The Saturday Rumpus Interview: Keith Newton

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In 2015, Keith Newton’s chapbook A Week of Kindness was published online, for free, by Essay Press. A Week of Kindness is the product of Newton’s fascination and engagement with Max Ernst’s collage novel Une semaine de bonté. Max Ernst was a prolific artist of the early 20th century and a pioneer in the Surrealism and Dada movements. Une semaine de bonté is a novel composed of 182 collages that were printed in five separate booklets in 1934. The wordless novel was completed in three weeks while Ernst was visiting in Italy in 1933, a few months after Hitler was appointed Chancellor. The work takes various objects from Victorian culture, such as illustrations from novels and newspapers, and modifies them into images of violence by transforming the human subjects into hybrid monsters. The dehumanization of the subjects, as noted by Newton, is a herald for Ernst’s, and maybe our, coming age.

After Newton’s continued interaction with Ernst’s early 20th century work, since his initial introduction in 1999, Newton has created his own book. A Week of Kindness is a poetic hybrid of prose focused on taking Ernst’s novel’s images and translating them into written word. He does this while keeping the emotional experience that the original images create within the viewer by crafting lyric narratives that maintain that “dark” and oppressing atmosphere. Newton’s work also focuses on bring the reader’s attention to overlooked narrative of this collage novel. As an Editor for Essay Press, I interviewed Newton to discuss his influences, thoughts on surrealist art and the meaning of life. We exchanged emails for over half a year while I attended the University of Wyoming’s MFA and he was living/working in New York City.

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The Rumpus: Keith, I’m really interested in discussing how other media of art or other forms within the same craft of art influence one another. I personally learned or developed my sense of poetry, and writing in general, from music. My understanding of the rhythm within a line and how language can be bended came from musical acts like The Mars Volta, Prince, Wu-tang, DJ Screw, etc. All those groups basically taught me to be unashamed to be uncomfortably as strange as I am. I bring all this up because in your chapbook for Essay Press, A Week of Kindness, you are explicit in treating Max Ernst’s collage novel Une semaine de bonté as the starting point for your own work. I was wondering could you talk about any lasting effect that novel had on you? Has it changed you as an artist since writing it or have you remained the same? And if you are the same—not to say that sameness is bad—what does that mean for you and your established artistic process?

Keith Newton: This is a great first question, Randall, because yes, my encounter with Une semaine de bonté did change me deeply as a writer. And even more than that, it was this idea of one artistic medium influencing another that I specifically set out to explore when I started writing A Week of Kindness. The impulse to respond to another work of art—or to draw some kind of inspiration from it—is, of course, as common among visual artists or musicians as it is among poets, and I think the making of art always involves some form of re-creation, an attempt to remake in material form (words, images, sounds) an interior experience that’s otherwise incommunicable. Plus, it’s no secret that artists raid one another’s works for subject matter!

I started A Week of Kindness with the idea of pushing this question of influence a step further, as an experiment to see what was actually transferable between one medium and another, to see what would happen if I gave myself over to another work of art by first “translating” it from its own medium (images) into my own (words) and then trying to get inside of or behind the process of its creation. One of the things I discovered by following through on this experiment is how transformative it is to allow one’s own art to become so entangled with someone else’s.

AWeekofKindnessI worked on A Week of Kindness on and off for almost ten years. I wrote the second part first, which I finished fairly quickly, then I wrote the first part just afterward, and that took much longer because of the research involved, which was difficult to piece together, since what I was really looking for were the specific visual sources, cultural and historic reference points, and personal experiences that lay behind Ernst’s book. After I had finished those two parts, I didn’t exactly know what to do with the piece as I’d constructed it—I was happy with what I’d made, but it felt unfinished to me, with no clear idea about what was missing. I put the project down for a long time (years, actually) until I decided to show it to some friends for their thoughts. One of the poets who read it, Jared White, came up with the idea for the third part of the book. He thought that what was missing was a record of my own experience in relation to Ernst’s work, that I needed to insert myself into the story. His idea was that the end of the book should mirror the beginning in terms of giving the same kind of biographical and creative record for myself that I do for Ernst. This seemed so smart and self-evidently correct that, of course, it took me years more to actually write it!

But I did manage to write it, what became the third section of the book, called “Weimar.” I wrote it in a single day, and once I was done, I discovered that my writing had been completely altered by it. The first thing I saw was that I’d actually gotten inside my own experience and my own creative process in a way I thought was inaccessible to me. What I’d written about myself was a mirror of what I’d written about Ernst, and by applying the mode of writing his work had inspired back onto myself, I somehow understood myself—or, more accurately, the relation between myself and my writing—in a totally different way. I could look back on everything I’d written over the past decade and see two threads—one, the prose of A Week of Kindness, now stretching back ten years, and two, my individual poems, which had always felt incomplete or not fully realized in some way. Starting from that moment when I finished A Week of Kindness, these two threads fused and I began to apply the type of prose I’d developed for A Week of Kindness to all my work as a poet and suddenly I felt like I had found myself as a writer. Sameness may not be bad, but change of this kind is much better.

Rumpus: I am a huge fan of Antonin Artaud. The play Jet of Blood is probably something all my work is trying to reinvent/copy in some way. Basically, I’m in love with surrealism. After acknowledging my bias, I don’t want to trap or put your work within some neat box; however, I did get a surrealist feel from the way that your work battled with trying to keep a flowing and imagistically whole work while representing the collaged image of the source material work in language. So, I want to ask you, do you consider this work to be “surreal,” and if so, what benefits did this style give your work; in other words, why this over something else? And if you do not consider this work to be “surreal,” how would you hope a reader would experience your work? Someone with less bias than me or is it okay that I brought my bias with me?

Newton: It’s totally okay! I don’t feel trapped by the question at all. The opposite, in fact. Your bias means that you have stake in the answer—as do I—so it matters to both of us what surrealism is and whether our work can be talked about in that way. I’m also fascinated by Artaud, though I’ve never seen Jet of Blood performed. Have you? I think I might have a different feeling about it if I did—I think I would find it more “surreal,” since I’ve always had trouble seeing writing as surreal in the same way that visual art or performance is surreal. Maybe it’s that the pull of logic is too strongly tied to the basic mechanics of writing? I’m not really sure.

There’s obviously a lot of debate about what actually constitutes surrealism, and I find it very interesting that the question still inspires passionate argument, since as an artistic movement it’s nearly a hundred years old. These days the term is usually just a shorthand to mean one of two things: first, anything dreamlike or fantastical or unnatural, particularly the joining of disparate elements in a single image or body, or second, an artistic practice involving some kind of “automatic” method.

I would say that for A Week of Kindness, the short answer is that, yes, there are definitely surrealist elements at play, many of them stemming naturally from my engagement with Ernst’s “surreal” imagery, but at the same time my writing process is almost antithetical to the surrealist ideal of automatic writing or the projection of the subconscious or irrational into the world. It was my intention with this book to actually grapple with the legacy of those ideas, since I actually don’t believe that tapping the subconscious is some kind of key artistic value. My own work is built in layers, over time, since that’s how it seems to me our minds are built as well, and my writing involves a process by which I build up the layers of the thing I’m working on while simultaneously digging deeper down through the layers inside myself. So I think it’s difficult for me to say one way or the other whether A Week of Kindness is truly surrealist or not. It engages with the images and practices of surrealism while also disavowing the methods (purportedly) used by the surrealists in making their art.

But clearly there’s something about surrealism that draws me to it, and my own sense is that has to do with other aspects of the surrealist movement that we seem less concerned about now, but which were vital at the time of its formation in the 1920s and 1930s. The first aspect I’m thinking of was the surrealist assault on traditional morality and religious and political authority, particularly in relation to the hierarchies and hypocrisies of the (Catholic) church, and the second was the movement’s response to the violent chaos of the First World War and the overturning of the pre-war social order.

This last element has strong personal meaning for me and resonates in very particular ways, and when I first saw Ernst’s book I felt like it was speaking directly to parts of my own experience that I’d had a lot of trouble articulating—or even acknowledging—before that point. It wasn’t only that Ernst was taking stock of the transformational effects that the collapse of the old order had brought about, but that his book was engaged in an act of attempted reconstruction as well, of surveying and collecting and pasting back together, no matter how grotesque or violent the results. Clearly, that was the psychic reality Ernst saw spreading across Germany—and the rest of Europe—in the early 1930s. It’s one thing to register a fallen world as Eliot’s “heap of broken images” or through the absurdities of dada, but Ernst’s beautifully seamless collages felt to me like something entirely different, cut from the “outmoded” images of his childhood and his life before the war, yet pieced back together as though the world still made sense. (This is connected to the “novel in collage” element that appeals to me so strongly.)

The reason this has specific personal meaning for me is that I experienced in my own life the collapse of the world I had known as a child. I grew up in New York inside what’s sometimes called “a high-demand group,” aka a cult. It was based on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and constructed around highly directive psychotherapy, communal living and child-rearing, “open” relationships, and radical politics. It lasted in its full-blown form for about twenty years, then irreparably broke apart in 1991, the year I left New York to go to college. The breakup of the group was undoubtedly the right thing to happen, and for me it was a totally liberating event, but at the same time it created an unbridgeable divide between my life up to that point and everything that’s come after. I’m grateful in every way that the group ended, but its sudden and total collapse created a dislocation, a lack of continuity, that I carry with me. There was this thing that was my life and then there’s been this other life I’ve lived. The writers and artists of the interwar period have always spoken to me for this reason—the surrealists certainly but many others as well—but no other work of art or writing has ever felt as charged for me as Ernst’s book in terms of the transfiguration one encounters in trying to piece together the fragments of a broken world.

Rumpus: No, actually I haven’t seen a physical performance of Jet of Blood, but the idea of it is both terrifying and exciting; the best kind of exciting. If I happen to learn of any showings, we should go and become “experienced.” The way you made a parallel between your upbringing and how that group’s dissolving presses up against the changing landscape of the world in the 1930s has me thinking about our current times. Although I think that we live in a world that is beyond 1930 (and what I mean when I say that is that World War I and World War II broke society, and consequently us, in a way that can’t be reverted from), there is this returning to surrealism or this hovering surrealism around contemporary art, particularly poetry. So what is our world doing to us? I know that’s an unwieldy question but I can’t figure out our current connection between what is being produced and a world where flying robots fight global wars. It all sounds like a bad episode of Gundam, but I guess my real question is, what are the obsessions you have in writing and can you identify where they come from? And if you can’t, are they your obsessions or the worlds?

Newton: We should definitely be on the lookout for performances of Jet of Blood—I love that idea. My guess is that they’re few and far between, so we’ll need to keep our eyes open. After all, the play was only first performed forty years after Artaud wrote it. As for what our world is doing to us and what my obsessions are in writing and what the connection is between the art being made now and our world of flying robots and global wars—I’m grateful you asked this question in this way, since there is an obsession to my writing that does tie together these seemingly disparate elements and traces itself directly back to World War I and the surrealist response in the years that followed. What I’m obsessed with in my writing—and what I see as the underlying process of modern life for the past century—is dehumanization. Part of this relates directly to your flying robots and global wars—humanity being overshadowed and replaced by technology and the irreducible complexity of a globalized, automated world—and part of it involves the mass scale of modern life—mass media, mass culture, mass production, mass migration, mass death, but it also has to do with the ways these changes have affected our sense of our own humanity, of what the value of human life actually is.

What’s interesting, of course, is how modern life could easily be seen in the opposite way—as an ever-expanding domain of individuality and self-expression. How do these two things coexist, and which is more true than the other? Deep down, do we recognize how little control we actually have over the forces that shape our lives and how little our individual experience affects the larger reality of our culture and history, and so we react by insisting ever more strenuously on ourselves? Or have our rights as individuals truly been expanded and strengthened over the past century in ways that genuinely combat the increasingly mechanized world we live in?

To return to what I was saying before about my childhood, I’m particularly sensitive to these questions because I grew up among people who believed they were “self-actualizing”—i.e., asserting the primacy of their own experience and desires and psychological development—yet ultimately they were handing over control of their lives and even their thoughts to an authoritarian system that exploited and degraded them. Art has always pushed back against the forces of dehumanization and it continues to do so, even as those forces become larger and scarier and more complex all the time. I think the return to surrealism you identify has to do with this push back because surrealism is perhaps more conscious of and active in its resistance to the forces that devalue our humanity. That’s what gives it its continued relevance.

Rumpus: Religion has some strong appearances in this chapbook. Did Abrahamic religious doctrine just lend itself easily to this project, or was it simply that the images were already there and you were excavating them? I think that throughout our English-language writing history, religion has been at the foundation of our arts, whether we are championing it like Milton or in conflict with it, arguably, like Ginsberg’s Howl. Do you think religion has developed into some kind of limb attachment to the human condition or being? Can we detach from that, or is it just so intertwined with our culture we don’t know a life without it?

Newton: Strangely enough, I’ve been thinking a lot about religion lately because of a conversation I had with my four-year-old daughter. A few weeks ago the two of us were walking past a lovely old red-brick church in Brooklyn, with soaring spires and vaulted stained-glass windows and a high tower on the corner, and she asked me if princesses lived in churches like they do in palaces. (For the record we’re Jewish but essentially non-observant.) That led her to ask me to explain religion to her. The answer we settled on was that a religion is a community and a church is like a school (a place where people learn things)—these were ideas she could totally understand. I thought these were pretty good answers to give an un-religious four year old, and actually, they helped her better understand her own relationships to the communities (family, school, Brooklyn) she actually belongs to.

I know that none of this exactly answers your questions, but I had to start here because when I think about religion these days it’s this conversation I think of first. In my most generous view of religion, I see it basically in this way—neither as a limb attachment to humanity nor as a permanently intertwined element of our culture, but as a highly adaptable system for building communities and imparting values. If this is all religion did, and did so in a tolerant way, then I might find myself taking another (even more generous) view, which is that religion continues to represent (maybe more so now than ever?) one of the few areas of life where something other than a purely materialist relation to the world is still allowed to take hold.

The problem, of course, is that the “the burden of the mystery” leads to the need “to believe,” which more often than not leads to ideology, blind faith, intolerance, tyranny, and all the rest of it. And so I ultimately find myself looking at religion primarily through the lens of my own experience inside an authoritarian community—as the world’s most ancient and powerful form of ideological authority and control. In terms of A Week of Kindness, I think you have it exactly right in saying that the religious images were already there and I was excavating them. They’re very powerful images, though, and it’s great to point them out inside of what Ernst is doing in his work. Some of the most definitive images in Une semaine de bonté—I’m thinking of the flood sequence—carry the heaviest Biblical associations, while also rendering the surrealistic critique of religion in its starkest terms. It’s here that the legacy of Christian civilization is reduced, among the most intimate scenes of bourgeois life, to patriarchal oppression, sexual hypocrisy, destructive violence, and endless falsehood. That the waters of purification are at hand is no reason for solace.

Rumpus: I have a strange craft question for you. How do you know where to section off your work? In A Week of Kindness you’ve divided the piece into multiple segments. How do you know when one segment should end and another begin? I know this process is obviously different depending on the book, but is there any aspect of it that is universal? If someone is a novice, what would you tell them about transition into another thought or feeling without disrupting the work as a whole?

Newton: You’re leaving me with a tough question, Randall, since as you say, it’s different for every work and so it’s hard to generalize. But there are a couple things I learned from working on A Week of Kindness that may be helpful. The first is to be clear about what “the work as a whole” actually is before you go about breaking it apart into different sections. For me, the starting place was very clear: my subject was Max Ernst’s Une semaine de bonté, and the individual sections of my work would approach his work from various angles. The second thing I learned is to maintain enough consistency in certain areas of the writing in order to diverge in other areas. In my case, I tried to be fairly consistent stylistically—using a kind of direct, clear-eyed, heavily punctuated yet highly referential prose—so that the changes in perspective and tone and point of view from section to section would feel less disruptive or incoherent. And my final thought would be that when working with multiple sections in a work, it’s best for something to actually happen in each section (even if the sections themselves are very short), for some change or development to take place within each of them. Otherwise, each section or element becomes static, a kind of contrivance fixed in place, and they’re all just coexisting with one another, instead of actually moving toward some larger whole, building toward some larger vision.


Randall Tyrone, an exemplar of Black Excellence, has received a scholarship from Tin House and a fellowship from the Idyllwild Arts Foundation. He has an MFA in poetry from the University of Wyoming and is an Editor for Essay Press. He's been published in Okey-Panky/Electric Literature & Oversound Poetry. He’s very excited for you. More from this author →