Sam Buchan-Watts in conversation with Sam Donsky
When Sam Donsky graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007 he embarked on his first full collection, Poems Vs the Volcano — a sequence of one hundred poems for one hundred films. They are feverish with pop culture to the point of bursting and, with Sam’s irreverent, often daft digression on each movie, are contemporary in a brilliantly frenetic way. Each poem is accompanied by a movie still, and some live in a perpetual state of being edited — that’s if they remain on the fluid tumblr at all. The following is an interview which took place over google.docs.
SBW: As a similarly prodigious ‘web poet’ Sam Riviere (who wrote 81 poems in response to the austerity measures by the 2010 coalition government in Britain, posted sequentially on tumblr) was asked, to what extent is there a ‘performance of producing’ sentiment present in your project?
Furthermore, what kind of impact has this performance had on your practice as a writer/artist in general? If each time you have watched a new movie you have been anticipating an accompanying poem to come by the end of it, surely by poem no.100, this has had an irrevocable impact on the way you consume film. Similarly, has it been difficult to return to write ‘normal’ poems, away from PvV, or is it simply a case of poetry and pop culture being inherently bound?
SD: I think the project initially took shape as performance, yes — though on a more or less individual scale: When I began writing ‘movie poems’, it wasn’t with a project in mind; the “watch a movie, write a poem” exercise was really no different from any other prompt. My reason for continuing with them in series-form, as a conscious effort, was that (at first, anyway) they seemed to be the poems of mine most grounded in a subject-matter that appealed to my friends, as readers — almost none of whom have an independent interest in poetry. (“The Matrix: Reloaded” garners more enthusiasm among the poetry-indifferent than “Beginning with a Line from Berryman,” I’ve found. For better or worse.) Of course my thematic interests in the project evolved from there in pretty major ways (“100 Poems to Not Bore One’s Friends With” would have given way to a rather different final product, I assume), and with that evolution I think my sense of performance has lessened considerably.
As for PvV’s impact on my practice as a writer in general, I can’t say it’s had one: I’ve yet to really create anything outside its scope since it started. I suppose on the most basic level, it has caused me to write “more”; and hopefully I’ve improved some with practice. But then, I know a handful of people who prefer the poems from the beginning of the project… so perhaps I am terribly regressing.
I actually don’t think the project has impacted my consumer-habits. I love film a great deal, but have never pretended to understand it in the same way that I’ve at least attempted to understand poetry. Which is to say I don’t derive much of my movie-watching pleasure from the critical perspective. And maybe this is a bit of wishful delusion, but while watching each film I really do try to avoid considering its unwritten poem.
I’ll have to report back on any attempts to write ‘normally’ in PvV’s wake — though yes, I do imagine pop culture will remain attached at my work’s hip — I have never been particularly interested in writing without it. And the same goes for the internet; I find the idea of poetry with a time-stamp to be sort of thrilling.
It’s intriguing that you use time-stamp in such a positive light, because it implies that the context loses significance. Isn’t there a risk that the poems become irrelevant? Or is it the case that they pick up a new relevance?
I think that, yes, the time stamp has a tendency to do both of those things. My favorite poems are almost without exception the ones I’ve most recently written, and so in that sense, that recency, I do believe there is a certain blogginess to the (or at least my) thrill. On the internet, context takes the form of a narrative cog in ways for which the printed word’s aging curve simply does not allow. To me, that is too cool to not want to experiment with.
“Significance” is also a funny word, in this regard, because I often think of it as code for many of the characteristics that weigh down much of my least favorite poetry. The internet is an infinity: to write something that resonates on it is — in this weird, doomed, funny, invigorating way — to learn the language of insignificance. Insignificance sort of becomes the context itself: wherein every piece, post, essay, whatever, exists this click away from death. I think the best poetry operates on the same premise, and serves punch-line to, strictly speaking, the same inside joke. On the internet even the bible would be gallows humor.
Is an up-to-date knowledge of pop culture a prerequisite to understanding your poems (in the same way that say, knowing certain historical references, and even Chinese, undoubtedly enhances the experience of reading Pound’s Cantos)?
Well: from the feedback I’ve gotten, anyway, I would say yes, there is a certain enhancement to be found in the reader being able to self-index some of the references. I know they tend to annoy some people. Though I do hope the poems work, at their most basic level, with or without a deep knowledge of, say, the Dipset canon. I’m sure some do better than others.
Do you find that the ephemerality of popular culture challenges poetry? (especially when considering poetry’s privileged, history)
Yes! And I think it’s healthy, the challenge — there are few insularities of art that pop can’t cure. (Though I would say that goes for any medium.)
The allusion to pop culture in poetry divides critics. It can be seen on one end as a wholly relevant means of democratising the art, and on the other as a modish shortcut to garnering a new audience, subsequently undermining any enduring or emotional sincerity that resonates in poems.
Is there a trend you notice within American criticism generally? Do you see your poetry located within this spectrum?
My boring answer is that I think there’s room for both those perspectives to coexist. More specifically, my take is that there is already a new readership — and that its democratization has long since begun to take hold. Poetry may never echo in The Mass Market (and perhaps it ought to be this way, and perhaps not), but that market — the notion of mass anything — has collapsed so far back into itself now that poetry will have opportunities to reclaim shares regardless. Of course, this is largely the internet’s work: indie rock is dead, long live indie rock, singles vs. albums and so on. Sometimes poetry strikes me as one of the most perfect distillations of the phrase “iTunes era” possible. (Blah blah blah.)
(As far as poetry criticism goes, I will confess to not reading much of it.)
Where do you see your work in terms of print? The narrative cog of context of which you speak of — would it go completely?
What of the argument that supplementary material (stills, hyperlinking etc, in your case) is reductive of the text, ie. the poem in the most traditional sense?
I hope it’s not reductive, I certainly don’t mean or wish it to be. But someone else will have to judge that. On some level, the easiest answer is that I just do it for fun — I like how the stills above each poem look, the connectivity of the image to the text — and haven’t thought the implications through beyond the “mere” of aesthetics. But I don’t see them as essential. I have published a few of the poems in other places, minus the stills, and haven’t felt bothered by it, or like the poems themselves were lessened. (Though I should add: I don’t think they were enhanced, either.)
In terms of print, and the context that would endanger: I really don’t know. My plan has always been to attempt, eventually, to get a manuscript-version of the project published — so I don’t think on the page the poems would read of, like, dissonant or diabolically hypocritical intentions. Ha, but who knows? Fingers crossed.
Do you label film, as a medium, with such a time stamp? For it to be coupled with the ‘insignificance’ of blogging culture is interesting to me because several of the films which you use long predate what the internet is as we know it to be now.
Also, most of the films you’ve used are narrative-driven, as mainstream cinema likely necessitates, but your poems are mostly devoid of obvious narrative, they are discursive, almost frantic in their allusion; is this a fair contrast to make?
I don’t put that time stamp on film, no. To the extent that I’m actively thinking of things in any sort of ideological or schematic sense, it is really limited to the poems themselves. To call the films a “jumping-off point” would be, at this point, to sell them a little short… but at the same time, to say that I have film theory hanging over my head while I write would feel like an exaggeration. There is something there, but still — a separation.
To end, can you list 5 poems and 5 pop flicks (– or songs) that make you tick right now?
5 poetry books:
1. So I Will Till the Ground by Greg Djanikian
2. The French Exit by Elisa Gabbert
3. The Pleasures of Peace by Kenneth Koch
4. Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You by Juliana Spahr
5. Barn Burned, Then by Michelle Taransky
1. Damsels in Distress (Stillman, 2012)
2. Hanna (Wright, 2011)
3. Miami Vice (Mann, 2006)
4. Jane Eyre (Fukunaga, 2011)
5. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Herzog, 2009)
1. “The Full Retard,” El-P
2. “My Love is Your Love,” Whitney Houston
3. “No Future Part One,” Titus Andronicus
4. “Beez in the Trap,” Nicki Minaj Ft. 2 Chainz
5. “Rex’s Blues,” Jolie Holland