DECEMBER 25, 2019
ONE OF THE MANY playful and weird inspirations for L.A. poet Joseph Mosconi’s latest book, Ashenfolk, is Elvish folklore. I have a similar experience reading Mosconi’s work as I do listening to the Elvish in The Lord of the Rings. It’s like trying to listen to someone telling you something in a dream, where you are straining to understand and you can’t. Upon waking, you are left with a kind of feeling or atmosphere that is hard to shake. For me, Mosconi’s work also shares an affinity with David Lynch’s. Like Laura Palmer speaking backward in the Red Room in Twin Peaks, Ashenfolk defamiliarizes language, making it strange and cool.
Mosconi’s books take unusual forms, playing with typography and design. They often reference death metal. His last book, Fright Catalog, was a magazine with overblown roses on the cover, which he describes as “minimalist collage poems drawn from various sources, primarily heavy metal lyrics and song titles, but also language picked up from gaming chatrooms, art criticism, and horror and weird fiction. Each poem was run through an online color theme generator, which determined the color theme for each page.”
Ashenfolk is a kit, made up of pamphlets and postcards. When I attended Mosconi’s book launch last summer at The Prince in Koreatown, it took place in a crimson room in the back of the bar. There were knights and gargoyles on the walls alongside leftover Halloween and Christmas decorations. In the back of the room was a table with a single red box with Centaur typeface on the cover that said in tiny letters: Ashenfolk. As I looked at the box, a little chill came over me. I wondered, what will happen when I open it?
Mosconi answered my questions about his work via Google Docs, which is appropriate, because he used to work at Google.
KATE DURBIN: Your influences for the book are a fun mash-up of cultural references: chiropteric burglary, miscast spells, sentient AI, Elvish folklore, heavy metal, and counter-hippie cybernetics. How did you come to these references, and what interests you about them?
JOSEPH MOSCONI: “Chiropteric” is just a fancy word for “bat-winged” or “bat-like.” It refers to one of the poems in Ashenfolk, which reads in its entirety: “bat-winged hamburger snatcher.” But the poem is printed in a Gothic blackletter typeface that resembles the one used by the rock band Motörhead and other heavy metal bands. The phrase is printed on a postcard that has a blue gradient background, so the poem looks like it’s descending from the sky (or ascending into the sky, depending on your point of view). The phrase itself is a throwaway line from an old hippie comic strip called Odd Bodkins that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle between 1969 and 1970. My dad owned a copy of an anthology called The Collective Unconscience of Odd Bodkins that was always lying around the house, so I became pretty familiar with its contents as a kid. For some reason, that phrase always stuck with me. I thought: What if I take the phrase totally seriously?
There’s something super-ominous about it. The hamburger is the quintessential American fast food. It’s eaten every day by millions and millions of people. It is one of the most economical and calorie-dense foods in human history. It seems so ubiquitous that it’s almost impossible to imagine the hamburger ever disappearing. And yet, it will eventually be spirited away — either by force or by choice, at least as a product of industrialized factory farming. It’s almost as if the future loss of the hamburger is built into its very being. The Hamburglar from McDonald’s is always stealing burgers from people. Wimpy from Popeye will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today, and yet he never does, and often snatches plates of burgers from unsuspecting diners. Even Clara Peller, an 81-year-old woman dining at a Wendy’s in 1984, wanted to know: Where’s the beef? The implication is that there’s some sort of corporate conspiracy to withhold beef from consumers — but what if it’s an existential question?
I know this all sounds totally absurd, but I’m interested in taking absurd notions seriously. In poetry, you can achieve this through the formal scrambling of pop culture, politics, and everyday life. So in Ashenfolk I wanted to analyze the language of worldbuilding via various niche cultures: science fiction, fantasy, fandom, cybernetics, the ’60s and ’70s counterculture, Silicon Valley … ultimately I’m hoping this analysis can tell us something about the contemporary sense of negotiated reality. As far as Elvish folklore goes, a poet friend of mine, after reading Ashenfolk, told me that he felt the secret key to the entire allegorical work of the book lies in Robert Frost, of all people, with his confession: “It’s not elves, exactly…”
Your work is very stylish. It’s not just language that you make strange, but you also play with format and typography in unusual, beautiful ways. Ashenfolk comes in a luxe crimson box, which somehow makes me think of the Blue Box in Mulholland Drive, maybe because the Ashenfolk box is also so opaque and unassuming at first glance and like the Blue Box it takes you into a strange alternate universe. Can you share some of your thinking around the presentation of your work? I’m interested in the typography choices but also the design decisions such as postcards, pamphlets, boxes, magazines, et cetera. Is this all part of worldbuilding for you?
For me, design and writing are inseparable. I rarely write a book without thinking about how the words will appear on the page, how the pages will be arranged in the book, how the book will look as an object — the whole materiality of it. Typography conveys ideology. Graphic designers know this. But I don’t think most poets, outside of concrete and digital and visual poets, think too closely about the history embedded in Garamond, say, or a typeface like Fraktur — how the very meaning of words can change depending on how the glyph is marked. I mean, most writers definitely sense this — there wouldn’t be such a strong reaction against Comic Sans if it didn’t make you feel a certain way — but they don’t usually work with typography as a meaning-making unit in and of itself. (Contemporary meme-makers, on the other hand, are obsessed with typography.)
One of my previous books, Fright Catalog, took a deep interest in the language of black metal and death metal, and through that I became intrigued by heavy metal band logos. There was a period a few years ago where pop artists like Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Kanye West were appropriating the look and feel of metal bands for their own logos — even fashion houses like Vetements and Hood By Air were playing around with heavy metal design. So I started to research the historical development of rock, pop, and hip-hop logos. I noticed that contemporary illegible black metal logos, for instance, resemble Art Nouveau design patterns; and I knew that 1960s psychedelic designers were in turn influenced by Art Nouveau and other 19th- and early 20th-century design trends. So one of the things I wanted to do in Ashenfolk was trace this historical development by invoking typefaces used by album designers and band logo designers from the 1950s to the present. The usage is not arbitrary. When someone reads the word “THING” in one of my poems, and it’s printed in a sort of Monster Mash typeface, I hope to conjure up in the reader all the associations they might have with novelty records and horror films and music videos like “Thriller.” Though of course people will also have their own associations.
And the idea of printing all of the poems as zines, posters, and postcards and presenting them in a box came to me pretty early on. I’m a record collector. I love that feeling of opening a box set and not knowing exactly what will be inside (well, other than records). I buy a lot of LPs drawn from field recordings, and sometimes the ethnographers will include clippings of flora or samples of soil from the area in which the music was recorded. (At one point, I toyed with the idea of including a dime-bag of kiddie slime in Ashenfolk, in honor of my five-year-old son, because slime is one of his favorite things to play with.) I wanted the forms to be diverse and surprising. Much of the book makes reference to music subcultures, so the fanzines, which were the preferred publishing format of music, sci-fi, and fantasy fandoms before the rise of the internet, seemed to be a perfect fit. The box is also a nod to one of my favorite poets, Robert Grenier, who published a few boxed poems.
And come to think of it, I did watch Twin Peaks: The Return during the course of writing this book, though I hadn’t thought of David Lynch as a direct influence on the design or any of the texts. After Ashenfolk was published, friends told me it reminded them of Dungeons & Dragons kits, which also fits, as there are many references to fantasy roleplaying games throughout the poems. I’ve also come to realize that the box and title together create a visual pun: a box of ashes is what you receive when you leave a crematorium.
You mentioned Robert Grenier as an inspiration. Are there any other poets or artists working with typography whose practices you see paralleling yours? When you talk about typography and ideology I immediately think of Douglas Kearney’s work. There’s also John Cage, Chelsey Minnis, and Lawrence Weiner. I’m thinking, too, of Anne Carson’s most recent project, Float, which is also a kit.
I love Douglas Kearney’s work. He’s definitely one of the foremost contemporary poets who uses typography in a consequential and historically aware way. And there are so many others! It’s almost a secret subgenre within the subgenre of experimental poetry. But I will just mention Johanna Drucker, whose work on typography and print culture is indispensable, and Donato Mancini, with whom I share an aesthetic affinity. The aforementioned are all serious graphic designers and typographers, though; they actually design their own fonts, which is a craft I have yet to learn. I seek to embrace amateurism. I like being in a state of perpetual apprenticeship. Fuck mastery! Certain visual artists who use graphic design and writing are important to me too: Mike Kelley, Jenny Holzer, Allen Ruppersberg …
Because your work is not constrained to trade paperbacks, it’s easy for me to imagine it one day making its way onto a wall in a gallery or the side of a building. Of course it makes perfect sense with your current references that you are making magazines like Fright Catalog and kits like Ashenfolk. How is your writing evolving currently?
When Fright Catalog was published, an artist friend of mine told me, “You know, you could totally blow these pages up to wall-sized prints and get a gallery to show them and sell them for blah blah blah,” and I was just like: absolutely not. This work is poetry, and I want it to be read and received in the context of poetry. There are contemporary artists whom I admire, like Adam Pendleton and Eve Fowler and Juliana Huxtable — and actually, you too, Kate — who work with language in a gallery context and are very successful at it. But I’ve always been more interested in the book. I also don’t think I have a very strong visual sensibility, which is partly why I don’t see myself as a visual poet.
Despite that, I have exhibited a few things in galleries and museums, mostly through my work with the Poetic Research Bureau. But I’ve always felt poetry in a museum context is an uneasy fit. I did make some limited-edition posters a few years ago, but I kept wanting to reduce them back down to the page. The forms that my books have taken so far have always felt determined by the content; I mean they’ve always felt exactly right for the project at hand, so I’ve ended up with glossy magazines and colored textures and zines and postcards and box sets. A real challenge for me now is to write a poem that can be published as a straightforward trade paperback. So I’m currently working on a book-length poem. Maybe it’s even an epic poem! It’s a spiritual sequel to Christina Rossetti’s 19th-century narrative poem Goblin Market. It’s currently titled The Goblin Connection. Sort of like the Muppets song “The Rainbow Connection.” But with goblins. And melting sea ice.
I can’t wait to read The Goblin Connection. Do you think your time working for Google influenced Ashenfolk? Some of your references are Silicon Valley–related, and the way you combine them all together kind of reminds me of a search engine, a kind of Flarf-like technique. Also, it’s interesting to me that you say you want Ashenfolk to say something about negotiated reality, because it really does this for me via affect. You make language and typography that we see in the world around us — online and elsewhere — strange and familiar at the same time, uncanny, like extraterrestrial hieroglyphics. It makes me feel weird when I look at it, like I should immediately understand it but my mind won’t compute it properly. And then I think of how weird our cultural moment is, negotiating all these algorithms, decoding things all the time. How weird the internet is …
When I started working in the tech industry — geez, almost 20 years ago now — I spent my days at a small startup working on natural language processing and machine learning. We were attempting to create software that could automatically understand the meaning of webpages and classify them into predetermined categories. At the time, we worked with knowledge clusters derived from Wordnet, an open-source lexical database developed by engineers at Princeton University. At first, the software was more human-driven than machine-driven, so a team of lexicographers (of which I was a member) manually entered information into the database. I remember thinking that it was like creating a scaled-down lexical model of the world. If a new movie came out, for instance Dude, Where’s My Car?, we would enter that phrase into the database and create meaning out of the phrase by associating it with other concepts, such as “stoner movies” and “Ashton Kutcher” and “Seann William Scott.” Each of those concepts would also be semantically related to other concepts, such as “cinema” or “great actors” or “That ’70s Show” or “American Pie” or whatever. In a very literal sense we were worldbuilding, with all of the insights and biases one might expect of late Gen X and early millennial middle-class kids.
Throughout Ashenfolk I’ve embedded small correspondences, “visual rhymes” and oblique references that are meant to conjure up associated ideas, similar to the semantic relationships that I once built between words and phrases at my former job working on knowledge clusters. Later, I spent a lot of my work life building taxonomies, i.e., hierarchical tree structures, into which data (webpages, search queries, ads, other unspeakable things) could be classified. I spent so much time thinking about order, hierarchy, and relevance that I became frustrated. I wanted to build something disordered, un-hierarchical, messy, and dispersed — not irrelevant, necessarily, but relevant at a slant. I wanted to build a negative taxonomy. Then one day I was scrolling through Instagram and saw an archival flyer for a thrash metal show from the 1980s: the band names and logos in bright red, rendered in idiosyncratic typeface, arranged haphazardly on a field that looked like outer space, as if the logos had been jettisoned by a careless UFO. And that was it — that was the solution I was looking for. I had found a potential model for a dispersed and non-hierarchical taxonomy, one that was drawn from an everyday, vernacular form — the rock show flyer — and that also happened to coincide perfectly with some of the ideas and concerns of the book.
There are some other ways that Silicon Valley haunts the texts of Ashenfolk. I’m interested in that moment in the mid-’70s when the counterculture seemed to give way to cyberculture, when psychedelia meshed with software. Magazines like the Whole Earth Catalog and Radical Software were at the forefront of this movement, where art, communal living, ecology, and the DIY-ethos mixed it up with emerging computer and surveillance technology, architecture, and cybernetics. There’s a great book on this subject by Fred Turner, called From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, which examines the history of the Whole Earth Catalog, the counterculture, and the New Left. The book demonstrates that the counterculture and the commune movement were always very closely tied to military industrial research culture, that it wasn’t as if utopian ideals were appropriated by finance capital and the startups of Silicon Valley, but rather that their ideals were always very closely aligned. Later this was developed into the idea of a “California ideology” of techno-utopianism and technological determinism. Ashenfolk, I hope, takes a sort of critical-satirical approach to this history. You might say it’s an anti-accelerationist book in that sense. That way ashes lie.
Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles–based artist and writer whose work focuses on popular culture and digital media. Her fiction and poetry books include E! Entertainment, The Ravenous Audience, and the collaboration ABRA. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Artforum, Art in America, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.