transcribes every single movement your body made during thirteen hours. In your 2003 book, Day, you chronologically re-typed every single word from every page of a copy of The New York Times. Your later trilogy, Weather, Traffic and Sports, transcribe random radio reports. Now with Seven American Deaths and Disasters you’re transcribing reports of specific events. Is your work slowly leaning towards a more non-fictional, storytelling approach?

For the past twenty years, I’ve been fascinated with rendering the mundane in language. In hindsight, my archival impulse arose concurrent with the internet, which also seemed intent on creating a vast warehouse of our most commonplace experiences — at least in the early days — in words. It immediately became clear to me the digital condition was going to be one of abundance, storing more words than I’d ever be able to consume. As a response, I made big books which, even in paper, reflected this new relationship to language.

But after ten books of quotidian compilations, an unexpected thing happened: I began tire of the everyday. After all, the job of retyping the entire internet could go on forever, driving me to seek a new line of investigation. Still deeply entrenched in a digital ethos, I remained tied to a mimetic and uncreative way of writing, yet found myself struggling with how to expand my focus without radically altering my long-standing practice. So now I’ve turned to transcribing events and texts that are drenched in drama and emotion, as opposed to transcribing the ordinary and dull. It’s the identical writing act — still wildly uncreative — only I’ve moved the frame from one subject to another, naturally giving the texts new results.

You founded and edit UbuWeb, an exhaustive historical collection of avant-garde visual, concrete and sound poetry, film, sound art — all viewable online and most unavailable elsewhere. It includes thousands of works, everything from the complete multimedia archives of the late-60s/early-70s art magazine Aspen, to Kurt Kren’s film September 20, to Yoko Ono’s film Fly, and everything in-between. How did you amass such a collection? How can one experience it all in one lifetime?

You see, we are faced with a situation in which the managing of information has become more important than creating new and original information.

I’m a collector by nature and have been working on this for seventeen years. If you work on something a little bit every day, you end up with something that is massive. It’s so big that I’m not even sure what is on there anymore. Better to think of it like a library — who can read every book in the library?

But UbuWeb is really unstable. Cobbled together, operating on no money and an all-volunteer staff, Ubu was never meant to be a permanent archive. Ubu could vanish for any number of reasons: our ISP pulls the plug, our university support dries up, or we simply grow tired of it. Acquisition by a larger entity is impossible: nothing is for sale. We don’t touch money. Watch out. It won’t be there forever.

In 2011, you read at the White House to President and Mrs. Obama, as part of A Celebration of American Poetry. (Jon Stewart even made fun of your outfit in a segment on “The Daily Show.”) Did you meet the President? What did he and the First Lady seem to think of your work? What was Mrs. Obama wearing?

When I was invited to read at the White House, I wondered aloud to a colleague whether if, asked by the G.W. Bush administration to read, would I have accepted? To which my colleague responded, “Kenny, you never would’ve been asked to read at the G.W. Bush White House.” The fact that they would even have someone like me there at a poetry event signals a paradigmatic shift (one among many, of course).

I did an afternoon poetry workshop with Michelle Obama, who sat in front of me as I made my usual arguments against creativity and for copyleft, file-sharing, and free culture. She appeared to be riveted and even asked questions. It was surreal. She was wearing a gorgeous beaded and sequined skirt, a skin-tight mauve tank top, and shiny, pea-green pumps. She was super-mellow and put everyone else at ease when she said in a slangy sort of voice, “Aw, c’mon, everybody. Let’s relax, let’s have some fun. This is poetry, after all!” After that, I said fuck it and relaxed — this ain’t no Laura Bush or Mamie Eishenhower — and had a good time.

Michelle Obama’s shoes.

That evening, with the President sitting five feet away from me, I read appropriated texts. Nobody flinched. I put together a short set featuring The Brooklyn Bridge, and presented three takes on it, including Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” finally finishing with an excerpt from my book Traffic, which is 24-hours worth of transcribed traffic reports from a local New York news station. The crowd, comprised of arts administrators, Democratic party donors, and various Senators and mayors, respectfully sat through the “real” poetry — the Whitman and Crane — but when the uncreative texts appeared, the audience was noticeably more attentive, seemingly stunned that the quotidian language and familiar metaphors from their world — congestion, infrastructure, gridlock — could be framed somehow as poetry. It was a strange meeting of the avant-garde with the everyday, resulting in a realist poetry — or should I say hyperrealist poetry — that was instantly understood by all in the room; let’s call it radical populism. It was really fucking bizarre, to say the least.

You teach a course called “Uncreative Writing” at University of Pennsylvania, where you encourage students to turn off their creative instincts, retype phone books and menus, and plagiarize other writer’s work as their own content. Some students call your class brilliant; some faculty at the school have publicly denounced your pro-plagiarism stance as irresponsible. How is all this helping the next generations of writers and journalists?

The students that take my class know how to write. I can hone their skills further but instead I choose to challenge them to think in new and different ways. Many of them know how to plagiarize but they always do it on the sly, hoping not to get caught. In my class, they must plagiarize or they will be penalized. They are not allowed to be original or creative. So it becomes a very different game, one in which they’re forced to defend choices that they are making about what they’re plagiarizing and why. And when you start to dig down, you’ll find that those choices are as original and as unique as when they express themselves in more traditional types of writing, but they’ve never been trained to think about it in this way.

You see, we are faced with a situation in which the managing of information has become more important than creating new and original information. Take Boing Boing, for instance. They’re one of the most powerful blogs on the web, but they don’t create anything, rather they filter the morass of information and pull up the best stuff. The fact of Boing Boing linking to something far outweighs the thing that they’re linking to. The new creativity is pointing, not making. Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers.

The Museum of Modern Art just appointed you as their first Poet Laureate for the 2013 winter/spring term. What are you going to do?

I want to infuse the museum with poetry. I’m hosting a reading series called “Uncontested Spaces: Guerilla Readings in the MoMA Galleries” where writers and artists like Heidi Julavits, Charles Bernstein, John Zorn, Rick Moody, Sheila Heti, and David Shields go into a gallery of their choice and do a reading in front of an artwork they feel connected to. This is normally impossible, since the galleries are mandated to be silent.

On March 20, I’ll be doing a Poet Laureate lecture called “My Career in Poetry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution,” which proposes that poetry’s next — or final — move is institutional critique.

And finally there will be a bus tour around lower Manhattan while I read excerpts from my work in progress, Capital, which is a rewriting of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, written for New York in the twentieth century.

We’ll see if we can move this institution like we moved the White House. I think I have my work cut out for me.

In your collection of essays Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in a Digital Age you claim, since all images and video on the internet are text-based (HTML code), we are at an exciting crossroads for a cultural merging of visual arts and the written word. Can you talk a little about that?

This is a great challenge to traditional notions of writing. In the digital age, language (aka code) has become materialized, taking on a whole new dimension (although one that had been proposed throughout various avant-garde movements during the twentieth-century: futurisms, concrete poetry, and language poetry, and so forth — which is why the 20th c. avant-garde is more relevant than ever).

Words are no longer just for telling stories. Now language is digital and physical. It can be poured into any conceivable container: text typed into a Microsoft Word document can be parsed into a database, visually morphed in Photoshop, animated in Flash, pumped into online text-mangling engines, spammed to thousands of email addresses and imported into a sound editing program and spit out as music; the possibilities are endless.

Clearly this is a far cry from the Romantic notion of a writer hammering out original works of genius on a typewriter in a garret. Yet much writing proceeds like the internet never happened. Look at most literary fiction: you get guys like Will Self saying things like, “The internet is of no relevance at all to the business of writing fiction directly, which is about expressing certain kinds of verities that are only found through observation and introspection.” Really? That’s scary.

In Uncreative Writing you talk about having access to the Warhol Museum archives, to listen to the tapes of Andy speaking on the phone that were used to create The Warhol Diaries, and you seemed fascinated to discover hours and hours of un-transcribed recordings that were left out of the book because they were deemed “too boring.” In general, “interesting” seems like an anathema to your approach. How do you think writers and journalists can improve their work by embracing “boring?”

John Cage said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” So what is boring? I find narrative boring. I find truth boring. I once wrote an essay called Being Boring” where I claim to be the most boring writer who has ever lived. I can’t even read my own books — I keep falling asleep. But they’re great to talk about and think about. So I think we need to redefine our relationship to boring. Reality TV is boring with all the boring parts taken out of it. Instead, go watch An American Family from the early 70s, at this weird moment where mainstream TV fell under the spell of Andy Warhol. You’ll never be bored in the same way again.

I don’t think that journalists can be boring because to do so would be to shed too much truth on what they do. They’re mostly writing boring stuff, they’re bored, their editors are bored, and their readers are also bored, but nobody will admit it. Again, it’s here that Warhol is prescient. When asked if he reads reviews of his works, he replied, that he doesn’t — he only adds up the column inches.

I did radio with you at WFMU in the mid-00s. Your radio show, which ran from 1995–2010, seemed to push the format as far as possible. By 2010 you were broadcasting three hours of silence, which you would break every thirty minutes with a station ID. The station staff was often angry with you and the listeners always complained it was the most unlistenable radio imaginable. Will you ever return to the airwaves?

Oh, I adored doing radio but sadly, I don’t think I’ll be going back. I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted on the airwaves and I took full advantage of it, much to the chagrin of the staff and listening audience, as you say. But I finally hit a wall. I’d done everything possible and there was nothing left to do. I’m eternally grateful for that opportunity, but I am finished.

In 2005 you declared in a critical essay, “If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist.” Do you think this is still true in 2013?

Well, in the utopian moment of 2005, everything was on the internet. It was amazing. But then came the Megaupload lockdown and the subsequent blogosphere crackdown, which you’ve so eloquently parsed here, and suddenly the internet was bereft of great stuff. So now there’s an enormous rebuilding effort but I feel it’s like rebuilding a beachfront home after Sandy: it’s just a matter of time till it gets whacked again.

I feel so sorry for those who have built castles made of sand — and even sadder for them when they attempt to rebuild and then file-hosts change their policies again, once more emaciating them. It breaks my heart.

My advice: Build your own library. Don’t trust the cloud. If you love something, download it. It won’t be there forever.

You often quote conceptual artist Douglas Huebler, who in 1969 wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems to be a personal mantra. So what keeps you going?

Oh, I’m old. And I came of age and had a career made in the traditional way by publishing books, getting them reviewed in the “right” places, and having the “right” critics behind me and so forth. So I’m all set. But I’m concerned for a younger generation who don’t have the time-tested structures to rely on. How can an emerging poet make a career in a time when there are few vertical structures to identify, support, and raise it above the others? The arbiters of taste seemed to have evaporated. Even with poets creating paper books, there doesn’t seem to be the support there. For instance, the emerging poet Steven Zultanski just put out what I feel to be perhaps the most important book of his generation called Agony. In the old days, this one book alone would’ve made his career. Now it’s just another in a sea of Lulu publications and Facebook likes.

All of which makes me think that for writers, careers and canons won’t be established in traditional ways. Literary works — and careers — might function the same way that memes do today on the web.

The Troll Thread Collective and Gauss PDF are publishing the most incredible stuff — reams of shit grabbed from the internet, set into book form, and ported out to Lulu. They’re making the most impossible books. Why? Because they can. Will anyone ever materialize them from Lulu? Or read them? They don’t really seem to care. Tan Lin, too, publishes his books in multiple Lulu remixed versions. Like a dance remix, it’s impossible to keep track of which is the official version. This, then, is the next wave of conceptual writing.

All of which makes me think that for writers, careers and canons won’t be established in traditional ways. Literary works — and careers — might function the same way that memes do today on the web, spreading like wildfire for a short period, often unsigned and un-authored, only to be supplanted by the next ripple. While the author won’t die, we might begin to view authorship in a more conceptual way: perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse and distribute language-based practices. Even if, as Christian Bök claims, poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be, for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones; so that even if literature is reducible to mere code — an intriguing idea — the smartest minds behind them will be considered our greatest authors. Hold on to your hat. It’s a wild ride ahead.

When I first approached you I mentioned making this interview “adhere to your aesthetic practices in some way, in form or presentation,” you said you were up for anything. But after talking, we both decided to just do a straightforward interview. Why do you think this conclusion was ultimately reached? You mentioned journalists, editors and readers are all “bored.” Don’t you think the standard interview format — which is all around us… from celebrities in entertainment magazines, to politicians on the news, to chats with writers on websites — is ripe for re-examination? Or parody?

Ah, I fooled you! Nothing here is new. It’s all been poached from elsewhere. The answers to the first and third questions, for instance, are taken directly — word for word — from the afterword of Seven American Deaths and Disasters. The fourth question is taken from UbuWeb’s mission statement. The fifth question about the White House is taken from my forthcoming Poet Laureate Lecture that I will deliver at MoMA on March 20th. The sixth answer comes from the introduction to Uncreative Writing. The seventh is from a proposal statement I had to write for the MoMA laureateship. The eighth is from a keynote lecture that I delivered at Transmediale in Berlin just last week. The ninth answer is from my manifesto “Being Boring.” The tenth answer comes from a blog post I did on the Poetry Foundation blog. The eleventh answer is a paraphrase from my piece for The Wire called, “Six File Sharing Epiphanies.” The twelfth answer comes from several of my previous interviews, all mashed together.

Now the trick here was that I massaged most of these slightly to make them all seem new — adding words, streamlining tenses and so forth. This is something known as patchwriting — a way of weaving together various shards of preexisting texts into a tonally cohesive whole and presenting it as if it’s original. It’s a trick that students use all the time rephrasing, say, a Wikipedia entry into their own words. And if they’re caught, it’s trouble: In academia, patchwriting is considered an offense equal to that of plagiarism.

(The above explanation of patchwriting was taken from the introduction to Uncreative Writing.)

The master of the interview, of course, was Andy Warhol, who I took a lot from. I edited a book of interviews with Warhol about a decade ago. I got the idea from the book when I was leafing through a compilation of essays about Warhol released by October magazine and the last piece in the book was an interview with Andy by the Marxist art critic Benjamin Buchloh from 1985. It seemed that the more pointed Buchloh’s questions became, the more elusive Andy’s answers were. Buchloh would hit harder and Warhol would get slipperier, repeating things he’d said many times before as if Buchloh’s questions were irrelevant. In the end, I realized that by saying so little, Warhol was inverting the traditional form of the interview; I ended up knowing much more about Buchloh than I did about Warhol.

(The above explanation of Warhol’s interview strategy was taken from the introduction to my Warhol book.)

Warhol claimed that, “Art is what you can get away with,” something I am inspired by. Artists ask questions, and they don’t give answers. Artists make messes and leave it for others to clean up. I’ve left a long trail of appropriated texts, dishonest statements, and brutal pranks. I’ve stolen things that weren’t mine and have made a career out of forgery and dishonesty. I’m proudly fraudulent. And it’s served me well — I highly recommend it as an artistic strategy. But really, don’t take my word for it…

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Mark Allen is a writer and performer living in New York. Top photo courtesy of the White House; photo of Michelle Obama’s shoes by Goldsmith; photo of the poet by Cameron Whittig.