manuel arturo abreu (b. 1991, Santo Domingo) is a poet and artist from the Bronx. They work in text, ephemeral sculpture, photography, and whatever is at hand, and are the author of List of Consonants and the forthcoming transtrender. They co-facilitate home school, a free pop-up art school in Portland, OR. More of abreu's work can be found here.
TCF: I like to start off all the interviews with two broad questions before getting into specifics. First off, what is your relation to genre as a writer? A lot of your work gets published as poetry, and you label some of your work with less conventional genre descriptions (List of Consonants, for instance, is an ambient novella). Does genre figure heavily into your writing or into the way you release the writing into the world?
Likewise, I'm curious about your relation to gender as a writer. Is your writing somehow nonbinary writing, for instance? Would you like yourself as a writer to be associated with any gender identifications or categories, or is that something you'd rather avoid?
maa: My practice engages text, ephemeral sculpture, photography, and whatever is at hand. The meaning I find in the process of making things (or facilitating engagement opportunities) is not really medium- or genre-specific but I do think about the way that genre (as a form of setting up peoples' expectations) is a useful aspect of reaching folks. For example, given how sculptural it was, the meaning of the process of compiling List of Consonants overlaps a lot with that of my sculptural work, but its genre allows the process and product to speak to poetic and literary questions, not (or not solely) sculptural ones. So it seems like genre figures more heavily in the release than the production?
I am trans nb. This tends to oscillate between fem, agender, and a third modality I have a hard time describing. If identitarian aesthetic groupings are useful to folks, and if the cogency of such groupings is transitive (ie trans writing is writing by trans people) then my writing is definitely somehow Dominican, somehow trans, somehow nonbinary. It's up to individual readers, critics, etc whether they deploy these groupings to make sense of the work. For some people, this is a no-brainer, but for others, it clouds their experience of the work (in that trying to fit it into to preconceived notions may end up watering down the experience).
All that being said, given how little recognition there is for work by trans artists of color, I do advocate for my work to be associated with these identitarian groupings and aesthetic lineages. First out of pride (which comes from the knowledge that the work trans folks of color do is pretty mindblowing aesthetically and sociopolitically), and second out of diversity, since these kinds of groupings tend to come with baggage (ie stylistic expectations). It's important for me that the existence of these kinds of labels (trans lit, black lit, etc) don't limit my and my folks' creative options any more than white supremacy already does. Rather, they should serve an expansive role as they help readers calibrate their tastes.
TCF: I’m interested in what it means to be creating work like yours—work that self-plagiarizes and shifts our relation to concepts of originality and origins—in this particular moment of trans visibility. As you explore in the "Transtrender" essay at NewHive, “Trans is trending, which may or may not help, but most likely hurts, actually-existing trans people… Our voices are still unheard and ignored, even as aspects of the condition become generalized and hypervisible. But both above and under the carnival of signifiers and the circulation of theoretical concepts, trans people, especially of color, still inordinately suffer and die.” Are there links between the ways writing like List of Consonants refuses standard literary models of originality and the refusal of generalizations and surveillance you explore in the “Transtrender” essay?
maa: I'm not sure if there's a cogent or direct connection, but I'll attempt to answer anyway. The creative act makes it easier for systems of surveillance to locate the creator, so I believe this is one reason why the found text gesture has come to prominence recently. There is a definite cachet to illegility, almost a form of limited liability.
It's two birds with one stone -- denial of accountability (I didn't write that) and claims of ownership (I stole/borrowed it and made it better). Standard literary models of originality and creative genius are vestiges of white male supremacist aesthetics, and naturally, the method of producing List of Consonants exists in the shadow of this oppressive lineage. Really, one could argue that the found text approach in general is heir to the sensibility of white male ownership over all phenomena, real and imagined -- a kind of manifest destiny.
Certainly the "big" found text workers appear as such (KG, VP). But I tried to emphasize the non-distinction or continuity between my "from scratch" text and the found text I merged it with. I think this gesture of displacing the creative act (the poiesis) into the copyediting / managerial realm speaks to the changing nature of creativity in a digital age. This is salient to me because the real movers and shakers of digital culture are the marginalized — black and brown women and fems.
TCF: How does this idea of originality play off the emotional content of List of Consonants? Does the wrought mourning of some of the writing following your friend’s death (“turgid lyricism and purple prose,” you call it in an interview) lend itself to that process in any particular ways? Does purple prose seem to be even less your own writing on later readings than other modes of writing?
maa: Well, it lends itself to the merging process because I would feel shame releasing writing that I myself can't finish. In this sense the found text acted like a mixer, to cut the poison. First thought is definitely not best thought, especially in a context where I'm so grief-stricken that I'm not thinking about what I'm typing anyway. I wouldn't say bad prose is less my own writing than found text (though that's an appealing implication), I would just say that taste is driven by self-image and shame.
That being said, I frequently return to my old content and recycle useful parts from it, using a kind of “scrying” technique that treats past as plastic potentiality, not irrevocable phenomena. So I clearly find some aesthetic value in “reclaiming” e.g. the purple prose of my old livejournal, or the flaccid hot takes of my old social media content.
[livejournal homepage. made friends only on my 20th bday. 6 years after making it.]
TCF: I’m also curious if you see yourself as having a home in literary publishing (small presses, the MFA system, that sort of thing), or if that’s desirable to you. Your work in visual and video modes exists outside of the range of what many literary publishers are interested in, but it seems your writing upsets conventions of the literary much more broadly than that, including ideas of selfhood, authorship, and creativity. Similarly, you’re of course not the only one to challenge conventions like this-- are there some writers who you consider doing especially similar work, or visual artists who do work that recalls your writing?
maa: Poet.tips seems to think these people are similar to me.
I don't fit in very well in the literary and small press worlds. I don't have the same preciousness about the literary process and object. I find my work and attitude more accepted in art contexts, for better or worse. This may have to do with the content of my practice itself, or with my framings of it. It could be that the way I contextualize what I do aligns more with the language used in art contexts.
I don't think my writing really upsets literary conventions in a formal sense, broadly speaking. Many writers have worked in disjunctive visuality, and many artists have worked with text. Further, many from both camps have worked with found material, chance operations, and ephemera.
There are pros and cons to inclusion on both sides. Either way, the inclusion tends to be about the reification or absolution of that particular institution or scene. The 'art world' has a less narrow understanding of creative process, but the 'poetry world' has a deeper understanding of politics and oppression.
TCF: Thinking of LoC "displacing the creative act (the poiesis) into the copyediting / managerial realm," I'm excited about the untitled project at Newhive. Could you describe a little of where and how the poiesis is placed in this project? I'm especially interested in what the creative process is like regarding the clustering of verse, asemic writing, found gifs, etc.
maa: In the NewHive 'ebook,' I'd say the manageriality is similar to that of the process involved in producing List of Consonants. The only difference is that found material “stays” found, and from-scratch material stays “from-scratch.” The poiesis probably exists solely in the intent to present the material as holistic / unified, and if anything the material itself bristles against this intent.
The content itself consists of asemic writing by myself and my schizophrenic uncle, gifs I find spiritually resonant, lyrics stolen from the black metal band Bethlehem, and scrambled versions of poems I wrote in high school. As is typical in my work, I wanted to add levity to the heavy content, and I think NewHive was the perfect medium to do this — both by the design options I had available (which always remind me of livejournal, my first and always favorite 'social media') and the diversity of collected media.
I think the manageriality of this project is distinct from that in LoC; the latter was more about the trafficking of trauma, while the former isn't as easily legible. This illegibility is a facet of why I too am excited about this work.
TCF: I'm also curious about the making of the spoken voice (the video reading) in the context of the typed verse. I think about the body entering the writing in a different way than it had previously, but I'm especially interested in the moments where you laugh, or say "um," or announce what you are doing, or type. How do those moments play off, for instance, the formal qualities of the written verse?
maa: Well, I think that video and things like it dismantle the notion of literary preciousness— e.g. the idea that the book forms, the poem forms, et al are like white women and have some inherent fragile value needing protection. Often when I read, I interrupt myself and add off-the-cuff content to contextualize the poem, demean its intent, or otherwise. This may partly have to do with my way of using humor to “cut” the intensity of traumatic content, but I think it also has to do with the destruction of literary preciousness, which is just so white. My opinion is that if a book has any value at all it's because it represents the demeaned and invisibilized labor of entire communities behind it— for example, Finnegans Wake would not exist without Joyce's exploitative response to his daughter's fatal mental illness.
I definitely wanted the included video reading to act in a similar way to the rest of the content in the scrolling ebook, but I also wanted it to challenge the poietic framing I had presented so far.
[INCA install photo. by Will Elder]
TCF: Finally, could you tell me a little about what you're working on now?
maa: I am wrapping up a number of things either for public presentation or for completion. First, my co-facilitator Victoria Anne Reis and I are almost done with the 2016 curriculum of our free pop-up Portland art school, home school. I'm sad, but also we put on events pretty much every Sunday so I'm ready to have full weekends again for a bit. has been the most fun I've had art wise in a long time, and I'm grateful to the 2016 Precipice Fund regranting initiative for making it possible.
I am finishing up my second solo show in Seattle, which is called resilience, described as follows on the gallery's page:
INCA presents the second solo show from poet and artist manuel arturo abreu – resilience. This body of work continues abreu’s interrogations of the effects precarity has on the slippages between art/thought, attention/care, performance/inhabitation, and relation/labor, with specific focus here on the changes undergone by classic social technologies of “bouncing back” under capitalism such as self-care, personal faith, et al. The neo-Romanticist, self-mythologizing tinge of these contemporary modes of resilient individualism naturalize capitalism’s violence, and invoke not nature as the sublime, but capital itself. The works in the show intend to both speak to and ignore this situation, and result from engagement in passive systems, unwaged labor delegation, and narrativized readymades speaking to abreu’s own biographical context.
[transtrender cover spread. by Shell Turner]
As well, I am as finishing up my second book transtrender. Here is a sort of hoity-toity description of that text:
transtrender is a book of lyric poems investigating the impossibility of language to express the bodily and social experience of transness. Written from an afrolatinx trans position, the work in the book deals with the trap of visibility, the coloniality of gender, and the refusal of cogency in a moment where trans is trending (that is, being commodified and whitewashed). abreu manically darts from image to image in their poems, working in a digitally-influenced poetic register which, as Brian Droitcour describes, "looks like flarf but isn't." The result is a text that eschews opportunities for the reader to connect the dots, instead pushing them toward an expanded lyric awareness in which poiesis does not betray its site-specificity and gender nonconformity is not confined to a false narrative of emergence from white modernity.
And here is the introductory piece in the book:
Trans is a failure of language. Poetry is a failure of the body. As Shaadi Devereaux says, I am “not trans but transatlantic.” At each turn there were so many people we could have become, uncountable superimposed states of uncertainty killed off, the surplus value of their randomness smushed together into Being-in-itself. The immaterial carcasses of our other selves litter the multiverse, and their voiceless words come back to haunt us, the gods having grown stronger with each body that jumped overboard. Even as the subaltern of ourselves cannot speak, unintelligible phrases emerge like totems in what seems like eternal return, entrenching themselves on the tips of our tongues, spreading elsewhere as incalculable contagion. And why is the sheer thinkability of the human future in such stark contrast to the unspeakability of the past, or to what never happened? Why is the past like what never happened? What does it mean to mourn what never happened? All of the possibilities that get crushed into the manufacturing of the Real, the squishy quanta of data that leave wet traces, molten ash laden into a precarious space between formalism and empiricism. A body in a white space of forgetting. A nonbinary femhood built from sea salt, blood, and the protection of cascarilla. How can we mourn all of the forgotten histories in a sensuous way, without having access to the specific topos of each lost archive, and in the face of the irrevocable alchemy of computation itself, of the flattening of sense into data?
Deje que Legbá me abra la puerta, y que me guíe tras el sendero.
Portland, OR / 2016
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