This interview was the result of reading phillysound.blogspot.com and in particular Frank Sherlock's post where this is harvested from:
VJ Large Marge (Rich Wexler) screened a number of shorts, including some material culled from the Post Secret blog. Some of the postcard art brought me back to the ongoing Buck Downs mail art project, as well as Brett Evans' After School Sessions. The shorts were concerned with a conceptual cultural consciousness engaging text as object & object as text.
As someone who receives Buck's mailings, and as a somewhat active mail-artist I was interested in asking Buck where he locates himself within these two frameworks. It started off with just one question, but his answer made me ask more. The following e.conversation occurred over 3 days in June, 2005.
kt: do you consider your mailings mail-art? i'm now wondering where you locate yourself in that
DOWNS: I think the distribution channel as I use it has some surface resonances with mail art as it was practiced back in the day, & I studied on it quite a bit when I first moved to DC, largely through the WPA's Bookworks, which was a great resource.
Of course, mail art's heroic autobiography talks about liberating artists from the restrictive and restricting realities of galleries and their gallerists. I have no art-world or cultural-milieu oubliette from which I need to be spung, I think. So there is no heroic rescue fantasy indulged in on my part, I hope.
There is also a point of contrast to be found in the social identity of the USPS, which went from being the king of parcel delivery to a borderline-obsolescent tool of last resort as the 20th c. crept toward the 21st. A mail artist back in the day could kinda pretend to herself that she was running with the big dogs, dropping art in the stream alongside the annual reports, dividend checks, and draft notices. But that would just be a sad assertion today, since the mail is rather drab anymore compared to its successor technologies.
So, there is a thing I have going on, which is the redemption of a nearly-useless public-corporate infrastructure in the service of sharing poesie with my friends, a service than which there is none whicher, as my old man might say.
Picking up the mail used to be such a romantic, hopeful, emotional thing, as the things of daily life go; but here in this world, it became a stone drag. The postcard poems do their part to redeem a life that technology promises to make thoroughly calm and collected and hardly worth getting out of bed for. That life would be mine, of course, and hopefully but not certainly yours, too.
kt: but isn't the 'redemption of a nearly-useless public-corporate infrastructure' heroic? otherwise you could just email, or phone your poems.
DOWNS: Like anyone, I will fall into some aggrandizing vocabulary when it comes to describing these actually mundane tasks that make up a life. But I don't consider it to be heroic, what I do. I consider it to be a practical use of an underutilized resource. The claim checks I mailed to you are another concrete example of this. I did not think of the actions that led to you receiving that envelope as "recycling" or "keeping it out of the landfill" or any other act of social conscience outside of creating fertile ground for future poesie. That is enough, I think: a continuing effort to provoke creative activity.
The actual redemption is most always more like "redemption value $.05" rather than a rehabilitation of something fallen that needs to be redeemed. There is a little pinch of goodness that is about to get thrown away, so I put it in my pocket & later give it away again.
kt: It seems there may be more to it, like dodging the cronyism of small press publishing (which would be in your case the 'cultural-milieu obliette' to be sprung from), is this fair?
DOWNS: It may look like a dodge, but you can only want to get out to the extent you've been let in.
My primary role in the small press has always been as an end-user, a purchaser, a satisfied customer. Any role I have had in the small press et al. as a producer or presenter has been secondary, temporary, and unfulfilling. This is a function of personal temperament over and beyond any characteristic which may inhere to a cohort.
At its genesis, mailing poems to people who had already expressed an interest in the poems was a palpably more cost-effective way of sharing than sending packets to indifferent strangers who happen to edit zines. As the list of recipients has grown, the practice has grown more fully satisfying, and by comparison the occasions when I am asked to contribute work to a publication are uniformly humdrum, perfunctory, and gray.
kt: do you select different poems for mailings vs contributions to publications?
DOWNS: I don't write many poems at all, so no. There was one manuscript, *The Sound of Music*, that I wrote right after I quit working on *Marijuana Softdrink.* (
that I decided I wouldn't use in any postcards. But otherwise I don't write enough to justify any such thing as that.
kt: can you elaborate on why contributing to a publication is uniformly humdrum, perfunctory and gray?
DOWNS: I'm not sure if I can elaborate, and I think many if not most folks would disagree if I did. Getting published by someone else is kinda the gold standard for literary discrimination, right? I'm sure that my opinion gets read as some kind of sour grapes and/or blithering contrariness. But I would put it to anybody who writes poetry and is baffled or unhappy: stop sending poems to strangers who edit magazines; make a list of the friends & fellow poets you want to share with; send those people your poems, & expect nothing. If the results you get are half as gratifying as mine, you'll never go back.
I believe all this has ramifications vis a vis "community" "professionalism" and some of the other terms of the current lip service. But that is, as I like to say, an assignment for a grad student who has yet to be born, ha ha.
kt: and, why do it? because it is part of 'the job'?
DOWNS: The main deal on that is a) because people ask, and I think it would be churlish to refuse. It was in '93 that I made the decision not to send out unsolicited work any more, & as a result of that decision, I published nothing outside of mailings to the postcard list for close to five years. So these days, the once or twice a year that someone does ask, it's good & fun to reciprocate. Unsolicited submission of poetry is in general an awful experience for everyone involved. That impression comes not just from my own experience, but from listening to dozens of awful anecdotes about the process from many poets. Oh, & also b) about once a year and a half or so, I do send a manuscript out unsolicited, "to keep me honest" as they say. Last year I sent a copy of *pontiac fever* to Ugly Duckling, & got back a fairly hilarious rejection letter to the effect that these poems are too funny to be taken seriously. That periodic dip into the literary waters serves as a reminder that I am in the main doing the right thing for me & my poems.
kt: being in itself too funny to take seriously, i think we can stop
here and move right in to the poems.
drive off the side
of the driveway.
high off the side
of the highway.
punch a walking
set of quotation-
marks to make
the case complete
only got jerked
so much for an
of the eye-to-eye
we find there
is a little
more to take
off. & every
for the roving
then we get
can't you get any
harder than this
can't you kick it
for once I dreamed
that I stalked
myself and then
I caught me.
and I didn't
get up again.
rolling rest stop
& now more than ever
that everyone has caught
on I got it on the road
I get it off the road
an internal combustion of sound
catches in the breaks
like to share them
hand to hand
laying in the cut,
no thought best thought