Transcripts of Editor Interview with Tom O’Brien

Transcription by P.H. Higgins

Announcements: First of Former People Podcast Appearances

From Alpha to Omega #039

Original link:



I feel like I’m gonna, like, saturate some podcasts for a while, and then there might be a backlash…



Hello, and welcome to the 39th episode of From Alpha to Omega. Today is Sunday, the 6th of October 2013, and I’m your host Tom O’Brien. This week we have the second part of our interview with C. Derick Varn. We discuss Derick’s new online literary journal Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers; the origins of modernism; the influence of Freud, relativity, and quantum mechanics; the role of modernism in politics; and, of course, a little Marx. Derick also reads a few excerpts from his writings and poetry. The show is a little shorter than usual, so I’ll have the next show out a week earlier than usual. You can help me keep this show going by making a one-off donation or signing up to become a subscriber. We join the conversation as Derick tells us why he chose “Former People” as the title of his new journal…



Former people, do you know what former people are? The name of children of aristocrats in the Soviet Union was… literally translates into English as “former people.” For me and my co-editor Steven it was sort of a sign of a break. We had both been involved in certain kinds of Leninist politics, we are also both also children of Eastern Europe. I’m a weird part Irish, part Bulgarian, and vulgar German Jew.



What’s the technical description for that then?



Hiberno-Slavic-Semite probably.






But, he’s also of Polish descent. So, these things mean very different things to our families. Our families were on different sides. I mean, y’know, most of my family had escaped to the States, but parts of his family were on both sides of the Bolshevik crises, so it’s a very real thing for us. It’s one thing to dispossess the privileged elite it’s another thing to dispossess and destroy their children. And that was sort of the dark tone that we were thinking about when we named it Former People, that’s what was in our heads! Because we sort of felt like, and I still sort of feel like, aesthetically, particularly in American Literature – I think a lot of what I’m saying now generalizes more to American literature than to Irish or British literature, although the contagion is always there between all those countries – we speak a similar language. So, we were thinking about that and we were wondering, another question was coming into our minds, like, why did it seem like modernism as a literary movement in English sort of devolved into two ways? It became postmodern, which is interesting but flippant and kind of refuses to deal with anything entirely seriously in a way… or it became really reactionary. Y’know, you can look at the political writings of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, or even some people that people don’t think of as being super reactionary, like maybe someone like Wallace Stephens, their politics are much more opaque.  And we were thinking on that and we were trying to figure that out, and we started thinking about this idea of neomodernism. What would it mean to go back to the sort of modernist experimentation and looking at the world, and looking at tragedy and stuff seriously? But try and do it from new eyes without going down the same sorts of aesthetic or political pitfalls that the modernists fell down.



So, talk a little bit about modernism and about the movement and what politically it meant.



Well, modernism is highly conflicted. One of the first things Former People published was an interview with the professor of poetry Al Filreis out of University of Pennsylvania. He talked about how fighting modernism was seen in the United States as fighting communism, but ironically most of the modernist writers were politically right wing. So how did that happen? Gertrude Stein was a Fascist sympathizer. Ezra Pound was not just a sympathizer. Wallace Stevens was sort of a Republican. T.S. Eliot became a good old Tory. With the exception of some women most of them abandoned progressive politics in ways. That was true for the modernist literature, it wasn’t true for modernist art. Modernist art was much more polarized, you had both communists and fascists, essentially. Both of whom were liquidated by their various movements. He was trying to figure it out. Like, why did it go that way? Why did so many modernist writers, even left-wing ones, become stalwart anti-communists, and some even like stalwart anti-liberals? It was something I really wanted to look into and explore. But also, why was modernism linked to communism so strongly? It’s a very interesting thing. You have a movement where most of the people that people would think about as founders and leaders of the movement people assume they’re left-wing, but if you look at them most of them end up being right-wing! But that initial left-wing impression was still, y’know, kept. And people, y’know, conservatives still have a hostility to modern art!



Would the modern artists, like Picasso and these, they were not particularly right-wing were they?



No, no, the writers and the artists were very different in that regard. The exception was of course the Futurists, who were very right-wing. But the artists did fare a little better. Although, Salvador Dali did have some pretty right-wing sensibilities. And even people like Andre Breton who were initially communists, they wrote anti-communist literature in the 50s a lot of them. And so I really wanted to look at that and figure out what were they dealing with, and why did so many of them take a right-wing turn. Why was that turn not recognized? And what does that say aesthetically, what does that say for the art? Like, what is that art trying to tell us? What are we missing? And then, like, how is that different from postmodernism? Because I also see postmodernism as a very capitalist-friendly, almost reactionary form of art. Not all of it, and I wouldn’t say that about all postmodern authors by any stretch of the imagination. But the tendency to turn things into a joke and to be sort of ironically insincere and narratively misleading… at first it seems like a way to break down aesthetic demarcation lines and, y’know, ideas about high art and low art. But it’s also weirdly passive and seems to just, like, it has a very consumerist mentality of, y’know, ‘we take from this and that because we’re all individuals and it’s all pastiche and it’s not really serious anyway.’ It’s all very branded. And it’s very hard to tell if postmodernism is a critique of that or an embrace of that, and it’s hard to tell where a lot of that actually comes from.


[Poetic Intermission]



If you look at the modernist movement, say most of the names that you mentioned are in the west. Could we see the shift in the political base also reflected from a Marxist perspective? Y’know, there was such an anti-communism abounding around that, y’know, sometimes artists need to check… Can we see the base structure acting at this level? Do you think there’s anything in that?



Yes, I think there’s a lot of that. I also think, for example, with a lot of the people that became anti-communist, a lot of them were just honest artists. Like Breton or like [unintelligible 11:54]. They weren’t necessarily good people but they were pretty honest artists and they experienced things, particularly around the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop trials and the Terror, that really, really turn them against the Soviet Union, but they didn’t really have any political place to exist in the United States. And a lot of even liberals who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union for reasons having to do with war ties alienated them and they didn’t really have any other friends. The only people that would really talk to them were religious conservatives, and I think that has a profound effect on people. I do think it really played out historically to move a lot of people who maybe had stayed sort of left-wing in their sympathies over. Y’know, so I think there’s both class issues like you said, so the class basis changes, and the money plays out a part. But I also think there’s, like, something about honesty, and dealing with things you’re seeing on the ground in a way people who are removed from it are not, and you being alienated for telling the truth. And particularly in America that was a pretty lonely place to be. Because there weren’t so many socialists for example that if you broke with the communist party of the united states that you had a home anywhere else. And a lot of liberals wouldn’t trust you for realpolitik reasons, honestly, and so what do you… what do you have to do? Well, there’s no real anti-Stalinist left in the states, and the only really fringe you have now are probably people trying to cynically use you as a way to denounce the left and liberals… but they’re nice to you? I think that happened a lot. I mean it’s a psychologizing, but I think that happened a lot. Not that we… [that] everything that Former People does is actually about that. I think a lot of what we’re actually dealing with is we’re trying to look at those question that lead a lot of modernists to flirt with extreme political things but look at them honestly and through the lens of art itself. We don’t write a lot about politics on the site. I think you will find, if you’re worried, if you look at what we have up there’s nothing on it. Except for the interview with Al Filreis and that’s about anti-modernism and anti-communism. But most of what we do is more aesthetic. But what we’re interested in is: what was society producing that lead to these questions? Why around the 1970’s does this all seem to stop? And what still hasn’t been answered from that? Aesthetically and politically.



How would you describe literary modernism?



Well I think literary modernism, I mean, it comes out of a very big shift in society in the late 19th century. Romanticism just doesn’t seem as viable anymore as an aesthetic movement because romanticism seems to be like a reaction to the early industrial revolution, but once the industrial revolution’s finished people don’t think they can get that world back. I think there’s a real sense of that. And then, y’know, you have basically a century of small-scale wars between emerging nationalist powers. And we’re talking in the 19th, early 20th century where national powers were appearing and disappearing by the day! Bohemia and Prussia anyone? You remember these things? So y’know, that wasn’t actually all that long ago. I think that produced a real disease amongst people. They couldn’t go back to Romanticism, they couldn’t really go back to religious points of views, they knew too much about science. They couldn’t do it easily, not to say they couldn’t do it, but they couldn’t do it easily. And so there was a real push to innovate. To bring in something new, because it seemed like, y’know, the last century had gone away… and it didn’t end well. And the beginning of the next century also hasn’t really started off well, y’know, it starts off with two world wars and that really affects the mindset. And I think there’s a similar thing going on parallel in Asia, because a lot of Asian arts really changed, but Asia’s going through a much different transition and it’s going through it much faster. So it… you don’t really see the art really show up until maybe the 60s; you start seeing both the anti-authoritarian art in the 60s and 70s in Japan and a little bit in Korea. Although it’s really kept down in Korea. And the cultural revolution in the 60s and 70s in China is when that really sort of happens; and it happens in the Anglo-European West, it happens not super gradually, but it does take place over the course of four or five decades. In Asia things jump years, like light years, from modes of production, and in art and stuff, and in social structure, in the course of two decades. So it’s a very different thing, it’s much more accelerated.



And was modernism affected much by, say, the scientific revolutions that were going on at the time? From relativity and quantum theory and maybe even the work of Freud?



I would say, on the work of Freud for sure. I actually don’t think physics had as much effect on modernism. I think physics had more an effect on modernism in genre literature, in science fiction and stuff. Which is something that I actually kind of am interested in, but I don’t think it had an effect on high literary modernism no. There was a couple of exceptions. There was an author named George Oppen who was, he was a communist, and I believe he was Jewish, but he was a friend with Ezra Pound. So, y’know, you’re talking about a complicated character: Jewish communist who’s friends with an antisemitic semi-fascist who wrote a lot about physics, and this was in the 40s and 50s. But most of what people know from school and what you would have studied, even if you were a literature major in the States or in Britain, wouldn’t include that stuff.



Did modernism, did it fold itself back and affect the world of politics at all in any concrete way?



Y’know, my thesis on that is modernism kind of folded itself back in the world of politics because it was reflected in popular culture about two decades after it happened in sort of literary culture. So, a lot of, y’know like, Dada and early modernist concerns and early postmodern concerns, you see them in, like, punk and new wave. And then you see that in the political movements that kind of develop and move around that… it was interesting because while these people were movers and shakers in culture, they tended not to be in politics. Most of them were middle-class and from, y’know, a kind of bourgeois perspective of that. They were people who were the sons of people who had made it in industry or maybe small shop owners who had enough money to educate their kids. Or they were people from working-class backgrounds who received education after WWII from the government and y’know that big change in Keynesian largess that happened then. And Keynesian largess is in somewhat quotes. That’s who we’re talking about, those two generations of people, and they’re very different actually even amongst themselves. Their concerns were very different, but they lived in the world of massive transition and I think they were just responding to it. A lot of the artists who tried to get ahead of the game they made really bad political decisions. You think about the Futurists in that regard, right? Y’know, they line up for Mussolini. Or you think about some of the Russian avant-garde after the Bolsheviks and what Stalin does to them: most of them are liquidated after the Terror.



So, what’re your hopes then for the journal?



My hope is to make a literary magazine that’s interested in social things, but not one that’s really interested… like, there’s a lot of literary magazines that are out there to be literature about activism or whatever. That’s not really what I’m talking about. I want to create a site where, y’know, you would go to read a poem and really enjoy it, but you would also go to, like, maybe think about some social questions. Maybe political questions, but from an aesthetic point of view trying to work it out in literature as opposed to just polemic or history. I’m not sure that I’m entirely successful at that. Y’know, everybody that submits to us doesn’t necessarily understand what our long-term goals are. But I do think these are the questions that sort of preoccupy us. I shouldn’t count my eggs before they hatch, but assume we should be releasing interviews on the differences between Chilean and South American modernism and Anglo-American modernism; and also one on the differences between Chinese modernism and Anglo-American modernism. There’s going to be lots of interviews there, there’s also going to be lots of poetry and literature to look through. And so, whoever gets tired of reading socialist polemic or listening to depressing economic reports you can go read a poem.



A depressing poem!



Probably! I mean, y’know, we’re not necessarily the most uplifting of people. I tend to find… I think that I’m pretty jovial in person; but no, most of what I write is not necessarily happy.


[Poetic Intermission]



Have you any plans to make a print journal?



Yes actually! We do! But only in anthologies. Print journals are expensive, and few people buy them now. The base-superstructure issue. But we do plan on making some print-on-demand journals. So, if people want them eventually we will make anthologies of what we consider the best stuff, and they’ll be available probably for just a little bit above cost and they’d be print on demand and, y’know, we’ll ship them to you. We’re really interested right now in, I think you can kind of hear, is trying to explore modernism outside of the whole Anglo-North-American context, and even outside the French and Spanish contexts. I think people know that. I don’t think people know about, y’know, modernism and postmodernism in China. I don’t think people know about modernism and postmodernism and the way it intersects with politics, and the strange ways it intersects with politics in, say, Latin America. I don’t think that’s as well studied. Even in some of the countries we’re talking about I don’t think it’s well-studied. Also, I think we’re going to be writing a lot about the relationship between literary science fiction and literary weird fiction, and modernism as both an aesthetic and a political movement. What did H.P. Lovecraft have to say about politics other than that black people were scary? Because I’m not as interested in that. Because his own political journey is actually interesting: he starts off as kind of a racist Republican, and ends up a slightly less racist, but still pretty racist, sort of socialist before he dies. That’s interesting to me. Like, why did that happen? That’s what I’ll be looking at in the next issue, plus whatever we get in terms of the stories that I think are in that vein, that explore those issues of transition. Looking at the world, not necessarily with no sense of humor, but seriously. Being able to look at things that are tragic and not being flippant, or sarcastic, or arch, or necessarily even meta about it. And I, y’know… we’ll see!

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