Megan Volpert: Six Degrees of Andy Warhol
Author: Charles Jensen
February 21, 2012
“The tagline for the book is, ‘everybody becomes Andy,’ and that’s something I came almost unwillingly to understand—when you witness another person’s life, and chart it, and connect it to your own until some moments of it appear starkly as belonging to both of you…that’s a spiritual practice, that is the process of living.”
2011 saw the publication of several new biographies about Andy Warhol, but perhaps none with such an unusual voice as Megan Volpert’s Sonics in Warholia, from Sibling Rivalry Press. She wrote the book as a direct address to Warhol’s ghost, and took a tone with him that most people never dared to while he was alive. In this interview, Charles Jensen sits down with the author of this distinctive new book to dig into the connections between Warhol and, well, everything.
Sonics in Warholia is a fiendishly complex book, so let’s start with the wide angle establishing shot: as the title suggests, the main throughline of the book is a Hoarders-level obsession with all things Andy Warhol. What drew you to this subject, and why with such intensity?
I prefer to write in response to things, and the main criticism of my previous books is that they are not “accessible.” So I ran in the extreme direction of Andy (we are on a first name basis), because whatever you think about Warhol, you do think something. And Andy is so invested in this very notion of accessibility—that a Coke is a good subject for a screen print because whether you’re Liz Taylor or a janitor, Coke tastes the same and costs the same for everybody. Also, I have always been interested in empty signifiers, very concerned with people and objects that appear to contain multitudes. As an undergrad, I bet myself that I could use a Rubik’s Cube as a visual aid for every presentation I gave until graduation—and I did. Andy is most certainly an empty signifier; I’m hardly the first person to write about that. I should’ve said first thing that I owe a tremendous (really, tremendous) debt to Wayne Koestenbaum.
As for the intensity of the project, after ten minutes of research, I knew I had no choice in the matter. The Factory crowd is not exactly known for its accurate record keeping. I shudder to think of what the archivists at the Pittsburgh Museum are going through to document the time capsules. I’m confident that everything said in Warholia is as true as I could make it, based on the bottomless abyss of cross-referencing I attempted. In fact, the final piece in the book was going to be this giant index, but I ultimately realized it was not possible to separate out all the tidbits I had combined. Andy built an entire world, a completely self-sustaining system predicated on the dramatic ideological intersection of money and art—the book had to parallel that experience of total immersion.
The book itself is rife with facts—biographical (Warhol), scientific (Edison), technical (motorcycles), and cultural (music and film). While in many ways it almost becomes like a syllabus for a course on Warhol’s life and work, the other element here, a personal narrative, consistently threads around and links up with the other facts in a way that feels, for lack of a better word, fateful. How did you come upon the idea of marrying a deeply personal narrative with the broad social context of Warhol’s work—in the context of a letter to the artist himself?
Well, I do like talking about myself, so it tends to happen when I write poetry. But on the level of theory, it’s a mystery to me how one could avoid threading in the elements of personal narrative. Here I’m thinking of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of authorship, and documentarians like Errol Morris. Andy was ultimately such a tedious person, and a person interested in the banality of everyday living. Try reading more than ten pages of his diary, and you’ll fall asleep. So I think there is the urge to connect his comings and goings with one’s own, or to evoke one’s own memories of eating Campbell’s soup, the energy of having a conversation.
As for marrying that to the idea of writing a letter to Andy’s ghost, it just felt like the most common sense approach. The man is dead. What was I going to do, put everything in the past tense? No, the paths traced here are still very much alive, so I had to ask—what part of Andy himself is still alive to be addressed? I am not generally concerned with whether or not ghosts exist, but if Andy’s ghost doesn’t exist, I was happy to invent it. Although actually, anyone who has had a front row seat to the many harrowing production flukes of this book would probably want me to add that if the ghost of Andy Warhol does indeed exist, it clearly does not want you to read this book—which to my thinking is a very good reason to read this book.
Like Warhol himself, the book puts focused scrutiny onto common, mundane, or commercial elements from popular culture. In the first section, you use the conceit of a mix tape, with its purposeful linking of song to song, as an overarching means to explore what are often surprising connections between Andy Warhol and elements as disparate as Mick Jagger, “Mack the Knife,” Devo, Lady Gaga—as you say, “Andy, please enjoy your 58 years boiled down to fifty-seven minutes and fifty-one seconds.” Sonics in Warholia is like a giant prose mix tape that links up eight tracks not by narrative, but by theme. How did you go about establishing the form for this book, and then, more importantly, sequencing all its parts into a work that remains so cohesive?
Well, this has partly to do with what I said before about the experience of total immersion in Andy’s universe. To a large extent, I simply did what people were doing in New York during Andy’s lifetime—playing six degrees of Andy Warhol. I would start by thinking that I’d really like to talk about motorcycles, and then work backward to Lou Reed, to the Velvet Underground, to Andy. In my mind, this trope of the motorcycle would be simmering with various pet theories and bits of my own history, and then I’d read one or two of the fifty books about Andy that I had been gathering. So, I have a couple of hot spots like the bike and Lou, and then I’d just let the dotted lines form as I was sifting through whatever massive data pile aggregated out of the random Warhol book I was reading at the time. Generally, I would spend two months letting all of this marinate together, then I would spend a six or eight hour stretch on a Saturday morning putting the whole thing down, cutting and pasting various bits until the piece felt orderly—not unlike my approach to writing papers in grad school. There was only one case where I deviated substantially, and in that instance I suddenly found myself working on an outline—quite a good poem type thing on its own, now that I think about it.
As for the sequencing, I gave it no thought whatsoever until I had enough pieces for a book. I knew the bookends—what piece went first and what piece went last—pretty much the entire time. But the middle was a blur. I knew that there was no use trying for chronology, though I did somewhat hold out hope for grouping by artistic medium—the ink drawings, then the screen prints, etc. At some point, it just became obvious to me that the arch of the story was located in its evolving tone of distrust, accusation and paranoia, so I arranged the pieces in a way that would go from treating Andy as apotheosis to treating Andy as asshole. I most likely owe this insight to Bob Colacello’s book, Holy Terror, which was actually the first book I read for this project. In the end, I had to circle back to it. Colacello and Koestenbaum were my touchstones.
There are three sections in the book that deal very descriptively with death and dying, “Photographs of Stolen Things,” “Dear Diary of a Dead Man’s Telephone Number,” and “Ballad of the Maladies.” In the first, you stick fairly close to the interaction between Truman Capote and Warhol (via a quick tour stop at Capote’s Westwood grave), who based his first visual art show on Capote’s writings. The second of the sections explores Warhol’s Factory locations and the speaker’s personal loss of her brother and obsession with the phone numbers formerly belonging to the dead. The last section catalogs the deaths of those associated with Warhol, including Warhol’s death. This subject embraces almost half of the book. Why does the book associate death so closely with Warhol, and how does this relate to his work as an artist—or the work of the artist, in your opinion?
Well, first let’s immediately dispense with what you call “the speaker” of the pieces. I am “the I” in this book; make no mistake. I, Megan Volpert, the author of the book, am directly inserting myself into it. I am truly represented in the book to at least the same extent as Bret Easton Ellis is in his books, and we could argue the matter of degrees from there.
But to the real core: death. Over the past two or three years, death and I have become well acquainted. A few of my closest friends have died recently, and in agonizing, often unnatural ways. I have ulcerative colitis, which is not a fatal thing, but it is frequently very, very painful in the same ways that Andy’s injuries plagued him. So I have been spending a lot of time in the valley of the shadow, existing as a being-toward-death, as Heidegger would say. Andy also bore this relationship to death. The attempt to murder him is quite famous, but really it goes much deeper and further back than that. The cartography of Andy’s body, as well as his attitude toward death, is one of the turnkeys of this book. A touchstone here is Richard Avedon’s photo of Andy’s chest. I see it behind my eyelids; it’s almost unbearable.
It was through Andy that I actually learned to grieve a little better, myself. I’ve been telling people that this is my most personal work to date, and they seem surprised that a biographical type of work could accomplish this. But it’s true; I discovered it while doing the voice work for the audio-book companion. Sometimes I actually have trouble holding back tears when I read these pieces aloud. Anyone that knows me with any depth will find this image sort of hilarious and surreal. Still, there it is: proof of my humanity. Time has not dulled the emotional resonance of this book for me, and I am now constantly at risk of poking holes in my reputation as a bitchy badass.
I love that you’ve unmasked yourself as the voice of the book. It was difficult for me to phrase questions using “the speaker” because it felt so clearly to be you—but I wanted to preserve the collective artifice of our art. I’m glad you brought up Ellis, who has a significant presence in the book, and wonder what you found to be the challenges of inserting yourself as YOU, MEGAN VOLPERT, into this book.
Oh, I am a big believer in tearing down anything that smells like a collective artifice. Poetry, or even the business of being literary in general, is rife with these bogus pretenses. “The speaker” is one of the most persistent—the fiction of it ostensibly leaves the writer without the worry of accountability, but personally, I enjoy being responsible for the things I’ve said in my writing. So, I suppose there may be challenges to inserting oneself into one’s own book, but any problem seems to me far outweighed by the freedom of that gesture. Just for example, in one piece in this book, I describe a portrait of myself—the arched eyebrow and curled lip that haunt most of my publicity photos. That’s a public image of me that, much to my joy, has begun to crystallize and persist. But it isn’t the way my face looks all the time. My wife, or my students, or others who see me with any real regularity, know very well that I can smile, that I am not always squinting, etc. In much the same way that one is a different person at home or at work, I am a different person in my book. All are snapshots. The challenges are therefore the same as any other facet of life—one wants to put one’s best and most appropriate foot forward, and any concerns one might have about which foot to put are invariably outweighed by the pleasure of allowing some version of oneself to come into being on the page. Far more difficult would be trying to keep, or more accurately, pretending to keep myself out of a book.
“Of Confessions During Blow Job” examines America’s relationship with pornography and obscenity via what amounts to essentially an explication of the Warhol short film Blow Job, which is a static shot of a man’s face, ostensibly taken as he sits on the receiving end of the titular act. The section elevates above mere film essay, though, when it wrestles with the ethics of the film—who the man is and what became of him after this movie wrapped. The book as a whole does this in two ways: by trying to get to the man behind the sunglasses and wig in Warhol’s head and by breaking down the barrier between writer/biographer and reader. Can you discuss the concern with “the truth” or “the real story” this book has with an artist famous for his artifice?
Andy is a clever moron, or maybe even a savant. He said that if people want to know him, they can just look at the surface of his paintings and there he is. I’m not sure I am interested in “the real story.” In a sense, there is no such thing as Andy Warhol. This is what I was saying about the empty signifier. When the book was just a seedling and I had not yet written anything, already I knew that the conversation would be one-sided. I dare not speak for Andy, only to him. And to speak to him is something akin to target practice. What Eileen Myles graciously wrote for the back cover, that I have created an “unvague” Andy, strikes to the core of this issue. I don’t think the book is concerned with “the truth,” but more with the jumbled network of activity Andy built and the provocation of an emotional response to the casualties of building such a matrix. When I could get him to hold still long enough, I took aim and fired. That’s an unkind metaphor. I drew a map of him, but there is no X marking the treasure, because the map is itself the treasure. There, that sounds a bit better.
I understand where you come from on the empty-Warhol side of things, but it almost seems in order to get him to “hold still,” you had to trap him in a web of facts and rumors—dates, events, people, etc. If that’s the case, and still you found him to be relatively banal, what is the impact this same technique had on you, the speaker in the narrative, whose own dates, events, people are surrounding you? What did you find of yourself here?
To return to the metaphor of the map, it’s hard to look at someone else’s map and sense the gravitas, to understand how cool somebody else’s journey has been. So yeah, Andy’s map is often incredibly dull to the innocent bystander. But there is this other thing sliding around under there—what Roland Barthes, discussing photography, called “punctum.” The other’s journey is not really ours to appreciate, but we sometimes get a pinprick of feeling, of the sum total of significance in a moment of someone’s life. That little zing of connection touches off a web of more immediate associations and bits of our own personal baggage. Again, it’s this idea of just connecting the dots, of playing six degrees of Andy Warhol with one’s own life. We long to make meaning out of things, even or perhaps especially those things that seem the most lame. The tagline for the book is, “everybody becomes Andy,” and that’s something I came almost unwillingly to understand—when you witness another person’s life, and chart it, and connect it to your own until some moments of it appear starkly as belonging to both of you…that’s a spiritual practice, that is the process of living. So all I had to do to write this book, in the end, was allow myself to live out this connection of dots between Andy and myself. And that is not banal whatsoever.
In “Dear Diary of a Dead Man’s Telephone Number,” you cite a 1966 Village Voice ad in which Warhol offers to endorse “any of the following: clothing, AC-DC, cigarettes, small tapes, sound equipment, ROCK N’ ROLL RECORDS, anything, film, and film equipment, Food, Helium, Whips, MONEY.” In our age of rampant product placement and celebrity fragrances, Warhol’s act seems both entirely sincere and frighteningly prescient. Your book, too, doesn’t shy away from mentions of specific bands and albums, Honda motorcycles, Verizon cell phones, actual films, actual books. Some writers and artists frown upon mass culture or popular culture from invading their work. What’s your take on the impact of these elements on the work overall, and whether or not a work like Warhol’s can truly endure?
Very few objects really endure, but ideas generally do. Andy had the good fortune to attach himself to many ideas that clearly endured. Yes, it is somewhat boring to stare down at a pile of Brillo boxes. It isn’t really the boxes themselves that one wants to look at, but as they are a representation of Pop ideas, certainly you could stand there for hours contemplating them as a part of the idea. The idea is timeless. The temporal zone of the object, its finitude and obsolescence, do not decay the merits of the idea. So yes, I believe Warhol’s work can truly endure when it succeeds in encapsulating an idea that is never going away. Perhaps in a hundred years, some kid will pick up my book and wonder what the hell Verizon is—or even what a cell phone is. But that obsolescence just serves to flavor the idea, which itself is still quite vibrant.
“Ballad of the Maladies,” as it examines the deaths of Warhol cronies like Edie Sedgwick, Candy Darling, and others, also includes something of a hagiography, a cataloging of saints. I loved this juxtaposition. Can you discuss how you came to incorporate the patron saints in this section and the uncanny connections they have to their dead celebrity namesakes?
The superstars are Andy’s saints. And actually there are hundreds of saints, each with a dozen patronages, so connecting those dots was more simplistic than the work I had to do on most of the other webs in the book. More to the point though, Andy culturally identified as a Catholic. There are hundreds of pages written about how this plays out in his work, but most ordinary folks with a casual interest in the work have no sense of how profoundly religion influenced him. Originally, the cataloguing of the saints was to be included as a thread tied across all the pieces in the collection. It was even in the running as a focal point for the book’s title. I later went back and edited out most of the saints, because ultimately I decided that I wasn’t prepared to tackle the larger issues of religion; so as a motif running throughout, it would’ve turned out a bit too cheeky and shallow for my liking.
The book does end on an image of sainthood though, and for good reason. I’m sort of reluctant to even broach this, but, um, what the hell: there is a fair chance that in ten years I will be interested in coming back to the hagiography for a sequel to this Andy book. I’ve got about two thousand pages of research sitting on a shelf in my office—stuff I never even touched when completing this manuscript, including most of the texts addressing the religious elements. Thus far, religion in general has not been a subject that I find particularly interesting. But I do see a possible future project where I take steps to somewhat redeem the rather monstrous version of Andy I’ve created here, and for that, I imagine the “god stuff” will become unavoidable.
Sonics in Warholia is your fourth collection of poetry. Where do you see you moving next in your work? What projects do you have underway now?
I never get tired of answering this question—I’m a workaholic like Andy, and always have something new coming down the pipe. Currently, I am working on two projects. The more immediate one is that I am editing an anthology for Sibling Rivalry Press, due out in August 2013—This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. As a high school English teacher, this is naturally a topic near and dear to my heart, and a book that I believe the world badly needs. There is only so much visibility possible for my singular voice, but as an anthology, I think a compendium of voices excavating the experiences of queer teachers will be totally invaluable—to students, to future teachers, to everyone. It’s time for me to begin making my mark on pedagogy, not just poetry, and this is the venue I’ve chosen to get started. The decision is due in large part to my fantastic editor at Sibling Rivalry Press, Bryan Borland. In working on Warholia, Bryan and I fell into step so easily that it freaked me out a little. I’ve had some great editors, but Bryan is a class unto himself—very giving and just very gifted. So after the initial successes of SRP’s first anthology, Collective Brightness, I pitched him the idea and found that he is in love with the necessity of this project to the same extent that I am. Submission period for the anthology is January 1st through June 1st of 2012, and anybody interested to add her or his two cents can go to www.thisassignmentissogay.com for more details.
The other project is my own next book, which judging by my current rate of publication will see the light of day in 2015. These are the “tinybig” poems, or micro essays, that have been trickling out in individual publications for the past six months or so. I’m not really prepared to describe it as a collection yet, but I can furnish a partial list of influences, in no particular order: Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Tom Petty’s Playback, Jillian Weise’s The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits Volume 1, Eileen Myles’ Not Me, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, and the FX network’s television show Sons of Anarchy.
You do such an impressive job getting into the mindset of Andy Warhol in this book, so I wonder what you think Andy Warhol would say upon reading it.
As I said, I don’t really feel right about speaking directly for Andy. In fact, I participated in a Day of the Dead reading in November where I did read from The Diaries and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, and I almost puked. The audience loved it, but I’ll never do that again. It felt majorly icky, like mocking him, in a way that my book does not intend. So this question makes me nervous. That said, I think I can comment as a sort of behaviorist. After long study of the man, I do have a sense of Andy’s patterns and procedures for reacting to things. Here are my instincts:
Warhol would take four seconds to flip through the pages, and ask why there are no pictures. He would look at who wrote the blurb for the back cover. He would covertly put the book on Bob Colacello or Paul Morrissey’s desk, and then casually ask for their opinion a few days later. Whatever their opinion, he would tell the press that he himself liked the book very much, but so-and-so among his assistants thought it was no good. He would quietly ask Gerard Malanga if I am anybody important. Gerard would say no, and then Andy would avoid me at parties. In discussing these parties with the press, he would mention that I was there, but not comment on me or the book unless asked a direct question. Or alternatively, if Colacello or Morrissey or Malanga convinced him the book was really malicious, Andy might entertain the idea of putting me on the payroll at Interview, to placate me and to harness my allegedly formidable powers of slander for his own mysterious ends. There is no possible universe in which Andy takes the time to actually read my book.
I want to go back to something you mentioned at the start here about the notion of accessibility. If asked, I would probably consider this book “accessible,” although while reading it, I wasn’t thinking, “Gosh, this work is so accessible!” What do you think makes poetry accessible? What was it about the previous criticism that made you want to “experiment” with accessibility in your work?
I gave the book to my favorite janitor at the high school where I work, and to my mother—they both loved it. That was my own personal accessibility test. I am a theory junky; I also realize reading Judith Butler on a Saturday afternoon is the most pretentious hobby imaginable. For a long time, that part of my brain went unfiltered into my work as a poet and I didn’t care if anybody liked it. The result was two books that I was very proud of—and no audience that could understand them, save for a handful of graduate students. So the books were themselves cool to me, but then delivered into the hands of readers, they were like dead things. I have not been dumbing anything down; I still read Chomsky for fun, but as I get older, I have a strong desire to connect with readers. So I have tightened the noose on the part of my brain that stores all these raw ideas—now I’m interested to do some work that grabs hold of people, more people that just the other folks who can define existentialism. I want to write books that are accessible, that transmit those raw ideas via imagery, and humor, and cultural connection.
I have this incredible adventure, and birth a book. But then the book must go on and have its own adventure, and I was not satisfied with what an audience could do with my books. This time, with Warholia, I know I have made something others will value. It’s out there in the world now, and I feel sure of the adventures this book will have and of the things an audience can do with it.