By Michael Workman
Since winning the National Book Award for poetry for his “Performance of Becoming Human,” Daniel Borzutzky has finally gotten the wider praise he deserves. An old friend whose work I published in the earliest volumes of Bridge, the journal I edited in the early aughts, Borzutzky remains less well-recognized than he deserves in Chicago, the city he today calls home. Unflinching in his embrace of difficult emotions, even and especially at the social and political injustices that mark the territory of his Latin American contemporaries, the verse of this son of Chilean immigrants evokes the finest aspirations of Raúl Zurita (whose work he has translated), Philip Levine’s deliberations on the soul of Detroit, or Carolyn Forché’s dissections of a civil-war-torn El Salvador.
His newest collection, “Lake Michigan,” takes the accomplishment of “Performance” to more dystopian, challenging extremes.
I’ve seen “Lake Michigan” described as the Homan Square section of the codex you’re working on. Is that a fair assessment?
At the end of my last book, the “Performance of Becoming Human,” there are some pieces that take place in a prison site on the beach in Chicago and so this becomes a kind of continuation of that project. On one level, it’s thinking about Homan Square and police violence in Chicago more broadly—I’ll just say that—so Homan Square is certainly a part of it, but the interest is certainly broader than that.
There’s this dividing line in the work that I think of as this reality of thought versus imagination, or poetry and politics, which some say don’t go together.
The poetry is all political and responding to the various political and economic realities of our time, and I would say two things: I wouldn’t have the pretensions to confuse poetry with policy, and so to that degree, it’s not attempting to do that, but part of the problem with that question is that it seems you can’t have the one without the other, and certainly I’m using features of poetic language and narrative throughout the book. There’s all kind of dialogues with other writers, there is repetition throughout the book of an interest in sound and rhythm, and all of those things are certainly separate from what you would do in an essay.
Doesn’t that suggest there’s something wrong with art for art’s sake?
To the degree that I don’t want to tell anybody what they should do with their art—I would start there—but I would also say that rejecting politics or doing art for art’s sake is also political, right? It’s an approach to how you think about politics in relationship to what’s going on in our society, or to what you think is going on in our society, that that’s then also a stance.
There’s anger or outrage about what’s happening that’s very visceral in your work.
In terms of imagining a country or a nation, it’s doing a couple things: on the one hand, thinking about what is already happening, to some degree under the surface, or that is not entirely visible, so something like Homan Square which literally was invisible—well, I shouldn’t say literally—but which was invisible to most of us, but then I have also been thinking about those things that are scarcely visible and drawing them out to their logical conclusions, right? And so, it comes across throughout the books in terms of state violence and treatment of immigrants, and in terms of economic policy, it’s thinking about what we know is happening but we don’t sort of panic about, and trying to push that to where I think it’s heading, and that’s what people don’t see.
With these historical precedents, for instance, talking about Pinochet as one of the original neoliberals, do you see that as a sort of parallel between what was happening in Chile and what’s happening now, what you refer to often in the text as a corpse, or a carcass economy?
Yes. Starting around 2014, I started to write a lot about what was happening in the relationship between Chile and Chicago, which I was thinking of then mostly in economic terms, and the experiments that the “Chicago Boys” and Milton Friedman wanted to enact in terms of privatizations that were done in Chile, and at extreme levels, and that serve as a model because all these ideas were being tested out. So, Chile has this sort of privatization on a mass level of schools, healthcare, social security, and so in 2012 when the Chicago Public Schools were on strike for the first time in twenty-seven years, in Chile they were in the midst of a year-long student strike, their issues were largely the same. Their issues were about privatization, and access. So I was certainly thinking about parallels; Chile uses a voucher system to supplement people’s ability to pay for private education as a way of crushing public education, which is what has been proposed recently when George Bush wanted to privatize Social Security, he talked about Chile as being the model for that, and claimed it was successful. But so, there are all these economic policies and the idea that it begins in Chicago and then moves to Chile is central, so it’s all important to me as a Chilean living in Chicago, but I like to bring it back because I think the endgame is to bring it back to Chicago and the United States, and in Chile, those policies were sustained by repression and state violence. While I’m very careful to not say that Chicago and Chile are the same thing, or that the way violence has worked is the same—of course in Chile, the numbers of people who died or were tortured are much greater—I would say that state violence, and especially abuses toward poor and minority communities, that they are used as a means of sustaining public policies that seek to rid those communities of social and public services.
Rahm’s closing down sixty public schools on Chicago’s South Side, for instance.
Right, but which is happening at the same time as cops are killing kids on the South Side, and that’s the point I want to make, is that those are not separate things. That the killing of black youth on the South Side serves as a means of sustaining the policies of shutting down those schools.
Zurita was also a performance artist, staging actions in the streets. Is that something you were thinking of when you were writing the “Performance of Becoming Human,” this sort of action?
No, I was thinking about performance, but not so much in the sense of this kind of art action. The title refers back, for me, to this story by Kafka, “A Report to an Academy,” which is about an African ape who is captured, put in chains and taken back, and tortured on the ship, and in order to find his way out, he begins to act like the humans on the ship. They’re really vile, they spit and belch all the time, and he begins to imitate them, and then finally learns how to talk and goes around Europe giving speeches on his transformation. But he, the ape, while he’s plotting how to imitate or ape the humans, he begins to speak as an artistic performance, right? So that was the seed, but it got me to thinking about the various ways that we perform humanity, on the one hand to survive. That’s one kind of performance that people have to do, but on the other hand—in all of our sort of various social situations, right?—I’m thinking particularly about the way that people with power choose to perform or not perform their humanity… is kind of central.
Humanity is a choice.
Yeah, and Kafka’s point, and then, I reference in “Lake Michigan,” Aimé Césaire’s point, is that the choice that humans, and often civilized humans make, is to act like barbarians. And they do that through systemic violence and killing of people who have less power than they do.
You’ve described neoliberalism as a resurgent force, particularly in Chicago, can you elaborate?
I’m precisely talking about those policies of public education, but not limited to that issue, we see all sorts of ways in which the public sector is affected, that the city government is deciding to disinvest in public services, to hand that over, be that through the closing of schools or mental health facilities or (privatization of) prisons, to street and utility services, so there’s all kinds of ways in which Chicago would hand over its responsibilities to private companies.
Markets and commerce have been pushed to this extreme, where the thinking is that we can monetize everything, right down to people’s sense of individuality.
Is there a point to be made or balance to account for the sense that markets can be seen as somehow less nefarious? Umm. No. Because we don’t have a lot of empirical evidence at the moment—so, okay. The ideology that is purported by neoliberals is that market economics will trickle down through competition and through job creation in order to benefit the public, and people who do not have money.
Yes, and on a fundamental level markets are a negation of collective action.
Sure, we simply don’t have enough evidence—again, if we take Chicago as the example, we simply don’t have enough evidence that there is much interest in market investment in sustaining low-income communities. Opening up a Whole Foods in poor neighborhoods is not an act which is going to end with real investment in what those neighborhoods need, and one could argue that doing things like that becomes the first step in removing low-income people from the neighborhood, right? So, no, to that degree I simply don’t see it. And again, if we toggle back and forth between Chile and Chicago, the question of whom markets benefit, it’s simply: the markets benefit people who can afford to be invested in them and who can control profit and the means of production. I just don’t see it. Chile has been using this slogan lately of “Capitalism with a human face” as an idea that could provide a counterbalance to some of the neoliberal ideas that were in place, but it’s not addressing the abandonment and social cruelties that mass capitalism and neoliberalism have created.
It’s this extremism that you’re trying to root out in this experience of the two worlds.
Yes, except the extremism is mainstream, right? It is extreme, except Rahm Emanuel runs as a liberal Democrat. Chile, since the end of the coup, has had three socialist presidents and they still have a mostly privatized school and healthcare and social security system. So, the idea is that these very right-wing policies both in the United States and in Chile have become simply the center, and to some degree, the center-left.
Do you then see these works as a critique of modernity?
I mean, just to limit the scope of the question a bit, I would say that it’s a critique of the way in which—I don’t know, I don’t know if I’m critiquing modernity in my writing, but I am critiquing the ways in which market forces and mass capitalism have existed side-by-side with extreme violence, with genocide, with racism and oppression throughout the United States, and that they are forces that simply run parallel. To that degree, that’s a facet of modernity, yes.
So now with the elevation of Trumpism and the collusion of the far right, the full range of bigotry and devaluation of humanity is on display. If there’s any art form that has an effective capacity to work against all that, it’s poetry, right?
Yes. That’s right. I would say two things. I would say, stepping again outside of the United States and thinking about the ways in which writers and artists in South America and Latin America have sought to affect the public sphere through art. That is an ideal, well, that that is a value that has existed for many writers and artists who have lived under dictatorships. Poetry and literature in general are so marginalized that the question of audience is inevitably really limited, and as a writer, I’m always struggling against the idea of wanting to write in such a way as to participate in a public narrative, or in a public dialogue, or to have my work commenting on what’s going on in the public, and knowing that that is extremely limited. But the writers who I admire most felt very devoted to that idea, right? That their writing should be in conversation with a public, that it should have some service in inspiring social thought and action in some way.
Daniel Borzutzky will read with Nate Marshall on March 14 at 6pm at Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 South Woodlawn, (773)752-4381 and April 27 at 7:30pm at Women and Children First, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299.