Blake Butler Asks Christopher Higgs Some Questions About His e-Chapbook Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (Publishing Genius Press, 2009)

Conducted via email, May 2009

BUTLER: One of the most immediately exciting things about this text I think is the way it plays with and mishmashes syntax both syllabically and structurally. There is a certain tone about the ongoings that you manage to establish in the very first sentence: a way of speaking that sounds wholly new. Can you talk some (a) about the state in which you approached this, or (b) how you began to write it, and/or (c) what outside influences or impulses led you into the mode, if any?

HIGGS: I approached the construction of Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously in two ways:

1. By remixing previously written texts

2. By process of what André Breton called “automatic writing”

In the case of #1, (“Lonely…”; “Escape…”; “Of Her…”) I wrote these texts in a straightforward manner while in graduate school at U Nebraska (2004-2006) as pieces of conventional realism with beginnings, middles, and ends. I liked them okay, but they had no real oomph. Like most works of conventional realism, they were boring, so I kept them stashed away figuring maybe someday I’d do something to make them interesting.

In the case of #2, (all the other pieces) these texts were written more recently (in the past year or two) and came from sessions in which I sat down and allowed the voices in my head to speak through my fingers without censorship. These voices tend to speak in rhythmic/sonic ways rather than narrative ways.

In terms of outside influences, there are gobs (Gertrude Stein, Gary Lutz, e.e. cummings, Jean-Luc Godard, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, etc.); but one I would like to mention specifically is a short piece by Darby Larson called “Journal Entry: 2-13-03” [] which appeared in the online journal Insolent Rudder. I remember reading that while I was in my first year of graduate school at the University of Nebraska and going: oh hell yes—this is a style I must try to expand upon!

BUTLER: Would you say that any one sentence in this text could signify the whole, i.e. could “Complain nor explain a single lie and that is true.” in any way speak for the whole here? Can a text be reduced?

HIGGS: That question makes me think about Alice Fulton’s concept of fractal poetry. She borrows Mandlebrot’s model of “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole” to describe a poem in which each sentence acts like a representative of the whole (you can find out more about this in Fulton’s brilliant collection of essays titled Feeling as a Foreign Language).

Even though I think her ideas are fascinating, especially when she suggests we should “look to chaos and complexity theory as touchstones for contemporary aesthetics,” I don’t purposefully construct fractal poems—i.e. I’m not an adherent to her methodology—and Colorless was not constructed in this manner.

I do, however, wonder about how each sentence fits into the community of sentences that encompasses the text.  If you think about a text as a community of sentences, then you can think about each sentence as a citizen in that community. One citizen can’t express the totality of a shared community, but nevertheless, one citizen does reflect similar (inherited and simulated) cultural values, behaviors, beliefs, dreams, and characteristics. For example, I can’t possibly encompass the entire concept of America. I can’t even encompass my local community here in Clintonville, Ohio, even though I share the experience of living in these communities, am part of these communities, and help to construct these communities. Individually, I believe each sentence in Colorless contributes to both the heterogeneity and homogeneity of the text, same as how each citizen contributes in a community. I also believe each sentence both represents aspects of the text and differentiates itself from the text, same as how citizens both reify and reject aspects of their community.

BUTLER: In some way, some of the tone is a mishmash of what seems like an instruction manual, and a series of observational reports, some of which, in another way, seems like a great long apology for the present and the future at once. A philosophical spit up of “what the fuck have we done?” Do you consider this a political document? A personal document? Is this a document?

HIGGS: I am resolutely apolitical: I don’t believe in politics and I abhor the use of politics or the application of political theory in literature. Art is art because it is useless. As soon as art becomes useful it becomes decoration or propaganda or something else other than art. A good analogy would be sex. As soon as sex becomes useful it becomes procreation. To say that a piece of writing should have a purpose or should be about something or should convey something or should do something is akin to saying sex should have a purpose, that sex should produce a baby.  (Here we can see the connection between conventional realism and crazy fundamentalist Christians, not to mention product-obsessed capitalists.) I humbly disagree. For me, sex is valuable in-and-of-itself. Art, too, is valuable in-and-of-itself.

I really like your idea of Colorless as a philosophical spit up.

In terms of it being personal, I would say it is personal by virtue of being written by me.  However, the content—which is always secondary to me—is completely fabricated. I revel in falsification. This whole notion of “honesty” or “truth” or whatever it is conventional realists find so appealing about “writing what you know” or “keeping it real” makes me gag. To me, the attempt to replicate reality in literature is as much of a complete waste of time as the last season of Battlestar Galactica. Mimesis is no more relevant today than bloodletting: you could do it, but why?

BUTLER: I found it interesting that you labeled and set off sections within the text. Did this occur as a series of creations that were then strung together? Or was it written as one long piece?

HIGGS: I sort of answered this in question #1, but what I left out was the fact that the final published version is significantly different than the original version I constructed and submitted to PGP. When I sent Colorless to Adam Robinson [Publishing Genius’s publisher] it was twice as long. Once he sent the proofs, or whatever they’re called, we looked at it and we both agreed it was too long. I chopped the hell out of it and rearranged the hell out of it. Some days I think I made the right choices, the right cuts, the right configurations; and some days I think I should have done it differently.

BUTLER: Please tell me about your creative process, how you approach the desk, how you sit at the desk, how long, what interrupts you, what you let in, what you do not let out while you are writing.

HIGGS: I write on my laptop, most of the time while listening to music. I only allow myself to be interrupted by my two true loves: Caitlin and Beatrice.

BUTLER: You are very concerned with music, can you tell me about the influence(s) of any music(s) on you during this period, or on the text directly?

HIGGS: Because the text was written in two different time periods, over the course of three years, I couldn’t possibly remember what I was listening to when. But I do know that the Wu-Tang Clan’s double disc album Forever has always been a source of inspiration. During the sessions of automatic writing that I mentioned earlier, I would listen to that album and attempt to ride the beats with my fingertips. Sometimes I need hip hop beats to fuel the words, sometimes I need abstract sounds like Meredith Monk or Sigur Rós, sometimes I need the calm of Erik Satie or Glenn Gould.

BUTLER: Please tell me about the title, a Noam Chomsky quote, and how it spoke to you as the leader for the text, how you came across it?

HIGGS: The Deleuzian in me loathes Chomsky’s grammatical hierarchies. But he is certainly one of those thinkers I see as a productive adversary. If you watch or read the Chomsky/Foucault debate you can see what I mean.

Straight away, I should admit that my main areas of research are experimental literature and critical theory.  I am not a linguist nor have I received formal training in the field of linguistics. What knowledge I have acquired on the subject comes from independent inquiry, which is my way of saying that I approach this subject as an armchair enthusiast. To shed some light on my position vis-à-vis generative grammar (i.e. Chomsky) I’ll briefly point out two (of the many) issues I find particularly problematic.  First, generative grammar is predicated on the binary assumption of Either/Or: a sentence is either correct or incorrect.  To this I would counter with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a rhizomatic grammar predicated on multiplicities engendered by the binary Both/And.  I should think this distinction would be particularly appealing to anyone in the creative arts. Either/Or is limiting and creates negation.  Both/And is open and
creates affirmation.

Second, the “generative” aspect of generative grammar refers only to the surface structure of a given system, based on the assumed existence of an inalterable deep structure.  In essence, what Chomsky’s generative grammar proposes is a finite system of possibilities (again, a limiting approach), which is to say that difference, according to Chomsky, is a superficial attribute.  AsDeleuze would argue, difference is not merely cosmetic; difference is the constitutive element of individualized assemblages.

Aside from those two issues, the title just felt right from the beginning because the project for me was about form, about grammar, about syntax, about exploring the interstitial landscape between sense and nonsense. I wanted to see how far I could push a sentence before it broke, before it lost all semantic value—which is something I’m not sure is possible.

BUTLER: Please tell me about one (if any) of the things you have hidden in any one sentence here. A joke you might not have meant to be seen. Please let me see it?

HIGGS: After I read this question, I went back and reread the text to see if such a secret existed.  I’m afraid I came up relatively empty. I think this is because I don’t write from myself or from my life, in other words I don’t code reality into my work. I begin with words as things, removed from personal connections of signifier/signified and proceed from there. But now that I’ve written that, I think maybe personal elements seep in: there is a repetition of smoking or attempting to quit smoking, which rings confessional. There is also an overwhelming sadness and loneliness in the text, which I suppose could describe my years in Nebraska (save the companionship of my super cool brother, Matthew). But particular word-level or sentence-level secrets were not encoded purposefully.

BUTLER: How did you get involved with Publishing Genius, and how did it come about that you put Colorless out with them?

HIGGS: I actually learned about Publishing Genius when you published Pretend with them. I remember reading your chapbook and thinking how cool it was—I don’t think I’d read an e-chapbook before then. I went and read all of the other chapbooks Adam had published and loved the hell out of them.

Colorless was/is a section of a novel I have just completed, The Collected Works of Marvin K. Mooney. I knew I wanted to try and get more parts of the novel published before I went looking for a publisher, so I began to toy with the idea of pulling out sections and submitting them as chapbooks.

I went searching for potential places and when I read the Publishing Genius submission guidelines where Adam writes: “What is coherent? Why do we think we understand something while we think something else is nonsense?” I knew it would be the perfect place for Colorless.  So I sent it to him and he dug it. We clicked right away. It was a great experience working with Adam. He’s smart, sincere, understanding, and truly invested in promoting innovative literature.

BUTLER: Why are chapbooks important? What is it about chapbooks that influenced your perspective of chapbooks or books as an enterprise separate from any other form of printing?

HIGGS: I think chapbooks in general are important because of the function they serve: bringing work to life that doesn’t necessarily fit in the profit-oriented framework of the publishing industrial complex. I like the ethos of chapbooks. They feel anarchic to me.

I think the specific chapbooks that made me go “whoa! chapbooks are awesome!” are the ones that Octopus put out a few years ago to commemorate their eighth issue. The designs were amazing, the artifact itself felt good to hold, and the diversity of poetry was killer.

BUTLER: How do you see the future of electronic texts and the work of ebooks/echapbooks in relation to traditional print distribution?

HIGGS: This is tricky for me because I am in academia. For academics, the internet is considered (at best) a second-class citizen. Internet publications don’t matter, don’t count, and are not considered prestigious by any measure. Academia seems only to care about centers of established credentials, which, at this point in history are predominately in the print medium. As a member of academia I am forced to play by their rules, to publish work in “respectable” journals, if I wish to advance my career.

That said, as a writer I am all about electronic publications. The number of people who read work online far outnumber those who subscribe to literary journals. (This is one big disconnect between academia and “real life”) Also, I believe the prestige aspect will come for electronic publications when the generation of people who grew up on the internet rise to power. As it stands, the establishment is skeptical of the internet like how any old person is skeptical of any newfangled thing.

BUTLER: You also curate an e-museum-esque blog that documents some of the web’s most interesting art/media/texts/oddities/etc. What made you begin this blog, and how do you come across the items you feature, as in: what draws you to the pieces or kinds of pieces that you include on Bright Stupid Confetti? How does BSC influence your writing?

HIGGS: Wow, this question could be its own interview! I’ve been doing BSC for maybe four years now? It is something I look forward to every day, but I’m not sure it influences my writing any more or less than any other aspect of my life.

BUTLER: The response so far to Colorless has been interesting, in that certain people have made a point to express befuddlement with it, in the face of so much other potential texts, and yet many others also have expressed a wonder in that befuddlement. Would you talk about, perhaps, the experience of writing such a challenging text as this one and the way your level of expectation of its reception has met with the actual reception, and perhaps even talk some about the community of writers/readers that seems to have burgeoned among certain strands of the internet?

HIGGS: This is a big and troubling question.  Obviously, I wish more people would dig what I’m doing, but I feel like people who respond negatively or who respond with befuddlement do so because of their conditioning. I don’t blame readers as much as I blame Aristotle. He is my chief enemy because he is responsible for establishing the conditions from which contemporary readers approach literature, whether they know it or not. When a reader fails to engage a text, any text, one of the primary reasons is because they have determined the text to be lacking in some aspect of what they believe a text “ought to be.” So at a very basic level, it has to do with assumptions.

Just look at the concepts people use to discuss literature, especially what is called fiction: the necessity of a protagonist/antagonist, the necessity of conflict, the necessity of a beginning, middle, and end, the necessity of unity of time, place and character, the necessity of moderation of excess and deficit, etc. These all come from Aristotle (see: Poetics, Rhetoric, and Nicomachean Ethics). Readers assume a text should contain these elements for no other reason than because Aristotle told them they should (or more likely because a teacher indoctrinated them with these values). My claim is that although these beliefs have become doxa, they are not evidence of truisms nor are they proof of necessary conditions for literature. They are simply outmoded beliefs that need to be reevaluated.

Colorless is an attempt to take up this challenge.

BUTLER: Here’s a funny/unfunny one: why do you write?

HIGGS: I write because I had an amazing high school teacher named Diane Panozzo who encouraged me.

  1. Great int. Thanks for the shout on 2-13-03!

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