An Interview With Brian Teare, Author Of Poem Bitten By A Man

Brian Teare’s Poem Bitten By A Man—published today—collages the work of Agnes Martin, Jasper Johns, and others whose work is part of a broader conversation (on art, affect, and all that comes with those). He writes in the penultimate poem, “I believe care’s the core of interpretive work, fragment of an immense form of mending together.”

When I asked him about this process of assemblage — how he put his own notebook practice on the page, and how he worked with/through our understandings of temporality — he said it was “Fucking magic, as far as I’m concerned.” Eileen Myles agrees — “it’s dark & luminous reading this potion,” they wrote of Poem Bitten Bitten By A Man. I couldn’t have said it better. Be sure to order your copy here, just as magical as promised. 

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: Thank you for sharing such a sustained, meaningful body of work. I’m curious about its conception, and how you collaged so many layered sources. How did Poem Bitten By A Man come to be? Is there a politics to this sort of abundance?

Brian Teare: Lovely to enter into this dialogue through such a generous set of questions!

On a literal level: the book came about in response to a commission from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which asked me to write a poem in response to the work of Jasper Johns. This was in honor of his Mind/Mirror retrospective at the PMA and the Whitney. At the time, I knew little about Johns, and had no previous relationship to his work, but I said yes because I needed the money and was intrigued by what my initial research turned up. I had come across excerpts from his sketchbooks, which I wanted to engage more deeply.

On a creative level: the book arose out of its own process of association. I didn’t have a plan when I started writing, and was surprised that writing in dialogue with Johns’ sketchbook and his work from the 50s and 60s brought up two things right away: the work of Agnes Martin, and the period of acute illness I’d written through by dialoguing with her, which resulted in The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. Though for a time Agnes and Johns lived mere blocks from each other in Lower Manhattan, I didn’t at first know why Agnes came back into my creative work.

Through research and writing I also figured out that in lower Manhattan both Agnes and Johns produced their breakthrough work – his targets and flags, her grids – while their personal lives went from rather lovely to rather messy. I began to understand that the end of my time in San Francisco contained elements of both their biographies, and that San Francisco had been to me as a queer poet what lower Manhattan had been to both of them as queer painters.

I do think the abundance of Poem has a politics. Agnes eschewed the political – she thought it a distraction from inner freedom – and in working with grid-like forms and a classical stringency of the line in The Empty Form, I found it very hard to incorporate social and economic contexts directly into what were essentially lyric poems. I mean, I often did, but the formal constraint remained inhibiting. Johns is a more worldly painter than Martin, and so dialoguing with his work encouraged me to bring into this book much of what I’d left out of the previous one: economics, the city, race, friendships, gender, my love relationship. Eventually, Poem would become a comment on and reworking of The Empty Form, the second in a diptych.

In Poem I worked with my notebooks as one of the major sources of the collage, which both suggested the sentence as the central measure and rejected both Agnes’ and Johns’ rejections of biography in discussions of their work. Johns’ flags offered a complicated optic on American politics, masculinity, and race, and his post-breakup paintings suggested the “patches” of prose from which poems dangle like the domestic objects he hung from those paintings. Other artists – Asawa, DeFeo, Gilliam, Hesse, Smith – suggested yet more relations between context and form. I’ll return to the abundance of my sources later!

Dante Silva: You’ve worked with Agnes Martin for a while, particularly in The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. You’ve spoken about her rhetorical certainty, and the comfort taken in Martin’s work serving as an interlocutor for your own. What intimacies are shared between you? How have these changed over the time you’ve been writing about her?

Brian Teare: I have to begin by acknowledging: all the shared intimacies are entirely one-sided, and I’m pretty sure she would hate them. She forbade biography in discussions of her work; she ridiculed the idea that she was a “woman” painter; and when it came to her art, she insisted on a purity of aesthetic and metaphysical purpose (which didn’t mean she didn’t make calculated career decisions or make money, etc.). She also refused to acknowledge the influence of other artists, such as Lenore Tawney, who lived and worked for a time on Coenties Slip. Her early woven forms share much with Agnes’ early grids, and they even titled each other’s work – Agnes later critiqued Tawney’s titles for her grids as “romantic not classic and a contradiction of the work.”

I was in profound crisis during the years I wrote The Empty Form, so I clung to the certainty and bossiness of texts like “The Untroubled Mind,” written after her Coenties Slip years, even if the pronouncements she made were often antithetical to my own way of thinking about art and life. And I loved then, and continue to love, the art she made during the years she lived on Coenties Slip. Those grids offered me new ways to think about the sonnet – poetry’s very own intrinsic grid – and about the digitally typeset page – whose default form is also grid-like – and thus freed up my poems via a powerful compositional and conceptual constraint.

The year The Empty Form was first published – 2015 – Nancy Princenthal’s biography about Agnes came out, the first in a steady stream of books that offer together a more complex and less hagiographical approach to Martin than could be taken during her lifetime. So when I returned to Agnes and her work in Poem, it is as a contrast to Johns and his work, but it’s also with a much deeper knowledge about her biography.

The Agnes in Poem is less a result of my deep attachment to her paintings and writings and more a result of understanding her as a queer artist who lived and worked guided by voices and visions that others saw as aspects of schizophrenia. I also identified with her conflicted relationship with her mother, a disciplinarian who also seemed to have been deeply abusive. Agnes would never use that language, and it’s not my place to diagnose her or impose a narrative upon her life, but she did struggle with the psychological agonies with which negated children often also struggle.

Dante Silva: I’m also wondering about the language in Poem Bitten By A Man. “The problem,” you write, “is how to make language more, a dimension that holds & meets multiple demands: love, work, death, art.” And the title of your collection, too, conflates language with the physical body, the bite. I want to turn your own question back to you and ask, How to make language more? 

Brian Teare: I like the way your question conflates biting and abundance. The desire to make language “more” has to do with the way The Empty Form constrained language, making it suitable for certain kinds of work and unsuitable for others. Each of my books has its own poetics in the sense that the kind of work I need to do changes, and that necessitates new ways and theories of making. The composer Samuel Barber once said something to the effect that each composition poses a problem with a unique solution, and I experience each poem and each book like that to a certain extent. I like to study change – how and why an artist changes over their career.

Agnes is the Queen of NO – once she discovered her mature style, she began the process of honing a very narrow vocabulary formally and materially in order to produce a very expansive experience of abstraction in her viewers (even if, in her writing, she seems to want to control that experience, too!). First she chose the grid, and then she said no to vertical lines and chose the horizontal line. I was deeply attached to the tension, mystery, and beauty of the early grids, so in The Empty Form I too chose a more narrow formal vocabulary in order to produce for the reader a more expansive conceptual experience of illness, disability, and crisis.

In Poem, I was inspired especially by the ways Johns moves from his early period of targets, flags, maps, and numbers to his grey breakup paintings to this exuberant, expansive period of color and collage and scale. He said yes more often, literally allowing his language to become more – huge paintings like Studio – loosing form from the constraints of a flat plane, even, by incorporating objects. In my reading of Johns’ career, this had everything to do with allowing overt aggression into the objects he made, like the literal bite in the encaustic of Painting Bitten by a Man.

The psychoanalyst Winnicott might say Johns was testing how much of his aggression his paintings could tolerate. I think of Poem as my own experiment in testing how much of my aggression a poem can tolerate. On one level, that’s what collage affords: each snip of the scissors or the cursor is a bite. On another level, biting is libidinal, the end result of a deep desire finally released, so there is great satisfaction and also pleasure in it. The cut allows for destruction before the paste allows for a form of repair. Both gestures say to me always: more, more, more!

Dante Silva: In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant asks “How long have people thought about the present as having weight, as being a thing disconnected from other things, as an obstacle to living?” I’m curious about this question, and the “this & this & this here / now now now” that you write of. How do you hold the “weight” of the present, in your work?

Brian Teare: For over a decade, abstract painting has seemed to me a medium that embodies these questions from the ground up. Canvas supports the beautiful tension between an object whose form records a lively process always present to itself and an object eternally present to the viewer who turns its materiality into abstract experience. The notebook page or entry also does this. In language, the locution that’s deixis feels precisely to stage that paradox: this here & here & now & now.

This points to a “here” no longer close to me and a “now” no longer present for me, but this will become for a moment very near and very present for you, much like the date and time on a notebook entry. Fucking magic, as far as I’m concerned. Practically time travel, which abstract painting excels at.

But temporality, as you suggest, has a politics. Queer theorists from Berlant to Dinshaw to Edelman to Freeman to Muñoz have written beautifully about it, whether it’s past, present, or future. And though I too love Cruel Optimism and Berlant’s clear-eyed analysis of the cruel object America makes of the “good life” promised by capital, nation, democracy, citizenship, and even politics itself, it’s her brilliant book The Queen of America Goes to Washington City that serves as a context for much of the thinking of Poem.

What she notes there – that “the totality of the nation in its capital city is a jumble of historical modalities, a transitional space between local and national cultures…” – helped me think about the temporality of collage. So while the textual object that has been produced by process enters an eternal now eternally altered by the reader, the source material for the collage is “a jumble of historical modalities” and of positionalities (poet, painter, critic, historian, psychoanalyst, etc.). The actions of cutting and pasting enact a myriad of transitions or jump-cuts between local and national, personal and private, past and present, etc.

For me the present is a jumble of modalities a bit like Jasper Johns’ flags. I turned to Berlant first in trying to reckon with my conflicting feelings about them. They are undeniably powerful and evocative objects (especially in person), and much of their power lies in their refusal to give anything away rhetorically. Are they sincere? Are they ironic? Are they uncritical? Are they critical? I think the answer is pretty much yes to just about any question put to them – they can, like the literal flag, be appropriated to mean just about anything. That’s both their strength and their weakness.

Berlant’s Queen is also about the question of what and who is in your archive, a highly charged and political space that’s all about temporality: what of the past do we keep to revisit in a future present? My archive is the corpus from which I draw phrases and ideas that become the present for me as I collage and for the reader as they read. Collage creates an aesthetic and political present that’s quite literally built from this archive.

It suggests, I hope, a way of navigating the jumble of modalities that produces various forms of violence. “Collage puts pressure against lived constraints until the image begins to acquire its own history,” I write, “These assemblages do not resemble precarious employment, low income, illness, or medical debt – & they propose new ways to experience them.” That proposition is, I hope, also an invitation to commence together new responses to our shared condition.

Dante Silva: I wanted to turn to the final section, “QUOTING IS BITING,” in which you cite sources from Chromophobia to Cristina Rivera Garza. You practice citation as care, a politics of knowledge production that is collaborative, intimate, conscientious. I’m curious about these “secondary” sources, surfaced and unsurfaced in your work. Could you say more about how you came to them? 

Brian Teare: I’m so glad you asked about this section. I was conscious that my practice – and thus this book – has a very both/and relation to citation. As I wrote above, there’s aggression in collage, and I believe that’s true even about quoting – a desire to take something. I side with object relations theorists who would remind us that aggression is normal and healthy and an intrinsic part of creative process, and that to refuse to acknowledge it leads to problems of repression and inhibition. AND, I also side with the theorists and practitioners, like Katherine McKittrick in Dear Science, who remind us that citation is also a responsibility, a form of care in the context of producing cultural knowledge together.

The period of visual art with which Poem’s in conversation just precedes pop art, but collage and appropriation were already central to the gay male milieu of which Johns was a part (which excluded Warhol as “too swish”). I was really aware that there was something queer about their attitude to appropriation especially – those artists took images and objects from a paranoid Cold War culture and reframed them, permanently altering the meaning of both the appropriated thing and the way it signifies in culture. Even Johns’ flags are camp in the sense that he puts quotation marks around them – they’re “flags” more than they are flags. And I was also really aware of contemporary critiques of appropriation as a form of plunder, particularly when it comes to white male artists who trace their lineage back to Duchamp, beloved both by Johns and his friend John Cage.

The process of writing the book helped me to articulate the tension I find between biting and repair, aggression and care, all of which are aspects of loving relations and collage. And so it took me the entire process of writing the book to figure out how to embody what I write in the penultimate poem: “I believe care’s the core of interpretive work, fragment of an immense form of mending together.” Though care’s the core, interpretive work doesn’t exclude biting, even if the ultimate goal is one of mending together.

Because Poem is hybrid and neither entirely a poem or entirely essay, I hit on a practice of citation that’s likewise hybrid, a balance of the book’s music and its politics. Some sources are cited explicitly in text, and some are not. Some language is signaled as borrowed, and some is not. When it mattered to me ethically to quote and cite it, I did. To some readers, that might appear far too inconsistent, and that’s okay with me. The bibliography contains every source from which I know I took notes, whether those were specific phrases or ideas.

Dante Silva: I love the line “a faggot has no true flag,” and your insistence that Johns’ Flag is not a flag and not not a flag (I’m reminded of apophatic theology, which makes meaning through negation). How do you hold these discontents? 

Brian Teare: That’s one of the moments in the book where I really bite Johns. It was very satisfying to write that – so I’m glad you love that line – and it also surprised me to write it. It’s emblematic of my ambivalence about Johns. There’s so much I love his work in the 50s and 60s, but there’s so much I struggle with. Over the course of the book, I disidentify with him while holding him as close as his archive allows. As Jose Esteban Muñoz writes in Disidentifications, “a disidentifying subject works to hold on to this object and invest it with new life.” Only a reader can say if I succeeded doing so with Johns.

Early in the process of writing the book I was on a panel at the PMA on which I had to speak about Johns, and I was still not certain how I felt about him or his work. I’d no idea before I started research, for instance, that he primarily had gay relationships. He was born around the time my father was, and I felt in his work and manner the same Cold War masculinity I was raised by. My take at the time was that his “open secret” way of being gay made sense in the context of the Cold War and its attack on queers.

But because I was taught to read the gay code of that era and was encouraged to reproduce it in my own early work, I found myself triggered when I began to engage deeply with Johns. I eye-rolled over his allusions to Hart Crane, for instance. Crane’s work was already canonical queer code at midcentury, and it was also synecdoche for certain forms of queer abjection, failure, and suicidality. On the one hand, such allusions were effective ways of signaling to those in the know, and on the other, they were still a way to hide. Not a fag + not not a fag, to riff on the line to which you refer.

But the better I understood the biographical context of those allusions – Johns only made them in the wake of his breakup with Rauschenberg – the more I found myself moved by his deployment of the Crane code, pretty much as close to divulgence as Johns gets. Like Agnes, Johns mostly forbid biography. He got famous very young, and over time became curt and elliptical with interviewers, leaving interpretation up to the critics. The same way his flags are designed to say yes to almost every interpretation, Johns’ silences just aren’t discriminating enough for me.

They so enraged his former friend Jill Johnston, that she wrote an unauthorized biography, Privileged Information. Half vendetta and half art criticism, it’s outrageous and strange, but I sympathize with her discontents. As I do with Ralph Lemon’s. “Somewhere in Johns’ fraught southern body and work,” he writes, “is the abject horror of the Jim Crow South and all the inhumanity that came before. In his paintings is a kind of grace.”

Like Johns, I grew up in the Deep South. Unlike him, I came of age not during Jim Crow but during the AIDS crisis. I became someone who believes silences are powerful tools of oppression. So in Poem I write into and against some of the silences that Johns has chosen to maintain, which by now are strategic and ideological, not merely evidence of “good” Southern manners or Cold War code.

Dante Silva: I wanted to thank you, again, for sharing such intimate work which chronicles (among many subjects) illness. You write of “the self always being remade by illness,” and your prose is similarly remade by a sense of precariousness (in many ways). How do you account for illness, and all its affect, in your work? 

Brian Teare: Illness acute, illness chronic – each contains myriad affects. Almost all of them, as Woolf would point out, remain unnamed in our language, unsung in our literature. So on some level, to count them at all as subjects for poetry is to account for them. I don’t know that we need names for them – perhaps that’s too close to diagnosis for my comfort, too redolent of codification and hierarchy – but we do need more sentences that allow able-bodied readers to enter the affects and somatic states of acute and chronic illness.

You’ve already pointed to one way the work accounts for illness aside from narrative content or representation: the precarity of form. Poem is much less extreme than The Empty Form in using poetic form to put the reader in the situation of having to navigate uncertainty – of fate, of meaning both existential and medical, of relief from pain. But collaging from notebooks kept over many years allows Poem to question one “central self,” displacing a single centrality or certainty again and again in favor of the ongoing process of selving.

In terms of content, I did account for acute and chronic illness more thoroughly than in The Empty Form. That book contains migraines and vomit, but no shit or piss. Poem adds them back in to the record to correct a silence produced by the constraint of The Empty Form and its version of classicism, always redolent to me of classism. The relative abundance of Poem allowed me to correct silences and elisions that The Empty Form demanded. So there’s real abjection in this book. And there’s also a real medical emergency, which plays out in the oblique fragments I wrote down just after it. Those fragments still freak me out – I still don’t know who “I” was then.

It’s not a one-and-done kind of deal, the self. You have to commit to keep making it happen, and when you’re ill, that commitment can slip. “I have tried existing,” Agnes once wrote to a friend, “and I do not like it. I have decided to give it up.” To clarify: she did not mean suicide. She meant something more like: horizontal lines for forty years.