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Meet the Press: Roof Books & Queenzenglish.mp3

Lee_queensN.B. The following conversation with Kyoo Lee (also known as Q) and James Sherry centers on Q’s anthology, Queenzenglish.mp3, an amazing book I highly recommend picking up. ~DD

Dante Di Stefano: How did this project come into being?

Q: First, thank you so much, Dante, for your kind appreciation of the book.

The anthology grew out of the “mp3: merging poetry, philosophy, performativity” public seminar I launched in 2017 at the CUNY Graduate Center, supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Center for the Humanities. As the faculty leader of the seminar, I started this sub-project on the “QueensEnglishToday.mp3” by organizing a reading and panel discussion at the GC on November 30, 2017. Then later that weekend, on December 3, 2017, we threw a sort of party, a more extensive and festive performance event at Queens Museum, QueensEnglish@QueensMuseum.mp3 which I organized with Lee Ann Brown, where we formed an impromptu qLab (my name being “Q”). About a year later on December 08, 2018, some of the authors from the volume presented their texts and drafts at a session I curated for Queens Museum Biennale 2018, “QueensEnglish International 2018.” Poetic Justice is the initial and overarching theme for the “mp3” series I was exploring between 2017 and 2019, and so Queenzenglish.mp3 has this philopoetic genesis as well.  

This idea of doing a book was part of the project concept from the start, and so while I am the editor, Queenzenglish.mp3 remains truly and structurally a collaborative endeavor. I am ever so grateful to everyone involved, especially all the authors who have so enthusiastically and generously accepted the invitation to participate. I remember having some great conversations with Lee Ann and Paolo Javier, for instance, doing some brainstorming and napkin-writing. I was glad and grateful that James Sherry at Roof Books, a leading publisher in language poetry, was immediately receptive to the idea of putting together a book of this kind, and luckily, the fund from Mellon Foundation made that initial step possible. Rebecca Teich, Grace Caiazza, and Deborah Thomas at the press, along with James, also worked so hard on the project at every step of the way. So, this book benefited greatly from everyone’s expertise, enthusiasm, trust, goodwill, experiences, wisdom, support, and friendship, including Rachel Rose, the great artist and friend, who generously donated the exquisitely aquatic cover image which also rhymes so well with the conceptual vitality of the book.

DD: In your brilliant introduction to the anthology, you describe the project and explain the title. Could you provide a thumbnail version of these explanations for potential readers?

Q: Dynamic “Englishing” happening in Queenzenglish.mp3 performs the polyphonic futurity of the language in transit(ion): for us here, creative writing is critical thinking is connective reading.  

DD: One of the poems in this volume that stands out as a great example of what you call “dynamic ‘Englishing’ and its polyphonic futurity” is Steven Alvarez’s “Queens: Quiero Que Me Quieras.” I was wondering if you could talk a bit about this piece and how it embodies your project as a whole?

Q: It’s all “in the cracks” of and between and among languages, words, lines, its creative vacuities or transgenerative cavities. Steven’s “Queens: Quiero Que Me Quieras,” too, remembering  

        the reality that you are todos tus lengunas—yes—all yr tongues__
        remembering the peaceful of Queens—
        remembering those who wrote genius—& blissful drunkness__

and so on with such slidingly serial smooth jazziness re-members English as transEnglish in action. This translingual soundscaping in English is also deeply rooted in—while routed to—Queens as the site specified as such.  

DD: What did you learn about poetry (and your own relationship to language) through the work presented in this anthology?

Q: I always learn more about philosophy whatever “else” I seem to be doing or not doing or undoing. For this project, a sense of the magic of happening that is also made has been particularly palpable.

Philosophers: poetry envy is real, get over (here) with your Plato. This anthology is also one of the best things that happened to the field of the philosophy of language in recent years: The very fact that this category in the academic sub-field, “the philosophy of language” as in the philosophy of mind, is so monolingually and monologically framed, is already telling. I see the complex singularities of this anthology not just self-servingly as the editor of the book but as a future-facing reader and practitioner of philopoetics. Caroline Bergvall’s “Onward Afterword” also saw that so brilliantly.     

DD: Yanyi’s “Family Tree” stood out to me as a profound examination of what you call in your introduction “entanglished borderiding.” You say in the introduction: “Activating our own voices from where we are and are seen and heard and encountered, each of us began by actively listening, scribing, scribbling—across the boundaries and borders of all sorts and scales.” Could you talk about Yanyi’s piece and some of the other pieces that critically engage linguistic, national, and personal boundaries?

Q: Actually, the other day, I was telling Yanyi how wonderful it is that the book ends/reopens with the “Family Tree (After Luc Sante).” It was the alphabetical imperative of the name Yanyi that placed the piece at the end, yet the serendipity of it was notable as I was looking through the book again.  

Yanyi’s piece resonates with Steve’s to the extent that it also concerns linguo-cultural re-member-ing and life-wor(l)ding in motion/migration. Yet, it unfolds more edgily on a register more discursively corporeal and specifically genealogical and geopolitical, as it is set against the backdrop of the colonial modernity, the ideogrammatized “East-West” divide, and transactional transnationality of English as the language of trade (tradere “deliver, hand over,” part of tradition, too) as in “a primary text of Orientalism. My work as an artist is to try and talk to myself about my own race”:  

        The cost of being Chinese American is absorbing English as the primary text. […]
        […] I begin to remember. After all, I remembered it. Should it not belong to me? If I
        comes from my mouth, did I not eat it originally?

“I” and “It” emerging in these passages (first two paragraphs) perform their own gradual, irreferential entanglements via English that—literally—dissolves into the words on the page, especially in the second paragraph where you do not see “English” but only hear it performed; “My education begins to resemble my life, but also is not familiar.” This is indeed, as you observe, a very interesting embodiment of “entanglished borderiding,” part of what I myself happened to have started theorizing by recoding Writing-in-English into “Writing Entanglish” (Belladonna* Chapbook #188, 2015). Steve, Yanyi, and Q, among others, all play their music differently, yet all that is part of this music called Englishing. To re-cite the last epigram for my introduction to Queenzenglish.mp3:

        I remember coming across “comyn englysshe” a long time ago in a history of
                                                                                                    English class […]
        I agree with Ann Lauterbach, “a rose, after all, is still only a rose,
                                                                                                    but it smells sweeter
        when there are three of them” and even more when there are more of them.
                – Kyoo Lee, Writing Entanglish

Roof_headDD: Thanks so much for your nuanced and insightful answers and for editing such a remarkable anthology, Q. James, what do you find most notable about Queenzenglish.mp3?

James Sherry: QE3 is notable for the amount of variation that might lead to change, mutation if you will. Some write from a personal point of view, some from a social point of view, some from the point of view of their surroundings and all of the permutations of those three. People are writing in prose, poetry, citation, and prose-poetry. People are writing with formal innovation and people are writing within a more transparent or received style. Will any of these different approaches to the issues catch on with a larger number of writers and lead to changing how we think about standards?

DD: In your essay, “Change and the Golden Rule.” The following paragraph struck me as particularly brilliant:

“Precisely because treating everyone as you would be treated assumes that everyone is like you when they aren’t, you know, because we have different selves, different cultures and different surroundings. We have different genes, experience, epi-genetics and environs. Variations galore. Meanwhile, the politics of grammar is based on a game where the prize is power. If I can make you write syntax like I do then you have a predilection to construct ideas like I do. While we may then have conflicts of self-interest, we continue to play the game of prisoner over and again as opposed to breaking omerta.”

Could you point out a few examples in the anthology where your ideas in this paragraph are put into practice?

JS: Most of the people in the book torque standards, leading to adaptation and change. Paolo Javier in “Programmed to Love: Remain as Beast” questions how much humans remain animal in a syntax that makes me read very slowly word to word to be sure I don’t revert to my usual mode of skimming to get the gist. When I read slowly, I get the point. When I read too fast, the intent of the piece eludes me. Kyoo Lee’s piece written with comments by Amy Evans Bauer and Laura Wetherington assumes that each reader takes a unique point of view, questioning the validity of standards. The very first line of Erica Hunt’s “Compliance” points out that we don’t live and hence cannot write in a single mode. M. NourbeSe Philip shows the many variations of a single word, “bamsie,” meaning rear end. Valentine Conaty raises questions that range from species variation to how individuals are both one and multiple all in the context of a field poem. Again, what’s notable about this book is variety, difference, and the individual expectation, the politics, and the ecology that writing needs to find methods, interest, and channels of connection to accommodate difference.

DD: How did Roof Books come into being?

JS: Roof Books started in 1979 with my interest in expanding Roof Magazine to longer formats. I was writing and editing on the cusp of NY School and Language Poetry, leaning toward finding new ways to express meaning. I have written long form essays on the trajectory of the publishing venture, showing how it changes with changes in the poetry world in my effort to keep current. There’s a whole chapter on this subject in my upcoming book Selfie: Poetry & Ecology coming from Palgrave later in 2021.

9781931824965DD: How does this anthology relate to the other titles in your catalogue?

JS: In recent years, I’ve been moving Roof Books toward presenting an environmental model of writing rather than the language-centered writing of the 20th century. QE3 by addressing how change occurs and presenting examples of change as well as discussions of the methods of change speaks to how I see writing evolving not only in a uniquely human way but according to the way change occurs throughout the biosphere. Language is not a human invention, but rather something humans discovered about how our world is constructed. I’d assert many of Roof’s recent titles as examples of how humanity and nature operate as a single complex entity.

DD: What else can we look forward to from Roof Books?

JS: Since QE3 was published in late 2020, Roof published an anthology of 31 contemporary Chinese poets in translation titled Urban Poetry from China edited by Huang Fan of Nanjing University and Daniel Tay, a NY-based translation editor. We just published Will Alexander’s magnum opus The Combustion Cycle that makes poetry of what Nathaniel Mackey calls “deep seas and distant galaxies that would make such a demand that his expended soliloquies implicitly ask and overtly answer.” Will’s Cycle relates to QE3 in the way it brings out ancient cultures and contemporary concepts overlooked by mainstream standards. And Brenda Iijima’s ecological masterpiece Bionic Communality, poems shaped to interface “all flora, all fauna, all mineral” in her search for a common ground for all living creatures.


9781931824880Kyoo Lee is a Professor of Philosophy, Gender Studies and Women’s Studies at John Jay College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the editor of Queenzenglish.mp3 (2020) and the author of Reading Descartes Otherwise: Blind, Mad, Dreamy, and Bad (2013) and Writing Entanglish: Come in Englysshing with Gertrude Stein, Zhuangzi  (2015, chapbook). She is also the coeditor of journal issues on “Safe” (WSQ 2011), “Xenophobia & Racism” (Critical Philosophy of Race 2014) and “Derrida in China Today” (Derrida Today 2018).

Some of her recent academic recognitions include faculty fellowships from Cambridge University, the Mellon Foundation, Korea Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) and the Graduate Center, CUNY, along with a John Jay Faculty Research Excellence Award. Her philopoetic writings have appeared in 3:AM MagazineAsian American Literary ReviewThe Brooklyn RailDisFlash ArtRandian, and The Volta among others. A member of PEN America Translation Committee and Poetry Translation Center (London, UK), she serves as the coeditor of philoSOPHIA: A Journal of transContinental Feminism and is on the editorial boards of Derrida TodayOpen Humanities PressSimone de Beauvoir Studies, and Women's Studies Quarterly.

James Sherry is the author of 13 books of poetry and theory and one of the leading proponents of both Language Writing and Environmental Poetics. His books includeThe Oligarch: Rewriting Machiavelli’s The Prince for Our Time (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018), Entangled Bank (Chax, 2016), Oops! Environmental Poetics (BlazeVox, 2013), Four For (Meow, 1995), Our Nuclear Heritage (Sun & Moon Press, 1991), Lazy Sonnets (Potes and Poets Press, 1986), In Case (Sun & Moon Press, 1980), Part Songs (Awede Press, 1978). His work has been translated into nine languages including the Chinese edition of Selected Language Poems (Sichuan Literature and Art Publishing House: Chengdu, 1993), translated by Ziqing Zhang and Huang Yunte. He is the editor of Roof Magazine and Roof Books, a seminal literary publisher, associated with virtually every innovative strategy in English language writing of the past 40 years, publishing over 150 titles of seminal works of language writing, flarf, conceptual poetry, new narrative and environmental poetry and poetics. He started the Segue Foundation in 1977 that has produced over 10,000 events in New York. Sherry was born December 30, 1946, and lives in New York City. 

 


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