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Tan Lin Interview

Terror Implies Surprize


Amy Wright: What do you hope for this interview?

Tan Lin: The absence of anything new. And Chinese Take Out 2 nights a week.

AW: Have you ever appointed yourself president of anything?

TL: Candy, occasionally.

AW: Laura (Riding) Jackson is resolutely and articulately rational. I sense a kinship in your work. In particular, in “Eleven Minute Painting” you state, “Nothing should be unknown,” which in many ways underlies (Riding) Jackson’s fundamental truth-seeking principle. How do you relate to her ideas?

TL: I have read the first couple of pages of nearly everything by her, especially her prefaces, which she revises like a blackboard. I like the blackboard effect vs. the truth quotient in her work. And I like the fact that all statements of the truth have to be surrounded, as with a blackboard, by statements of truth value. Meaning is always assigned by a party who is interested.

AW: In an interview with Bomb magazine, you muse that books come to us partially digested, claiming that “Context is more important than content,” which is a bold enough statement, but untrue and perhaps even useless, as hierarchic comparison is, except to rectify an age-old imbalance in the relationship. They are equal, of course—the “lyric valuables” rescued in George Oppen’s “From Disaster” and the register on which they chime. But I am curious from what well springs the need to establish the preeminence of context, if not context? Why is it currently defending itself?

TL: Yes, I think you’re right. This is just rhetoric and false dichotomies i.e. the drawing of a boundary, designed to make a point. Books come fully digested by their genres, their marketing, their distribution formats, their readerships, their blurbs, their reception. There is no content or meaning being transmitted to the outside by my revised statement. The publishing system is merely describing its own internal operations.

AW: Such operations may be a matter of intention, but like potential children’s names scribbled in a notebook, they may or may not manifest. Readers are the unstable isotopes that radiate the nucleus of the text, which can burn off its trappings. You go on in the interview to say you are “interested in that moment when reading begins,” but it sounds as if the atom splits instantly—since you consider that moment to dawn with publication. In that case, what would be the moment reading ends?

TL: I’m not so interested in intention, at least as you seem to be referring to it, because it sounds like it originates somewhere and goes to somewhere “outside” itself, here as you suggest to a reader. But I prefer reading as part of a self-enclosed system, what I’ve called a reading environment, that manufactures its readers and where the readers are inside the system as it were. By book, I mean something like the environment, communal, social, theatrical, anonymous, in which the book is processed, read through and in, distributed and redistributed in rooms and seminar discussions, and here an email, rather than the book itself. So I would say, given this, that reading doesn’t end, that it is endlessly perpetuated, which is why books are read even when (we) don’t read them, why we can know books perfectly well that we have not read at all, why skimming and skipping around in a book is just as adequate as a close (linear) reading. Reading is an ongoing process and it’s not ultimately very individuated or very unique to the person doing the reading. The atom is not split at all by either a book or its publication. Reading is just a bit of duration in the room in which a book is sitting.

AW: My working definition of idea is a potential new belief. In “Dub Version,” you open with the text: “ideas are weak.” However do you mean?

TL: No nothing that comes from a poetry system can, by definition, be new. Content/ideas are meaningless w/o a structure which communicates them. All systems, social or otherwise, work to generate further communications that are meaningful within that system. Thus, nothing is new in this communicative structure; it is merely, within the boundaries of that system, non-redundant.

AW:  But a belief newly accepted is an initiate of transformation; thus, ideas are generative of previously-unavailable pathways between or among the structures of that system. One lights from hill to glade not on horseback but in Vans…. What does your favorite pair of shoes look like?

TL: I don’t have any favorite pair of shoes at the moment. Can you recommend some?

AW: I have a pair of J-41s made of recycled Jeep tires conveniently engineered for climbing the mountainous terrain that is my office.

I teach memoir, which makes compelling your concept that “A poem or painting or landscape is beautiful at the moment it is forgotten.” The aesthetic effect sounds similar to a Zen story described to me at the end of a friend’s monastery initiation—of her thoughts as oil and her mind the water they slide off. But from what I can tell of your ambient impetus, you strive toward relaxation. Are you trying to lull readers into terror? Because my friend says that though a still mind implies peace, it is a tremendous confrontation…

TL: No, there is no terror, unfortunately, in my writing. Terror implies I think some sort of surprize and I don’t think a system such as poetry is capable of surprising itself. It is, after all, ambient. Its surprises are non-redundant communications that keep the system going.

AW:  Is the agent of communication that keeps the system going different from Laura (Riding) Jackson’s interested party who assigns meaning?

TL: Yes, communication as a process is different. Communication seeks further communication. Jackson believed that further communication could be refined and directed, teleologically, to something she believed was the truth. The communications model is much more circular, ambient, and round about. We read in circles not in straight lines. I just think that’s the way we actually read. Who reads to get the truth, honestly?


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