“My intention in everything I ever write is to leave no traces of quotidian design”: An Interview with Carlos Lara

side by side series of the cover of Like Bismuth When I Enter

I read poetry to learn how to read again and again.

I’ve become increasingly interested in working through poems that—as Fred Moten describes in an interview in Callaloo—”recognizably inhabit, but in some kind of underground or fugitive way, the space between the laws of music and the laws of meaning.” I’ve become interested in seeking out poems that push me beyond the limits of my interpretive capacities, poems that urge me to unlearn my unquestioned desire for understanding, poems that undo my reading rhythm as I move from line to line, image to image, break to break. There’s something both frustrating and freeing about reading such poetry. I can spend forever dreaming of that which is made possible by such contingencies of language.

It is with this frame of mind, or desire, or body, that I read and reread Carlos Lara’s latest collection, Like Bismuth When I Enter. Like Bismuth When I Enter is an urgent undoing of sense and syntax, an epistemology of disruption, a move toward a lawlessness of language. Surrealistic or post-surrealistic, fast-paced, not quite humorous, not quite tragic, fully felt and full of oddly affective new imageries and juxtapositions, the book invites the reader to reread past, present, and future micro and macro worlds differently, disparately, and spontaneously. Like Bismuth When I Enter is avowedly anti-thematic, anti-linear, post-itself. It is, in the speaker’s own words, simply “some moments imbued with the crass economy of self.”

At every instance of reading this book, I find my stubborn, rational, analytical self simultaneously at odds with and in love with the text. I pause in those moments when I recognize something I know how to feel—those same “moments imbued with the crass economy of self.” In some ways, the reading experience is that very negotiation between distilled moments and selves. When I encounter “the safety of flea market campfires,” or the “delicious persona of southern california wildfires,” or “liquid credit card veins,” or “a cluster of carnal bourgeois catastrophes,” I feel invited not into a world, but into a worlding. Perhaps, in these short bursts of contingent intelligibilties, I am simply realizing that I am in the presence of a text transcribed by “a mind more distinct than the copies of vicarious selves.”

“God Wave,” for example, is a thirty-five–page wall of text with no punctuation or line breaks. I read this poem over the span of several days at random hours and in random moods. I couldn’t tell you whether that experience was more like moving through a “manure of progress,” or like escaping the “monotonous halls of elucidation,” or like living “the second life of language.” What I do know is that as I read, I continue to find myself at a loss for words, questions, and reflections. The book is musically gorgeous and brutally unstructured. It is principled in its desire to not desire. As his collaborator Will Alexander shares, “Lara has an extremely developed aural sense.” Perhaps what is most exhilarating about Like Bismuth When I Enter is how this aural sense is what inspires the reader to escape, return, and escape again the structures we use to familiarize ourselves with the world.

While I firmly believe that all texts are produced within the aesthetic and political limitations of their specific historical and cultural context, I am—in the moments of reading and reading Like Bismuth When I Enter—inclined to think about text as pointing toward the aesthetic and political  possibilities of any given moment. When I learned from Lara that he was raised in Chula Vista, California, I wondered about the possibilities of bordertown imaginaries, the ephemerality of migrations, and fictions of geography. I found myself stuck on matters of place, local and recognizable signifiers, in hopes that this would satisfy my need to analyze, my need to connect. Upon more research, I realized that “God Wave” is a durational piece, its composition taking nine years. Readers encounter the archive of this compositional process. What this tells me is that one’s encounter with this book has more to do with the momentary edges of writing, knowing, reading, and interpreting. This book, as Lara has explained in a previous interview, is anti-thematic. If the poet relies on the music of language and the engine of imagination, then what else is the reader to do but read freely, ignore, return, dive, neglect, focus, repeat, experience, depart?

I’m confident in saying that Carlos Lara’s poetics do and do not at all have to be about anything, they do and do not have to say anything of significance. When introduced at a reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, Lara was quoted as having once stated that “Poetry will be in its most important, relevant, and vibrant state when it ceases to exist.” Lara’s poems rush to the limit. Texts like his only happen when language sincerely and unabashedly attempts to keep up with imagination.

Lara and I spoke recently about these ideas: theme, geography, musicality, and form.

Jason Magabo Perez: In many ways, I agree with you that theme is garbage. Still, I can’t help but notice particular obsessions resurface throughout Like Bismuth When I Enter. The speaker describes the first poem, perhaps the book, perhaps each of the observations contained, as “some moments imbued with the crass economy of self.” How does this “crass economy of self” figure into how you think about, read, or write poetry?

Carlos Lara: I feel that theme is a futile way of trying to escape self-containment. Theme also precludes a reader from thinking about the work in any kind of original way by foregoing any responsibility a reader might have to leap into the emptiness of the text. But we want to relate, we want to be able to understand. That’s really important to us, as a species: that we are able to understand things. Theme might assure us that we’re on the same page, that we can conduct a human transaction, whatever it is. Theme is always accompanied by the assumption that it’s chosen, that it’s intentional, and if not intentional, it is an implied concern of whatever work. I feel that theme sets you up for failure by nature of its exclusivity: theme is bound to expression. Expression is often duplication, selfish replication even. My intention in everything I ever write is to leave no traces of quotidian design.

What’s funny to me is that you severed the first part of the initial phrase when you asked about “crass economy of self.” I think it all works together: the moment, or instant, that is imbued and the crass economy of self that imbues it. “The seizure of the instant cannot differ from ecstasy,” is a quote from [Georges] Bataille that I recently used in a [forthcoming] book review and that has stuck with me. That a crass economy of self, by imbuing the moment, is a seizure of the instant and thus is no different from ecstasy, or simply, is ecstasy. I also see seizure of the instant as requiring a lack of expression. It is emptiness and waiting, or being grounded. It’s pure spontaneity like a baby’s grasp.

To me the crass economy of self is what needs to be surpassed, or suppressed, but it also seems like the only way to do that, is by going deeper into it. Or by taking “things” deeper into it, until they are changed permanently or they disappear. When you try to shed subjective light on anything, you expose it and yourself and your weaknesses, which may be all under the banner of relatability. That we are all fragile and seeking acceptance of our expressions and constantly. And that’s what most people imagine when they think of “Poetry,” right? Poetry to me has always lived in attitudes of refusal, of détournement, of bewilderment, of impertinence, and impetuousness.

JMP: I’m interested in the ways in which fleeting moments of geographic specificity play throughout. There seems to be, both figuratively and literally, a scattering of migrations. The speaker invokes places, whether through naming them or momentarily inhabiting and describing or negating them, like the Bronx, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Taiwan, China, Charleston, and Ka’anapali Beach. How does geographic and spatial context inform your poetics? What do these geographic specificities teach you about sound, imagination, feeling, mind? 

CL: Whenever you invoke geography you invoke the specter of infinity-made-real. It’s a hysterical thing to be located in a specific place with a name on Earth. Perhaps I use toponyms randomly in an attempt to disorient the reader and the places in themselves. It’s like that part of the [James] Joyce novel where the kid writes down the school he’s sitting in and then town he lives in and then the city and then the county and then the country and then the continent and then the planet and then the solar system and then the universe and then he stops, and he doesn’t know why or can’t figure out why he stops. At least that’s how I remember it. It’s very serious though, the geographic aura, that geography on Earth is finite but also so vast and modulating in energy, in innumerable ways, even down to what street you grew up on, then the particular housing you occupied, and within that housing your little room or whatever, each crevice in your little personal space, all of your secret drawers and boxes, so it seems outwardly and inwardly finite, but the range between the two almost seems infinite. And regardless, you’re stuck. I’m stuck. Wherever you are, you’re stuck. And when you realize how stuck you are, then the next realization is that you are actually everywhere. Or you don’t need to be everywhere. You can say and believe that you are everywhere. In your mind. And you can really believe it. I cannot stress the belief part enough. Or perhaps, it’s more like being everywhere by being awake. Or becoming aware that, by being conscious, one is everywhere awake. That brings me comfort and delight.

JMP: When you told me that you grew up in Chula Vista, I couldn’t help but search for familiarities, things I might be able to recognize to ground my reading for a second. In “The Salivation Actor,” the speaker offers this really vibrant and beautiful fragment that felt very southeast San Diego: “The safety of flea market campfires.” Can you talk about how growing up in a bordertown like Chula Vista informs, shapes, or gives reason for refusal in your work?     

CL: Actually, I’m not sure that I can talk about it. A border is marginal space that bleeds into the delineated, the regulated, and that’s no different than any space I’ve ever inhabited. I cannot extrapolate on a border as refusal symbolically or as a theme, if that’s what you’re asking. Borders ground the nothingness that they illusively separate. And this runs adjacent to what we just discussed above. It’s hard to analyze the idea of the border without falling into what I think is actually a dangerous philosophical and moral dichotomy, and frankly that bores me. Nothing is further from the experience of being human, or of being a poet, then a border. At least, expansiveness is the key to my art. And I think the effect that growing up near a border has had on me is purely unconscious, regardless. The fact that the notion “border” is an ever-present but almost invisible psychological outcrop is what’s really pertinent.

JMP: I spent many reading sessions and many different kinds of moods and postures working through what I think looks and sounds like a contemporary surrealist epic in “God Wave.” You’ve said that this poem “came from nothing and leads to nothing, but in the middle, where the poem resides, there is the potential for a massive eruption of the strangest knowledge.” At the end of the poem there is an inscription: 2008-2017. I’m wondering a few things here: what was it like to work on a single poem for nine years? What did you learn about poetics, craft, yourself, language along the way? What contradictions, confirmations, and lessons arose? What can you say about sustaining a poem that you believe ended up “perfect” through different moments, struggles, and celebrations of your writing and non-writing life?

CL: As far as calling it a contemporary surrealist epic: I guess one could say that I write out of a post-surrealist positioning. My work is not surrealist in the way that academics and critics and, you know, every other book reviewer will use that term. I particularly don’t even like the term. Surrealist. Surreal. None of its iterations. I don’t think it was ever supposed to become so categorical. There’s definitely a spirit I share with the original writers, but it’s the same spirit I share with [César] Vallejo or Haroldo de Campos or Aime Cesaire. Which is really just New World alienation and exuberance.

What was it like to work on a single poem for nine years? I didn’t think about it. During summer 2008, I went into a trance for about an hour or so, every day for like fifty days straight, and I would just write, letting every sound around me enter into the text, but distorted. So I ended up with the first draft of that poem by the end of that summer. Then I let it sit for like five years. I realized that the form and content were too disparate. It’s hard for trance-like dictation to end up lyrically staccato, which is how it ended up looking on the page for some reason. But there was no music behind it, which I liked. Since the text came in huge waves it made sense to forgo punctuation and line breaks and let the whole thing exist as one massive wall of sound and sense. The God Wave. So what did I learn? When you hear the voice, your voice, or a voice, you run with it. But it has to be organic. It seems counterintuitive to me, but I would say that if you don’t hear music behind the text, don’t let it breathe.

In order to be a poet, one must do the work of a poet, right? Yes, that includes reading and writing pretty consistently. However, the inverse can be just as helpful: not writing, not reading. That’s letting your writing sit for years and then seeing how it has aged. I think during the time of working on God Wave, I learned what was true to me: that false wisdom is still real wisdom; that poetry is not an externality; that the work of poetry is immaterial (which is why we say “no material” all the time); that the word and the dream have always been unified; that being alive and remaining alive is a type of insincerity, or perhaps the only insincerity; that ambiguity is the path to beauty; that the poet is trapped by being trapped; that I’ve always known everything that I need to know; that poetry isn’t real; that worlds wear away.

JMP: What are you working on currently?  

CL: I’ve put the majority of my waves on hold as I’m currently on the verge of starting a new career. I just finished a manuscript called Subconscious Colossus, which I’m currently trying to get published, and I have a novella in progress called In the Graphic Mists of the Infinite Wound Spreading. After that, I’m not writing anymore for a while. I’ll let you in on a little secret though: I’m also slowly, slowly, writing a sequel to my first book, The Green Record. The sequel is called The Green Legend. I plan on giving myself about ten to twelve years to finish it. Then I’ll probably need someone to type it up for me because it’s entirely handwritten and I’m a terrible typist. That’s all.

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