Poet Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters collages transcriptions of news reports and broadcasts of tragic, iconic events in American history. In doing so, he repackages the language of the media as it struggles with horrific events as they unfold.
Much of your work is premised on “uncreative writing”. What lead you to this approach?
I never could’ve invented such incredible language on my own. If we pay attention to the quotidian language around us, we’ll find it infinitely more rich and diverse than anything our fictive imaginations could ever conjure. I learned this when I wrote my book Soliloquy, which was a document of every word I spoke for a week from the moment I woke up on a Monday morning until the moment I went to bed the following Sunday night. That exercise made me aware of just how disjunctive, challenging and curious our normative speech patterns are. After that book, I was never able to hear language in quite the same way.
It’s curious to me that people tend to disregard everyday speech. Although there have been hundreds of books about 9/11, none, to my knowledge, stopped to listen to the language used to describe the events of the day as it was unfolding on in the media. We hear time and again that 9/11 was the most documented event, but for some reason, nobody ever paid attention to what they were saying and how they were saying it. I attempted capture this extraordinary language as these events unfurled; by mere reframing, mediaspeak is transformed into literature.
Since collage and transcription are forms directed by outside sources, what role does the artist have in this process?
Transcription is a very personal and subjective action. I’ve given my students an identical audio clip to transcribe and they come back with unique and individual pieces—no two are the same. What you hear as a period, I hear as a semi-colon; you choose to format dialogue margin-to-margin, I choose to lineate it, and so forth. The art of transcriptive (or uncreative) writing is knowing what to transcribe and how to transcribe it. We all have our personal style.
Is “creative writing” obsolete? Is something like originality possible in writing?
Unfortunately “creative writing” is very much alive, but I’m doing my best to try to kill it. Most writing proceeds as if the internet never happened. It’s amazing how out of touch writing is with the most vital and lively conversations going on in our culture today, spurned by digital culture: notions of replication, distribution, and authorship. In a moment where the entire internet can be copied, cut and pasted, the idea of penning, say, a first-person subjective memoir strikes me as irrelevant and ludicrous.
There is something so raw and striking about these moments in which the news of tragedy suddenly overwhelms the everyday broadcast. As you were transcribing did your emotional reactions to the events guide you in any way?
Conceptual writing is only as dull as the material you choose to reframe. I chose the hottest material; needless to say, it’s a book with a huge emotional kick, and when I read from the book, I often find myself welling up with tears—it’s complicated and I’m not sure if I’m weeping for my own history or for the objective dramas that are being playing out on the page (but didn’t Warhol teach us that they are one in the same?). In many ways, these are the most cliched stories—how many times do we have to see the Grassy Knoll or watch footage of the planes plowing into the World Trade Center? And yet, somehow, we are still moved. Warhol understood the power of the icon, how over time, its pull and power only grows stronger no matter how many times you’ve seen it. After all, he was a devout Catholic.
As the spoken news broadcast is recast in a written medium how much do you think contextual changes dictate the way a work is interpreted? Is context more “important” than content?
When you transcribe the language of ephemeral media and publish it in a book, it takes on a literary life, forcing us to pay attention to language in ways we normally don’t. When we see the 9-11 footage, the imagery is so powerful that we don’t hear the narration; when the visuals are removed, we enter into a new relationship to the language on the page. If I didn’t capture and reframe these words, they’d forever belong to the ever-growing slag heap of news reports. I love the idea of elevating cultural detritus to the status of great literature. When you read this book, you find yourself right back there, reliving what you went through that particular afternoon or evening. We find that our shared cultural histories are every bit as subjective, personal, and meaningful—perhaps even more so—than the story of our mother’s cancer operation or our child’s first day of kindergarten.
Since your approach is concurrent with the rise of the internet, does the role of social media and interconnectivity alter the role of “uncreative writing”?
Almost every bit of writing we do across the web in our day-to-day lives could be considered “uncreative writing.” The problem is that we don’t think of it as such—our textual production is completely untheorized. And due to the way we tend to use language only one way (transparently, the way I’m writing now) we tend to regard our keystrokes as something to get through—tasks of burdensome, obligatory labor—rather than reframing them as literary production. Poetry is all around us if only we had the eyes to see it and the ears to hear it.