War & Poetry: A Conversation with R. M. Haines.
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
The following is a conversation with R.M. Haines about his new chapbook, Interrogation Days, published by Dead Mall Press. The conversation happened over email in late October of 2022. You can also read this interview on DMP's website.
Tim Carter: Howdy. R.M., I’m glad to ask you some questions about your newest book, Interrogation Days. This chapbook is published through Dead Mall Press, which is also your operation. Why don’t you start by telling me about both?
R.M. Haines: Thank you, Tim, for taking time with these poems and offering to do this interview. Interrogation Days is a chapbook about the so-called “War on Terror,” collecting various details and stories from those 20 years, and approaching them as the artifacts of a kind of demented poetic imagination. It was at one time the first section in a book also containing the poems from Dysnomia and Civil Society (my press’s earliest books), and I still think of them as a kind of trilogy. The three books speak to one another – about empire, psyche, capitalism, police, terror, violence -- but upon reflection, it really seemed to me too much to put them all together into one reading experience. Each of the books approaches a certain feeling of finality, and it felt like I was forcing things to put them in the same volume. Of the three, Interrogation Days is the longest (28 pages compared to 11 and 10 pages for the others), so it feels like a bigger statement to me.
As for the press, I’d been intently studying how small press publishing works since roughly 2018. I wrote a lot of critical stuff about it, but not until fall 2021 did I think about actually making physical booklets and calling it a “press.” In March 2022, after thinking it all through and preparing some things, I officially launched DMP and put out three small chapbooks of my own. In 2023, I will be transitioning into publishing people other than myself, and that is hugely exciting to me (much more info to come!). Also, with DMP, I want to be as transparent as possible about the nuts-and-bolts of publishing: how much things cost, what the budget is, how much things sell, what I do with the money, etc. I think that concealing the material reality of publishing mystifies it, and this has numerous negative consequences. Against this, DMP aims to be transparent, to be generous and open with writers, to stay small and DIY, and to donate a sizable portion of the earnings to people doing work around social justice, abolition, mutual aid, and other causes.
TC: One of the epigraphs at the beginning of Interrogation Days reads, “Poetry is always trying to put an end to a war that continues wars that poetry helped to instigate” (Heriberto Yépez). So maybe you can start with answering: What do you feel is the relation between poetry and the state, specifically, the military state? “Drone,” the poem that starts this book, combines (at least) two kinds of drones together: the weapon and the sound.
RMH: Typically, one would look toward things like state-funding for poetry and literature. In the US, however, direct state funding (typically via NEA) is relatively small compared to the many private foundations and corporations who fund poetry and literary publishing. However, this does not mean there is no tie to the state or military. Amazon, for instance, which funds several prominent literary organizations and presses, is a prominent military contractor that offers cloud computing services for defense. Also, Amazon was in a very contentious bidding war for the extremely lucrative JEDI defense contract and has actively sought increased ties with the military. This is just one example, but it is a very significant one, especially considering that Amazon also sells most people the poetry they read. Ultimately, insofar as Amazon Web Services essentially controls somewhere between 30-40% of the internet itself, it is difficult to totally separate ANY media from entanglement with the military and the state.
Much more direct ties between poetry and the state can be seen in the notion of “cultural diplomacy,” in which the state enlists its artists and art institutions, including poets, to manufacture an image of the US as a place of freedom and “cultural riches.” This is a state propaganda technique at least as old as the Cold War. In an illuminating article by the editors of Commune Editions, featured in Jacket2, they quote from a document called the US Department of State’s Paper of the Advising Committee of Cultural Diplomacy: “[The paper] equates US ‘cultural riches’ as the equivalent of military action in the war on terror: ‘History may record that American’s cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership, including the war on terror.’ . . . Cultural diplomacy will, the publication notes, counter the negative perception of the US ‘in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and the controversy over the handling of the detainees at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay.’” Ultimately, poetry and literature are routinely enlisted into this nationalist enterprise, and they very often make willing collaborators. Even the private donors and foundations that more frequently fund non-profit small presses in the US routinely expect that presses contribute to what is ultimately a national, state-approved project of building cultural prestige.
Lastly, it's worth nothing that human imagination and its physiological, neuronal basis is currently dominated in an historically unprecedented way by media, media technology, and state applications/infiltrations of these. Not only are these tools used by the police, the military, and intelligence agencies, they are quite frequently the products of those entities (e.g. the internet and ARPANET; on all these matters and more, I highly recommend the work of Michael S. Judge, esp. his podcast Death is Just Around the Corner). In short, this technological hyper-media environment is a new and extremely powerful form of enclosure by the capitalist, militarized state, and its contradictions shape our lives, our politics, our enjoyments, dreams, everything. And I feel that a primary task for poetry and literary work right now is to recognize its place in this nexus of soft propaganda, cultural diplomacy, media saturation, big data, and capitalist state power. Poets should readily identify all this for the overwhelming threat that it is -- not just to poetry but to all forms of imagination -- and let it change one's writing and one's orientation to how one's work is produced and circulated. And in doing this, it is essential that poets conceive of their work from a position that is overtly against the powers of capitalism, fascism, and colonialism, because the default liberalism common to many poets and poetry communities is always going to be neutralized and absorbed.
TC: You mention “recognizing its place in the nexus” as a first step toward eventually “letting it change one’s writing.” How’d you begin to recognize the situation, as you put it? When did this begin for you?
RMH: I get into some of this in a previous essay that tracks how my growing political consciousness changed my relationship to poetry. And the process has played out over the last seven years or so, though it came to a head in 2020, when I put my book out as a free .pdf -- not a smart "career move," and I was 100% conscious of that when I did it. I was effectively severing my work form the academic market. But even beyond this, I think if anybody looks at that first book and then compares that to Dysnomia or this new one, it is evident that my poetics has changed. And I guess, for me, it required being as honest as possible about what I sought through poetry, and seeing how “the market” was deforming it for me in a bad way (the market for academic jobs, the market for poetry itself, and the actual broader market we’re all subjected too). Maybe others will arrive at different conclusions, but for me the result of that personal audit was just blowing up what I had previously thought my poems were supposed to be and do, and then inhabiting the aftermath of that.
TC: There’s another connection between art and war in “Reproductions,” which is a wonderfully subtle poem. The title is meaningful in a few different ways. It seems to speak not only to our (seemingly endless) waging of war, but also to how war (and US imperialism specifically) is reproduced in things like painting and film. Toward the end of the poem, you write, “Later, he painted veterans maimed in his war.” This refers to Bush’s, uh, career as a painter after, you might say, committing war crimes. Bush isn’t just a younger, stupider reproduction of his father, he is continuing a war started by his father, and he’s reproducing images of the war how he wants, through painting. I’m thinking of how the fragment seems to be a formal choice in your writing, rather than, say, the portrait. The poem begins, “One scene bleeds into another,” which seems to be one way of talking about the poems in this book? How do you see the relationships between fragmentation in your writing?
RMH: Thank you for that about “Reproductions.” That is how I’m reading the poem as well. It was a primary starting point for the whole book, years ago: the two Bushes, the two wars, reproducing one another, fathers and sons and bombs. It’s easy to get carried away, too, because there are things like the fact that Saddam was executed on the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorating the story of Abraham and Isaac, an archetypal father/son story. I had to resist my tendency to just list all the synchronicities around this idea, and this isn’t even discussing the way that artistic reproduction factors in.
Regarding fragments, they are vital to how this book was written. I think fragments -- or, in this case, decontextualized quotations and images -- are uniquely powerful in that they also activate the silenced context they emerged out of—that is, they stand out, stark and resonant, against a missing background. For me, this process reflects how ideas, memories, and historical events bleed into one another and get erased, and again, this is an effect of how we use technology as well. And this is a musical thing for me too. Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat and Lumpy Gravy, Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand, J. Dilla’s Donuts, various Madlib records, the Bomb Squad’s work with Public Enemy, the art of sampling in hip-hop more generally – these are all very “fragmentary” works, stuff that is fractured and filled with commentary, jokes, arcana, and obscure citation. And for me, that is the sound of consciousness: it reveals the impact of reality on the sensorium as music. And yet it also intervenes on it, rearranges it, and puts it back out as new information. And all this can only start happening in the radically accelerated technological environment that followed WWII. It’s all about fucking with, and fucking up, an archive of recorded documents.
TC: Your use of fragments in these poems makes me also think of how they (fragments) are also a way of resisting, for example, stories the state wants to tell about the War on Terror. You can select moments for your poetry that work against those stories. The fragment seems good for that sort of purpose. But the fragment, at least in my own work, runs the risk of failing to cohere. You say to the reader, look at all these connections, and they say, what are you talking about? Perhaps we might even say: the stakes in this kind of poetry. What do you feel about this balance between fragmentation and connection?
RMH: I do think there is a risk in writing this way, in that it will turn off many readers who want personal connection and more immediate coherence. But as a writer, I also have to trust the fact that I connect with this stuff, and I’m changed and enlivened by these poems I write. They make me hear differently, and that hearing opens me up to things that surprise me. And if I distrust that, I'll always be second guessing myself. And the thing is, I don’t want people to scratch their heads too much about understanding everything. If you don’t get a reference, or a dozen references – or if you don’t see how one line or idea connects to the next -- that doesn’t mean you won’t get the poem. Again, there is a music to all this, a kind of overriding syntax of feeling, imagery, and movement that tells you all you need to know.
TC: You write in “Lines in a Time of Error” that “There is a war between reality and the imagination.” I’m thinking of this in relation to something else you write in your essay “The Ghost Mine Explodes: Toward a Psycho-Materialist Poetics,” about how the idea of psycho-materialism “brings the deforming and transforming powers of imagination into contact with historical conditions, while seeking to explode the restricted, commodified forms of expression that continually reduce poetry and enable its assimilation by institutions bound to capital.” You’re writing in that essay about people like Lisa Robertson, Sean Bonney, and Byung-Chul Han. This probably requires a much longer answer, but perhaps you could say a bit about what brings all these writers together.
RMH: “There is a war between reality and the imagination” has two sources. It appears word for word in Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” my first source for it, but I prefer to link it to Diane di Prima. Di Prima writes in her Revolutionary Letters: “THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION / ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT.” She was an anarchist of unstable employment, and Stevens was a conservative insurance executive. There is a vast difference between them, but it is one that “poetry” tends to conceal, and in doing so makes it possible to conceal material reality in other ways as well. And that is part of the war. Forgetting material conditions, or taking them for granted -- which is really the same thing – is expected of us. Ideology tells us the real is given, and we imagine within its borders, and we all learn to say, “It is what it is.” But it is not what it is, it is always full of contradictions. So what draws together the writers you pointed to is, for me, their way of pointing us toward materiality and their way of negating things while also opening the world up, saying all this could be otherwise.
Poetry and imagination are happening everywhere, not just in poems. In fact, I’d say that we can recognize a broader sense of poiesis wherever someone or something is at work trying to create and recreate the world, entering into that space where reality and imagination, experience and dream, constitute one another. In Interrogation Days, I’m reading US's "War on Terror" as a monstrous and reactionary production of imagination: as though drones and black sites and all of the faces of our leaders and all their idiocies constitute a very hostile and destructive kind of poiesis that is against the desire for life and freedom, for an open universe and its communism. It's as though we see in this an imperial poiesis that wants to close all of us down, to arrest us into an utterly reduced state of despair and nightmare, of terminal and desiccated realism (what Sean Bonney called “police realism”). These forces want an absolute monopoly on reality and on poetry, and they have done a damn good job in getting it. And so, in this sense, the work of imagination – as William Blake and Diane di Prima recognized, among others – is not some idyllic playground of “creativity”: it is a site of political conflict about how we exist in the world, what we are able to dream within it, and what material realities we can bring into being.
TC: While reading “Interrogation Days,” the title poem, I found myself thinking about what philosopher Daniel Dennett says about selfhood: one way we distinguish ourselves from other selves is through the creation of a boundary, like the border of a nation. Your poem brings together the ideas of selfhood, poetry, and boundary, but does so in the context of torture – both the psychology of torture, and the real documented torture -- done by US soldiers in Guantanamo Bay. You write, “Here, / my voice, spoken so you can hear, // both joins and breaks us apart. / Barzakh: barrier, isthmus; // what stands between the sweet water / and the salty. For Ibn Arabi, // what unites things divided.” Along with descriptions of interrogations and torture, this poem also weaves in a story about a pilgrimage to find the Simurgh, a mythical bird. What were you thinking about selfhood, poetry, and torture in this poem? And what does this have to do with Dick Cheney?
RMH: I think you’ve articulated quite well what I was thinking in that poem about selves and boundaries. While this poem is not a lyric poem, it is interested in and quotes from lyric poems; and in such poems, the (imagined) fusion of selves is an essential feature: a joining together in a mutual space between two selves, poet/speaker and reader, mediated by language and imagination (and often failing, but loving in that failure). (W.S. Graham's "The Constructed Space" articulates this very well.) By contrast, the relationship between interrogator/torturer and detainee/victim is the total destruction of this space, even though it sometimes uses similar means. That is, a skilled interrogator will try to build common ground, and to help construct a mutual space of reciprocity between the two parties. Torturers may do this too at first. But this is a trap, of course, and its goal is to extract information and betray the detainee: it falsifies sociality itself by weaponizing the intimacy of communication. So I was very drawn to how these dialogical, reciprocal spaces -- the lyric poem and the interrogation scene -- collide with and mirror one another.
And while the "enhanced interrogations"/tortures in GTMO, Abu Ghraib, and various other "black sites" are, to an extent, exceptional events for their concentrated extremity and the imagery we received around them, they nevertheless abide by the same logic we see in US prisons, as well as in the dehumanization of people through structural patriarchy, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism. The militarized, capitalist state dominates through total violation, from the geographical scale down to the psyche and body of a single individual. These detainees bore the full brunt of the state’s power, and in the very extremity of this revealed something essential about what the state ultimately wants: to destroy dreams and the neurological function of dreams (the detainees were sleep deprived to extreme lengths); to make your mind transparent to surveillance and intel extraction; and to reduce your desires such that all you want is to keep the hard border of your self in place (i.e negative peace). This is the coerced enclosure of the psyche and the self -- a reactionary formation. Essentially, the US state doesn't want the selves of its people to expand and dream and join together in mutual, openly constructed spaces (except in the sanctioned contexts of church, nation-state, and family) -- that it is against the poetry of communism and the communism of poetry. And while the poem in question here may not have touched on all of this, the seeds of all of this stuff can be found in there.
To your other question here: I hate Dick Cheney. When I was younger, he was the avatar for everything wrong. Oil, profit, war, deceit. This was like a gnostic Archon, an almost cosmic figure of domination who was profoundly mistaken and yet arrogant in his mistakenness. Also, because I became interested in Sufism and its view (in my understanding, which is filtered through James Hillman) that the heart is the seat of imagination, and of the soul, it was very significant to me that here was a man whose heart was dying. So it might be a bit on the nose, but I see him as a figure for the death of the heart, and thus of the imagination: as someone who is unable to truly imagine the lives of others, or to imagine any other world than a war reality, a policed and bordered reality. And so even though much of the book is very dark -- as is much of this interview! -- I do strongly believe that the heart and love are essential, world-making forces. And although it is shown amidst violence and wreckage, I hope that that vision of the heart and its power comes through in the poem.
TC: The poems in Interrogation Days rely on the reporting of Jonathan M. Hansen, a government manual called The Psychology of Intelligence, and something called “Terror Management Theory,” among others. What do these texts mean to you? How did you approach using these documents and reporting as material for your poetry?
Since approx. 2015, when I began this project, I had a large archive of books that I was reading about the “War on Terror,” torture, GTMO, Islam and Sufism, and intelligence analysis (the full list, or as close as I could get, appears in the acknowledgments page of the book). Some of the reading was very focused and thorough, other times I was just skimming and collecting stuff. But it took me quite a while to find a form that allowed this material to come together in the way I needed it to. At a certain point, looking at my mess of unfinished drafts -- part original writing, part collected quotes and fragments -- there were sharp edges and lots of leaps that I did not intend. But with fresh eyes, I could see that THIS was how the poems should work: let the disruptions do their own work. Trying to make it all too tidy around distinct themes would really sap it of all its strength, so I started to draw on the energy of surprising shifts.
Of course, there is a balancing act here too. I did not want it to just seem arbitrary. So despite any apparent chaos, each poem has its own distinct set of concerns, and it only strays so far outside of relevance to that. The closest I got to just arbitrary movement from point to point was in “Parallax,” which was a deformation/collage of excerpts from The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, a CIA instructional book for student intelligence officers. The book teaches them how to control their psyche and maintain objectivity when surveying complex sets of information, interacting with an informant or detainee, and so on. With this CIA text, it seemed appropriate to me to just completely dismantle the book through reckless quotation and decontextualization, while vandalizing it (so to speak) with outside material as well. I continued to explore this more chaotic way of working in other books of mine, like Dysnomia, and some unpublished stuff that is coming soon.