The Poetry Project

Plastic Passion

A conversation between poet Allison Cobb and performer Alex Tatarsky

Allison Cobb has written about birth, death, graveyards and, most recently, she traces the journey of plastic as a shared cultural story in Plastic: An Autobiography. Alex Tatarsky is currently organizing the experimental lecture series Rot Talks, whose first event looked at how (or if) plastic rots—and the series takes place in a graveyard. So there were lots of synchronicities. Andrea Abi-Karam set the two up to discuss some shared lines of inquiry. Here is that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

AC: Why did you name your series of conversations at the Poetry Project “Rot Talks”?

AT: Well, most simply put, because rot… talks. I’m trying to listen to the decompositional process. Etymology has come to appear to me as a composting of language. Breaking down language structures into pieces, and the accompanying visionary possibilities of remaking words and worlds by re-forming these pieces differently. I’m curious about the etymological detours that are threaded throughout your book Plastic: An Autobiography. How did you come to this curiosity about roots and stems of language? How has it guided or shaped your thinking into plastic? And the plasticity of language?

AC: I have always been interested in the seams and roots of things. How things come together and how they fall apart. I started exploring etymologies in my book Green-Wood about Brooklyn’s historic cemetery. It seemed right to look into the underground life of words in English as I explored that cemetery. American English is such a fascinating mongrel language, steeped in violence. It has grown from the roots of its own original ground being conquered (Roman Empire, Norman conquest) and grafted to itself words from the places it conquered and colonized (Americas, Caribbean). I want to expose those roots, those violences. In the same way in the Plastic book, I wanted to explore the violence underlying plastic. I agree that getting to the root can help remake words and worlds, as you beautifully put it. I also use etymologies as sort of a chance aid to poetic composition—what associations can I draw from these word roots? The online etymology dictionary compiled by Douglas Harper is a poetic and well-researched reference that I rely on a lot.

AT: I began reading Plastic while preparing for Rot Talks, a series loosely clustered around different materials and their relationship to decay. The first is “Rust & Plastics,” which, as the poet Sparrow pointed out to me, is a bit asymmetrical. Shouldn’t it be “Metal & Plastic” or “Rust and…” but what’s the word for plastic breaking down? Perhaps it’s also a project of language to describe things we don’t yet have precise enough language for so that they might become possible. Plastic disturbs me because like the toxic structures you mention, it seems determined to stick around.

AC: Plastic of course does not rot. We are both probably breathing it right now as a fallout that blankets the planet, like nuclear fallout. Rust and Infinity, maybe? The infinity symbol was the first trademark for industrially produced plastic.

AT: Yes! And yet it’s quite fragile. After some time in the sun, you touch it lightly and it explodes into thousands of tiny shards! And these broken up pieces of plastic—which remind me of the broken up pieces of language you look at etymologically—form a large part of your autobiography. The pathways of pieces. Where they came from and where they end up. Which, in one upsetting scene, is the belly of a bird. I myself am a horrible pen chewer. And pens are plastic. So as I read your book, I too am eating plastic like a bird. We think we send the toxic material far away—to a dump or recycling plant—when all this time it’s actually in us. And of course this feels like how colonialism sticks around, pretending not to be there but still causing harm, and harder to get rid of if you can’t even see where it resides inside you. Where are you on your plastic path now? How do you reconcile its place in your life—this fascination and disturbance that reads at times like love?

AC: In the journey of the book, I wanted to take a piece of plastic, a piece that most people would consider garbage, a broken-down car part, and treat it with a reverence that accorded with its value. This was an object made from lives. The lives of dead sea creatures compressed over millions of years into gas and oil. The lives of people who drilled and extracted those fossil fuels. The lives of people who built the pipelines and ships that transported those fuels. The lives of people who worked in the factories and turned those raw materials into plastic, and then into an object with a shape and function. The lives of the people who breathed the pollution from all those processes. The lives of all the creatures affected along the way. Taking the car part across the country and trying, unsuccessfully, to return it to the Honda Odyssey factory was a bit of theater, an absurdist gesture that asked a serious question. What do we do with the legacy of this material that lasts forever, that we consider trash, but that turns into a ubiquitous infinity and comes back to us in the air we breathe and the food we eat? The journey isn’t over. I still have the car part with me. It will last of course past my own life. I continue to dwell entangled in the contradictions and complicities of living as a privileged person in a settler colonialist system that profits off of consume-and-dispose violence.

AT: The artist Kenya (Robinson) who gave an etymological tarot reading at Rot Talks says “privilege is plastic material.” She has made work with plastic dollar store flowers, plastic power cords, plastic lighters, plastic combs, smooshed cakes replicated in resin, plastic lamination, and carries around a small white man in her pocket, a figurine she made—of course—of plastic.

AC: Speaking of absurdist gestures, Alex, your work dwells in the absurd, in humor. My partner and I were watching some of your Quar Hovel videos and just howling with laughter. What is the role of humor in your work?

AT: I’m so happy to hear you were howling! The memory that is coming to mind is sitting in a circle on the floor in third grade debating a big development being built on an empty lot that would put an end to the farmer’s market there. And I recall declaring with gravity, “I love the farmer’s market because that is where I get my veggies.” And everyone burst into laughter. It utterly mystified me. Was it how I said the word “veggies”? Was it the look on my face? The grandiosity? The simplicity? Well, whatever, it felt amazing! Laughter is how you know someone is listening. How in the heck could I get them to laugh again! Humor is still a mystery to me so I never try to be funny, that feels doomed. I just try to research improvisationally whatever I’m already thinking about, which is generally: nothingness, self-loathing, doom, hellscapes, plastic bags with smiley faces, the horror of being a self, etc. And the way humor functions increasingly seems to resemble my ongoing obsession with compost: disparate elements brought together, mixed up, grotesque, delightful, unsettling. A way to grapple with mortality that turns it into something else.

AC: Alex, your work also seems to rely on duration as an essential element. Your Quar Hovel videos are all longer than 20 minutes—one is more than 50 minutes, which is a long time in internet land. You have a song about compost that extends for eight minutes. Tell me about your relationship with duration.

AT: Haha, wow, yes, I am convinced I have nothing to say, but perhaps I have too much to say? Quar Hovel emerged in the early daze of lockdown, so I was still doing, like, “normal” live performance units of time: a half hour set or an evening-length show. And then I got utterly depressed by the screen and now I try to stay away from it as much as is professionally possible. But you’re right, I was singing 10-minute compost songs before lockdown so maybe it is a thing. I’m certainly interested in duration and comedy in terms of what it means to endure something, for instance, a life. And the rhythm of how a thing is funny, stops being funny, and then starts being funny again—if you stick with it through the dark void of its unfunniness. And acknowledge how terribly bleak it is. That’s all a clown is, really, someone who says yep. This is bad. This is really not going very well. But online there’s no palpable audience laughter and silence to respond to. A livestream is like some existential cafe people keep poking their heads into and deciding immediately that it’s not for them. No one even sticks around for a drink. Babbling into the nothing is a tender and wrenching practice that most of us do so much of the time, as writers, humans, and internet users. So why not really go for it?! Sink into a feeling and stay there! Which I also feel you’ve done with your book. This makes me think about how plastic in its resistance to rot is a kind of durational performance itself, a performance of endurance. And to endure is the ability to bear suffering. So, aha! You’ve solved my performance practice for me. Perhaps interest in duration is interest in our ability to endure. The two words share a root in the Latin durare, to harden. What is it like to stay soft in a world that asks us to harden? High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a hard rigid plastic whereas low-density (LDPE) is flexible. Polypropylene. It can bend without breaking. Are there particular strategies you’ve learned from plastic? Or could you talk more about the science of the substance, what facts have stayed with you? And how certain physical qualities come to function metaphorically?

AC: What I learned from plastic is the importance of being able to die. The laboratory molecules that make plastic cannot be broken down and turned into fuel—composted—by living creatures. So they endure and endure and now have become a monstrous ubiquity on our planet. The etymology of “live” means, as you allude, “to remain, continue”—what is alive is essentially what has endured. But perhaps the true quality of life is that it ends. It transforms into something else. The last line of my book After We All Died is “Maybe then, learning to be dead, something can live.” I was talking about the need for white supremacist, heteropatriarchal settler colonialism to die because it is killing all other forms of life and the planet. I wrote After We All Died on a break from writing the Plastic book because I got so depressed writing about plastic. And one of the main experiences writing the Plastic book was my mother dying. It was such a powerful, strange, mixed experience of grief and joy. She got lung cancer that spread to her brain, and she died very quickly—within three weeks of her initial diagnosis. I took another break from writing the Plastic book to be with her during her dying. She had a lot of will in her death. She didn’t want to live and have a long physical suffering, and she didn’t. After she died I had strong experiences of her joy. I felt closer to her in some ways after she died. She urged us, her loved ones, to live in joy, not grief. So—compost—that is the miracle of new life out of death that plastic denies.

AT: I was particularly shocked by our shared familial entanglements with the horrors of plastic as a material developed for war. During this Quar Hovel period you mentioned, I developed a true fixation with plastic. I hoarded plastic bags, spinning them into yarn for weaving. I couldn’t part with a single plastic bottle cap. Massive green soda bottles I held to my chest like giant knockers, plastic salad containers and yogurt containers I saved for a dream garden of microgreens or cut up into colorful bits. The plastic piles became of concern to my roommates. One day, crouched on my fire escape whispering to my therapist (it was impossible to find any privacy under these circumstances) I told her of my increasing obsession with plastic. Should I give up performance and throw myself into starting a local recycling plant? Despite having not a nick of engineering experience? Was I losing it? And then I recounted—seemingly wholly unrelated—how my grandpa had been a Navy captain and apparently made a fortune after the war with his factory manufacturing… plastics. Good grief! Was a plastic fixation a way of grappling with the shame of privilege? The horrors of history? The despair over plastic’s—or my own—unhealthy mode of breaking down? I think a lot about what it would look like for breaking down to be healing. So I am wondering how your research and writing has been a mode of working through both family history and cultural history. Can you talk a bit about this experience? And your relationship to the form of autobiography?

AC: Aha! So we share grandfathers in the Navy as well as a plastic obsession. To continue with breaking down—one thing I wanted to do with the Plastic book was break apart the idea of an “autobiography” and the idea that any of us exist as discrete individuals. Individualism is one of the poisons that feeds and is fed by our deathly white supremacist capitalist meritocracy here in the U.S. As the physicist Karen Barad points out, we are never discrete individuals—it is really the relationship that is the unit of existence, not the individual. We come into being encased inside another nervous system, after all. So I wanted to make the idea of an “autobiography” really plastic—to stretch and expand it to include the car part, the thermonuclear and atomic bombs, an albatross in the Pacific Ocean, a World War II Japanese airplane designer, all as aspects of my own self in the world. Some people react to this book by saying it is complex. I think they might mean that as a bad thing. But I didn’t want to impose a linear narrative. I wanted to approach the entangled complexity of plastic—the phenomenon that is plastic—while remaining anchored in my own lived experience, so that people could, you know, kind of live it along with me. I thought of it as a way of inviting people into the complexity, using my own body and life as the “ground” for an audience of readers. Speaking of audiences, you said in one of your performances that your job is not to “entertain” but to “make art.” Partly, I think, you were making a joke about this, but you were pointing to a real tension. You also bemoaned the continual imperative to find an audience, to get “butts in seats.” How do you understand or navigate this tension in your work?

AT: Inviting people into the complexity! That’s exactly it. Inviting oneself into the complexity, as well. It can feel so difficult to dwell there. Hm, well I must confess I remember neither of those quotes you allude to. When it’s going well, I am in a performer blackout. But yes, claiming that I “make art” was almost certainly a joke—to absolve me of the responsibility to entertain, a responsibility I find truly terrifying. In fact, I wrote a song during the pandemic that I’ve never sung for anyone besides myself and it goes I’m a clown without a job / I’ve discovered I prefer being serious / It’s scary making people laugh I quit / I was never even ever very good at it. I am so desperate to be loved by an audience, but no one loves desperation so it’s quite the paradox. I have to trick myself that I don’t care. I’m making art. And art is allowed to be extremely uncomfortable. So the claim is really about freedom, a kind of permission to enter the exquisite discomfort of confusion combined with honesty. After all, art is just whatever you can get away with. Hm, but now I’m thinking of that poem you sent me, about the clown.

AC: I felt the NEED to send you the poem “I made this” about clowns and poop and dirt and worms that I mentioned from my book After We All Died.

AT: Yes! I searched for “poop” in the pdf you sent in order to find your poem and maybe that's the ticket.... seek poop and you shall find a poem. An approach which is always on my mind these days: worm practice as arts practice! Agh, I love a poem about clowns and poop and dirt and worms. There’s so much in it. The intestine as the way the world runs through you. I have to send your poem to some collaborators of mine working on a project about the microbiome, clowns… and Jewishness. Or, like, historical trauma. Or, like, being both oppressor and oppressed—examining where the shit of the world flows through you and becomes you, becomes your shit. And then your work is the work of the worm, processing shit and making shit, but making the richest of shit, transforming those broken bits we absorb into something nourishing. Wow, which certainly casts the whole “butts in seats” thing in a different light. We are all asked to bring our shit to the table. Or maybe, if I bring my shit, you’ll feel more comfortable bringing yours. Or something. And, hopefully, we can all eat. That’s the goal. That everyone gets to feast. There is enough to go around. Oh my gosh! I just looked up the etymology of entertain. Apparently it’s from the Latin inter “among” and tenere “to hold.” Also meaning, originally, to “show hospitality” or to “allow something to be taken into the mind.” Which is really, at the end of the day, an openness to plasticity -- the "capability of being molded or formed; property of giving form or shape to matter." Oh my goodness, so I think perhaps entertainment believes in the plasticity of minds. The possibility of forming and reforming not only matter but what matters. G-d bless the entertainer, may she find the muse in plastic. Not to mold instruments of war but to mold a world without it.

AC: And there, Alex, you have so beautifully arrived at the answer to your own question, about what it would look like for breaking down to be healing.

#265 — Summer 2021