by Kelly Schirmann
Brandon Shimoda & Dot Devota are two poets, humans, & year-round travelers, currently living & working in the various deserts of the American Southwest. They are the authors, respectively, of The Carpenters (and Other Strangers) and Curfew, released this last fall from Black Cake Records, which releases contemporary & experimental poetry/recordings. At the time of this interview, we were haunting the same dive bars & taco stands of Tucson, Arizona, where over several months of backyard fires & midnight walks past fraternity houses, I began to understand that there was something very special about the way they looked at, talked to, & engaged with their surroundings. I cling to them because, in the desert, one must cling to something. Secondarily, & far more importantly, I cling to them because they know things: holy, ancient, useless truths. Their albums are weird things with wild blood & vice versa: the stuff of AM radio transmissions & other casual apocalypses. They are incessant, insistent, & full of secrets that exist in plain sight. Luckily for us, they are gracious with their findings. What follows is the result of us sitting down together on the Internet for a chat on what blood is, why artifacts are, & what we as poets should do about any of it.
Kelly Schirmann: First off, where are you? Who are you? How are you? How come?
Brandon Shimoda: We’re in the same desert town as you: Tucson, AZ, 100 km from Mexico. I’m grateful for this moment, Kelly, though I know it’s brief, and will soon be over. As for Tucson: DD and I have lived here off-and-on since late 2011, though have been gone ~half that time (in Taiwan, Japan, NY, Nova Scotia, St. Louis, driving; many reasons).
Dot Devota: I’m at Exo coffee shop. Writers suck at hide-n-seek. I came to center out the earth and drool. I just saw your boyfriend, Jay, here. He sliced his thumb with a butcher knife and hasn’t washed off the blood. He says blood is clean. Is it? Isn’t it sticky, I mean? Which would lead to contamination by fly paper, sweetly fragrant. The fly has to wiggle so hard it actually detaches from its own belly. The last time I got worked up was a single second ago. Right now I am in the past of that single second.
KS: I’m grateful for this shared time on the flypaper too, & I know that when we detach, my belly will remain in the best four hands possible. Your recent poetry albums are such glorious, twisting, multi-faceted things. Would you talk a little bit about them — how you went about recording (or collecting recordings), where they came from, and what they are?
DD: A long time ago the supercontinent split. Now I fly 16 hours each summer to get to Asia. A couple of these poems were recorded on the 26th floor of a highrise in Taiwan. In the middle of the night the building sways. Gently. None of these small earthquakes get recorded. I record singing while walking down the street and I record children reading their poems in the hallway of a school. The last song is by Jess Matsen, one of my favorite musicians who also lives in Tucson. I saw him at the cafe. He’d just gotten off work landscaping. I asked if he wanted to add a song. He said he was dirty and had to go home. 30 seconds later he emailed this.
BS: The poet D.A. Powell once told me that my poems reminded him of the music of The Carpenters, though what I especially remember is the shadow that was on the wall behind him when he said it—the wall was white, he was facing a window, the shadow was shadow and light, and had the shape of an enormous eagle or phoenix, or a fright wig, or an enormous eagle or phoenix wearing a fright wig: an unconquerable V-shape, victory, peace, but foreboding. I was writing short poems about my grandfather’s imprisonment during WWII, was sinking into his bifurcated self, selves, listening to the sound of him taking off his clothes, putting on his wife’s—his wife was missing, or dead, very young, not yet his wife; he was talking to himself: love poems. Karen Carpenter was anorexic. Anorexia, in the consciousness of what Doug was suggesting, became a TONE, initiatory, out of which I began to envision peace, but foreboding: trying on your wife’s clothes, withering away beneath them—but what was casting the shadow? The Carpenters (and Other Strangers) is either a misfire or unfinished. Also: when you invited DD and I to make records for Black Cake, we were staying at our friend Janet’s house in Meadowville, Nova Scotia, and the house, because it was the season, was swarming with ladybugs … remember I wrote that to you?
KS: I do remember that. It is a shame that the insects & the earthquakes don’t always get recorded. Or maybe it’s glorious, relieving, true? What happens to the things that get left out or unfinished? Where do they live? Is it any of our business?
DD: Very little, if anything, actually exists for us. Trees didn’t decide to grow because they knew we’d eventually come along. The impetus is to identify sensitivity. Whatever technical device—writing or machine—is really not the issue. I don’t even think this is what constitutes “recording”. Recording, and The Record, is something much more insane. An imprint larger than the artifact. Isolate the pitcha and look elsewhere.
BS: The insects and earthquakes recur (see below), though who knows how, or when, so there’s a series of dementia-like encounters with what we might not have appreciated in their moment, or did, but in part, or a different part than what, over time, proved to be IT. I wonder though if there’s a critical or post-critical mass (i.e. eleven thousand insects riding on the waves of eleven thousand earthquakes) and what the consequence is (i.e. implosion, levitation, vomit, or poetry, etc). I have/had the feeling that our work is MADE of the things that get left out or are unfinished. That’s why there’s making (not that it’s any of OUR BUSINESS).
KS: To me, both of your work feels very rooted in revelation, in exposure, in documentation. I get the sense that you feel a sense of responsibility in what you choose to reveal, or expose, or to document. How does this affect your poetry, & how did it affect your records? (You can disagree with me if you want).
DD: After Taiwan, I went to Ferguson, Missouri. I grew up in St. Louis. It’s still apartheid. For weeks I’m on Antonio French’s Twitter feed with the beak of a hummingbird! I go to protests for Mike Brown and march on Canfield Drive. I’m a shitty shitty activist. Overwhelmed. I’m unaware of goals, unable to focus my demands. But as a poet my job isn’t to yell at police or hold signs. It is to visit the grave. I’m a ghost myself there. After the march on Canfield, I relay the day’s images to Brandon: female pastors dressed casually, a woman pushing a stroller sings Amazing Grace, another woman goes in for a group hug but her phone falls out of her pocket breaking on the street, flowers around a road cone, a small loudspeaker at the point of death. And some white people with their cryptic signage. One holds a 1989 bar graph depicting global warming. Some other white people approach me to join a “witnessing whiteness” group (white people finding more white people to talk about how bad they have it because they’re racist). Brandon says the poet doesn’t know where they go or why…
BS: It’s true: the choice is the responsibility. “Verse should not be composed of words, but of intentions” (Mallarmé). Documentation is becoming (to me) about revelation. Exposure is antecedent, calculable time, or real, while revelation is dispersed, therefore timeless; it’s part of the responsibility (choice), trusting what recurs, even after the origins of occurrence have gone extinct. What I mean is: I don’t remember, but am remembered by what happened, as the fragmentation of what happened increases intelligence. “Happened” isn’t right; there is no past TENSE. Revelation, Exposure, Document: RED. DD went to Ferguson MO (see above), near where she grew up, marched with protesters to the police station, felt confused, overwhelmed, at a loss, full of anger and uncertainty. We realized we’ve spent the last 4+ years on pilgrimages—to graves, trees, fields, poets’ houses, internment camps, libraries, extinct towns—often finding nothing, but the embodiment of RED. Also: two of my favorite movies about looking at art, both documentary in their way, are: Pavel Kogan’s Look at the Face and Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, which has an amazing cameo by Bruegel’s Conversion of St. Paul.
KS: You both chose to incorporate outside voices in your albums — singers, teachers, friends, field recordings from protest marches, ghosts of previous selves. In what way do you see these other voices contributing to your understanding of your poetry, or of art in general?
DD: Those voices are outside? They’re voices? I’m less sure of what constitutes a voice, singular. Or how this idea of voice is so important, as I feel it is. But it’s an old idea getting over-normalized. It’s becoming cheesy, like, get your voice heard. We are in a post-voice society. Half the time I don’t know who is talking or from where it comes. But it is incessant. Too many voices got murdered in the positivist readings of the future in the late 60’s of every century, so now, the afterlife’s bluish underworld, they travel through water, deep sea-like, carried farther, true, but the currents are forever just rotating. It’s not cynical, this is how I feel. I feel like a shortwave radio, picking up static and bits of conversations. Or sound is literally bumping off of me. To stand in the middle of the symphony does what? To be part of the throbbing. I have no idea of where to go from here. Although voice becomes a direction. In the dark I usually go towards the voice. Have you seen Beckett’s NOT I?
BS: I’m not sure what contributes to my understanding of my poetry—do you know (what contributes to yours?) I feel like everything contributes to a greater LACK of understanding, because it changes, as I and it pass further down the circles. I think of two trees: an 800 year-old camphor tree in Kumamoto and a 1000+ year-old cypress in Oaxaca. Actually, two people: my grandmother dying in a convalescent home in bed at a 45º angle while her two roommates, both nuns, watch Catholic Mass on TV, and old men pace the halls with nurses, in English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic; and Hayashi Yoken, the young monk who set fire to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto) then ran into the woods to watch it burn while attempting, but failing, to kill himself by swallowing poison and stabbing himself in the heart (he missed): the vision of the flames through the trees. In other words: I need nudity/denudation, temperamental and/or physical, to enact the sense of falling into VOICES. Monk/grandmother—I’ve sat like/as them.
KS: To me, poetry is this very squishy & elusive thing, & I think maybe my aim with Black Cake is to blur the edges of the word until it becomes something else entirely. Not the collection of voices, but any kind of container a voice could inhabit. Or is that just existence? How do you see poetry interacting with other mediums, expressions, sounds, life? What is it, & why do we (you) do it?
DD: I can’t blame poetry enough to give it a definition. Because something that can’t feel suffering is given something to suffer through–our perception. Not because poetry is elusive. I’m never trying to catch poetry or achieve it or find new forms for it.
BS: Where did the name Black Cake come from? Is it what happens to poetry when it is confected (turns black)? Or is poetry the confection? Or cake like a chemical? When my mom was pregnant with me she only ate—or so she claims—potatoes and YELLOW cake. Because of that, I only see poetry interacting with other mediums, expressions, sounds, life.
KS: I’m not sure anyone has ever asked me this. A few months into the project, a friend of mine showed me a recipe for black cake that was found in Emily Dickinson’s kitchen. This was absolutely horrifying, not because of the association exactly, but because I would never want to be speaking to something so directly & indirectly at the same time. I would prefer not speaking at all, actually, at least not in a way that leaves intentional traces of itself. Information. I don’t know if the cake is petrified, molding, imaginary, terrible, or just NEW. Do we ever know what we eat? & but shouldn’t we keep eating? Anyway. What’s next?
DD: Brandon says we’re working our way further towards and into nothingness. Reading and writing. There is always more to do away with, which makes room for more nothingness. There is a goal and its the blackness of the universe expanding.
BS: “I would prefer not speaking at all,” you said, “at least not in a way that leaves intentional traces of itself.” Me too, and yet: it’s raining, rare for the desert, though it’s rained a lot since we’ve been back (August). The dry rivers come to life—muddy, with tree limbs and trash—but will be gone just as quickly. Our friend Johanna saw a body being lifted out of the river. The man, 34, was homeless, and was murdered by two other homeless men. His name was Owen McNutt. Among the things on my to-do list (from my notebook, verbatim): Alzheimer’s threshold, Annunciation paintings, Hiroshima in Braille, suicide in Ontario, Genet’s Prisoner of Love, the sun’s journey into night.
Dot Devota is from a family of rodeo stars. She wrote The Division of Labor (Rescue Press, 2015) And The Girls Worried Terribly (Noemi Press, 2014); MW: A Midwest Field Guide (Editions19\); and The Eternal Wall, published by Cannibal and reprinted in Canada by BookThug. Recent poems and essays appear in PEN America, Make Magazine, Ancients, Aufgabe, The Volta and have been translated into French and Arabic. She travels full-time with her partner, Brandon Shimoda, and currently writes prose about the U.S. Midwest.
Brandon Shimoda was born in California, and is, among other things (friend, son, brother, uncle, grandson), a poet. He is also the co-editor of two recent books by two poets he deeply admires: Wong May and Etel Adnan.
Kelly Schirmann is from Northern California. She is the author of Popular Music (Black Ocean, 2016) & the co-author of Boyfriend Mountain (Poor Claudia). She sings in the band Young Family & runs Black Cake, a record label for poetry & other experiments. She lives in Portland, Oregon, & at kellyschirmann.com.
You can listen to Dot Devota’s Curfew and Brandon Shimoda’s The Carpenters (and Other Strangers), as well as the other Black Cake poets, for free & forever at blackcake.org.
Both poets feature in the The Volta Book of Poets, out recently from Sidebrow.