We were mesmerized at first glance of KANPHATA’s NAME/AMEN, a series of concrete poems formed from the deconstructed names of canonical Anglophone poets — Auden, Eliot, Plath, etc. What is the meaning of a name proffered then dissolved and its remaining fragments? We asked the poet about this; we inquired too about the influence of Wittgenstein and Badiou on this work. From there KANPHATA guided us through a vast terrain of language and ideas, moving swiftly from fake poets and language games to the gap between what exists and what can be said, the contextualization of names, as well as his coming to Anglophone poets as a nonnative speaker of English.
Who/what were your inspirations and influences for NAME/AMEN?
The project NAME/AMEN follows from a sheer desperation with using English language for literary purposes. English is not my native language, I have hardly ever spoken it in the everyday life (before recently coming to the US). And yet, I grew up (as a poet) reading a lot of Anglophone modernist poets. Largely because significant portions of their work are available to read online. This project, as I understand it now, is the wasteful remainder of my ambition to cure myself of my “double consciousness” as a poet. I had been strenuously striving to work myself out of the influence of a decidedly Western poetry and poetics, and yet, it was as if the more I was meaning to formally subvert the Western paragon of newness the more I would end up imitating the “great” Western poets.
This neurosis, and its attendant trials and tribulations, (howsoever romantic they might sound in retrospect, especially to a reader’s “lyric-ears”!) could not be sustained for long, and it culminated into a very painful and traumatic (for me) breakdown of the language I had been working with. A total breakdown at that, right down to the bare physical elements of the language. Although I was loosely aware of traditions of concrete and visual poetry in Brazil and Italy, I was not sure where I was going with this. I mean there was no ambition to create “art” or “poetry” of any “avant” kind, which is why making these works had offered little compensation.
I have enjoyed the wondrous fake anthology of South American poets written by Kenneth Koch, perhaps all the more wondrous for putting into relief the then prevalent mode of “transparent” translation practiced by the likes of Robert Bly. Also, Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun. Robert Kelly’s Earish, his homophonic translations of Celan, is great. And there are several other works too, esp. Brandon Brown’s translations (!!!), but then, alternating between real poems by fake authors and fake poems by real authors, I ended up operating in a completely different medium, one which is neither (only) language nor (only) image, and the personal context of this work is very different too.
We found inspiration for the Review in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement (from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus): “The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense.” How does this speak to your process in NAME/AMEN, or contradict it?
Upon receiving my copies, I kept thinking about this quote from Wittgenstein, which prefaces the volume, as also about the relationship between philosophy and poetry in general. If only in a way, Plato onwards, philosophy has traditionally come to be marked by a rather tragic persistence to philosophize the poem. But, as Marx says, what takes place as a tragedy often repeats itself as a farce. It is not surprising, then, that with the advent of the ’60s the very realm of philosophy should come to be poeticized! In the light of this turn to language, a famous proclamation from Wittgenstein comes to mind : “I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.” But what is supremely interesting is that Wittgenstein himself did not write his philosophy as a poetic composition. At least not the Wittgenstein of Tractatus. Instead, he takes recourse to a propositional form of writing, one which is almost pointillist in its logical effects, in order to repeatedly hone and clarify the limits of all that can be said, and to thereby circumscribe “the unsayable.” I believe there are important insights to be gleaned from the Wittgenstein of Tractatus. The most crucial of these relate to the minimal but absolute gap between what exists and what is (or can be) said of this existence. To collapse this gap is to fall into an abysmal sophistry of language games, whereby the poet-players mistake their poetics of semiotic deconstruction and glitch-noise for a destruction and/or re-organization of the oppressive forms of social relations we find ourself materially implicated in. Of course, this is not to discount the efficacy and a possible strategic use of the poetics of semiotic noise, especially in the current political situation of the world, but one must remember that noise can remain noise if it determines itself as noise. And this, I sincerely believe, cannot happen if one remains stranded in a wholly sublimated realm of language.
Thinking of NAME/AMEN in this context is kind of difficult for me. Each of these works is an improvisatory organization of black and white loops, curves, arms, chins, serifs, bars, stems on the white surface of the screen. Is this decontextualization of “the letter” a simple formalism of sorts? But then, why is each of these object-glyphs titled— name of __? Is there a hermeneutic to be sought, a bridge of positive correspondence to be built over the otherwise impassable gap separating the title (the name of __) from what it appears to refer to? Surely, this cannot be a meaningless exercise? Etc. There is, for me, an intense affective dimension to this work, one which refuses to be simply brought into consciousness. But let us not compensate the apparent meaninglessness of the work with a discourse of an ordinary pathos of biography, let us not make a spectacle out of the self-hatred the poet had felt while making these works. Let us just say that the work followed from an intensely affective experience with language, that of which one cannot discursively speak. In this regard, the work stands its own stead. To come to think of it now, this does chime rather well with the Wittgenstein of Tractatus— “Whereof we cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.”
The series begins with a quote from Alain Badiou: “ The proper of the name sabotages the common of the concept.” What is the significance of a name, common and proper, and of a name deconstructed?
I was really into Alain Badiou while preparing a manuscript for Meekling’s call for submissions. The quote comes from his essay on Nietzsche. For Badiou, the nomination of the indiscernible is a difficult enterprise. The “indiscernible” is indiscernible because it comes to “make a hole in the given situation,” and for the reason of its incalculable novelty it cannot be named . . . and yet. Badiou resolves this aporia by ensuring that the name of what is otherwise indiscernible is not of the order of signification, but rather it is a name which embodies an “evental quality.” To understand this difference, let us take the example of Kashmir, a symptom of the sovereign democracy that the Indian nation state professes itself to be. On the one hand, in the legislative structures of the Indian democracy, “Kashmir” is identified as one of the 29 states of the country and Kashmiris as legal citizens of the nation. But on the other hand, “Kashmir” is also the name of the freedom sought by those rioting masses in the streets, the masked men, women and kids who spontaneously emerge in the streets day after day armed with nothing but stones to pelt at the Indian army, resisting, in conjunction with an otherwise organized armed militancy across the state, the forced occupation of their homeland. The state, meanwhile, continues to exercise its “right to legislate,” and thus “identify” these militants as Pakistani terrorists or make sense of the riotous rabble as citizens of India who have been seduced by the Pakistani infiltrators and so on, and thus normalize the state of emergency it otherwise perpetuates. This antagonism between the ethos of democracy (farcical as they are) and the militant attempts which resist the forced Indian occupation of Kashmir is constituted and sustained by the same name—“Kashmir”—at once belonging to the legislative structures of the Indian constitution and sustaining the militant longing for freedom. Here, the difference between Badiou and the philosophers of language must become absolutely clear. For unlike the latter, for Badiou the interventional resistances stand in no need of a “different” register of signification. The newness of any movement lies not in the artificial novelty of the names it assumes for itself, for it is not the names themselves which exceed the situation. The novelty of a movement relates instead to the referential meaning of the name it assumes. The name “Kashmir,” if we are to go by Badiou, is supernumerary, is foreclosed from all determinants of Indian democracy, simply because there exist militants who have politically decided on the status of Kashmir, and have, thereby, chosen to demonstrate their fidelity to the same. In this regard, Kashmir is an empty name, or to put it otherwise, it has been named emptily, for it refers only to a world yet to come. The militant profession of the name Kashmir is a persistent clearing away of the forced occupation; it leaves the actual referent of the name void, to be duly filled in the future. What this historically entails for the future we do not know. Does it pertain to Kashmir’s emancipation as a nation-state? But, given the geopolitical situation, does not Kashmir’s emancipation rest upon the emancipation of the whole of South Asia? Of course, Badiou’s formalized abstractions are useless when it comes to these real geopolitical considerations. But I had found his rumination on the anti-Hegelian philosophy of Nietzsche particularly interesting.
The example I have used pertains to politics. The decontextualization of names that the project NAME/AMEN undertakes operates at an entirely different level of abstraction, that of poetry. It is dangerous to use either poetry or politics as an analogy to suit the other’s ends, but please, please indulge me awhile, and at least for now let me wager my thoughts! In a way, I think this project seeks to name these poets emptily yet again, to destroy the modernist monoliths. I mean who cares about the “great modernist works” and their “newness”? At least I did/do not.
You say you wanted to become a yogi but became a poet instead—at what point did these paths diverge?
In order to become Kanphata, a disciple of Gorakhnath, he had to have his ears split. But once it came to pass, he mysteriously turned into a visual poet, a people’s answer to Zarathusra’s complaints— “Must one smash their ears, so they may learn to listen with their eyes?”
KANPHATA: At my birth I split my ears to be able to see better. I grew up wanting to be a yogi. I ended up becoming a poet.
Aditya Bahl is a member of the Delhi-based Marxist collective Radical Notes. A book of poems will be out soon from Delet-e (Delete Press). A chapbook of poems is forthcoming from LRL Textile Series. A chapbook called this is visual poetry by aditya bahl was published in 2013 by Dan Waber’s imprint this is visual poetry.