Growing up with the Scream: An Interview with Adam Francis Cornford

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One need look no farther than the work of Adam  Cornford for a pleasant jolt regarding the future of surrealism. A descendant of Charles Darwin, Adam has published articles about labor movements and political and cultural analyses for Bad Subjects, The Progressive, The Dispatcher (the newspaper of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) and the underground information workers’ magazine Processed World, of which he was a co-editor during 1981-1992 as well as a resident graphic artist and cartoonist. His two longest poems, “Lightning Rod to Storm” in Animations (1988) and “The Snarling Gift” in Terminal Velocities (1993) are both concerned with popular movements for social and environmental justice. The same is true of the two experimental radio theater works he co-authored with Daniel Steven Crafts, Fundamentals (an early critical take on fundamentalist “televangelism”) and Ad Nauseam (a poetic examination of the deforming effects of commercial saturation on the imagination). There is a strong continuity between his poetic work and his activism, including his work as author and performer for the satirical antiwar street theater troupe the John Wayne Peace Institute (1980–81) and his participation in Processed World. His work is discussed in this context in the essay by Andrew Joron, “Neo-Surrealism: Or, The Sun at Night.”  Adam is a member of the NSI but no joiner; he has “always been on the outside, inhabiting liminal spaces.”

What initially spurred me on to interviewing Adam was a passage from his essay for one of the most focused, seasoned and brilliant ‘zines out there:  Big Bridge.  Michael Leong, John Yau, Will Alexander, Andrew Joron, Ivan Arguelles, and a host of other writers who manifest the future of surrealism are featured within, and in issue 16  (which anyone even remotely interested in Surrealism should check out) he writes a preface to the issue’s theme: “NeoSurrealism and the Politics of the Marvelous.”  Towards the end of his essay, he presents a mysterious aphorism that was so much line with the New Surrealist Institute’s bridge of transcendent vertigo that I couldn’t help but notice:

Revelation—at its most humble, of unobserved or numbness-concealed aspects of the consensus reality; but also of hidden orders of causality or relation (“objective chance”), the inkling of connections between phenomena that normally escape the dominant perceptual grid; and of other, “imaginary” phenomena, including those of the mind. Poetic revelation gives access to other realities or parallel universes and to the richer cosmos (or, as Helène Cixous calls it, chaosmos) that includes them. This is poetry’s “moment of being.”

This excited me to point of near absolute delirium: the plateaus between consciousness we are still unable to explain even with science working its hardest, the fecund underbelly that Surrealism (to my mind) seemed to dredge up from the swamp of midday and make manifest. So, I proceeded to harass Adam into an interview, and he kindly obliged.

John Thomas Allen: Coming from a background of speculative/experimental/surrealist poetry, what literary figures do you feel closest to in terms of influence, and how, in particular, do you feel the influence of Surrealism has affected your own work?

Adam  Cornford: I’d start with William Blake. He has been my inspiration, my study, and my companion since I was 17. Blake, properly understood, is one of the most subversive figures in the whole of Western culture. His work is a full-on attack on that culture’s two central dualisms, Christian and Cartesian, which in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he shows to be one and the same—and then dismantles. But Coleridge was more important to me as a teenager, especially for his theories of the imagination and for “Kubla Khan” and “The Ancient Mariner.”

I discovered surrealism first as visual art—my dad, who was a painter though anything but a surrealist, had some copies of Minotaure, the mag of the group from the 1930s (after Le Surrealisme ASDLR). Then, when I got to the US, I encountered Lorca and modern Spanish and Latin American poetry.

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John Thomas Allen: Indeed. Lorca’s New York poems have that electric, visionary vibe.

Adam  Cornford: They’re straight-up surrealism, in my opinion. Oddly enough, it took me a little while to warm up to them. But I instantly fell in love with the Gypsy Ballads and also with the late, Moorish-influenced love lyrics. Around the same time, I found André Breton, via Edouard Roditi, who was teaching a course on Dada and Surrealism, I had his translation of Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares and Richard Howard’s of the Manifestos.  Then I got the little selected Breton from Jonathan Cape, which I still have. Roditi’s versions of Breton were a bit stilted but still electrifying, and Howard’s translation of the Manifestos is of course superb. From there I went on to find Benjamin Péret, whom I adored for his libertarian-communist politics as well as his poetic outrageousness and wild humor. (There’s a poem dedicated to him in my first book, Shooting Scripts—a surrealist “portrait” of him created as automatic text while staring at a photo of his face.)

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And I was lucky enough to encounter and become friends with George Hitchcock, the editor of kayak magazine, just as he was moving to Santa Cruz to teach there. I attended two semesters of his poetry workshop, which he conducted in his little apartment on campus before he bought a big old house on a creek in Bonny Doon. He encouraged automatic writing and also introduced us, often in person, to contemporaries like Bill Merwin,  James Tate, Bill Knott, and Robert Bly, all of whom were showing strong surrealist influence at the time.

John Thomas Allen: Do you feel that there are still pure surrealists out there, artists who live and work (or not) under Breton’s tenets as laid out in the original manifesto?  I suppose I’m referring to a guy like Benjamin Péret, who never once wavered in his revolutionary activities or backed up an inch in regards to complete nonconformism in lifestyle and manner.Adam  Cornford:  I’m not sure what you mean by “pure”; I think surrealism with a small s means the pursuit of the marvelous, which Louis Aragon describes as “the eruption of contradiction within the real. ” As far as purity goes, it is my observation that all of the original surrealists had flaws, like everyone else. Breton wanted his comrades to be pure, of course, and expelled them when they failed to meet his standards. I think some of those expulsions were justified, some not.

John Thomas Allen: Of course, I was referring to surrealists who stuck through high and low to the tenets of absolute nonconformism throughout the movement.  Surrealism as a state of mind, as pure psychic automatism, as rebellion against all existing powers, as the poetry of Breton et al.  Has it been coöpted by capitalism? Is it a historical antique? Or a living movement Is it good only for permutations, a basis for other art forms, or does it have a future relevant to today?

Adam  Cornford: I address that question in my essay in Big Bridge, in some detail. Briefly: yes, the iconographic and iconogenic (to coin a Hellenism) techniques of classical Surrealism have been coöpted for commercial purposes since the 1970s. They have become part of what I call “the permissible fantastic.” But the central point is this: “The real” is, as Aragon pointed out, a relationship (un rapport) which he defines as “the apparent absence of contradiction.” The real in this sense is now maintained via (and to a large extent as) the commodity spectacle as analyzed by the Situationists, notably Guy Debord. I was a teenager in the 1960s and I was in Paris in May and June of 1968  It definitely rubbed off on me, and during the early 1970s I was a member of two little theoretical-agitational groups heavily influenced by the Situationists.

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John Thomas Allen: Oh! You’re lucky.

Adam  Cornford: Indeed!  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!/ But to be young, was very heaven.”

John Thomas Allen: Brutally crushed, like all great revolts.  I’ll go W for word on that one, by the way.

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Adam  Cornford:  That was Wordsworth, The Prelude, speaking of 1789 in France—the first of a series of revolutions there. I’d have to say, though, that while repression played a significant role in the collapse of the 1968 “occupation movement,” the biggest problems were internal—finally, a failure of imagination on the part of the majority of workers and students who led it. They were able to stop reality-reproduction—which is simultaneously the reproduction of capitalist social relations—by simply refusing to go on performing everyday life. But they didn’t take the next step, which would have been to resume production and distribution under their own collective control without money exchange. That’s the actual social revolution, not some Leninist seizure of political power.  But as Marx says in The Eighteenth Brumaire, “the tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Not anything Wordsworth would have understood, even at his best—though Blake would have.

John Thomas Allen: “Sit in thy place, poet, and be Content!”

Adam  Cornford: That was a later view of Wordsworth’s.  While I understand the context in which he wrote it, contentment is bad for poets, I think

.John Thomas Allen: Balance can help prevent waste, though. We read about so many poets who oscillated mercurially between happiness and despair, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coming to mind for some reason.  I often wonder: what could he have been, with just a little fine tuning and little less laudanum?

Adam  Cornford:  Oh, I’m not saying one should be miserable as a poet.  I’m all for joy or just happiness, even. The marvelous is not only, as Breton argued, beautiful—it’s also joyful. And its pursuit, for me, is happiness. But happiness is dynamic, it’s about being in motion, whereas contentment is static. I experience happiness and unhappiness very acutely.pastedGraphic.pdf Unlike (I suspect) Coleridge and a bunch of other important poets, though, I’m not bipolar and I don’t need to self-medicate—at least, not much. (Chuckles.) But there’s more than one kind of balance. I’m androgynous in behavior, sexuality, and just about everything else, and proud of it.  I think it’s a strong tendency in poets, especially Shakespeare. The critic George Steiner, a friend of my father’s who mentored me in my late adolescence and whose brilliant tyranny I partly fled Cambridge to esc ape, said that great writers require androgyny in order to be able to envision the mental life of people of both sexes. As a young (though then closeted) bisexual man I found that very heartening. But Coleridge I loved like an older brother and bad example—someone I could learn from both positive and negatively.

Without skipping a beat, Adam recites one of his poems:

Blues for Coleridge

He is interrupted under a lime-tree by his body
and sits watching while the gnats design the summer
He is interrupted as a child is by fever
listening to his brothers weave on a shuttle of voices
He is interrupted as he drowns in his wife’s whisper
and awakens with salt in his hair
He is interrupted by the rain but he remembers
the eyes of the dead glittering across the pack-ice
He is interrupted at the fireside with his transparent lover
just as she slips put of her web of ashes
He is interrupted as he swallows brown light
by darkness crawling back up his throat like a caterpillar
He is interrupted looking down at a bean-flower
when God unfolds his geometric petals on the horizon
He is interrupted by a window slamming open in his body
and stares through it at the summer’s acid leaves
Adam Cornford

ancient-mariner
John Thomas Allen: David Gascoyne, definitely one of the forefathers of our movement,  treasured the Androgyne, Particularly in his “Sun At Midnight”. He felt he was an androgynous being, an alchemical union.
“The Bars”

(For David Emery Gascoyne)

In a waking night

The icebergs split

Soft keys turn in wrinkled palms

lamps blush smoke asleep,

Memory hatchets swing in dream

And you place quarters over my eyes.

A face is falling from a sky winter cavern, ornate blue

Lattice plume hair string

up my teeth above

in cold, moons-lit ice.

Green tea cups crack

If I become warm I will miss you

If I reach your hand

I will have unlocked the door singing off key

Ours is a map written in scars

The drawers’ slam hidden

These arrivals close a circus

And green tea cups crack

Once awake

This will unstitch

And we will live in seams.

Adam  Cornford: “Ours is a map written in scars”.  Love that.

John Thomas Allen: I just thought of Gascoyne’s life, his relationships, everything…so beautiful but torn, like some midnight pendulum, broken in the moon, but still shining.  Camus once said in an interview: “I have no sympathy for the mask of the poète maudit.”  I understand what he meant by that, to be sure, but sometimes it really does seem to be the case.  Gascoyne was a constellate of darkly green light, and he flamed out.

Adam  Cornford: Yes–like my friend Philip Lamantia, some of the time he was “on the other side.”  Philip wasn’t a failure though, by any means.

John Thomas Allen: No, he wasn’t—what was he like personally, day to day?

Adam  Cornford: Before all else, he was a great poet who still inspires me. He was the most important surrealist the United States has produced. Today, I think only Will Alexander is his true living peer, though there are other very fine contemporaries, nearly all of whom I managed to represent in the Big Bridge neosurrealism section.

Philip was warm, kindly, cranky, and a nonstop talker. And his generosity to me and other younger poets, like Andrew Joron, Garrett Caples, and Brian Lucas among others, was life-changing. He got my second book, Animations, published by City Lights.  But that was only one of the last of his gifts to me. All his books, especially Touch of the Marvelous, Blood of the Air, and Meadowlark West, invaded me and opened up new possibilities within me. Philip was unquestionably bipolar—severely and consciously so—and the last decade of his life was a struggle to balance his mood through fine-tuning his medication as well as managing his daily life. He hated being crazy.

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John Thomas Allen: He risked his actual psyche for surrealism.  Whenever I think of Lamantia, I get a vague mental picture of Norman O Brown’s “forbidden zone.” His conversion at the end is too often frowned upon, though I dislike the fact that they would not let him read Maldoror in a Catholic Church.

Adam  Cornford: He was briefly a convert in the early 1960s, not at the end, so far as I know.  I’ll check with Andy [Joron] and Garrett Caples.  Philip rejected the Church when he came back to SF with Nancy Peters, and wrote the poems in Blood of the Air.  His Collected Poems are coming out soon, from UC press.

John Thomas Allen: There have been heated debates, believe you me.   Do you think poets are actually doomed or predestined to be on the outside on some existential level?  Or is that a sort of miserabilist myth?

Adam  Cornford: Péret thought so. He said, famously: “The poet today must be a revolutionary or cease being a poet.” I go partway with him—I think part of the poet—the poetic part—has to be. Wallace Stevens, who I think was a great poet, was both inside and outside. He was both a classic bourgeois and a subversive dreamer. But I think also that Péret’s observation is more and more true as the spectacle tries hard to recolonize the partially liberated zones of consciousness that keep appearing as the economic and ecological foundations crack. There has been an attempt to back up the failing empire of weapons with an empire of lies. As we talk, the newest opening is in Turkey, where what began as a small local protest against the building over of one of the last parks in Istanbul has become a nationwide uprising against the government and potentially against the way of life. As almost always in these new movements, the reclaiming of public space as a place of democratic dialogue and popular expression is where it all starts.

John Thomas Allen: What advice would you give to a person who earnestly wants to be a poet? (An aspiring or young surrealist poet, in particular).

Adam Cornford: I’d say what (I believe) Charlie Parker said about how to be a musician: “First you learn everything there is to learn about your instrument. Then you forget all that shit and blow.” A lot of aspiring poets think they can “just blow” without learning all about the instrument, which is poetic language. And by “forgetting,” of course, Parker meant “internalize until it becomes intuitive mastery.” Contrary to the lovely but naïve fantasy of the early Surrealists, not everyone can become a poet or produce genuinely poetic work just by practicing automatism. Especially not now that the preconscious has been colonized by a constant downpour of images from the commercial spectacle. The thing is to find whatever techniques, whatever angle into language allows you to open it up, explore its hidden connections, make new neural pathways through its enormous brain that we all share and think with. Geniuses do come along, but they’re as rare as they ever were.

John Thomas Allen: In any given collection of surrealist poems you often get the sense that the same voice is behind many, if not all of them–some collective spirit which transcends Breton’s dialectic and goes back to Hegel.  Recently I got your book, Animations–that is Nadja on the cover, I assume? It should be Nadja.

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Adam Cornford: Thanks for buying the book! No, it’s a photo of some countess by Man Ray, which he got, he said, by accidentally kicking the tripod.  I found it literally moments after walking downstairs into the bookshop from the editorial offices at City Lights, having had other designs rejected.  Pure objective chance all the way. The book of Man Ray I took off the shelf fell open to that image. I took it back upstairs to Nancy and we agreed that would be the cover. Not only that, but I was the last person to get low-cost rights to use any of Man Ray’s images, because his widow, I assume hard up for money, raised the fee from modest to the unaffordable right after that, so Nancy told me.

John Thomas Allen: Speaking of art forms which fall outside of the verbal, what do you think the whole strain of steampunk represents?

Adam  Cornford: Hmmm… I think it’s a kind of nostalgia for analog simplicity—for machines that were comprehensible and for when one could take a positive view of it all. We’re at the end of the industrial age, one way or another—and of the fossil fuel age too.  Either we move into the age of clean energy and smart materials, as we learn to use bio-inspired techniques to grow or replicate our buildings and devices using mostly common elements—or we face the collapse of machine civilization and utter barbarism.

John Thomas Allen: Every art store I walk into nowadays is steampunk, steampunk paintings, steampunk.  It seems a bit sad to me, as if people want so badly to return to the past when things were simple, when in reality they weren’t simple at all.

Adam Cornford: Steampunk cakes, even.  Cakes with bronze frosting and pipes and rivets. Precisely.

John Thomas  Allen: I suppose there’s no point in tearing your hair out about what the next “new thing” will be–it will be precisely what you do not expect or predict—like Nirvana. No one would have thought a guy like Kurt Cobain could change music.

Adam  Cornford: The original steampunk novel, The Difference Engine, was a lot smarter than 90% of this stuff. That’s because it was by Gibson and Sterling, the two founders of cyberpunk. It was genuine SF in the sense of having a “what if?” whose consequences they followed quite rigorously. But technostalgia, if I may coin a word, hasn’t stopped with the Victorians or, say, twentieth-century steam trains. My dad, who was recycling before there was a word for it, made really pretty lampshades out of old computer punch tape, the stuff modeled on ticker tape that was used to feed instructions to the first electronic computers.

John Thomas Allen: Yep, the very same is sold in stores, those kinds of lamp shades.  Even at some small cinemas.

Adam  Cornford: I think my dad invented them.

John Thomas Allen: Without a doubt.

John Thomas Allen:  I don’t mean to be hard on those who do steampunk.  The art world can be vicious as hell.

Adam  Cornford: To reverse the old Yorkshire saying: “Where there’s brass, there’s muck.” “Brass” in the North of England means money, and “muck” in this context means not only dirt but dirty dealings.

John Thomas Allen: Old Irish saying in the steampunk vein: “There’s no stocking that won’t find an old boot.”

Adam  Cornford: You’re Irish by background?

John Thomas Allen: Indeed. William Kennedy’s stories, when I can deal with them, always ring a strong bell.  My great grandparents were poor Irish immigrants.  Went through Ellis island, all that.

Adam  Cornford: My mum was Scotch-Irish–a Jameson of the whiskey Jamesons, but raised in India on a tea plantation.

John Thomas Allen: So it didn’t put a damp on your day to hear the fairly recent news that Mrs. Thatcher had passed on, I take it?

Adam  Cornford: I raised a glass and spat on the floor.

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John Thomas Allen:  No objection here.

Adam  Cornford: I was in Wales and Yorkshire in mining villages during the miners’ strike in 1984-5. I saw what that horrible bitch did to entire cultures of solidarity. That’s what she hated most, you know, human solidarity. She was a Randian to the bone.  Speaking of an event that will mock her spirit, as it were, Occupy was one spur of a global movement that’s going to resurge.

John Thomas Allen: Did you attend any Occupy events, or do you, or not so much with that now?

Adam  Cornford: I was—mostly peripherally—part of Occupy Oakland when it was something real, which in my opinion was through January of 2012.  Besides attending a bunch of GAs and voting, and speaking from the podium a couple of times, I was in the general strike, the port blockade, and the attempted occupation of the Kaiser Center, aka “Move-In Day.” The defeat of which marked the beginning of the end for the movement on Oakland. I mean, there are a bunch of new, mostly young activists who came out of OO and who are doing things like eviction defense, resisting fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline, and organizing low-paid workers. But Occupy Oakland itself is a little shriveled shell so far as I know.

John Thomas Allen: So you feel that force kind of usurped it, maybe a little like the 1968 revolts in France?

Adam  Cornford: I’ve already said what I think caused the “May movement” to collapse. No, with OO I feel that a lot of people were first alarmed by mostly exaggerated reports of violence and insanitary conditions in the encampment. Then after the cops used extreme excessive force to clear the encampment, more people were scared away by police brutality.  Then most of the remainder were turned off by the little anarcho-babies and their stupid nyah nyah attitude and so-called “diversity of tactics,” which in practice meant their sacred right to petty vandalism.  

John Thomas Allen: Did you see parallels, the same energy you saw in the 1960’s revolts?  Or not so much?

Adam  Cornford: Yes, and in some ways better.  Way more inclusive, despite some residual racism and class prejudice and, alas, some violence toward women and queers—though that was successfully addressed for the most part. But Occupy’s inclusiveness, its partial defragging of what used to be called the proletariat, that was one reason the Power stepped on it so hard. The reality of the 99% slogan. It was deeply subversive.

John Thomas Allen: Well, Adam, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity.  Vive le Surrealisme!

Adam Cornford: just make sure you spell my name right!  Best.

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