In Conversation with Ed Steck
Note from the editor: This interview with poet Ed Steck concerning his book-length poem sleep as information/the fountain is a water feature—recently published by The Center for Ongoing Research & Projects along with a newsprint broadsheet and photocopied zine containing an essay on memory, insomnia, and replication—was conducted telepathically before being transcribed via email and finally transferred to the Brooklyn Rail. More information on these publications and The Center for Ongoing Research & Projects’ exhibition of screenprints and artist books that accompanied them can be found on thier website.
Brooklyn Rail: I know your book-length poem sleep as information/the fountain is a water feature comes directly out of your own experiences with insomnia and memory loss—can you talk a little bit about how the two conditions became linked for you, and how you went about taking them on as material for your poetry?
Ed Steck: I suffer from anxiety-induced insomnia. Memory loss and insomnia are directly linked—short-term memory loss is a symptom of insomnia, so the increased persistency of my insomnia ups the slippage of what I can remember day-to-day. I read this article that details how REM sleep is kind of like a cleaning service for the brain—it washes out the cerebral gunk from all the cranial crevices (that’s an elaboration, at least I think it is). I don’t fall into REM sleep most of the time—just kind of an anxious fugue state where my mind is cycling constantly through associations of memory. I never remember what I am thinking about. It’s a massive build-up of absence occupying nothing with disconnected associative links. The cycling never leads anywhere—fragments on a wheel of memory that keep dropping off and into some nebulous cerebral territory. REM sleep hasn’t performed its brain cleansing and the thought bank is all gunked up, specifically and accurately speaking. It’s incredibly frustrating on a day-to-day level—I can’t remember what people have told me moments before, or I constantly check and confirm whether my responsibilities at my day job are completed. I’m re-cycling everyday events.
In an interview with W.J.T. Mitchell, Robert Morris defines memory as: “Memory is delay. Memory is a fragment. Memory is of the body that has passed. Memory is the trace of a wave goodbye made with a slightly clenched fist.” I read this wrong the first time, though, because the book’s page design kind of had a Venetian blind effect going on, so I read it as “Memory is a fragment of the body that has passed”—reading it as memory containing fragments of a fragmented body of a form able to be remembered but not accessed. I thought about this, you know, thinking about Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” and became intrigued by the possibility of containing multitudes of fragments that couldn’t directly be accessed—but were only able to be accessed through the connection of scattered and unrelated fragments. I just started listing everything I could recall the next morning after coming out of my sleep-fugue—food I ate, places I walked around in, movies I saw, who I saw these movies with, what kind of clothes I had on, books I read, etc. Then, I was working on a project for The Center for Ongoing Research & Projects (fittingly, I don’t remember what the project initially was—something about reproduction, it’s gone now) and decided to figure out what was going on with this memory mash. You know, really just getting down with the fact that this misread Robert Morris quote could reincarnate a hot dog with cheese and onions I ate 25 years ago in front of a mall water fountain, and that pretty much lead to the project—kind of a reincarnation via mall food court Zen Buddhism.
Poetry, a lot of the time, for me (or: just writing), has a lot to do with constructing and accumulating a set of information and relaying it through multiple filtration systems of my own accord out of the intake of research. I wanted to attempt to catalog and rebuild a memory out of associations that barely link up—just scattered fragments of memory, scattered objects along whatever imaginative plane my mind is creating for these non-existent objects to simulate existence upon. Asking: What is it that I am remembering when I am trying to not remember anything? When I’m trying to go to sleep. Sometimes, though, maybe at my most tired point, I think that it is okay, and it is absolute clarity—just remembering.
Rail: The poem seems to function in part as a kind of inventory of the speaker’s incomplete memory, with a lot of cataloging and cross-referencing taking place. Is the speaker—the consciousness at work that is assembling the materials of the poem—asleep, or awake, or neither, or both?
Steck:The speaker is neither-both—awake and asleep but not awake and asleep. The speaker is submerged in the act of trying to sleep, stuck in the cycling of partial remembering. I wanted to create an anxiety-drenched fugue environment for the speaker (and the reader, too)—an environment with a foundation built on the near-impulsive reiteration of cycled memory fragments. I think the speaker is a fugue, some kind of tenuous shadow of a doubtful embodiment meandering through whatever remnants of a past it can muster. In this case, the speaker is trying to remember a shopping mall decorative water fountain (it was huge—a massive geyser that shot above the second floor balcony from the first floor, a sea-mint green basin and tiles around it) by attempting to insert associated items into a catalog that doesn’t have any sense of organization, causing the objects associated with the memory to be listed equally with the interruptions.
The Rail: Did you conceive of a particular perspective for that speaker (assuming you think of the poem as being spoken by a single individual mind) before writing the poem, or did that work itself out as you went along?
Steck:That happened as I went along. I originally had in mind that I would try to incorporate these cataloged items and interruptions into translations of appropriated bits of hard-drive and memory destroying patents (which I used some of in what I started as an introduction to the piece, to kind of frame its direction). But I kept halting, and the destructive aspects of the devices I was working with caused too many disruptions in the creation of the text, which was pretty interesting, but ultimately not actually very interesting at all. So, I abandoned that, and started to construct a list of items, and saw the speaker take shape from a rebuilding of content around memory. The perspective of the speaker was created through listing, but I’m not entirely sure the perspective is coming from a single direction. I feel like it has a single source (being the speaker) but the source is situated in different times of remembering, different states of being awake or alert, and different areas for the purpose of remembering. I think all of those offer different perspectives, and is why greasy mall food court food from 25 years ago is crossing over with the Clifford Simak science fiction novel I was reading two years ago. (City—which is an insane book, just incredible, largely about dogs trying to remember humankind after its eventual petering out. It is a very lonely book, with humans becoming other animals or creatures on Jupiter, or just disappearing).
Rail: You take the slash (/), which is typically used to mark where line breaks take place in quotations from poems, and use it heavily throughout the book as a kind of divider between phrases and words. The slashes have a clear rhythmic function when recognized as pauses, but I’m guessing they serve some other functions as well in terms of shaping the poem across its 60-plus pages. Can you talk about how you’re putting them to use?
Steck: I’m primarily using the slashes as pausing points. But I was also interested in how slashes are used for the purposes of separation and combination—to bring spaces apart together, while still recognizing that there is a distance between the two objects that have been brought closer. I also was thinking of different uses for the slash—going back to the different directions of the speaker, I was thinking about how the slash is sometimes used to indicate a consensus on specific terminologies (like on a hospital form: “White/Caucasian” or whatever), so I was thinking also that the slash could represent the combination, or maybe I mean agreement, of two contested objects from different paths of the speaker’s perspective into a single classification. Another thing with using the slash is that the piece is largely about wanting to close a memory, to shut off the cycling of remembered fragments, either through remembering it entirely or by erasing the significance of its possible remembering. I was thinking of how the slash is used in computer programming (something I’ve touched on in other pieces I’ve written), and how it is largely used to close a command, or close a script—to cut out the command of the written code, to finish it. I think the slash also was used as a comma in some instances somewhere. I’m not entirely sure.
Rail: Who or what is the changeling?
Steck: As I was writing the poem, I kept science fiction novels in my mind—so much of science fiction has to do with the perception of memory and identity within a state of transformation. They are also objects that hold a lot of memories for me—vessels of fiction and ideas that hold places and times in with them. Science fiction novels are changelings. Poetry is a changeling. Odd little mutations that fuck you up. These things absorb what the reader was before the reading and churn new perceptions out at the end. I can’t remember who said this, some artist, maybe nobody: "Objects perceive me now," and I can’t get that out of my head, and it was in my head the entire time I was writing this poem.
In sleep as information/the fountain is a water feature, the changeling that appears throughout the poem is a token of the speaker to materialize, to materialize out of cohesion of distanced objects, out of the fogginess of the half-asleep/half-awake fugue state. It’s not a character so much as a placeholder. It’s a double-layered piece of fiction: a reference to a character in a science fiction paperback as well as a remembered object in the speaker’s list. “the changeling of fiction’s grip”—it always seems to be the identity or entity that is between its own definition, moving in and out of the remembered space and the space it occupies in a science fiction novel. The changeling makes me think of the dimensional shamblers in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, immaterial beings from other dimensions unable to be touched—the changeling is an immaterial identity that is unable to be accessed, but is able to hold presence in the speaker’s cataloging, so much that the speaker can distinguish it alongside insomnia and also as something that needs to be controlled. The changeling is an identity that is clinging onto the speaker but is also an entity that is ready to disappear if not managed.
Rail: The fountain that is at the center of the primary memory gap is from a mall that was in or near Pittsburgh, PA, right? Which is where you’re from and where you currently live. Was the fountain an object you were thinking of working with all along, or did it only emerge when you started to work away from the hard drive/memory destroying patent-type material?
Steck: Yeah, the fountain was in a shopping mall in Greensburg, PA, called Greengate Mall. The mall has been gone for about 15 years, I’d guess. It was about 20 minutes or so from my hometown of Irwin, PA. All of these areas are right outside of Pittsburgh.
I wasn’t thinking of this particular fountain at all when I started working on this project, but I wanted to write a long poem on a fountain—an ornate, baroque descriptive piece. I was focusing on creating the faux-translation-type pieces of the hard drive/memory destroying patents when I started to think about destroyed memories—what would be a memory that could be central to the destruction itself? What was the fallout of the memory’s destruction? I began to couple these thoughts with my own failed taxonomy of associated memories, cycling through the remembered objects to locate their core relation. When I got there, I thought about the fountain in Greengate Mall and it hit me pretty hard in a way that I couldn’t have ever imagined. It was like a dichotomous landmark for me—a site that signified so much of my own history but functioned in a way that replaced any signification with absence. I mean, after talking to some friends about this project recently, I remembered the fountain was actually pretty shitty—it barely functioned, smelled terrible, and was filthy. Those aspects don’t even come up in the poem, really, because that’s not how I remember it. I have a memory of this thing being so otherworldly. It reminded me of entering another zone.
I planned on this project to be a pretty strict and decided piece of work—semi-lyrical translations of apparatuses used to delete information. Instead, it went backwards in on me, working as an excavation site. It leaves a lot of questions open for me with regards to the reasons behind the sources that I choose to research and include in my writing—in this work and future pieces that I plan on doing.
Rail: This may be related to the above question, but I’m interested, also, in the decision to go towards a specific image from childhood and construct a list of items and a “speaker shape,” as you put it, in order to handle short-term memory loss related to anxiety-induced insomnia as a written subject. On a very basic level, I'm wondering if working further into your past via the fountain was ultimately necessary in order to take on your present memory-loss as a site for writing.
Steck: I was thinking about cataloging and archiving when I started working on this. Borges’s “Fune the Memorious” came up again. Sebald, kind of. I was thinking about memory. Thought about Blade Runner too—lots of science fiction was going around in my head, mostly being generated from my recalled fugue lists. This may sound like complete bullshit but I think what ultimately got me to the fountain (besides reading fountain patents and the actual decisive act of typing “the fountain” on my keyboard and onto the Word document) were two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. One of which reminds me of a Charles Bernstein poem in a way, and I’m not entirely sure why, but it involves Data, Geordie, and Riker entering an inhabited planet only to find a revolving door in a completely absent space that leads to a bustling hotel. It turns out that a Federation ship had landed here with one survivor who had a cheap paperback novel on him about gambling, adultery, and murder. Aliens that had found or intercepted the crashed ship felt remorse for the stranded traveler and constructed a simulation of the novel for him to live through. Each day the survivor lived through the usual tropes of paperback genre fiction. I saw some connections between poems in Bernstein’s Islets/Irritations in the way that the internal is compromised, or complicated rather, by the external. To enter a constructed space entirely fabricated through the experience or reading/re-creating until that fabricated space begins to hold physical architectural-resistance and therefore establishes the contents and placements within as the definition of real. I don’t know. That’s my reading of it. Bernstein has been a huge influence on me—especially Islets/Irritations and Controlling Interests. The other episode involved Picard and Wesley trapped in a cave that had a fountain it, guarded by some kind of programmed shield to stop anyone from drinking its water. It would remember the movements of anyone trying to access it and would defensively act against any intrusions. I wanted to write something about a simulation of a space that nebulously existed but held real memories that I could associate with an impenetrable landmark—something I had so actively forgotten that any memory of its actual existence or experience I had once had with it would be entirely false.
The first episode I mentioned made me think of The Art of Memory by Frances Yates—I wondered how I could use some kind of mnemonic system to reconstruct experiences around the fountain. I began to list items—the food, the stores, the books, the toys, the whatever—and it started to layout a map of the mall I felt I could physically enter. It had been a place that I had forgotten, and didn’t necessarily feel much significance towards. So I thought back to this idea of a simulation of an unremembered space, a fictional space, and I got really interested in making this fictional space into a place that I had quite possibly once occupied.
I think I chose an image or a memory or a site or a falsity from my childhood because I wanted it to be cataloged properly. I wanted to trust the placement of the memory aside all of its associations and interruptions. However, I am uncertain whether or not it was ultimately necessary for me to reach back into my past to take on my current memory-loss as a site for writing. I think for it to be absolutely necessary it would have to be a large accumulative piece constructing a massive web of associative memory together, which could happen, maybe. I don’t know. I’m conflicted on this. On the other hand, I do think it is necessary to confront the subject of memory-loss in a piece of writing by using memory as reference material, by erasing the subject (which would be me in this instance, the one remembering, the remember-er) and replacing it with an objective subject-matter. The subject of the poem’s sources and references become the objects that are the architects of the poem’s reading. So, in that case, I think it is necessary, but for my subjective purposes of taking on personal memory-loss, no.
Rail: Thinking about, as you put it, poetry/writing in terms of “constructing and accumulating a set of information and relaying it through multiple filtration systems of my own accord,” makes me wonder if the repeated use of mall-specific food items is part of the accumulating information or functioning as one of your filtration systems. I like the idea of a hot dog with cheddar and onions filtration system.
Steck: Yeah. The food items are a way to ground senses into a concrete space, and I think this is one of the most, or more, personal aspects of the piece, because food and taste (and any sense) has a variety of illicit expulsions from the body, and within the body. Taste is a deceptive grounding experience, especially when linked with memory. I can try to remember the taste of the chili cheese hot dog with onions that I ate in 1992, but the memory of the sensation is surpassed, and instead the associations begin to manifest thickly in the mind—the plastic seat on the table, the whirr of the quarter machine, or the tone of space created via the light coming through the mall food court ceiling windows. It’s weird though. I feel stupid talking about hot dogs as a mnemonic device right now. But I think there is also something hidden in these associations, and what triggers this kind of memory is never really the what-was-meant-to-be-remembered. And the what-was-meant-to-be-remembered is largely glossed over and used primarily as a foundation for the association of the entire memory-experience.
So, yeah, the food items function as a filtration system for the poem, and largely in the actual composition of the piece. It’s also part of the accumulation process. For the exhibition, a poster was printed that included a list that I compiled of mall food court food from memory coupled with water fountain components. It functioned as a way to kind of guide the creation of the text inside a flow of information—to be written through a cheeseburger-topped ultimate french fry nachos, or to be written through a water fountain pump chamber and suction pipe. Once it’s on the page, it becomes a result of what was filtered through the accumulation—what remains and its associations, if any, to the rest of the poem. It’s as much of an accumulation and filtration process as it is a coupling process—these two seemingly remote grouping areas (food and fountain) maintaining an associative balance. It is a suggestion towards the idea of the human as database. But in this case memory is a disorganized accumulation that has the ability to be re-organized and situated into a system. I think this piece is a lot about the failure of memory.
A lot of this process of accumulating and filtering establishes the core function of the piece, which sometimes for me is undetermined when I begin a project. It largely comes to terms with itself, and establishes its own foundation, through this research or gathering or riffing, or whatever it is. In this instance, the associations between the mall food court food and acid reflux/anxiety-induced insomnia and the direction my thoughts meander around in the fugue state grouped together. It was nearly a therapeutic process, which feels odd to say. Actually, part of the title “sleep as information” came out of something said in a therapy session for insomnia.
Rail: Can you talk about how the visual side of the exhibition came together around the writing, and how you worked with the fact of the physical space in terms of presenting a poetry-centered set of works? Will there be an audio component?
Steck: I wanted the visual side of the project to be read as a landscape or material surface of the subject matter in the poem that couldn’t be created by its language. I wanted to create a visual field of memory loss’ texture—repetition of image through different states of degradation constantly being reproduced from a single source’s depiction of said image.
There are three screenprints—two being textures of water from water fountains xeroxed from glossy photographs and then printed on transparencies, layered, and screenprinted. I wanted to remove and double the image simultaneously, indicating the constant layering of memory in memory loss, the acknowledgement that the memory is present but unattainable. The other screenprint is a double-paged spread of a fountain folding in on itself, signifying the collapsibility of a memory—a very distinct and definitive memory. I see the prints as poems—they aren’t visual poetry or concrete poetry. Some kind of poetry of translation that I couldn’t muster in language but only through a process of reproduction and layering and sourcing and referencing and cataloging and collecting—it was done very much like my process of writing.
Also in the exhibition, there is an artist book with an additional poem titled seven water fountains with errata and copier blurs and wastes and speckles from water fountain patents. As well as three double-sided screenprints of water fountain textures folded into smaller booklets—creating isolated segments of the spaces between moving water in two distinct fountains. Originally, a sound element was going to be included, with a reading of the text with some sound accompaniment but I decided to hold off due to constraints on time and the possibility that the other portions of the project might have been compromised.
Ed Steck is a writer from Pittsburgh, PA. His latest publications include sleep as information/the fountain is a water feature (The Center for Ongoing Research & Projects, 2014) and The Garden: Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulation (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013).