The Operating System

[re:con]versations :: OF SOUND MIND :: process and practice with CHORDS’ Peter Longofono

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 In 2016 The Operating System initiated the project of publishing print documents from musicians and composers, beginning with Everybody’s Automat and this year’s chapbook series, all of which fall under the OF SOUND MIND moniker, and all of which are written by creative practitioners who work in both poetry and music. I asked each of them a series of questions about the balance of these two disciplines in their practice, which I’ll share with you here.                           

Please consider this template, approaching The OS’s key concerns of personal and professional practice/process analysis combined with questions of social and cultural responsibility, as an Open Source document — questions to ask yourselves or others about process and the role of poetry today. 

In this conversation, I talk to Peter Longofono about his work and debut chapbook on The OS Press, CHORDS
– Series Editor / OS Managing Editor Lynne DeSilva-Johnson 

I come, not entirely purposefully, from a DIY place, which is how much of my music operates. I see it as a giving affect: approaching strangers in order to give food, and to give space, give attention, give labor (none of it can happen without hours and hours of dedicated work). Only with giving can I construct a theory of self that’s adequately humble, open, and empathetic; only such a self is fit to meet the Other with the patience to try to understand or accept that understanding isn’t ordained. To give without expectation of reward! To invite and not resent if refused. It’s learning (and unlearning) modes of behavior, mostly defense mechanisms. And never, ever, ever to presume. ” –  Peter Longofono


Who are you?

Name’s Peter Longofono. I live in Brooklyn and play in BIG FIGMENT with my girlfriend Jennae and my best buds Adam and Andrew. Also play in TH!CK with Adam and another genius, Brett. I write lotsa poems, love tiramisu, am a lifelong devotee of Magic: the Gathering, and place enormous personal value on travel.

Why are you a poet / why do you write?

In its most empathetic sense, wordplay is a strong and keen force in my brain. It’s how I organize, digest, and reconfigure the world. Poets have the most license there, so that’s where I work. My poems have fidelity to the action of my thought, that’s pretty much it.

When did you decide you were a poet (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?

I used to have a problem with the title, but then I realized that I was inventing problems to address instead of addressing existing problems. So I guess that change happened right around the end of grad school in 2012. The internal decision to do everything I could in service of syntax and morphemes and whatnot happened much further back—ninth grade?

What’s a “poet”, anyway?

Broadly, a fastidious class of writers who make a personal choice not to work purely in prose, playwriting, recipe, etc. That’s the best I can do: apophatic production. They borrow from these like they borrow from ballet, geology, and couture, but the essential aspect is in the (generally) lineated, word- or letter-conscious, spatially taut object.

What is the role of the poet today?

This one’s a doozy. I look at it morally, often: to propagate betterment. But also: to be at least a little inscrutable, to honor the weird (to be the vanguard). To find and exalt the fringe compassions.

What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the poetry community and beyond)?

My role is still very much in development, and I’m not entirely sure I’ll have it down by the time I die. Nonetheless, I seek to do my part in the vast (trackless) public work of radical empathy, dealing always with individuals, rendering help when it’s needed and especially when it’s asked for. This is a larger thing than poetry for me and often requires me to set aside poetry; I don’t resent that.

Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle? 

The felicity of this project in particular was in Lynne’s request—make a chapbook, she said, and I’ll publish it. I suppose one of my mental blocks initially stood in the way: I don’t generally mix poems and music, as each is a refuge for the other (I don’t, for example, ever write lyrics). So all of these poems were written towards that purpose, they didn’t have a life before her request. It was a very plainspoken, duty-bound production ideal, and I don’t have many of those, so I’m grateful.

Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written? How or how not?

Yes, 100% a held-together, synergetic collection. The important thing is that I’d never done anything quite like this before, so it has the peculiar and mystic quality of being my first in the idiom. The idea to try to render chords as character-driven poems first occurred in late 2011, but I (rightfully) didn’t trust myself at the time, I didn’t have the nuance or the propensity to research.

Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (poems, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.

I hate to sound so boring, but the title here lives in a modest, purposeful mode—it has, of course, the strange authority of naming at all, but in a larger sense it purports to serve its contents totally. It’s a collection about chords in which each poem corresponds with one type of chord. The concept absolutely sings with clarity. This, again, goes against my standard practice of trying for the remotest, barely threaded little weirdlet of a title I can devise when it comes to individual poems. But this was, from the first, a blueprinted undertaking, and I feel that a clean-though-monumental title works best. The titles of the poems just fell right into place, stupidly easy, and I knew which chord I was working on from word one whenever I sat down to churn another one out.

What does this particular collection of poems represent to you
…as indicative of your method/creative practice?
…as indicative of your history?
…as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?

It’s very possible that I’ll fail spectacularly, [ed: no chance!] but my mission here is to defog the layperson’s sense of chord theory. In speaking with friends, musical and non-, I kept running into a surprising blank in many minds, a conversational hole where music theory should have been, coupled with a resigned, wistful air…not ignorance, but the assumption that the topic was categorically beyond them.

This book seeks to rectify that to the best of its abilities. It situates chords in a broader cultural context, but never moves very far from the (dramatic! behavioral!) dynamics between the tones themselves: why minor sixth chords have, in modern practice, a palpable sense of saudade; why major ninth chords can feel poised and urbane, yet a bit decadent. Quite plainly, I think about this sort of thing all the time, and I especially think about it when I hear friends’ new compositions, wondering if their thought-emotion-discipline lattice interprets chords through time similarly. I would like to extend that wonder to readers/listeners who may have sold themselves short.

What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write?

These poems in particular borrowed heavily from Ponge’s mastery of the thing-in-itself, his charming visuality and roving cultural index. Vallejo, too: the unapologetically strange, utterly singular stance. I’m not much of a believer in generative/constrictive devices except for ruthless editing (scalpeling, almost) in poetry; in music, the act of passing an idea back and forth until it’s satisfactory constitutes a fundamentally different methodology, though I guess it has to do with constriction in one way or another.

Talk about the specific headspace of being a musician / composer / performer – when and how do you feel you enter a space of consciousness in which “sound” or “music” is the dominant sense?

I’m much, much, MUCH more confident as a performer in the musical sense—I still quiver and mumble in reading poetry, I’m not sure if that will ever get better. I came to music first and am very much at home in it, having developed the patience for much longer. There is something strengthening and also comforting in putting in so very much practice into it. Again, discipline, I have so much respect for discipline. There’s also the fact that we speak and write to one another constantly, and usually not from a place of artmaking, such that the communicative sense and objecthood of music automatically places the listener elsewhere, somewhere they presumably couldn’t have gotten without the experience of listening. It’s wilder in that way: less human, less altogether human.

Do you feel that you are ever unaware of sound? (How) does your relationship to sound/music inform and/or affect and/or change other parts of your life / day / experience?

No, I’m never without a sense of sound/tone/noise/sonics when I’m conscious. It’s how I am, and it’s how I’m happy to be. I can’t remember the last time I was well and truly bored; the imaginary music is too compelling. Importantly, this isn’t an argument to withdraw or to hold oneself above other people. I don’t doubt that the intrinsic mind-play of any given person is anything less than extraordinary. Mine happens to usually work by sound.

Do you consider yourself equally musician/composer/poet? Are there other equally important disciplines, influences, labels or other words you’d want to call our attention to that we might not know that you feel are important in understanding your creative practice?
If we didn’t get asked “what do you do” and force ourselves to fit into easily consumable disciplinary categories, what would you like your title to be, if anything?

Yes, I’m almost exactly 50/50 in that regard. It’s worth acknowledging that I come from an explicitly Christian place/practice/mindset, and so there’s a sacrificial and self-abegnatory cast to much of my work. That’s going to turn many people off and I’ve come to terms with it. Titles are less important to me than names, as you might have guessed.

Describe in more detail the relationship between music and language in your life and practice. How and when are these discrete influences / practices and how/when are they interconnected? How do they influence each other? Do they ever not? 

Many people disagree with me here: I don’t think poetry has music. Put another way: it doesn’t have music any more than it has, as I mentioned, architecture, spacefaring, philology, meditation, and the like. It doesn’t have any special claim—it skates gorgeously over everything, and that’s its special nature. It does, I think, a disservice to the thankless and more-than-human aspects of those pursuits to ascribe them as they are to poetic practice. For example, poetry has at best a jaundiced, clumsy rhythm. This comes from an abiding respect and immersion and trust in rhythm, not from a desire to hurt poetry. But that is my place—I exist at the halfway point, able to fully engage in one or the other, and I say that it’s a lazy, disrespectful, selfish thing to say poetry has music. It uses music, but it doesn’t have it; we would call it a kind of music if it did.

In terms of your written or text based work, do you “hear” it, speak it out, hear its rhythms, before you write or as you write and/or before you perform? Do you ever memorize your texts / treat them more like a score or sheet music?

Yes, it’s critical to speak a poem as you write it. This is not to elevate spoken word to some position of authority over primarily page-based work, but rather to acknowledge a debt to the oral origins. I do it as I write, letting the shapes and spaces of the words and lines interact with their signifieds; it’s stop-and-go work, often halted or paused. I come back to old, old pieces and completely rework them. Memorization is a musical practice for me, so no, I don’t memorize my poems (I value the extemporizing/interpretive device when reading poetry aloud).

Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication.  I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”

I come, not entirely purposefully, from a DIY place, which is how much of my music operates. I see it as a giving affect: approaching strangers in order to give food, and to give space, give attention, give labor (none of it can happen without hours and hours of dedicated work). Only with giving can I construct a theory of self that’s adequately humble, open, and empathetic; only such a self is fit to meet the Other with the patience to try to understand or accept that understanding isn’t ordained. To give without expectation of reward! To invite and not resent if refused. It’s learning (and unlearning) modes of behavior, mostly defense mechanisms. And never, ever, ever to presume.

Peter Longofono’s poems and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in H_NGM_N, fields, Luna Luna Magazine, and Tenderloin, among others, He serves as the Reviews Editor at Coldfront Magazine and makes music with Big Figment and TH!CK. He lives in Brooklyn.

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