2016 National Book Award Winner, Poetry
Joy Harjo, Chair of the judges' panel for the 2016 National Book Awards for Poetry, presents Daniel Borzutzky with the honor.
The Performance of Becoming Human
(Brooklyn Arts Press)
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Daniel Borzutzky: When I wrote this book I was thinking about my hometown of Chicago and how it destroys itself, abolishes public services, closes psychiatric hospitals, privatizes or shudders its public schools, and militarizes its police that have murdered and tortured with degrees of impunity since the 1970s.
I was thinking about how Chicago is like the Chile my parents left in the 1970s, which destroyed itself by depleting public services, by privatizing and destroying its public schools, by privatizing and destroying its social security system, by murdering and torturing its citizens in the name of neoliberal progress.
I was thinking about immigrants, refugees and workers in the US and abroad who give up their lives to survive in economies that exploit them and make them invisible.
And I was thinking about bureaucracies and the abuse of data and fake mathematical measures to justify the destruction of real people’s lives.
I was thinking those who cannot survive the brutalities of our rotten economies.
In Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, the surreal and the absurd come together to show that we are living in the apocalyptic future we once feared. These poems ask how we (or maybe how dare we) experience the tragedies of oppression and cruelty as if they were as mundane as making the bed: “They chopped up two dozen bodies last night and today I have to pick up my dry cleaning.” Through repetition and obsessive accumulation, every phrase leaps off the page, begging to be spoken aloud, or shouted. The work is as personally conflicted as Berryman’s, as stealthy as Celan’s, and as openly political as Ginsberg’s.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Following in the path of his acclaimed collections The Book of Interfering Bodies (Nightboat, 2011) and In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy (Nightboat, 2015), Daniel Borzutzky returns to confront the various ways nation-states and their bureaucracies absorb and destroy communities and economies. In The Performance of Becoming Human, the bay of Valparaiso merges into the western shore of Lake Michigan, where Borzutzky continues his poetic investigation into the political and economic violence shared by Chicago and Chile, two places integral to his personal formation. To become human is to navigate borders, including the fuzzy borders of institutions, the economies of privatization, overdevelopment, and underdevelopment, under which humans endure state-sanctioned and systemic abuses in cities, villages, deserts. Borzutzky, whose writing Eileen Myles has described as “violent, perverse, and tender” in its portrayal of a “kaleidoscopic journey of American horror and global horror,” adds another chapter to a growing and important compendium of work that asks what it means to a be both a unitedstatesian and a globalized subject whose body is “shared between the earth, the state, and the bank.”
About the Author
Daniel Borzutzky’s books and chapbooks include, among others, In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy, Bedtime Stories for the End of the World!, Data Bodies, The Book of Interfering Bodies, and The Ecstasy of Capitulation. He has translated Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Planks and Song for His Disappeared Love, and Jaime Luis Huenún’s Port Trakl (2008). His work has been supported by the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pen/Heim Translation Fund. He lives in Chicago.
Get THE BOOK
Interview by Stephen de Jesús Frías
The characters in Daniel’s collection The Performance of Becoming Human inhabit one of two worlds: those who get to choose who they will be and those who don’t. His poems toe the line between satire and magical realism with a tinge of dark comedy—poems which can make you squirm as quickly as they can make you laugh. He can effortlessly go from “the immigrant laborer run over by a tractor,” to talking about the cultural relativity of Mr. Miyagi in Tijuana. Nothing in this book is afraid of the monsters out there—instead, it holds a mirror to them, laughing.
Stephen de Jesús Frías: Who or what are your biggest influences when it comes to writing? One of my favorite writers is Roberto Bolaño, who is also Chilean, and I see a lot of him in your writing.
Daniel Borzutzky: I would say first of all I am more influenced by novelists than I have been by poets. When I started writing there were a few writers who were very important to me. Marguerite Duras is one, Juan Rulfo from Mexico, Clarice Lispector from Brazil, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and writers like Bolaño as well who are very much political on the one hand but also uncontainable. They write with this great drive and energy, so often these writers don’t use paragraph breaks, and have fluid, over-exaggerated forms. And Spanish-language writing has been more important to me as well than English writing. Raúl Zurita and César Vallejo are two writers who I would not want to live without.
SJF: What else informs your writing, or the themes of your poems? Your work can be heavily political. Is it just a matter of interest, or emotional connection, or is the influence more foundational, like your upbringing, growing up in a Latin American family?
DB: I think I have always felt that I should be writing about the world that surrounds me, and in an immediate way. I’ve felt an urgency to think about and write about the various political violences that we live with. In The Performance of Becoming Human, as in my other books, I write about economic violence, police violence and torture, violence towards immigrants, corporate barbarism, racism, the destruction of unions and the neglect of the poor, among other things. And I’ve been writing about how bureaucracies try to justify, through abusive data collection practices, the various violences they administer. At this point, I don’t really know how to not write about these things. I don’t know what else my writing could do.
SJF: Is there a space for writing to be an agent of change, particularly in the U.S.? Or is just a matter of hoping the writing informs enough people to incite something in them?
DB: On one level, what writing can maybe do is create a form of political memory, and a memory of that which society tries to make invisible. On another, poetic thinking offers, as I’ve tried to articulate, a means of resistance to bureaucratic thinking, to the kind of thinking that seeks to destroy the humanity of individuals by turning them into nameless, faceless numbers that can be quantified and disaggregated into minute bits of data. Poetic writing, for me, acknowledges the way that authoritative forces turn us into data bodies, and perhaps poetry can help us see our way out of the violence done to us by the various forms of bureaucratic language and bureaucratic politics we run up against every day.
And then for me translation has also been very important: as a model for how to think about multilingualism and the importance of other language speakers and other languages that exist not just outside of our country, but within it as well. Translation of literary work, for me, is a way of helping us understand not just what happens in other countries, but when you are translating writing from Chile you inevitably come up against not only how U.S. imperialistic policies have negatively impacted other countries, but also how the policies of a place like Chile—-its modes of privatization and state violence—-have also been copied by the U.S.
SJF: Do you prefer translating over writing? There such a passion when you talk about translating.
DB: In many ways, my writing community has been established because of the people I have been involved with through translation. This includes writers from other countries. But it also includes poets, translators, and editors in the U.S. who have helped me think about how translation facilitates the ways in which identities can be formed by relationships to multiple nations, and informed by movement both across and in-between those nations, and in-between the different languages that people occupy and are able to speak or perform. So I think that that is part of it. Then, at the level of immigration, I think over the last ten years we have been simply witnessing this incredible hostility towards foreigners and immigrants to such a degree that the country has become pretty comfortable with allowing foreigners and immigrants to be not only economically marginalized but also physically marginalized, dehumanized, and made to feel as if their languages are not welcomed or viable in the U.S. Translation, hopefully, helps create a different model for how we can integrate, rather than isolate, other language speakers and language groups.
SJF: Is that where the title comes from? This idea that we are not human and only become human when someone else acknowledges us. I say that only because of the use of the verb “becoming” versus “being.” In the latter case you are innately human, but the former is sort of dependent on outside forces, like you aren’t human until someone says you are.
DB: I actually wrote a poem in 2006 or so that was called “The Performance of Becoming Human,” and about seven or eight years later I wrote this other one, that became the title of this book. The title has its roots in a story by Kafka called “A Report to an Academy,” which I reference in both poems. The story is about Red Peter, an African ape who is captured by European soldiers and taken on a ship back to Europe. On the ship, he’s trapped in a cage, tortured, and he realizes that his only way out of his predicament is to become human. So he begins to imitate these guys on the ship who spit and belch all the time. In the end he becomes way more civilized than all of them and goes around Europe giving speeches to scientific conventions and things like that. So there’s a line in the story about how when he starts to speak for the first time, he sees it as a performance. That said, abstracting from the title, I am thinking about the ways in which we either attempt to perform our humanities or fail to even try to perform our humanities. This performance is social, political, linguistic and ethical.
SJF: What does it mean to you to be human?
DB: First I would say that I write a lot about bodies in the book, and I’m aware that in my writing the body becomes something of a categorical term, as a way of thinking about how humans are able to abstract from acts of violence, and to not see the individuals who are the victims of this violence, but to instead simply see them as dehumanized bodies. I’d like to hope that writing can make us think about the individualities of those who are anonymously discarded by human-made violence.
In terms of what being human means: I don’t think I have an answer to that, but what I think one of the things the book is thinking about is that not everyone gets to choose what kind of human they are going to be. Power and privilege allow people to make more choices about how to live their lives, and unfortunately one thing that being human means is that privileged humans create horrible hierarchies of exploitation and abuse that those with less privilege must figure out how to survive. I am interested in the various ways that we become human by trying, with whatever resources available, to survive; by trying, through compassion and kindness and love, to help others survive; and by failing to survive.
SJF: Do you have a favorite poem from this collection?
DB: I don’t know if I have a favorite piece. I really like “The Performance of Becoming Human” because I can see all of these different texts, in a very broad sense of the word, that made their way into this piece, with its references to Kafka, Speedy Gonzales, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, the Mexican Institute of Sound, and Karate Kid II, among others. I like that piece for the way that I can read it and see all of these different things that I have been influenced by and for the weird form which put them all together.
Stephen de Jesús Frías is a Dominican-American poet/photographer from New York City. He has an MFA in Poetry from Lesley University. His work has been featured in Acentos Review and Sugar House Review.