Poet and conceptual writer Robert Fitterman tackles a heavy topic in his latest work, Holocaust Museum, a recontextualization of captions for photographs displayed in the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Fitterman sees modern poetry moving toward appropriation as a means to critique and create conversation around a range of texts.
This Friday, November 22, the New York-based author will be in Denver for the release of Holocaust Museum, which is being published by local non-profit Counterpath Press. In advance of tomorrow's reception and reading, Westword spoke with the writer about his latest work and why he chooses appropriation as his method.
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Westword: What was the catalyst for the creation of your latest book, Holocaust Museum?
Robert Fitterman: It's funny, because I was just writing to a friend that this is the only book that I've ever done where every time I think about the genesis of the project, it sort of shifts in my mind. (Laughs.) It's a funny kind of experience. I mean, I guess I know what the genesis is, but as to why I wrote the book keeps changing on me. A lot of it for me had to do with not the obvious things -- what does it mean coming from my generation to take a look at the Holocaust again.
I don't have any super-direct connection -- my parents are not survivors or anything like that. I'm Jewish but that wasn't the impetus for the project. I was thinking a lot about ways in which we deal with catastrophe; I guess there is a sort of intersection between how catastrophe is mediated by the news and the many ways we think of our experiences with really dramatic trauma and how it gets mediated for us.
Then, how we really only have the experience of an image-based relationship with catastrophes. I thought it would be interesting to think about what that would look like with just language. So Holocaust Museum removes all of the images and just has the captions.
What does the contents of the book look like? How are these texts organized?
What happens is, you're looking at hundreds of captions and the book is organized in a predictable narrative -- you're basically walking through the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum. It begins with propaganda and goes through everything from gas chambers to deportation to et cetera. At the end, it's liberation.
One of these other things that turned out to be interesting about the book for me is, there's a really strong tendency in poetry right now towards appropriation. Most of this word "appropriation" bounces off popular culture and media culture in ways that are usually pretty funny or ironic or have a lot of critical distance. This is something that interested me -- what it would be like to do an appropriation project that was dead serious. The distance -- I guess you could say it's an intellectualized distance -- is definitely still a really emotional text.
It's not like looking at Duchamp and saying, "Oh, he's really pulling my leg." There's no leg-pulling -- even though I didn't write any of this book. It is totally appropriated from the captions of the photographs. Why do you choose to work with appropriation in this way? How does this method function for you as a writer?
That's a great question. The way it works for me and what interests me is that, again, I think that the web and other language-based technologies have changed the landscape considerably -- the language landscape and the landscape for poets. All of a sudden we have this excess and daily deluge of language and text. I think that appropriation strategies are really interesting to reflect that, rather than to make some kind of a comment on it. I think that in order to have commentary on it, you have to use it directly. So that's what interests me.
It doesn't even have to be from the web -- this kind of radical appropriation can also be, like, textbooks. The material really doesn't matter so much to me as the interest in those strategies. There are strategies that we continue to echo -- it is the culture of language.
The book's content starts with captions from the beginning of the museum through to the end -- so you didn't manipulate the words themselves or the order at all?
Right. And I don't manipulate the categories and I don't manipulate the actual captions at all. The only thing that I do is orchestrate them and compose. In the book there are 300 captions. If you go online and look, there are thousands of captions -- so those kinds of choices become whatever informs my art.
You talk about most appropriation being satirical in nature -- but the Holocaust is a very serious subject.
I'm very super-interested in this -- can this project of appropriation be somehow not considered to be ironic? I hope it sort of destabilizes some of our values about what does it mean to be sincere, what does it mean to be authentic, what does it mean to be objective, what does it mean to be subjective? Hopefully, the act of just taking these captions and reframing them puts some of that into play.
When you're in the book and you're reading it, I think it isn't really about the Holocaust; maybe it is about documentation. Maybe it is about memory -- collective memory. That's sort of what conceptual writing does: It invites the reader to think about larger ideas pretty quickly, instead of having to think about a close analysis of the text.
In the bio on your website, it says, "His writing is kinda conceptual and sorta involves identity issues that are complicated by the web. And the mall." What do you mean by that?
Oh, that's funny. That's a kind of older bio -- I had just finished writing a book that appropriates pretty much Yelp reviews and the whole manuscript is designed as a mall. I was really in the middle of working with a lot of consumerist ideas. I was just being silly, but in a way I'm not entirely silly -- I use the mall as kind of a marker of a cultural moment. People who grew up in the '70s, we kind of have one foot in hippie culture and one foot in this new, consumerist culture that I think is really open to a mediated identity -- a constructed identity. This kind of "I'll buy anything" identity.
I grew up in the late '80s and early '90s and am fascinated by the role of the mall in American culture.
I think it was a really defining moment that is under-appreciated as a temple or nexus of consumerist America.
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Robert Fitterman will be reading from Holocaust Museum and other selected works at a free event at 7 p.m. Friday, November 22 at Counterpath. For more information on Fitterman's appearance, visit Counterpath Press's website.