Imperial and Militant Poetics: A Discussion with Dominick Knowles and Mathilda Cullen Pt. 1

Donovan Munro @nothingutopian: So I think I just wanted to start by asking: what are you working on right now, what’s exciting, who have you been thinking about, thinking with?

[crashing noise]

Dominick Knowles @pastelcathedral: The fuck? Sorry, my backpack just fell off of my bed.


DK: Yeah, so we’re finishing up a book together, which is really exciting. It’s called Stanzas for Four Hands: An Ophanim, which is a crazy fucked-up angel from the Ezekiel’s vision in the Dead Sea Scrolls, with a bunch of wings and a thousand eyes, and it’s just a cool ass reclaiming the panopticon for the people type of thing. Yeah, how did it start? How did we start writing it? We were like, we should write a fucking book!

Mathilda Cullen @lesbrarienne: Yeah, we kept saying we need to have a collaborative project going on, and then we just never did anything. And finally we started texting and eventually we said, okay, let’s just dump some poems in a google doc and edit them as time goes on. And then, we have a lot of poems from the beginning where the project was to begin to write a poetics through the poetry and comment on the poetry as we were going in order to establish that poetics. And I think the…

[Mathilda’s screen goes blank]

MC: My screen was turned off. Can you still hear me?

DK: Yeah!


DK: Where’d you go Mathilda?

DM: Wait, I can’t hear you anymore.

[we hear Mathilda laughing]

MC: I think the magnet from my juul turned the screen off! 


MC:  Yeah, so that was the project, to write and establish a militant poetics and whatever a Marxist poetics could look like (and we’ll get into that further). The project definitely morphed from, I don’t know what you would call it, just this syncretic verse of ours, just overlapping and writing over each other until two strains were emerging out of it. So it’s sort of our own grappling with our individual subjectivities just combined in this book. It’s been insanely fun to write, and I’m really excited for it. Dom, what else would you add?

DK: It was super fun because [sighs], you know, writing poems is a lonely ass thing to do—most of the time. Especially if you have any sort of collectivist tendencies. It just feels like, what the fuck am I doing to enact, you know, this sort of rejection of a bourgeois subjectivity and privacy, and these regimes of knowledge and cultural production that have been fucking us and the entire world up for five centuries. But it also is a cool stylistic experiment because some of the poems in there are like, you know, Mathilda would write three lines, and then I would write three lines, and it would become this kind of dialectic thing.

MC: Yeah

DK: Some of them were just coherent, short poems, or prose poems, that we would write ourselves, and then I’d write a different one. So, some of them are more interwoven with these two ideas of what a militant poetics should be, and some of them are individually coherent pieces that play off each other in that way. There are different forms of a dialectical engagement, which I thought was really exciting. 

DM: That sounds great. Can I ask, with the actual form that you’re working on—so obviously you’re getting ideas from all over the place, but is there anything in specific that you’ve drawn on to get to that place where you’re writing together? The methodology of actually doing it together? Or is it just on the spot?

DK: I think it’s a little bit here, a little bit there. But I think since Mathilda is currently writing a project on poetics, she might be good to start off that answer.

MC: I mean, most of my studies right now revolve around Sean Bonney, Marcuse, Mark Fisher, and Frederic Jameson. And then specifically in terms of the poets I’m looking at, it’s mainly Sean Bonney and Ben Lerner, and you know, come to think of it, I haven’t even gotten to the Ben Lerner aspects of this yet. Basically, you know, Bonney and Lerner are able to act as these gravitational subjects which are going through the social sphere collecting material from the people around them, and so they’re able to recuperate that material in their own poetry. and in doing so enact a collectivity which is spoken through one subject. I know that’s something that, at least me in my practice, is something I’m interested in as—and this is something I probably get from the language poets of just, you know, the way Ron Silliman would keep a notebook on him and just write down every sentence he heard for years at a time. I’m a huge eavesdropper: one of the things I miss because of quarantine the most is eavesdropping on people. 

[Dom snickers]

MC: I’m very interested in how Bonney, specifically, in The Commons, does this thing where—he has a line where he says “I cannot escape who I am,” or “ I cannot leave I,” etc., which is a counter-Whitman that he poses himself as. Instead of this universalizing figure, he’s a collectivist subject, in a sense. You’re able to hear the strains of multiple voices as they’re modulating through his. So even while it isn’t a collectively composed work, you know, you can hear the valences of the social relations in it, I think. And so maybe that’s something in terms of, you know, me and Dom can probably hear each other’s voices in the poetry, but someone else might—maybe people who are really familiar with the work can tell whose is whose, but there are some poems where I forget which one of us wrote which.

DK: Me too [giggles]

MC: That’s a similar thing I’ve had with other collective experiments like this. I used to write a lot of oulipo poems, and do oulipo experiments with friends, and when we’d come to later stages in the process, we didn’t remember who wrote what stanza. So the verse transforms into a communal property, almost, and is lifted from being my poem—it’s our poem now. 

DM: That’s a fantastic answer, thank you.

DK: I think it’s important for U.S. born poets to say outright: fuck Walt Whitman. 

MC: That’s right.

DK: I love Walt Whitman’s poetry, at least aesthetically. But his collective subject was undoubtedly—

MC: Imperial…

DK: I mean the way he justifies slavery, the way he justifies imperialism—

MC: “I am the poet of the master and the slave,” like come on!

DK: Exactly! It’s just like, fuck you man.

MC: The fact that people can still identify with Whitman as a universalizing figure is something U.S. poetry needs to reckon with.

DK: Yes!

MC: As much as I love my advisor, he’s a huge Whitman fan, so whenever I talk about Bonney as a counter-Whitman he’s like, “what are you talking about?” [snickers]

DK: He was gay as hell, and he fucked, and that’s awesome!

[Mathilda laughs]

DK: We love that—but he was also writing in the New York Daily News: “We have to invade Mexico and take that land in order to spread democracy.” So there is this root cause: he’s always been considered the father of American poetry, or whatever, and that imperial drive mixed with an impulse towards freedom and democracy, those things are co-constitutive. That is how U.S. poetics works, and we can’t escape that unless we start naming it.

MC: Yeah.

DM: Oh wow, okay, there’s so many directions I want to head in! 

DK: Sorry!

DM: No this is great, this is fantastic, I’m very excited. I wanted to ask real quick: how much of a relationship did you have before you started writing this book? How did you get to know each other?

MC: Well we were twitter mutuals forever… hmm… when did we exchange numbers and start texting?

DK: I mean it would have to be over a year ago that we started direct messaging all the time.

MC: Yeah, okay. Because there was a shit ton of drama in our poetry sphere last year. Lot’s of insane kind of micro-conflicts and just ideological differences about poetic production and relations of productions between poets and poetry. I think we kind of became closer through articulating our own stances to this. We definitely got closer working through that together. We only FaceTimed for the first time…this summer?

DK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we’ve never met in person, mostly because of the pandemic.

MC: There was going to be a proletarian poetry party in Boston (where Dom is based out of), right?

DK: Yeah.

MC: Yeah, so I probably would have come up for that. There were these proletarian poetry readings we were holding last year. I’ve been to them in Philly, in Brooklyn, and in Chicago. I specifically helped organize the Brooklyn/Chicago ones. They were beautiful events with wonderful like-minded poets and incredible audiences at these things. Like the fact that we had packed rooms of people wanting to hear communist poetry was an insane thing I didn’t know could happen. As someone new to leftism at the time and new to Marxist art, it was beautiful and inspiring to just be with these people in person. So I hope after the pandemic those continue.

DK: Yeah, definitely. I didn’t go to any of those because I am unfortunately in a PhD program that requires me to… you know, I was teaching, and TA’ing, and doing field exams, and a prospectus, and a dissertation chapter. I would have had way more fun at a proletarian poetry reading, but unfortunately I had to do academic bullshit.

MC: It’s okay, the feds were there in your stead.

DK: [laughs] Yeah.

DM: So, I guess there’s two different directions I want to head. For now I want to keep on the track of talking about these proletarian readings. Poetry on the left today. Just before the pandemic you start to have these readings, things like this—what’s exciting you about left poetry right now? What’s frustrating? Where does it need to go in your minds?

DK: I think we have to get rid of the Poetry Foundation. 

MC: Yeah! Yeah.

DK: That is kind of a minimal demand. I think it’s less about who is writing good poetry and who is writing bad poetry and more about, in a Benjaminian sense, how can we make the artist a producer? You know? How can we get to that point where poets who need to survive don’t have to take blood money from the pharmaceutical industry (referring to the Poetry Foundation)? Lots of people have already said this, this is not a new idea, people like Jamie Berrout and others have written very, very eloquently on those problems. But it bares repeating because we can’t have another fucking open letter going on by some people who won a Ruth Lilly prize or—

MC: I’m sorry, they were all Ruth Lilly Fellows! [giggles]

[a meow is heard as Dom’s cat appears on screen]

DK: Oh, gosh.

MC: That also has to be in the transcript.


MC: I think the original orbit I found myself in, which I think was where we both became familiar with each other’s work, was in the online space which was created by, which is run by @BigProsody, sorry I don’t know his last name [snickers]. That page has kind of tapered out in terms of the work it’s putting out, but that was where most of us became familiar with each other’s work in the summer of 2019. And people like Roy (who runs the Marxist Poetry Podcast, @creepingmraxist), and James, and I want to say you, probably, were in the scene way longer than me.

DK: Not that much longer, but maybe. Yeah.

MC: Roy specifically always would always mention that he’s seen these waves of poets come in the past and how most of them will kind of fade out of existence. But the kind of school, for lack of a better word, of poetics and poetry that was coming to fruition at this time through paintbucket was really coming to prominence in agitating against Astro Poets, against Poetry Foundation, just the grifters of contemporary poetry. sung has a poem on paintbucket about how “I’m going to burn down a corporate building,” or like “shoot up the,”—whatever… 


MC: It had to be censored when we put it on twitter, because you cannot say that on twitter, but it was the first kind of atmosphere of work I had been exposed to where people were articulating artistically this palpable rage at the contemporary production of poetry. Which hitherto I had been complacent with and it didn’t even figure in my mind as something that could be changed or needed to be changed and it really opened my poetic radicalization, if you could call it that. And paintbucket is where I found out about Prolit, Protean—I started a press called MarlsKarx. Jamie Berrout was running the Trans Women Writers Collective at the time. Anyone else back then?

DM: Is Best Buds! Collective in that at all?

DK: Yeah! Best Buds!

MC: Who else? Now grieveland, Recenter Press probably. So basically almost everyone who is involved in this is now a poetic distributor or producer in some sense, one or there other. And if they’re not directly in one of these presses they’re involved in it somehow. I mean they’re really kind of amorphous beings who just morph into and out of each other—like Dom is an editor at Protean, but also a, what do you call it… a “Central Committee Member” [giggles] at woe eroa (which is a poem from David Melnick). It’s basically what I rebranded MarlsKarx as after multiple mental breakdowns during the pandemic and needed a new thing. And we actually have our first book! [Holds up Holly Schaeffer-Raymond’s Heaven’s Wish to Destroy All Minds: A Political Theology

DM: That’s exciting!

MC: Yeah! The margins are printed really badly because it’s my first time printing with this press… so… but do you have anything to add to that?

DK: There’s also Radical Paper Press, which I feel like we have to mention, despite the fact that I think we’re both currently blocked by the person who runs that—for a variety of reasons that we probably shouldn’t get into… [laughs] But they were a pretty big force that was on the scene. And you know, he published really good people, I mean he published Ryan Eckes who’s incredible—

MC: upfromsumdirt, Zaina Alsous, Cassandra Troyan, people who have books coming out right now, a lot of them were getting published there with really nice chapbooks and broadsides. I don’t know what they’re doing nowadays though…

DM: Okay, great, so—

[a cat reappears on Dom’s screen]

DM: My god, your cat is adorable.

DK: This is only one of them! There’s a whole other cat. [drags cat #2 on screen] Olive, and then Ruby.

[Mathilda makes cooing noises over the cats] 

MC: Oh that was good, I needed that.


DM: So maybe now’s a good time to revisit how you’re positioning your work in contrast to this sort of imperial poetics. Dom, I know your thsis is sort of in this realm, and maybe both of your theses are in this realm in different ways—

MC: I think Dom’s probably more overtly so, if you want to go first.

DK: I think we are both kind of writing two sides of the same coin in a way. I feel like Mathilda, you’re trying to articulate a positive kind of poetics that is reaching towards something that is more utopian, whereas my dissertation is basically rereading Charles Olson, Amiri Baraka, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Walter Lowenfels, Raul Salinas & Carolyn Forché, for that sort of imperial impulse. So these are all poets who were considered leftists, some of whom are more canonical and some of whom are more peripheral. We think of beat poetry as, like, “they’re anti-authoritarian, they value freedom, and free expresiion, and free love.” And a poet like Ferlinghetti went to Cuba, wrote very positively about Castro and the Cuban project, but also at the same time was deeply, deeply invested in this concept of a democratic American continent that is straight from Whitman and very often involves these weird kinds of racialized fantasies. In one of his writings on Cuba he ends it by imagining this—he’s leaving Cuba, getting on a plane, and Cuba, the island itself, becomes this… he calls it a “white whale,” and it gets harpooned and sinks into the blackness of the sea. And the Cuban revolution was an explicitly pro-black, anti-American revolution, even though it didn’t start out as explicitly Marxist or anything. And so for him to go in 1960 and that be his sort of take away, that there’s this kind of racialized anxiety about whiteness being slaughtered and being absorbed into this threatening blackness, is really important. You have to take that in tandem with the fact that he wrote a weird homage to Castro called “One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro,” which is just like: “the CIA’s going to kill you, dude. I don’t know what to do. I feel so bad. I’m sitting in my [Mike’s] deli eating a sandwich and I know you’re going to die…” I think rereading these American leftist poets for that core, fundamental wound of imperialism, which is always genocidal and always anti-black, is important. In the same chapter that I’m writing I talk about a poem by Baraka in which he is also looking at the Cuban soil, and a black head bursts out of the soil, and it totally interrupts the narrative of the poem and it totally freezes the temporal constraints of the poem. And then he moves on and talks about his experience with, you know, kind of erotically, kind of politically talking about these Mexican revolutionaries who went to Cuba and basically told him: “Look, you’re a fucking imperialist. You don’t want to write about politics and you’re an American? It doesn’t matter that you are a black poet writing in bohemia, because bohemia is a product of imperial desire.” And that changed his whole life! You know? And he rejected Beat poetics after that. That’s one example of this paradox that I think is really interesting.

DM: Yeah, right. So almost him leaving Downtown, going Uptown to Harlem is this real transition.

DK: Yeah, yeah. Which is where Castro stayed too, when he visited America. He went there and that was really important to the kind of black radical… communists and anarchists who were there. 

DM: Well I hope I get the chance to read your dissertation, it sounds really poignant at this moment. 

DK: Thanks! I hope I get the chance to finish it.

[Mathilda laughs]

DM: Okay, so maybe we have—I mean you framed it in a really great way: so I guess maybe we have, like, a negative critique of this sort of poetics, this Whitmanesque type of American-democracy poetry. So maybe, Mathilda, you could talk more about your sort of utopian, positive… that side of the dialectic?

MC: Right. I find it funny to consider it “positivistic,” because it almost feels to me that it is articulating a negation. But I see it as being the opposite of this coin at the same time. I begin the first half of my thesis—I almost don’t talk about poetry at all, almost the way Bifo (Franco Berardi) in Finance and Poetry never talks about poetry… But basically I’m trying to consider what role does poetry as a psychosomatic production have in a revolutionary atmosphere. I start off with this quote by Bonney which is: “listen, we got every escape hatch blocked. / the center of our orbit is some kind of cynical massacre / some kind of prolapse, that’s all of your logic, your entire poetics, / no-one can even think revolt -” And so I begin with this as a demonstration of what Marcuse calls the “dominant psychic reality principle”, what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism”—you know, everyone has different words for it, and Bonney later calls it police realism. Just the way the official logic of capital will preclude and cancel out certain avenues of the imagination. This is where I find Jameson very useful, and I find—I almost consider this project to be continuing Fisher’s Acid Communism, which he only finished the introduction to. I’m currently reading this book, Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, because I’ve only read The Aesthetic Dimension, and just trying to further the Lacanian Marxism that is necessary to this kind of work, which is a lot of new ground for me. Jameson’s An American Utopia is really helpful, Capitalist Realism plays a big part in this. It’s all about: what role does poetry play in the deconstructing of one psychic reality principle and the construction of another, or the laying the foundations of another? I draw a lot on the work of George Thompson, who’s a really old English Marxist who went and lived with some Irish peasants in a Gaelic speaking village who were among the last Gaelic speaking peoples before the language kind of almost faded out and then had to be repopulated. He does a really interesting kind of anthropology of poetry as magic in a materialist sense, which I’m really interested in. It’s useful because of the way that Bonney is a kind of mystic materialist. He’s really interested in alchemy… all of his art has a 1300s manuscript vibe about it. He’s just really interested in this archaism. So I use Capitalist Realism as a dominant psychic reality principle and then Acid Communism as being that towards which we strive in articulating a poetics against capitalist realism. I write about 100 Gecs early on as an art which is—and I think we can talk about Heriberto Yépez in a minute if you want, Dom, because this is where I talk about—his work is really crucial to a lot of our recent thinking… okay wait, I’m getting excited and ahead of myself. [giggles] Basically I talk about the way 100 Gecs—[laughs] This sounds so silly… the way 100 Gecs is using the form of late capital and its frenetic psychic qualities, and what Bonney calls the poetry of advertising and consumer society. I talk about the way some remixes are just—the baseline beat is just composed of car honks in some of them, and it’s this insane thing you shouldn’t find pleasure in, it should be annoying, but the way in which these insane sounds are at such a high level of production, it produces an enjoyable chaos which is insanely marketable and pleasurable to a contemporary gen z person. So I use that as something which embodies a sort of conceptualism. Dom, can you explain Yépez’s construction of conceptualism? 

[Dom starts looking through a book]

MC: There’s one poem which does it really well which is “[Post]Gulf War Poetics”. He’s like “American government / ,oil // conceptual poets / ,text // How to appropriate E+V+E+R+Y+T+H+I+N+G” How to appropriate everything.” It’s this really awesome metonymy of imperialism, of just, Kenneth Goldsmith appropriates the death of this black boy as a poem. And the way that movement and that form is the same as what drives capital to appropriate, and to extract: it’s the same movement and embodies the same form. I talk about 100 Gecs in relation to what someone like Rimbaud or Bonney are trying to do in terms of doing—because Bonney also takes on this frenetic, schizophrenic paranoia in his verse. You hear it when he reads his poetry. But it doesn’t stop there because he’s not just writing within the form of capital, he’s writing at capital’s highest anarchic entropy, and then trying, at the same time, to articulate a militant poetics against it.

DK: I kind of feel like, when I read Bonney I can’t help but think of Naked Lunch, or Hunter S. Thompson’s writing, and as a really important development of that. Because when you read Thompson and when you read Burroughs, there is this really kind of asphyxiating prose in their work, and Bonney seems to be channeling that, or, as you say, articulating something against that. This dramatization of capitalist realism, which, if we take it as, like, vaguely synonymous with neoliberalism, which is happening when Burroughs and those other writers are writing, and Bonney is reflecting on that and pulling that into a different, more revolutionary context. I also want to say, if the extractive poetics that you’re talking about with 100 Gecs—which my coworker showed me the other day and she was like, “I love this song! You’ve got to check it out!” And I was like, “what the fuck is this?” And I thought to myself, oh my god, there is such a generation gap now, me as a millennial [laughs]. But what is the extractive performance of a Goldsmith poem reading Michael Brown’s autopsy report, which, fuck you man! That logic is absolutely the same as Whitman’s and as Ferlinghetti’s, and also the same as Charles Olson’s. I mean, he goes to Mayan ruins in Yucatán and he literally extracts stones and steals the glyphs and pottery and stuff…

MC: Jesus Christ…

DK: …at the encouragement of his white, pseudo-archaeologist friend. He writes these letters to Robert Creeley where he says, “This indigenous person told me that I wasn’t allowed to pick through the ruins that have been crushed recently by a construction company at the behest of the Mexican state… so I did it anyway at night and I stole these stones.” My work starts with that because that is the primitive accumulation of mid-century white poetics. It’s always going to be extractive. And the fact that that same logic is at play in 100 Gecs or Olson or something, I mean really the evidence is overwhelming, and I think that’s what connects our projects too. 

MC: My girlfriend has this joke she likes to tell where in all honesty she asks me: “Do you think 100 Gecs could tell you what the Enlightenment is?” And you really have to sit there and think about it because…I can’t tell you what intention is behind it, I just know it occupies this form. If 100 Gecs were to read what I think about them…[giggling] I mean I like the music or whatever, but I know it occupies this insane logic of capital in it.

DK: Problematic fav.

MC: Cancelled. Aufgehoben.

DK: Yup.

[It was requested post-interview that I also mention KM Cascia’s name as “an important poet”]

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