Ben Austin is a 21st century infospeak prophet for a generation of gizmo-glomming, comic-scanning, tabloid-gorging, acronym-slurring, graffiti-bombing, gang-banging, pornography-ogling movers and shakers and artisan-“artist”-entrepreneurs, a generation of surfing, posting, blogging, tweeting, commenting, liking, following, gaming, socio/politico, post-post-post po-mo warriors and heads, spenders and geeks, fruitcake lumberjacks and academic jerks, mavericks and hipsters and misfits and tweens and slackers and addicts and pundits and pervs and dystopian, antihero, g-man punks. To see why, visit his blog here:
I wrote an essay to accompany this interview, published in BOMB.
D. FOY: Where do you live, and how does it affect your work, if at all?
BEN AUSTIN: I live next to the middle of nowhere in North Carolina, outside a town that’s essentially an army base. The town I actually work in has 336 people in it, officially speaking. That’s weird for me, since I’ve lived my adult life in Chicago and Seoul. It’s all pretty foreign to me in rural America.
Rural America influences my work, but not simply because it’s natural, colloquial, or serene, as you might think. The depressing businesses that have no chance of staying open or fake rural internet cafes that are really just digital slot machine mini-casinos where all the pork plant workers blow their money are more interesting to me, but I do like seeing animals now and then.
DF: The interstate figures fairly prominently in your work. Do you like to drive? Or do you see it simply as a necessity? How many road trips have you taken? Where did they take you?
BA: I usually hate driving since in Seoul you never need a car, which I like, but where I live now you have to drive everywhere, literally, since there are no sidewalks anywhere at all.
I do like the interstate system in America, so road trips are different. You always get to see the weirdest things where small rural communities butt into the tourists and travelers. I saw a disturbing, racist “Native American Village” on the way to Florida that I think was abandoned, but it was fake log cabins, as if Native Americans had little shops and businesses like “Medicine Man,” and you could knock on the door as though you were going to the pharmacist.
But of course this kind of experience could only happen on the fringe of normal life on the interstate, disturbing, but worth the drive.
DF: When I first encountered your stuff, I knew it was poetry, but for various reasons had difficulty saying why. Publishing them on Tumblr as you do with tags like “internet poetry,” “poetry,” and “poem,” it’s clear you don’t have any issues with the association. Can you speak to that a bit?
BA: Poetry as a genre for “orphaned works” has always appealed to me. “If it’s aesthetic and we don’t know what it is, it must be filed under poetry.” That’s not a quote; it just seems like the kind of reasoning behind the classification.
I’ve always thought that poets and critics have promised so much about the freedom of poetry throughout history, but when you look back from the present, it often seems like there were so many restrictions and so forth that they never delivered. So I never consider any classification at all, at least while writing. I’m a big fan of Jonathan Meese and the “Total Dictatorship of Art.” He also talks about “metabolic art,” which to me makes a lot of sense. I simply use the “poetry” hashtag for others to find me easily. None of this means I’m writing poetry. If someone argued that what I write isn’t poetry for reasons A, B, C, or whatever, I’d probably agree and continue metabolizing.
DF: None of your poems are longer than sixteen lines. What is it about the short poem that you find so compelling?
BA: Super short poems allow for more consideration of each word or phrase in a practical reading situation. If you’re in a course at college, and you have the time to pour over works in detail over five or ten pages of a poem, it’s an essential academic experience, but it doesn’t relate to how I write or how I think people read most of the time. There are many people writing longer things that are great; it’s just not what I do.
I told someone the other day that sonnets are the original “micro-content.” In a way, that idea makes sense to me. Those traditional forms are something I’ve read over and over in the past, and each individual sonnet of Petrarch or Shakespeare is very short, but you can read them all together and have a more in-depth experience, even though they may have been written in a “micro” fashion.
DF: Given that you call your poems “internet poems,” what’s the attraction for you of publishing then in actual print?
BA: Using the “internet poetry” hashtag on Tumblr started with the “Internet Poetry” Tumblr. It has probably over a hundred contributors, and it consists of mainly image macro-style pics with more poetic ideas than things like LOL cats. There are still a lot of people doing Flarf-style found pics with found text on top of them. I would take found text from Twitter, for example, and randomly pair it with pics from Tumblr, but not use white sans serif text like LOL cats. I’d have color, borders, and shading, like a poster. But I haven’t done those in a long time. When I began doing more text-based, conceptual writing, without sentences, for example, it just seemed natural to keep using the hashtag “internet poetry.” Nowadays, I post fairly traditional poetry and still use the internet poetry hashtag since, for me, all of it is by default informed by an internet aesthetic and stream consumption of art. It doesn’t matter whether there are references to online trends or Twitter names and such.
I’ve been asked about Flarf/post-Flarf, and internet poetry, and how my work relates. Since 2000, there’s a lot of writing online that’s less conceptual and more personal. Flarf tended to be impersonal because Google searches and the internet in general were fairly impersonal and “unsocial.” But now some poetry, including mine, has radically personal elements together with some of the silly, Flarf sensibility. For me, internet poetry doesn’t consist simply of poetry that’s “published online.” It’s more about a general aesthetic informed by the stream of art we consume, which can include ebooks, for instance, of Machiavelli as well.
I always like to remind people that there was a Flarf issue of Poetry magazine. The Flarf aesthetic is academically accepted and by now more or less taken for granted.
Also, there’s an element of solidarity with anti-copyright movements inherent to using the hashtag “internet poetry.” To me it simply means all my work is online for free, and if you want the ebook or print version you can get it. And no matter what, there’s 100% parity between the two readers. I could see a lot of publishers or traditional writers posting tiny previews or snippets of published work online, but the other way around makes more sense to me and my readers.
DF: It’s standard practice for rappers to sample and artists to collage but by and large we still frown on the poet or the novelist who uses the work of another without attribution. Any thoughts?
I like Kenneth Goldsmith’s books. He admits you don’t have to read them to understand what they’re about. He has books that simply transcribe traffic, weather, or lists of words with certain endings, and defends them by using the numerous examples in visual art, where we barely blink at work that’s technically plagiarized.
I think John Ashbery has mentioned that poets have been collaging for some time, but now it’s easier to see where things are coming from. Overheard conversation is a perfectly accepted source for poetic phrasing and, of course, the use of vernacular phrasing and vocabulary, which has been praised in much of the poetry of the 20th century. Ted Kooser, for instance. Now people use chat logs and Facebook text freely, and these sources will eventually become as normal as quoting the conversation overheard from the diner booth behind you.
When it comes to collages of other work intended to be aesthetic, unlike overheard conversation, I think much of it goes back to copyright being outdated and irrelevant. I saw someone post on Tumblr that a blogger is clearly lifting poems in full from spotlighted poets on Tumblr and posting them as her own on Blogger. The post was kind of angry, suggesting you should go check to see if your work has been lifted, but I can’t imagine the negative consequences much at all.
DF: Do you see yourself as an artist? What do you think it means to be an artist in the 21st century?
BA: If art these days is officially “whatever you can get away with,” then anyone who feels in the back of her mind she is getting away with something involving original content, and that could even be 100% collaged, would have to be an artist to me.
I’m thinking of Warhol, Richard Prince, and Banksy being completely accepted commercially and academically. To me this development is great since I consume as much as I produce. I need all these people getting away with things, usually online, to keep me going. If they all had to submit to publishers and galleries, I’d be lost. No publisher, gallery, or university can vet enough content to keep the art stream going.
DF: Do you think the artist is inherently political?
BA: I always say that I never write anything to raise awareness or show suffering that could be alleviated somehow. To me, if something is aesthetic, it has to be essentially useless in any practical, real way. If a painting or poem ventured into the political realm, it would forfeit its aesthetic appeal. For instance, one of my favorite visual artists is Misaki Kawai. I’ve never seen an ounce of political anything in her work, and that’s a big part of the appeal, though not in an escapist sense. I’ve never thought of aesthetic experience as getting away from everyday life the way many people talk about reading contemporary fiction.
Or take Banksy. I’ve always been a fan of him, but when his work gets too political, I do lose some of the sheer excitement. I’d much rather see his bent-up phone booth in the middle of London. That stunt has the kind of absolute freedom often promised in poetry, but rarely delivered. However, there are artists who are fiercely political. It’s just not what I do.
DF: What differences do you see between today’s political right and left?
I’ve always been convinced by the argument that the best way to create the illusion of democratic choice is to allow a very lively, open debate in a very narrow spectrum of political thought. I don’t feel the two parties are the same, as some voters say these days, but I do feel the options in the U.S. are pretty narrow.
DF: What’s your position on fame in the 21st century?
BA: Some people have made pretty convincing arguments that fame at a large scale is becoming less relevant. There are still giant pop stars of course, but there are also internet celebs who never become Justin Beiber, who started on YouTube.
I follow some of them closer than any traditional celebrity. People like Max Capacity, for instance, are huge to me. I’m not sure how famous he is, or could ever be, in a traditional celebrity fashion. For me, it wouldn’t matter. If I met him, I’m pretty sure I’d be star struck.
Then there are people like Seth Godin, who argue that micro-fame is now relevant and important. Overall, he says the bell-curve of mass marketing that worked over the 20th century is flattening out or leaking to the edges. His book, We’re All Weird, focuses on niche markets as equal to the former mass marketing middle of the curve, which, because of the internet, has now flattened out. Gary Vaynerchuk has also said things like if you’re the #1 Smurf blogger, you can reach 2000 people daily in a more engaged, meaningful way than an advertiser did ostensibly reaching 2 million on TV. Based on my own experience with original content online, I’d have to agree.
DF: What’s your attitude toward nostalgia?
BA: To me nostalgia is key no matter how far writing goes conceptually. Jeff Koons has said that everyone’s cultural memory is equally perfect, and I mostly agree with that. I wrote a poem that quotes Chun Li’s ending in Street Fighter 2. Later I realized it’s in two unrelated poems of mine, and I heard Riff Raff rapping about M. Bison and Sagat the next day, so that’s an example of specific, personal nostalgia that I can’t get away from. It’s very unconscious until you look back at a specific work. Maybe Riff Raff feels the same way?
DF: What’s your feeling about eavesdropping? What do you think about lurking?
BA: On the internet, lurking has become crucial for everyone doing original content of any kind. You can follow the average Tumblr of reblogged content and eavesdrop on someone’s taste, often in a way they never intended, but it could easily turn into a character behind a poem. I end up doing that a lot since I follow so many Tumblrs. It’s a bit like going through someone’s bedroom when she’s not around. It’s a gold mine.
DF: How do you feel about capitalism?
BA: I think any political system that can deliver on its political propositions is fine with me. Zizek admits that 20th-century attempts at communism failed completely, but I think people fear the possibility of failure more than alternative systems of political thought democratically taking over and delivering on their promises. I’ve always said that if some kind of agrarian dictatorship (just the most extreme example I can think of) was able to deliver on its ideals and principles, I’d be up for it, but, again, the failures of the past rightly make people wary of change, especially in the U.S., where my parents’ generation really did have the world at their fingertips economically and politically, as far as I can tell looking back.
DF: What are your thoughts about modern consumerism?
BA: I’ve always been confused by the idea of continuous growth with regard to markets and the economy, so, again, I often go to Zizek for religious, political, and economic ideas. The model of capitalism with Asian values seems to address the problem of continuous growth with an “authoritarian” entrepreneurship and capitalism. I also believe the industrial age is gradually going away due to the same causes that hamstring an economy that requires continuous expansion.
DF: What’s the status of contemporary literature, where do you see it going, and what are your concerns?
I don’t follow contemporary literary reviews and current publications much anymore. Not that I’m against them for any reason. I follow what content is available for free online much more often, so if we include writers publishing online in any form, including ebooks, then I think literature today is great and is experimenting more than ever in ways that are reaching readers that could never have been reached in the past. I think more and more people will realize they don’t have to submit work to journals, gradually build up a publication list, and then get their work published.
This change will have to result in writers not writing with editors in mind as much. It’s kind of the reverse of complaints about concert pianists. Some rejected live performances. They end up dynamically playing with a giant hall in mind, and have to compromise in that setting, when they would rather play intimately for a high-quality microphone and then get the recording out at scale.
With writers, the reverse is happening. They used to write to please one or two editors. Now they can write straight to larger audiences at scale. You could say writers have an easier time going directly to large audiences than concert pianists did—no acoustics to deal with!
DF: Who are your influences?
BA: Misaki Kawaii, Jeff Koons, Jonathan Meese, John Ashbery, Das Racist, The Smiths, Mark Strand, Kenneth Goldsmith.
DF: What are your ten favorite works of literature?
BA: Nox by Anne Carson, Notes from the Air by John Ashbery, Kafka’s stories, Montaigne’s Essays, all of Nietzsche, Emerson’s essays, Don Quixote by Cervantes, Gulliver’s Travels by Swift, The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens, Moby Dick by Melville.
DF: If you were going to interview yourself, what questions would you ask?
BA: 1) “What would you like to ask your ancestors from hundreds of years ago?” 2) “If you could live in any ancient civilization, which would you choose and why?” 3) “Why are you so interested in Riff Raff?”