‘Energy is Art’s force’: Dan Disney in Conversation with Joyelle McSweeney

By and | 15 September 2022

DD: Would you say the same of the many different modes of language-use you undertake? I ask, as you have delivered a surfeit of remarkable contributions across literary genres (poetry, drama, prose fiction) and modes (creativity, criticality, translation). Thinking slightly laterally (and please forgive this unwieldly question), what are the roles / functions of a ‘professor’? What of the roles / functions of a ‘critical writer’? Ditto a ‘poet’?

JM: It’s all being a poet, to me – making an aperture in the world, then pushing through that aperture to someplace else, some other way of being. Existence is elsewhere – Andre Breton. Hey presto – now ‘I’ is an other. Being a poet lets you trust your intuition as you construct these impossible merz baus, mirror tricks, potions and prosthetics. Poetry lets you power the whole thing with whatever impulse appeals to you – in my case sound, dismay, exuberance, voice.

DD: And of course, you are not only contributing actively in multiple modes across a range of discourses; together with Johannes Göransson, you are also instrumental in orchestrating Action Books, could we talk for a moment more on ethics? In the manifesto found on the website, readers are told ‘Action Books is Futurist’ and ‘Action Books is No Future’. Apart from championing creative work that ‘makes the stone stony again’ or uses modes of ostranenie to what Viktor Shklovsky states is ‘recover the sensation of life’, which ‘actions’ is Action Books seeking to foment in terms of its aesthetic, social, ideological, political engagements?

JM: Action Books has always been about opening up a lawless aperture through which an urgent admixture of aesthetics and politics can pour ruddily forth. Our first proofs were lost in Katrina; stormborn, we deliberately set ourselves up in favour of useful poetic hues like rage, prophecy, and surrealism and against then-extant American provincialisms of fine-ness, craft, workshop-ism, the enforced separation of aesthetics and politics. Our original motto was ‘We want poetry that goes too far’.

On a more practical level, we sought to set in motion in irreversible torrent of translators, translations, blood-borne aesthetics that would drench and change all the conventional aesthetics with which it came in touch. Total communicability. I think in many ways – thinking of the National Book Awards won by poet-translators Don Mee Choi and Daniel Borzutzky, the Griffin prize won by Choi and Kim Hyesoon, the expansion of the Anglophone audience for Zurita’s work and vision, the translation of many of our poets into languages beyond English – we’ve succeeded.

DD: The Action Books site also attests to ‘voltifying’ United States publishing: I am thinking of Walter Benjamin’s notion of shock, especially when characterising art as ‘a duel in which the artist, just before being beaten, screams in fright’. The website’s manifesto also claims that ‘Action Books is for noisies’. As a publisher, in which kinds of noises, or noisies, or shock/s are you interested? Is shock still possible or plausible as an aesthetic gesture? What shocks you?

JM: Convention and compliance give me hives. I just am constitutionally not able to comply. I know this is old fashioned, which is why I describe myself as an orthodox Decadent, an aesthete, and other archaic terms, why I irritatingly and anachronistically capitalise words like Art and Poetry, why I still employ that most invalid of watch-words, ‘avant-garde’. I love all these exhausted poses and affectations, their undead power to annoy.

DD: More power to poetry that goes too far! In Toxicon and Arachne’s ‘Black Orchid’, readers learn of the force underlying these poems: ‘I have two living daughters and a third dead daughter’. Your website poses the question ‘how does the body gestate grief? How does toxicity birth catastrophe’. Without wanting to seem gormless or witlessly invasive, can I ask about grief as a catalysing force: you write in the same poem that ‘I know so much of the wrong stuff’ and, a little later, ‘Im going to tell you something so bad that when you hear it you’re gonna / know its true’ (‘Simon the Good’), and (as Dan Chiasson points out in The New Yorker, suggesting an elegiac mode) that you fear ‘I’m going to hemorrhage rage’ (‘Eaves’). I wonder if in fact these poems are elegies: beyond sense-making, is the injustice of tragedy partly what has caused this writing to happen? In joining Toxicon with Arachne, is there an intention to refocus the personal toward the communal, collective, and social? (Please forgive me if these questions treat your grief as some kind of public chattel.)

JM: Toxicon is a book obsessed with contamination, plagues, mutation, ill-omens, a book whose logic is calamity and whose form is metastasy. I called it Toxicon once I learned that the word ‘toxin’ derives from the Greek for arrow, by implication poisoned arrows. I also wanted a book that would make good on Plato’s pharmakon – a book of poems like a quiver of poisoned arrows whose unwholesome lyricism would fly and decline and sink its poison in the heart.

I was rushing to finalise this book when Arachne was born and died. Her death from an unexpected birth defect seemed at the time like the final catastrophe the arrow of Toxicon was rushing towards. Toxicon predicted Arachne, but Arachne transformed Toxicon into a book of prophecy. The two co-gestated each other and continue to co-gestate each other. Perhaps the final catastrophe can never arrive.

Re-reading the book two years later, I would cast this argument wider. I would say Toxicon is thick with prophecies, calamities unfolding in their present tense that send their shockwaves through the now. Just as Katrina taught me there is no such thing as a natural catastrophe, only manmade, I think it’s possible that there’s no such thing as a (merely) personal catastrophe, in the Anthropocene. Every predacious cause for the last five centuries has already launched a whole thicket of unbearable effects.

Every arrow finds its heartmeat. Who can know where that photon of bad luck is going, and where it has been.

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