Oki Sogumi + Jamie Townsend
When we initially conceived of this exchange Oki and I thought it would be fun to talk about the intersection of writing and other art forms. Both of us are poets but are also involved in our respective music scenes: Oki performing in the band Aphid Daughters and me co-running an indie label, 11A Records. What we found, as we swapped emails over the course of a month, was that the relationship between these practices became a springboard into topics as varied as the anxiety of production, growing up religious, and legibility in art.
Sep 16, 2018, 12:17 PM
I’m thinking about how we started the idea of this conversation with a certain excitement but also worrying about the fact that we’re both really busy right now. I know that, for me, being busy helps distract from (maybe in a less than healthy way?) some of the depression and anxiety that seems to hijack my life too often. Lately I’ve been considering that dream in the poetry world of not needing to work, of having space, time and funds to just concentrate on writing. In a way, I’m not sure if that would work for me. I think the lack of self-esteem and fear capitalism generates may be the source of a lot of this constant need to produce, but it also feels like something else, a desire to find a multiplicity of me in different creative projects. What’s keeping you busy right now and does it help in the day to day?
Sep 18, 2018, 9:44 PM
It’s late Tuesday night for me, past midnight, I have Korean reality TV on quietly in the background, and thinking about what to read for a little reading tour I’m doing this weekend w/ Lauren Levin. I’m not a very good multitasker, inevitably nothing gets done!
This weekend I went to a wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of Philly, adjacent to the airport, and meant to write to you about it afterwards but I was so beat from that little walk and the humid stinky air. I often say I’m busy and in the same breath say nothing is going on with me. The regular stuff of life—the reproducing yourself and the people around you, the small conversations with friends and the shit-talking and the meal-making and responding to my mom’s emojis on kakaotalk and re-upping my public transportation card—keeps me occupied. Ongoing projects are helpful as structure. I try to take the time I need, slow down, or concentrate time into the tiny ball of the present. But I’m interested in what you’re saying about the multiplicity of you in different projects, which I think is maybe related to the different kinds of time (in part) that one can put into making stuff.
Here are some pictures from my walk. :)
Sep 20, 2018, 3:14 PM
I recently switched to a full-time job at the homeless/houseless center I work at in Oakland and have been getting used to sitting at a front desk for hours again after years of working freelance from home. There’s definitely happiness in being involved in this organization, but also a struggle in trying to rearrange my schedule after previously setting my own hours. I also have to be socially available much of the day—which, as a secret introvert, can be completely exhausting. However, one of the reasons I started working here was that working from home all the time, essentially having no human contact most of the week, compounded my chronic anxiety and depression.
I am trying to think through what I meant in my last email about a multiplicity of self and it might be this need to engage these various and seemingly contradictory aspects of me, to explore how my life overlaps with others. Some of it is probably due to being raised in New England as an Evangelical Christian. Though I’m not religious anymore I still feel the greatest satisfaction in working with and towards something redeeming (though often I’m not sure exactly what that is). I believe that if we can repurpose the fucked-up, unending labor of contemporary life toward projects of care (small press publishing, community work, writing and editing, spending time with friends and their art) then I feel like the energy reservoir is a little deeper. As I’m saying this, I realize how tired I am, lol—it’s about 80 in Oakland and I’ve got a stinky catbox and a bunch of writing work waiting for me at home.
Tell me about your tour with Lauren—also, I want to hear more about your band Aphid Daughters!
Sep 22, 2018, 6:32 PM
I think often what one desires as an ideal atmosphere or life pattern is based on the extremes of what you’ve encountered in the past. How nice it would be to only be challenged in the ways one can handle, with reality checks that aren’t overly harsh but just gently abrasive like a friend with a witty sarcastic comment that cuts to the core but is wrapped in genuine affection! Lol. Well, it’s Saturday night and I’m writing to you after packing for DC and NYC. The kickoff Philly reading was last night, with Lauren and Jasper Avery. I loved it, got a little weepy inside and then I did kind of meltdown much later in the night. My social anxiety seems tangled with abstract worry about “the collective” and how did my contributions add to existing tendencies creating surplus or lack. It’s often the impossible things that don’t even make sense to describe, but which seem loosely connected to everything, that make me cry. I also grew up in New England, in a religious family (Presbyterian, and I also went to Hebrew school which sometimes confounds people). I want to ask you a million questions about growing up Evangelical in New England, because I always found it strange to be in this religious family and then going to these WASP-y churches which were more about kind of aesthetic formalism, traditions, and small town sociality than the more intensely emotional space that I later encountered in the church.
I like being both lazy and curious, and wanting things all ways. There is real joy for me in following my curiosities through different mediums and modes of expression and living those multiple timelines, while letting the other jars of stuff ferment (getting Korean with my metaphors lol). As with fermentation, your experience needs to be carried on and not just via written knowledge, it’s in the hands. You need to know when to push/stir shit up/focus, and when to let go and wait.
One of my jars/timelines: I probably work on music these days more consistently than I do on writing—my bandmates in Aphid Daughters are friends and we live in the same house or close by, & I make music with my boyfriend, Adam. It’s built into and helps sustain my social life. I also find making music a lot easier these days because it feels like a really immediate emotional conduit, stripped of a layer of distancing—cleverness, cynicism, etc. Obviously, that can and does exist in music, but I’m an amateur so I mostly deal in catharsis or fun. I turn into a child who screams a lot into a microphone. That limitation feels really great right now. It’s easy to feel depleted and tired and not good enough, but I don’t feel that way with music. We are learning a lot in our own ad hoc way and the songs we’ve started to create change through performance and eventually grow up to be what they want to be. I’m curious about what in your life might feel kind of similar, like a thing you “do” but is also really just a part of your life as much as cleaning out cat litter boxes or walking in the woods for fresh air?
Sep 27, 2018, 1:49 PM
I feel like the idea of wanting it all really resonates. Maybe it’s got something to do with a certain type of confidence that is very male and very weaponized in our day-to-day. That some people are just given everything they need to float through life with complete and unquestioned confidence in everything they do. I mean, I want to see people be able to live with confidence, it’s just that the idea of “confidence” has been so tainted that I think we need some new language to describe it in a way that suggests an embedded resistance. Does that make sense? Idk, I guess also what I’m trying to say is that we should be afforded the right to be proud of our laziness as well.
I think the music world is a perfect petri dish for these types of imbalances and gendered violence. I read an op-ed article recently by musician Raphaelle Standell-Preston talking about gear culture and misogyny (the marketing of TC Electronics “Pussy Melter” guitar pedal and the subsequent violent trolling of petitioners trying to get the pedal removed from the market). I don’t know what changes this because in so many ways popular music in U.S.America has become synonymous with dick worship. I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about your experiences so far of playing shows and the dynamics of navigating these fucked up spaces. Recently I went and saw Lingua Ignota play a show in SF and while a bro-y metal dude completely disrespected her while she was performing, she wrapped him up in her mic cord and screamed lyrics into his face. It was so great to see her flex like that but then it was also like, “yeah, you’ve got to stand up to this bullshit probably every night of your tour.” I can’t imagine how energy like that gets maintained.
I think growing up connected to a sense of spiritual life created systems of thinking that have, actually, been somewhat positive as I’ve gotten older. The church also admittedly is where music became a great love and central part of my life. It’s funny to think that I now run a record label with a friend that I met through a home church more than 15 years ago, and that both of us are no longer religious yet have managed to keep a strong friendship and connection around art and even to a certain degree spiritual things. I think I was lucky though, in a way at least. What was Christian life like for you growing up? How did you get out? (lol)
Sep 30, 2018, 5:43 PM
Tour is over! Listening to Lauren read from their book (which examines a lot about whiteness/racism and gender vis a vis family, pop culture, political events, etc.) had me really thinking a lot about my family too.
I grew up in a family that was constantly in each other’s presence/space. Privacy was not something that was available unless you very deliberately sought it out. I used to go on six-hour walks as a kid, just meandering in a two mile radius from my house, slowly observing things around me, just to experience something like a private world. As an adult, I revel in my privacy but also always seek communal and social space. Without much deliberation I easily fall into doing things with other people. People talk about “intentionality” but I’m so oriented by intuition, and its always when I move against my intuition that I feel like I’ve really exposed myself to damage.
I agree with you about confidence—I think often the ways that we simplify practices of boosting (or what’s called empowerment) are often still laden with a lot of baggage and gendered expectations, or thoughtful characterization of how that relational space is lived, or without precise critiques of all the systems in which we find ourselves. I just went in for my citizenship interview/tests (I passed) and I felt myself really being tested emotionally—all the ways I hold myself together were being pulled at, questioned, baited, and meanwhile the Kavanaugh hearing had happened the day before—it was a tough space to be in. I try to undo some of what undergirds my confidence while not decimating it.
In terms of playing music, Aphid Daughters’ shows haven’t been in awful, bro-centric spaces (we mostly play locally so it’s easy to vet) and our audiences have been sweet. I do think that when bands get bigger, there might be more aggression pointed at them, like they think you need to prove yourself. We’re so new, and have the advantage of surprise, that could be part of the generosity.
I know you have a background in music—I’m curious to know more about that and what your relationship to music/music scenes is these days?
Oct 2, 2018, 3:06 PM
Congrats at passing your citizenship tests! That’s definitely a complex collection of feelings, I imagine.
I like that you bring the importance of surprise and intuition. They both come out of this place that is not unskilled but definitely not tied into the sort of manipulative sense of “mastery.” I felt really influenced by punk when I was younger because it seemed to privilege raw expression and a fuck you attitude. Though I listened to a lot of Christian rock music when I was in my early teens, I always favored the stuff that was sloppy, fast, and irreverent.
As a writer, I think I’ve always taken inspiration from those more underground scenes. I like making things and giving them to people I know, to have that interaction where there’s something at stake because there’s a relationship involved. My friend Nick and I modeled our magazine Elderly after publications like Maximum Rock’n’Roll and handmade fanzines, as well as underground literary mags like Steve Abbott’s SOUP and Sara Larsen/David Brazil’s Try!. In a way, I feel like a lot of the writing world has gotten too academic, self-serious, and detached. Maybe there’s more permission in music to establish a language that comes from the materials at hand (especially things like punk, but also hip-hop, footwork, gqom, black metal) and not from some system of affirmation from the outside. But I realize that’s also a projection of my aesthetic hopes onto genres and scenes I’m less immediately connected with than the poetry world.
I’m also still pretty involved with music in my day to day. I’m currently running an independent label called 11A Records with my friend Craig. Some of the musicians we’ve been working with I’ve know for years, so it’s nice to have a sense of relationship again being at the heart of what we’re doing. I think there’s a feeling right now with Bandcamp and SoundCloud that small labels are potentially obsolete, though in my mind having a network of support is always needed—to help share costs, do promotion, set up shows, etc. Maybe that’s the sort of communal thinking that attracts me to these inevitably unprofitable but socially rich projects. Do you think you want to see Aphid Daughters become something bigger? Do you see it feeding into your writing practice or maybe vice versa?
Oct 7, 2018, 3:12 PM
I can totally see that you had all those models for Elderly—I was immediately drawn to the magazine for those reasons. I also liked that it was on Tumblr. I think a lot of people for a while associated me with the bay area poetry scene, which isn’t false, but my connection was more to the political scene when I lived there and where I found poetry and “community” that resonated with me was more through Tumblr in 2012-2013.
Aside from problems of the academic models you mention, I also just think it’s an understatement to say that academia does not have a monopoly on critical thinking and has a long way to go in terms of political thinking (and, bound by structural limitations, will never go where it needs to go). Nonetheless, there is thought that moves through academia and poetry by way of people being in both and beyond. I guess when I think of it that way, that we are carriers of whatever experiences, jobs, friendships-and-their-conversations, it doesn’t appear as just an aesthetic/formal choice we can make or not. Accessibility is a difficult label that will always trace the outlines of what one has access to and then where that took you, what became difficult, alienating. It’s too simplifying to say it’s individual, when nothing is, but I also don’t find conventional wisdom on what’s “accessible” very helpful either. It often feels condescending. Anyway, I say all this as someone who did the whole MFA thing and has an academic parent. It’s one kind of stomach, and I kind of like thinking of the process of making stuff as going through a lot of stomach and different digestive juices. Otherwise nothing breaks down. Music is one of those stomachs, and I think maybe one that people use a lot to process or just be in whatever emotional space they wanna be in.
I think what I’m bringing to Aphid Daughters is my body. Which carries all the things I’ve been digesting in writing, and in other ways. It carries a love of performance and trying things out on the spot. And then that body is also writing. My poetry has always been interested in music because I am. And I’ve been lucky that when I was taught poetry, there wasn’t much formal differentiation between poetry and music, and thinking them together was the approach. A lot of my poetry influences aren’t “poets” (their medium is/was music foremost). I’ve been long obsessed with the band Algebra Suicide and Lydia Tomkiw who was also a published poet…I still haven’t read the poems but, in any case, her poetry was in lyrics and songs of Algebra Suicide and her perfect combo of midwestern accent with post punk sneering is so fucking beautiful to me.
I love hearing about what you’re doing with the label! The work you’re doing is necessary. Just because it’s possible for people to do self-promotion, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a lot of work that, like most things, is better done with more support. The whole “well the internet exists/be your own brand” so you don’t need this or that is a bootstrap mentality that need not be the ideal. I love that it is possible to put stuff out there immediately or to self-publish. I also truly appreciate the work that goes into running a small press and the work that editors do. I’m currently working with Skeleton Man press, and Aaron Winslow—the editorial relationship is a collaboration, going back and forth with your thoughts and development of the material. Especially in the case with the current chapbook because it was given to Aaron in a raw jelly state, all rough drafts.
I’m really with you on this: “Maybe that’s the sort of communal thinking that attracts me to these inevitably unprofitable but socially rich projects.” Yep. I think that explains why I do everything. How do you feel like these projects and/or that rich sociality feeds your own writing? I guess even on the level of desire to do it all says so much, but I’m also interested in what connections you might see or what choices you make in your writing, how you put that writing out in the world. And while we are conversing, and because you mentioned talking to musicians, I’d be curious to hear you talk about conversation’s role too, or the density of conversations in working on these projects, what is it about just talking that’s so great…
Oct 8, 2018, 9:20 PM
I keep wondering what accessibility means as a state and how it relates to larger issues, who controls public discourse, and how do different groups use specialized language to insulate or confuse or block. Also, what do we imagine other people want to read? I guess the one thing I’m sure of is that there’s a lot of ego involved in how we determine these things. I love that Wendy Trevino ends her bio statement “Wendy is not an experimental writer.” I think it gets rid of any assumed “difficulty” before her work is even read, and it also doesn’t frame the writing as just an experiment. I really believe writing, any kind of writing, has responsibilities (though complex ones) the same way we all have ethical responsibilities toward each other.
So, yeah…conversation is kind of at the heart of my writing and, in a lot of ways, my day-to-day labor. With the label I have to mediate different types of artistic engagement as well as make sure the translation of ideas between mediums is attentive to needs and limitations on all sides. For the newest album we released I wrote something as part of the back cover design. It could be perceived as experimental in the sense there a lot of parataxis and no linear narrative but I definitely wrote it with the hope that anyone could wade around and feel something in tandem with the music.
I recently realized I’d never escape music as a source of inspiration so I’ve kind of dug into it even harder. I throw a lot of lyrics into my writing because they’re such common, shared language it often seems very intimate to have them there. I have a series of poems that are pretty much completely constructed of lyrics, song titles, or album titles, and the people I’ve sent them to expressed having different emotions emerge from reading particular lines that are from songs they love or are important to them. I want it to become this shared moment, like we’re listening together. So yeah, this totally cycles back to creating opportunities for connecting, talking with people around what they’re interested in at the moment.
Speaking of, I’d love to hear about your new chap.
Oct 13, 2018, 9:36 PM
I’m getting back late from a movie night at my house, “horror spa” which was a horror/slasher double feature plus face masks for all.
I had trouble responding in the usual format, so I had to make a list:
—The biggest responsibility we have with each other, amongst each other, is ending capitalism.
—Writing is a playful place, for spinning out the dreams and nightmares that crowd our reality. For me, the experiment must also be doing it for real. For example, a protest is both an experiment, and doing it for real, and I think understanding that is kind of important. Writing isn’t a protest. In writing, the “doing it for real” is what’s happening with the audience and what’s intertwined with the continuation of life.
—Here’s another useless metaphor: We want to burn the house down, the house which is tangled up in vines, the vines are cut down, they bear the shape of the house as well as the ways the vines decided to go. When the house is burnt down, some of the vines are burnt, and some of the vines bear these shapes. Anyway, I guess it’d be cool to burn down the house and then look at these vines to remember that we did that and why we did it.
—The new chapbook is called “no one sleeps alone in the dark.” Because I was thinking a lot about what people, creatures, who find each other during bleak times or underground can do together, the circumstances of finding each other, the loneliness of failing to, which also can be the site of recognizing a collective fate.
—I don’t have strong loyalties to any aesthetic form, my inclinations are probably more determined by the content, the politics, and to a certain extent, milieus/contexts for the work. I’m often not impressed. Or I am loving it. But it doesn’t necessarily fall into clear patterns. That’s not a satisfying answer to those who love to guard the boundaries around the things they love. Personally, I’d like to learn to love in a different way—with less jealousy?
—The music business and poetry/publishing are both structurally limiting, actively demobilizing politically. You can look at what then manages to exist in an available form, sometimes many decades later, but it’s a small piece of all the imaginings that did happen. I love much of what exists, but also love what exists outside of surviving in those structures.