An Interview with Katy Bohinc
Katy Bohinc’s debut book of poetry, Dear Alain, takes the form of a series of letters – amorous and otherwise – to the French philosopher Alain Badiou. In his work, the now 77 year-old former chair of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure advocates philosophy as not as an opinion but as a procedure by which truth is produced, a truth conditioned by from other modes of “knowing”, such as art, politics, math, and love. Known for his rendering of philosophy within the framework of mathematical set theory, Badiou is one of few contemporary philosophers to also extensively address poets and poetry. Bohinc, a mathematical analyst by day and poet and publisher by night (and well, probably day as well) has now returned the favor, alternately subsuming and resisting Badiou’s categorizations in her epistolary poems.
Selections from Dear Alain appeared in our November 2013 issue. One year later, our poetry editor, Maureen Thorson, sat down with Bohinc to discuss her new book:
MT: Dear Alain is framed as a series of love letters — with all the passion, angst, and energy that love letters imply — to Alain Badiou. What is it about Badiou’s work that attracted (and alternately, infuriated) you enough to result in this sustained engagement?
KB: What was it about Badiou. Well that’s interesting. I started because his thought was based on set theory, which interested me, given my background in math. Even though I really had not been interested in contemporary western philosophy for some years. But fundamentally it was the idea “can the poet love the philosopher?” Given Badiou’s definitions: love is thinking as two; poetry is elsewhere and critiques philosophy; and philosophy is conditioned by poetry. So for example, how can philosophy and poetry “think” like each other if they “live” in such different thought structures? Philosophy being “definitions and distinctions” and poets generally hating categories (perpetuating the myth of the “oneness of things” as Badiou puts it. God aren’t we terrible!). That was the metaphor that drove the whole book. I didn’t know what the answer was! And I felt the book’s end should say something about the relationship between poetry & philosophy. I won’t spoil it for you.
MT: Dear Alain is being published by Tender Buttons Press, which is also releasing a 25th anniversary edition of Bernadette Mayer’s influential Sonnets. You’ve worked closely with the press not only regarding your book, but on this re-release. Can you say a little something about your work with the press?
KB: Lee Ann Brown, Founding Editor of Tender Buttons, had been wanting to publish Dear Alain. And I had just moved to New York and into a room in the brownstone she [Brown] manages. And I wasn’t sure (some other presses were interested as well) and then Lee Ann took me to visit Bernadette around my birthday. And Bernadette – who I totally fell in love with – said something like “Langston Hughes made money off of his poetry.” The next morning I woke up, and real early in the morning, I just went right to my computer and started writing up these spreadsheets. Excel spreadsheets. I was like, if we get this press a website, and a proper infrastructure, we can sell some Sonnets to make some money for Bernadette. And we’ll document the history of Lee Ann’s important and beautiful press & Dear Alain can be on a press with these great books. I’m in. So. I finished Dear Alain in April. And have been working on the Tender Buttons since then.
The economics of poetry are – well basically non-existent (every major publishing house in America operates their poetry wing at a loss) – so giving Bernadette Mayer some proper royalties will be a very proud moment in my life. And it’s been really exciting to make those beautiful books. Sideperk for Dear Alain – I got complete control over the book’s design (Cassandra Gillig did the stunning cover), and content (significant typographical errors are included in the text to represent the typos we all have in emails/letters, etc.) The thing I have a block around is marketing my own book, so Lee Ann does that. Otherwise, my work with the press is what I call “Boundless Practice” – the continuation of a long poem that is my life. Everything about the press represents our core beliefs – artistic, economic, and collaborative. It’s a performance piece. Of which I am the Director, or officially, Star Archestress. Watch for the Omnibus (the first 25 years in one volume). That is going to be…exemplary.
It was Midwinter’s Day, coincidentally, the day Tender Buttons 2.0 was born.
MT: Is the Zizek quote on the book real? (NB: the quote is: “This book should be banished.”)KB: Yes. He liked the book, but he has said that all poets are fascists, so I said, well, say that about the book. “No problem!” It worked for both of us, because I really do think he thinks it should be banished. I don’t know what he would have said if it was “Dear Slavoj” but it just doesn’t have the same ring. And he has to watch his friend get simultaneously seduced and beat up, I mean…there is plenty to be banished.
MT: In Dear Alain, you frame yourself as the Dionysus to Badiou’s “linear Apollo.” But you must have some linear Apollo in you yourself – your day job is (as far as I understand it, which may be not too far) heavy mathematical data analysis. How do you navigate the distance – and connections – between the creative/irrational and the rational/analytic?
KB: Good question. I always had an adoring relationship to math. I like, well what Badiou says, that math is pure thought or pure being. Which is to say, math or pure logic is meditative. Math is really gorgeous, and additionally it gives a reprieve from aesthetic judgments, which can be overwhelming. (See the stats on writers and suicide.) But Dear Alain was written mostly in a very non-logical place, often during large chunks of time off from work, late into the night, a dream space. Like literally a dream space. I lay down, I read a little Badiou, I dream of something, I get up and write it. Whenever it comes to me, very unstructured. In a dream I could take desire from real life and imagina it as conversation that might take place were I in love with this philosopher. And this hypnogogic writing is very much in line with the tradition of American 20th century poetics, by which I mean, how it was written was an extension of the book’s metaphor, for me, as well. But the master narrative needed a lot of concentrated structuring. Almost gave me a headache writing those notes – explaining things logically is not exactly my poetic cup of tea, but that was the metaphor of the text – philosophy as the structure with poetry as the Dionysian side of things. Oddly, it really was sortof like a – solitary – love story in this way: I ended up thinking as two.
How do I navigate? The math pays for the poetry. Aesthetically, the point is we can do math, but we’re not machines. And emotions should be celebrated as important to the world, life, art. I do think emotion (or more generally whatever falls under “Dionysian”) is a truth, a form of knowledge, absolutely.
MT: This is a work that wants to posit universality, but thrives on oppositions and contradiction. Is the difference between philosophy and poetry an acceptance, or embrace of the latter. As you say, “I wouldn’t be a poet if I didn’t love the contradiction.”
KB: Does the work want to posit universality? I am not sure. I thought of it as philosophy makes universal statements while poetry does not, hence poetry, i.e. “katy” speaks in the direct address – the “I” of poetry.
But I suppose there is something “universal” about it, if Badiou’s philosophy is universal. (I certainly point out where I think it is not – lover’s tiff, if you will.) But one thing about Badiou’s thought which is fairly universal is the idea of reality being infinite or multiple and truth is whatever narrative the individual generates about that reality. So in Dear Alain, the narrative at one level is clear, like there’s a girl writing this guy love letters. But on another level it’s multiple. Each person who reads it sees something different – just like when we each look at reality. My father sees it as a “great anti-war novel,” Badiou himself saw the love in it (his essay, What Is Love?, was instrumental to the narrative architecture), poets tend to see poetry, and friend, scholar Andrew Rubin sees the philosophy. No one, so far, has been like, “wow you really nailed the math,” but I’m always game to talk about the real projective plane. Either way, it says something to me about the reader, which side they see. There was a critique that Dear Alain wasn’t straightforward enough, the text, but it’s deliberately rendered to represent multiplicity. Or, the text gives the experience of Badiou’s thought: there’s some data, you try to define it, your summary is the truth procedure. Like any book, or situation actually. This one just happens to be naturally weighted to suggest one of Badiou’s five poles – math, politics, love, poetry or philosophy. And it helps the text stay readable that there is this earthly flirtatious level to it. Reality is also straightforward on the surface (and hopefully sexy) but complex upon examination. Dear Alain, same way. So if there’s something universal I’ve said, it’s in the form of structural metaphor. You know, like a poem. But I love that there are so many readings – even contradictory ones! That to me is close to articulating some of this mess we experience as life.As for contradiction, yes! All I can say is yes! Contradiction is even present in mathematics. Systems will always exist without contradiction but I think error and contradiction are actually transcendental properties like pi or infinity. Same as “no architecture as we know it today could have been built without pi,” contradiction and error are similarly necessary elements for the fabric of the universe as we know it. It’s deep in the fabric of translation, which naturally arises because we are, in fact, individuals. But there’s a million contradictory things I could say about contradiction. Part of why I love being a poet – and not a philosopher – is that I don’t have to make sense. Badiou always has to “make sense,” in that his thoughts have to build into one complete system, largely. But uhg, to me that seems terrible, like being a statue! Because poetry doesn’t have the limitation of logic it can be interested in everything not logical, which is significant. It can turn on a dime and go onto the street or into outer space. In a sense, the limitation of poetry is that it can’t be too straightforward, or really, too proven. It takes “something else.” A jump, a leap, a romanticism, a star, a heart.
MT: Speaking of which, there is a great tension over resistance to and the irresistibleness of the power of writing – of naming of describing of setting things down. You write that to define something is to claim power over it, that naming “claims too much,” and that philosophy is the “scheduled distribution of power.” But poetry is writing, too! And why else does a poet write, except to name, claim, organize, act?
KB: Oh wow. The desire to name. Yes. Well, poetry, at least my poetry is interested in accuracy (you could even say truth). That’s maybe why the errors in the text are so important to me, and the contradictions, and mistakes. But accuracy of language was very hard for me. I think it’s hard for all poets. Any time you write a word you also not-write everything outside that word. That’s a seed of violence to me. So, a hard thing to grapple with. That’s also set theory. A lot of poetry that doesn’t want to mean anything comes from a desire to escape that inescapable tragedy, I think. Or, to be a poet is to find naming tragic. I still hate names, anyway.
MT: Are you done writing to Badiou? Or to “Badiou”?
KB: When I actually corresponded with Badiou, the Badiou vs. “Badiou” thing came up a lot. Actually, when I was writing the book, I always called him Alain. Once we started “really” corresponding, I began to call him Badiou. Maybe this is the difference between poets & philosophers: we’re first names and they’re last names.
Katy Bohinc’s book, Dear Alain, is now available from Tender Buttons press.