Interview by Dan Godston, originally published in Examiner, Los Angeles---
Vanessa Place is a poet, novelist, critic, and editor who lives in Los Angeles. She is also the founder / editor of Les Figues Press, which publishes books of experimental / avant-garde literature. Recently I spoke with Vanessa about her influences, her novel La Medusa, the latest projects with Les Figues Press, and the literary scene in Los Angeles.
DG: How did you first get interested in writing?
VP: I don't remember. I learned to read when I was two; writing went with reading, though less publicly.
DG: Who are some writers who have influenced you?
VP: Dante, Joyce, Pound. Stein. All the big boys. Lacan, Shakespeare, Beckett, Kant. All the usual perpetrators. I read a lot of critical theory, including art theory and philosophy and anti-philosophy. This is more for fun.
DG: What do you find so interesting about Gertrude Stein’s work?
VP: Language is very much material, and as material, it has physical properties, including mass.
DG: What’s one great work by Gertrude Stein that some people might not be so familiar with, but what you think is an amazing piece of writing by her?
VP: People are familiar with The Making of Americans, but don't read it, or read it wrong, dipping in and out, turning what is a great clump of text to a doily. It has to be plowed through, line by line. Then its pleasures are immense.
DG: How would you describe the literary scene in LA?
VP: Diffuse, diffident. Sometimes indifferent. It ebbs and flows, on account of being so close to the sea. Right now, there is a real move towards a meaningful mingling with the art world. I expect this to pollute both parties.
DG: What’s one example of how the literary scene is mingling with the art world in LA?
VP: In addition to the curatorial project that Les Figues is currently doing at LACE, there's a boom in literary readings hosted by art galleries, and art openings featuring literary readings. There are some cross-over projects as well -- both on a kind of institutional level, such as Joseph Mosconi and Rita Gonzalez's Area Sneaks journal project -- and a personal level, such as my sound collaboration with Stephanie Taylor (Murder Squaredance on the Spiral Jetty). The good news is that the writing in art may improve and the art in writing likewise. Too, it is very nice to have one's work appreciated as sheer stuff.
DG: It’s interesting that you mentioned discussion between the literary and visual art worlds. Do you see yourself as part of a tradition that involves writers whose work has involved visual art (such as Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Mallarmé, etc.)?
VP: Yes, sometimes more directly than others. I've done some art writing, most regularly for X-tra Art Quarterly. I collect some, which is constrained by means -- my ongoing favorites include Los Angeles artist Stephanie Taylor and Berlin artist Sabine Herrmann.
DG: What do you think about how avant-garde / experimental arts fit into the context of LA, in terms of more mainstream manifestations of the arts? Personally I find it interesting to find out about artists who continue to make innovative things happen, even while being surrounded by the presence of mainstream culture.
VP: Mainstream culture is so dominant in Los Angeles -- there is here a 50s-style diner occupying prime real estate whose sole function is as a set location -- that the underground really is. Unlike New York, for example, no one is going to get anywhere here doing the work that is not the work of the Industry. (There are, to be fair, at least three entities known locally as "the Industry".)
DG: Do you see that phenomenon as a positive thing or a bad thing?
VP: I think the dominant presence of mainstream culture in LA gives one a sense of enormous freedom, predicated on the simple fact of no one caring. This supreme disregard filters through all levels of culture, exponentially expanding the level of liberty and the irrelevance of the libertine. So that when Notes on Conceptualisms came out, Rob was buttonholed and cajoled at every turn, while no one here mentioned the book to me.
This is not true in the visual art world, which has become much more of a significant large-scale (local) cultural force. As people are now moving to LA to do art, there are the same sort of attention-as-commerce and commerce-as-commerce concerns as in London or New York. This should prove interesting given the cross-overs and co-minglings otherwise noted.
DG: How did you come up with the idea for “La Medusa”? It’s a very ambitious concept.
VP: For about 15 minutes a day for 41 days I wrote whatever came into my head. I then began elaborating on these bits. Having a hobbyist's fascination for neurology, I figured they would being to knit themselves into some sort of pattern, or narrative. They did, though not necessarily all interwoven. I had also heard repeatedly that it was impossible to write a Los Angeles novel about all of Los Angeles. This seemed a stupid challenge to me, and I very much like stupid challenges.
DG: You just mentioned neurology, in the context of writing "La Medusa." Do you see connections between mind mapping (diagrams of synapses, MRIs, etc.) and ways of mapping LA?
VP: Yes. Too, Los Angeles is a city in your head. Which is somewhat different from the Los Angeles in mine. And different still from the prototypical Los Angeles in the collective consciousness and un-.
DG: In her review of “La Medusa,” Jacqueline Davis writes, “La Medusa is an assemblage like no other -- a semi-fictional collage of poetic tangents momentarily touching, occasionally difficult to push through.” Would you comment on how you used assemblage / collage in that novel?
VP: La Medusa was my big experiment with narrative, so the challenge was keeping the parts tenuously connected while they pulled apart, or apart while they pulled themselves together. Like small magnets. In a narrative work, the real goal of assemblage is to have separate items that, once laid next to or within one another, create an independent narrative whole. To use another analogy, gears and pistons and pots of water become an engine. Though the engine here is not the narrative conceit(s) of the text, but rather the idea of narrativity itself: I want to keep a gap or sliver between parts so that the reader will make the great narrative leap of faith that is otherwise absolutely unjustified. In other words, we want the engine to run, and so it will. Or we will. I'm hoping the next project of mine which contains more generative (versus appropriated) work will deploy this same desire to opposite ends.
DG: Are you a fan of other literary works which use collage / assemblage, such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s "Dictee," Appollinaire’s Calligrammes, etc.? For me, one thing that I find interesting about works like that is how they use different kinds of language / iconography in innovative ways.
VP: I adore Calligrammes -- very glad you mentioned it. Pound, again. He is a source text. Benjamin's The Arcades Project is an ongoing inspiration, running all registers at once. Blake is enormously complex, particularly when one considers how small his illustrations were. Renaissance literature is great for rhetorical pastiche. Almost all allegory, for that matter, as the signs, both linguistic and otherwise, fly off the text to parts unpremeditated.
DG: Would you say “La Medusa” fits into the contexts of other novels that use a particular location in a strong sense, where the location almost becomes a character? Joyce’s "Ullysses," Faulkner’s novels which are set in Yoknapotawpha County, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s "Nog," and Dashiell Hammett’s novels are some examples that come to mind.
VP: It fits in. Everyone says so. This is also a historical observation, though, as history is geography, and vice versa. How it fits is another question, unanswerable by me.
DG: One of your recent publications is "Exposé des faits." Would you explain the concept behind that book?
VP: Exposé des faits consists of self-appropriations of some of my legal writing, re-presented as conceptual poetry. There is an English trilogy -- Statement of Facts, Statement of the Case, and Argument that is forthcoming from Blanc Press that incorporates some of the same (and more) material. Statement of Facts should be out in about two weeks.
DG: What compelled you to re-appropriate some of your legal language for “Exposé des faits”?
VP: "Compelled" is an interesting word. Very psychological. I've been wondering lately if the law is more like the Lacanian objet petit a than has been popularly thought.
DG: What are some other examples of re-appropriated language that you find interesting, maybe an example of a work that you think relates to ““Exposé des faits”? For instance, have you read Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Weather”?
VP: I am very familiar with Kenny's work, and the Traffic-Weather-Sports trilogy is a good one, and Day is perhaps the ur-text here. Rob Fitterman's corpus is also extremely interesting, with several standout pieces, such as his Mall Directory, Free, and many parts of Sprawl. I admire Kim Rosenfield greatly, who does more impure appropriation in terms of juxtaposing appropriated texts to terrific effect. Yedda Morrison's erasure work, such as her Heart of Darkness chapter, devolves appropriation wonderfully well. Divya Victor's Hellocasts, which I appropriated for my Factory series, is genius. The field is expanding, as it is emerging, and there are a number of people doing significant work -- some as we speak, like the Mexican poet Marco Antonio Huerta, who is countering the official silence about the drug murders in his border city with poetry fashioned from its residents' appropriated facebook and chatroom posts.
DG: "Factory Work," which is the first book in your Factory series, was published recently. How did you come up with the idea for that series?
VP: The Factory Series is my version of Warhol's practice of having "art-workers" help him create his paintings. I invited about 10 artists and writers to make chapbooks for me. It's very transparent.
DG: What are some things that you find interesting about Warhol’s Factory? I enjoyed reading some of the pages from the "Factory" book that's available for preview lulu.com. Did you appropriate parts of "The Andy Warhol Diaries" in that book? (I thought I recognized that; I have a copy of his diaries...)
VP: I find the immaterality of the artist combined with the fetishization of the artist in the Factory fascinating. In my Factory Series, I engage in the same gesture relative to poetry: chapbooks (a poetry product) made not by me but "signed" by me, making it my poetry. Too, of course, the content is sometimes not what some would call poetry as well -- as you note, the first chap is an appropriation piece taken from Warhol's Diaries. I did not appropriate Warhol, however: I appropriated Kenny Goldsmith who appropriated Warhol. Similarly, Hellocasts by Charles Reznikoff by Divya Victor by Vanessa Place is my appropriation of Divya Victor's appropriation of Charles Reznikoff's appropriation of Holocaust documents. Only Yahweh is Janice Lee's appropriation of me, which I then appropriated.
DG: What do you find interesting about Warhol's diaries. Do you find Warhol's archives interesting?
VP: I don't find anything particularly interesting about Warhol's diaries, which is why they are so interesting. I am similarly interested in the uninteresting contents of his archives. But I am very interested in them as archives, as I am very interested in archival art. To be fair, I am also working on a kind of archival/installation poetic project.
DG: What will be the next book in the Factory series?
VP: I'm not sure what the next Factory project will be; at the moment, there are about ten artist/writers who have agreed to make books for me. I will make them by me as they arrive. There's a great deal of transparency.
DG: How did you get the idea to start Les Figues Press?
VP: Teresa Carmody, Pam Ore, Sara La Borde, and I were in Paris and wanted to do an aesthetic project. Paris bookstalls are filled with cheap and lovely books. It was a stupid challenge, and thus irresistible.
DG: How did you start collaborating with Teresa Carmody?
VP: We met at an MFA program; she was one of the core group of people post-program who wanted to talk about aesthetics in the plural.
DG: What do you find interesting about her aesthetic / approach?
VP: She is very subversive, caging insoluable moral dilemmas in deceptively simple/conventional narratives/syntax, that, like Biblical prose, is layered and goes beneath the skin. She is one to read closely though she invites a faux-easy familiarity. She writes complexities as if they were not.
DG: “The n/oulipian Analects” survey is a fantastic book. Why did you decide to publish that book?
VP: I was a panelist at the n/oulipo conference, so knew about the project, and was very keen on publishing the book. It was originally with Make Now, a very good LA press, whose publisher decided that the work didn't quite fit with his then-list. And while I don't think that Les Figues was the editors' next choice, we did end up winning the prize. It is a remarkable book -- Christine Wertheim and Mathias Viegener did an extraordinary job editing and curating, and I think that text in particular did a great deal towards re-establishing LA as a location for innovative writing. While helping sketch out the parameters and polemics of constraint and neo-constraint work.
DG: I enjoyed your presentation during the &Now Conference, when people were invited to interrupt you. How did you come up with that idea?
VP: I originally gave the paper at AWP in Chicago, where lovely SAIC students interrupted me by making toast on toasters they smuggled into the conference, and passing around doughnuts provided by me; my job was to studiously ignore them. While I want the text to be very interesting, I want the distractions to be as compelling. I could not replicate the toast-making in Buffalo, nor would there have been the same point (the AWP talk was at 9:00 a.m., which is early, even for breakfast). So I thought that I should not try to constrain my interruption -- I asked a few people to do whatever they wanted to disrupt the talk, and to invite others to do the same. Apparently it was very distracting.
DG: What are some recent developments with Les Figues Press?
VP: Teresa and I are beginning a year-long curatorial project at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, a large Hollywood gallery, hosting a series of writers not-in-residence who will deploy writing on the gallery walls to great textual and imagistic effect. The first exhibition cycle will feature Doug Kearney's big spill sequence, Divya Victor's Reznikoff-Hello Kitty combine, and one of my Statements of Facts. In addition to the regular TrenchArt series (and it is a very good one this year), we will also publish an anthology of women's conceptual writing, I'll Drown My Book -- co-edited by me, Laynie Brown, and Caroline Bergvall.
DG: When will “I’ll Drown My Book” be published?
VP: The book will be available at the next AWP, perhaps sooner.
DG: How is the book organized?
VP: The editors solicited "conceptual writing" from about forty writers, some of whose work fit the description, some who did not. Some writers refused to submit, saying they did not believe their work was conceptual. Those who did feel they could be included, were. This was our solution to the standard anthology problem of under-inclusiveness. This also created the editorial problem of how to classify what may be unclassifiable. Some of the resulting work is clearly conceptual to me, other pieces are not at all conceptual by my definition, but clearly so to others. It's an expanding field, and the anthology reflects this.