OUT OF MY OWN WAY: an Interview with Edwin Torres

by Ken L. Walker

Referring to a recent statement that the recording artist M.I.A. made in Interview magazine, Edwin Torres advises that if you wake up in the morning and want to do something easy, then something is wrong. That work ethic has led Torres to become a trailblazer, be it through his radical text and performance works or his award-winning graphic design; he is an artist who can transfigure a solo cabaret out of an old suitcase, and he harbors a midlife exuberance that many would envy. The poet/performer Rodrigo Toscano calls Torres a “one-man poetic theater phenomenon,” a virtuoso who has performed at every major space in New York City, including Central Park, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as on MTV. His books and CDs include The All-Union Day of The Shock Worker(Roof Books), Fractured Humorous (Subpress), and Holy Kid (Kill Rock Stars), and a new book,YesThingNoThing, is forthcoming next year.

His latest book, In the Function of External Circumstances (Nightboat Books, $14.95), may be his most interesting yet—calm but unafraid. It’s a sectioned work that turns mere readers into diary-voyeurs. Torres also considers it the “first book I’ve ever really composed.” I sat down with Torres at a bar in SoHo to talk about some of our favorite poets, musical acts, designers, and the Slam movement.


KLW: Who might make a list of your top five favorite recording artists?

ET: Five out of a thousand: Prince, Bjork, Roxy Music, Arvo Part, John Lennon.

KLW: Definitely five on my iPod. What about poets you love who aren’t your friends?

ET: Five out of a hundred: Harryette Mullen, Charles Bernstein, Mark Strand, Brenda Hillman, Marianne Moore.

KLW: Interesting—there’s a huge amount of space between, say, Bernstein and Strand.

ET: Well, I’ve never wanted to fit into a single space or category. I find inspiration in a multiplicity of spaces.

KLW: What about graphic designers (dead or alive)?

ET: El Lissitsky is one of my all time kings! He used photography and collage during Russian Constructivism with a discerning eye towards freedom and innovation. His “Prouns” (ground-breaking creations between architecture, painting and drawing) were visionary minimalist structures of a world that could not exist but made you question balance and groundlessness. Bradbury Thompson, who used the new technology of the four-color lithographic process in the ’50s as license to experiment with bold design in the way computers are used now. Tibor Kalman left his stamp on anything he touched. And of course Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus photo-designer. Maybe my age is showing but I think a lot of designers nowadays have it too easy; there are loads of contemporary designers who can pull out a brilliant logo or poster here and there, but sustained over a lifetime . . . that’s a different story.

KLW: Is it as gratifying doing design work as it is writing poetry? What similarities do you find between the two mediums?

ET: The external circumstances I allude to in my book allow for a finality of movement once you accept what is and isn’t yours to control. Creative energy is a vibration, moving through you, which I’m thankful to experience however it comes out. When I get on stage and feel connected to my external vibration, my reaction is a visceral oneness with the universe, with the audience, with the energy they give me. The writing of the work is a deeper stirring of the pot, the formula unleashed once it’s spoken.

While graphic design has its focused drive, its ability to clear out the filter for the message to live in two dimensions, there is a complexity to the reach of language that I don’t get in graphics. A similarity between graphics and poetry would be communication, in its purist form. The poem’s line and all the depth implied, the geometric shape and all the simplicity implied. Each one brings a different focus to what I’m saying. But poetry is my soul.

KLW: So, do you receive more pleasure composing poems for the page or for the stage?

ET: When I was traveling with the Nuyorican Café poets during the ‘90s and spoken word was a hot topic at the time, reporters, not knowing what to make of all this burbling energy on the stage, would trip over themselves trying to attach meaning to the experience.

When I get asked about comparing page with stage, I’m always brought backstage to a stained-glass cathedral in Salisbury, England, with TV cameras in our faces—we were treated like strange rock stars over there, with the press at once confused and fascinated. I’ve since realized that the pleasure I get in poetry is the connection with the audience, a kind of Interactive Eclecticism. This way of entering a performance first occurred when my friends asked me to come perform at really small venues. They’d say, “Hey, come tell those jokes that you tell.” I learned as I went, learned as I presented more of my work. And good friends will tell you when you stink.

But, now, it’s not like it was in the early ’90s. Now, there’s so much competition to become great right away. Then, the punk mentality was still in the air. Now, Patti Smith is considered retro. The filter’s harder to come by. I learn from John Cage—no intention.

The fascinating aspect of a poem’s creation, to me, is that its life on the page gets to have a rebirth when experienced on stage. The entirety of poetry—its difficulty, its mystery, its colloquial and invented language, its broken craft, the re-imaginings lurking within the mistakes, the sound, the outcome—all of poetry is what turns me on. My pleasure, your gift, one action—if that doesn’t sound too treacly.

KLW: How and where do you compose most of your poems? I ask this because some of my friends accuse me of writing “on the go” too often, but many of the poems from In the Function of External Circumstances strike a similar chord.

ET: If someone’s accusing you of writing too quick, they’re just jealous! How great to catch the speed of everything around you. Sometimes I catch the raw drive of the poem in a few journal pages “on the go” and then compose it on my computer keyboard much later when I transcribe it. And some of them take years to finish. I like infiltrating the ‘labored’ works with bits of spontaneity. But I also don’t analyze the process; don’t want to know why something works—the mystery keeps the breath silent.

KLW: When and how did you first decide to incorporate your own written words with audio?

ET: My performances in the early ’90s, in which I was truly a one-man show, gave me the impetus to experiment because no one said I couldn’t. In my crammed studio apartment, when my two cats were my only overhead, I placed tape recorders next to each other to capture low frequencies, in a lo-fi attempt to mimic Eno’s recordings of worms . . . I was a very lonely boy then. This became a way to pass my days as an outsider to the world, by staying in. I guess I nurtured my own privacy.

I had friends but enjoyed creating stuff in my too-crammed apartment that no one ever came to. My extension into the world happened onstage, so whatever I created at home made its way onstage. And in the ’90s, it was easier to make performances for small audiences without feeling that you were a failure. Over time, you discover the incredibly cool neighborhood record store, the radio station, the people that guide you towards where your hearing takes you. I think Bart Plantenga’s radio show on WFMU, “Wreck This Mess,” was a huge influence on me. It was where I first heard words recorded with music in totally interesting ways, theater, performance, Firesign Theater, strange European sound artists . . . Bart’s show encompassed everything I was ready for then. He’s actually still doing his show in Amsterdam, I believe it’s syndicated on the web. Kenny Goldsmith replaced his show on WFMU.

I kept finding “new” things, codes for avant-garde, all the way back to the Dadaists. Even Ernie Kovacs, just seeing people do wacky stuff. But I had a work ethos—and I wanted to bring the everyday man into language poetry. I much liked that the performer could be the stagehand. That blew my mind. Stuart Sherman would bring out a suitcase, open it up and interact with visual puns. The artist became the invisible worker and back and forth like that.

KLW: I love how personally motivated and ruthlessly lyrical In the Function of External Circumstances feels. Can you tell me about the sections that the book is divided into? Do they represent variant ideas in the sense of what you were saying about the merging of performer/stagehand, etc?

ET: Thanks for that. The book’s life gears itself through body awareness. This collection sort of magnetized itself as it took shape. I know I wanted the wild diary section to be in the center, as a way to root the book in travel. The first section can be seen as an introduction using brief poems to bring in a sense of the book’s voice. Once we’re in, the next section allows love to mold into the contours of the pages. The diary section catches transformation in process. The fourth section is a departure, a sort of cleansing of the palette after the heavy diary section. A graphic tone is introduced here also, which brings in the idea of the sensory, the skin in its title functioning as reader’s/book’s/poet’s skin. The last section is a coda set up by the Flaubert poem. I don’t really see the book as a ‘selected’ although the scattered range of the pieces could seem stitched together. Each poem relates to its neighbor, a governing body in control of the dynamics. The thematic intimacy in the book was an afterthought—I was just hoping to have some sort of flow. As far as the lyrical intent, music and rhythm are apparent in all my work. I can’t escape from the lyric, a topic I wrote about in my poem “The Impossible Sentence.” But I also am not interested in standing for one or the other poetic ideal, the poem is what it needs to be . . . I guess I’m a commoner. In the words of Lennon, “a working class hero is something to be.”

KLW: Slam poetry has become incredibly popular. Yet the slam movement still gets lambasted by some parts of the academic microcosm. Any thoughts on this?

ET: When I was involved in the slam scene, the poets were writing for an audience of poets; we had a gathering of ears that were tuned into the subtleties of language and structure. So each week, for maybe eighteen months, the poets were riding on this enormous wave of creative exploration, trying to outdo each other more in writing than performance. The stage was an afterthought, a vehicle for the content. When the stage became the content itself, when the audience changed to money-paying non-poets, slam became more popular but less challenging poetically. Now it serves as a great accessible entry point for a wider range of people who may never have thought of poetry as a cultural force, let alone entertainment.

KLW: Given your artistically radical drive, did MTV make you feel like a sellout at all?

ET: No way, I was ecstatic to reach such a large audience. Didn’t re-mix the poem for mainstream consumption, happy to have a sound poem like “Peesacho” appear in its original form in front of pre-Def Jam twenty-something hipsters.

KLW: Has “the audience” really expanded that much?

ET: Poetry’s audience has remained, I think, in the same relation since the beginning of time . . . there’s just more people now, so the same proportion will be interested in what poets have to say. And the same larger chunk will avoid poetry like the plague.

KLW: Are words more sounds or concepts?

ET: I posted an entry on the Poetry Foundation’s blog based on this question:http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/04/magic-maker/

KLW: What about translation in the semiotics era—any theories, personal or intellectual?

ET: Translation is beyond me—all respect to good translation! Here we have an original poem lived in the life of the poet. Once translated into its new language, an entire life has been re-imagined . . . how could it not be an entirely different poem? I once “translated” a Bonanza TV episode that was running in Barcelona, so it was dubbed in Catalan, which has a beautiful register between Spanish and Portuguese. I could re-hear what Ben and Hoss were almost saying and pretended to translate wildly inappropriate sentences like, “but men are slaves in March,” bringing me to a sort of appropriated poetry in the misplaced juxtapositions—using sound and the actor’s gestures to invent narratives that didn’t exist based on familiar translucencies of my history with a language I barely know. But that’s as close as I get to theory. Sound is where I jump on translation . . . a visual homophonics, an interpretation more than a translation.

KLW: Because it is logically incorrect, how is it possible for one man to be “a variety show”?

ET: Ah, but every human is a variety show! Look at that balancing ball of light whirling over the bean . . . look at ’em two-handed arms holding that podiatrist . . . I am merely a reflection of my own heyyawannas. I suppose unleashing creativity in the guise of total embarrassment could count as entertainment, but to paraphrase the 1980s, “perfpo-langpo-latinos just wanna have fun.” Play and fun can be scary for people who insist on maintaining the cultural elite. I feel an obligation to wreck pre-existing poetic notions, and part of that involves doing my own stunts. If that means the poem needs to be sung a bit, chanted, grueled, incised, gestured, mimed, or kissed . . . so be it. However, I’m wary of belittling the work via the novelty of “variety.” Age has taught me how to coax a poem into its being and what tools to use when; wherever, possible I try to get out of my own way.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010