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“One Cannot Redeem the Past”

An Interview with C. Derick Varn

Educator C. Derick Varn may not be the only openly aphasic, dyslexic, and Marxist poet, podcaster, and synesthete out there in Left intellectual and media circles, but he’s probably the only one from Macon, Georgia. A writer, accomplished theorist, public school teacher, and organic working-class intellectual, Varn has a new poetry collection out this year from a small press, titled liberation and all the other bright etcetera

Like Little Richard (Macon’s most famous native son), Varn rocks more confidently and innovatively than many other analyzing, theorizing, poetry-scribing English language streamers. If we swap out a single word in the original lyrics of “Tutti Frutti,” and substitute “theory” for “booty,” it’d capture his personality to a tee: “…wop bop a loo mop a good goddam, Tutti Frutti, good theory, if it don’t fit, don’t force it, you can grease it, make it easy.” It wouldn’t be bad intro music for Varn’s ongoing YouTube talk show, the Varn Vlog, where (with something like the song’s exuberant irrepressibility) he frequently engages his interlocutors in multi-hour interdisciplinary discussions about history, social science, political theory, philosophy, literature, and radical politics. By inviting learned specialists from an international network of academics, autodidacts, activists, and artists, Varn makes thinking through difficult, complicated problems—e.g how and when food scarcity will likely become a global phenomenon—not exactly easy, but easier. Strategizing solutions becomes a collective endeavor, and an occasion for sharing politics, morality, and humanity.1Like Michael Brooks, Kali Akuno, and Max Alvarez, Varn’s roots are in the working class and like Alvarez initially as a conservative. Varn even worked a brief stint as a prison guard.

After all, what’s the point of knowing a whole bunch of stuff if not to stave off a mass starvation event in northern Africa two years hence? (Even if, given the Left’s limited influence at present, this is only by helping us to understand the causes that led to it?)2 As he did in a recent episode of Diving into the Wreckage, Part 5, with Sean from Intifada. As a matter of course, Varn comes prepared with data on commodity rates of profit, trends in energy, labor, supply chain blockages, and the availability of nitrogen fertilizer.

At its most essential, politics is about who gets to eat, who gets fed what, and who does the feeding. The same can be said for Varn’s poetry, the ostensible topic of our discussion. In his new book’s opening poem, “I did not come to bring peace,3 Printed in full below, in the course of the interview. Varn puts promises in the mouth of the poem’s romantic and unequivocal protagonist, lethal promises prompted by his homecoming:4Varn has PTSD from mild brain trauma as a child. That I even know this is a testament to his generosity—on his show he makes himself vulnerable in ways that, in my experience, very few people do.

…I will leave only scorched
Debris to feed the kudzu. I feed the eagle
The lungs of each kill,…

Varn is influenced by Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies, mentions it frequently, and has confessed to finding it even more useful than much of Marx’s writing at this juncture in his life. He devotes many of his waking hours, in sickness5The episodes on his Patreon while he had COVID this Spring are sui generis, perhaps most akin to the smoky ravings in Lenny Bruce’s trippy rants. and in health, to the stages, phases, nuances, impacts, and ramifications of the collapse that is unfolding before our very eyes. Many of us who respect him for his podcast have recently come to grips with the fact that he is also a serious and accomplished poet. Varn earned an MFA from Georgia College & State University in 2007, has racked up many journal and online publications over the last two decades, and has also won the occasional prize. Along with his debut collection, Apocalyptics, published by Unlikely Books in 2018, liberation and all the other bright etcetera was issued by Mysterioso Books earlier this year, and is already in a second printing. In it he conducts a worldy investigation into the sometimes subtle, sometimes metal effects (on bodies and psyches) of trauma born of battles—imperial or intimate—fought on boulevards and in bedrooms. Varn sups from memory, fantasy, ongoing experience and observation of the world and sculpts in the forms in his imagery, deploying words and white space with a kind of Spinozan nano-precision, the optician grinding and polishing his glass lenses and ethics (while unavoidably breathing in the silica). If the poems describe a smaller kind of personal liberation, there’s nothing to stop readers from analogizing from the particular to the universal. Varn often urges his listeners to create the conditions in which their efforts to oppose global capitalism can achieve concrete positive results and to do something with their hard won insights. He concludes the poem I quoted above with a truthful declaration: “I need/Fuel to burn so I can see the future.” If the podcast is the conduit he’s constructed to secure that fuel, Varn’s poetry is where it alights.

INTERVIEWER

The poems seem to me to be wholly aligned, even obsessed with a strategy of creating a new ontology, from jump! When in that first romp of a poem—”I did not come to bring peace”—you ask, “Who holds church for our sacred/Mission?” What could be more sacred of a mission than unfucking the future?

C. DERICK VARN

The question about unfucking the future is interesting because the first poem is about revenge. In the sense that one cannot go home again without doing violence to the memory of home; so often when one confronts the reality of home, it becomes immediately clear that the future is fucked because the past was fucked. The mission is ambiguous. One cannot redeem the past. I also think of Walter Benjamin’s explication of Klee’s Angelus Novus in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

So, in that sense, I think the mission is to confront the damage. To understand the storm—but like Benjamin it is unclear to me that either a whiggish notion of history or a messianic notion of salvation is enough to lead one to “redeem” the past in the future. It is unclear to me that this is possible without in some sense negating a large part of the past. In that this poem is the first in liberation is both alerting the reader to the nearly biblical themes that are involved in the collection, but also that freeing oneself is often a confrontation with a traumatic experience both individually and collectively. 

INTERVIEWER

As “I did not come to bring peace” is a kind of overture that gets right down to business, it’s probably best to share its text. 

I did not come to bring peace

Did someone order the blitz:
The foliage burns bright orange
But not hot enough to leave embers
True blue. Hometown blues: I
Should have pillaged the vinyl siding
To make the napalm, left the ranch-
Style homes naked insulation exposed.

I came weary on the Megabus, but
I’ll leave riding a pale horse, golden eagle
Perched on my leather clad wrist,
With a wineskin filled with kerosene
And a quiver of arrows. From Atlanta
To be Mobile, I will leave only scorched
Debris to feed the kudzu. I feed the eagle

The lungs of each kill, deck my saddle
With notes of Sherman’s biography
And antlers of the Whitetail deer
Left on the roadside. I watch men
Sleep on the bus, riding to nowhere
And then to the maze of Peach Tree
Streets that make the concrete
Grove outside of I-85. It is home

That grows each hunter, and each
Khan. Memories to sack and raise.
Who holds church for our sacred
Mission? If you see me, you
Should know that I love you
But I have a good aim and I need
Fuel to burn so I can see the future.

Its first line, “Did someone order the blitz,” means one thing when you read it at the start of the collection; and another when having worked one’s way through the 27 poems in the very specific order in which they were sequenced; and yet another when the little joke kind of hits and you return to the opening salvo to laugh and shout at page 23, “You did, you crazy motherfucker, with your mad skills, you ordered the blitz, and what a blitz it was, so thank you for that!” Fascinating to be propelled by unusual words of movements and processes (wolfed, rendered, abraded)… and illuminating… and calming. By the time we get to the last three poems—”Hard Truths,” “Are You Ready for the Summer,” and “Primal Things”—all the technique and deliberations of meaning and form disappear. There’s been a recoupling of words with the world, and maybe, harkening again to a step toward a new ontology?

VARN

I don’t know that I would necessarily have thought of it as ontology. However, in so much that I deliberately used a lot of the language of consumption and of alchemy—the caustic and decadent imagery—is supposed to imply that one is re-building, re-making, and re-conceiving of both oneself and one’s social world. The verbs belie that. Furthermore, I am very interested in the tension between religious ontologies and metaphysical frameworks and the actual material and historical processes that push people through life. So, in addition to making multiple religious references to disorient my reader so they can reorient themselves largely based on their own experience with said idea sets but distancing it from any clear conception of my being and life, the materiality and the displacement is rooted in memory and in art. Memory fades and reconstructs itself. Trauma and the dissociation which trauma induces tend to lead one to either stagnate in the past or confront it. So, Benjamin and Klee show up again. Does one reject materialism, or does one reject messianism? Or both? 

INTERVIEWER

“What Should We Call Wisdom” makes light of the idea of recoupling, bringing unrelated words like tzitzit and tzatziki into a relationship anyway because they kinda sound like they should be paired. Is this a source of hope for you? It feels like it. I’m reminded of Johnnie Cochran’s counsel about the glove evidence in the OJ trial: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

VARN

Sound is interesting. I have always been fascinated with faux etymologies. The kind that show up in Plato, for example, which misattribute this or that concept to a word that may or may not be a cognate, but in any case, historical linguistics often doesn’t confirm those etymological origins. It struck me with tzitzit and tzatziki as somehow representing the kind of dual world in which the author of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) is clearly more in line with the kind of materialism of Epicurus than of the First Temple. So, the similarity there is kind of a joke, but one that is supposed to illuminate the conflict expressed in my own tenuous relationship to my home culture and the feeling of multiple belongings while also trying to bring levity and hope in the tension there. The sound works to imply meaning that may not be there.

INTERVIEWER

I feel I have a certain advantage from the last six months or so of consistent, intensive listening to your Varn Vlog podcast, and a growing familiarity with how you both truck in the heady stuff of Marxism, Game Theory, and Cybernetics (Systems Theory) but also music, cinema, literature, especially poetry, and labor, political and economic history including MMT, foreign policy here and abroad. I thought of two books as I was reading liberation and all the other bright etcetera, neither of them volumes of poetry—Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet—both of which cover a lot of ground and make the case for ontology, both by polymaths like yourself. I wonder if you see any parallels in scope and breadth and purpose? 

VARN

Probably more Flaubert than Darwin in so much that I am collecting pieces of memory, pieces of sound, and culture from various places and putting them at odds in order to make the reader think about their situation. One thing I would warn people about is reading my theories of anthropology or of Marxism directly into my poetic work. It’s there, surely. Although, to be honest, it is not something I think about when I write. It is just that one’s milieu in both experience and in exposure sets the background. I do demand a lot of interest from my readers: they don’t need to come knowing what I am talking about, they don’t need to understand all the references—I am not entirely sure I always understand all the references and allusions that bubble up in my work—but they do need to come with interest. There are both intra-personal and inter-personal as well as historical and literary references everywhere, and those can’t all be decoded for the reader, nor do I want to impose a singular response or reading. So in that sense, more Flaubert than Darwin. Although if I am honest, I have read a lot more Darwin.

INTERVIEWER

You acknowledge trauma as a key condition of human experience. Are you moving us towards a “trauma-informed” poetics and/or politics? There are a number of those moments within your poems, Varn, precipitated by cancer (“The Words of My Perfect Teachers”), divorce (“Pacts and Passages”), or injustice (“Aphoria”; “Hard Truths”). They’re especially searing moments because once perceived, they can’t be unrealized. Are they meant to be turning points in the collection?

VARN

Trauma is the number one thing I write about when I am not writing about Marxist theory or Christopher Lasch or negative capability. Although even that last concept is related to trauma in a way. But even in poems that seem light or that have love as a backdrop, the fugue notes that are in the poems – the shifting of personal and historical reference, the clear almost obsessive images clouded by nebulous or nearly impossible feelings. That’s trauma. It both makes you dissociate and makes you hyper-vigilant. It unsticks you in time or space but locks you in a moment. It makes one feel injustice profoundly and yet, if we are honest, it also desensitizes you to other people’s pain. It is not just that the realization cannot be undone. So, in short, yes, they are meant to be turning points.

INTERVIEWER

I’m curious why you frame the collection with the question of intentions? What have we come to do here together, poet and reader? Whence the unpeace we will share in this volume?

VARN

Why should I trust a reader any more than a reader should trust a writer? Perhaps someone should remind the reader that they are on a journey of construction when they read. What do they wish to construct? Why should the author trust them with it?

INTERVIEWER

In “I did not come to bring peace” you write: “I should have pillaged the vinyl siding/To make the napalm, left the ranch-/ Style homes naked, insulation exposed.”

Why is it also important to wage war on style?—to oppose the anodyne, the banal, the vacuous, obfuscatory, pretentious and delusional? And can you point to shots fired in the collection? It’s only the first poem and we’re already mired in the terrain of regret, the moral quicksand of empire where poisonous homes “grow each hunter, and each Khan.” Are we fated to mostly regret?

In the collection as a whole, but particularly in “I did not come to bring peace,” there are laugh-so-you-don’t-cry moments, and as a reader I treasure them. “I came weary on the Megabus, but/ I leave riding a pale horse, golden eagle/ Perched on my leather-clad wrist,/ With a wineskin filled with kerosene/ and a quiver of arrows.” I was startled into laughter by the quixotic figure mounted atop a steed like some matted-haired archer from Braveheart or Beowulf, but also a winged Cupid. But the laughter soon turned to pathos thinking about the waste of empires, bucks shedding their protective racks by the side of the road, so much angst-ridden superfluity and unfulfilled potential and obsolescence among corporeal, mortal creatures, sensitive beings mostly, suffering under post neoliberal capitalism as it turns into something even more unjust and punishing.

Questions begin to percolate almost immediately: Are the men asleep on the bus “riding to nowhere” likely homeless veterans? Are you, reader, even in a saddle or ready to mount one? What words and which organic material will you decorate your saddle with for inspiration and motivation? Even as we speak, riot police are gearing up for a vicious beatdown of protestors gathered in Akron to dignify the humanity of Jayland Walker who did not deserve to be riddled with 60 bullets for a bullshit traffic stop. Where is the honor in that? Are we to live without honor, or the possibility of honor?

VARN

Honor does not do one well in the contemporary society.

So I spent a lot of the 2010s on airplanes (middle class travel or higher) and on buses (working poor travel). The buses had interesting conversations and long roads. I have made friends from talking to people on a greyhound for several days. That said, there is a lot of despondency, a lot of forgotten people, and the US bus system doesn’t seem to care. Outside of the Washington to New York corridor, buses in the US are haphazard and feel often like where people are sent to be forgotten about.

This is particularly true when I am talking buses in the rust belt and the deep South. To live with the expectation of honor is often to put oneself at risk. Honor often matters to the poor as do relationships. I mean, sure, people care about relationships in all parts of society, but among the poor it is life and death. It literally is all one has and thus renders one dependent on one’s reputation in a way that’s different from a reputation in business or a brand. When you have little else, these things matter. It’s important not to romanticize it. That alienation is ugly, and that honor is also, often, ugly. However, it seems better in these kinds of situations than when it does exist.

So, a lot of these poems begin as notes in my blank-page journals that I took on buses or in airports. The absurdity, the humor, and rage that comes with those places often bleeds into the work on the first draft, and as I revise, I decide how much of that I keep.

INTERVIEWER

An overall effect of reading liberation and all the other bright etcetera was recalling an experience I had at the Georgia O’Keefe Research Center in Santa Fe, concerning her pelvis paintings. They’re very famous images painted from 1943 to 1947, in which she depicted the Abiquiu sky in cerulean and white or red and gold through the contours of the apertures in the bones. The canvasses aren’t oversized, but standing before them, the feeling is one of vastness, limitlessness and openness. But when one of the docents opened a long slim drawer in a cabinet she pointed to a squirrel pelvis, and I remember thinking—all that grandeur from such a relatively small opening. Can you say anything about the interplay of perspective and scale in the collection? And connect that to ontology? How an examination of the minute can lead to broader ontological understandings?

VARN

In so much that ontology is about being, and being is about our phenomenological awareness of being, then sure. Perspective is supposed to shift. The people blend. They are generic and specific at once. That tension is partly about the understanding of identity formation. So perspective is distorted because memory is distorted, it is not the being itself.

INTERVIEWER

“The words of my perfect teacher,” as you put it in the title of another poem, are a variation on an explication of a Buddhist text. But in your poem, instead of the teacher being human, the teachers are the tumors and bodily effects of cancers.

VARN

That is one reading of the poem. That said, it’s a little bit more ambiguous than that deliberately.

INTERVIEWER

I often hear you talk about path dependence in economic terms, but aren’t diseases also path dependent trajectories whose outcomes are subject to interventions, sometimes strategized, sometimes aleatory, just like politics?

VARN

Path dependence is just what is most likely to happen. Cancer, while we talk about pathologies, is interesting because like with prion disease and a few gene mutations, the aleatory element is what is going to kill you, and subverting that new rogue element with a different and often equally random counter-measures is how you fight the disease. To say it is just like politics is too strong a statement, but it is analogous to politics clearly.

The thing about politics versus cell mutation, however, is that the latter, in all seeming infinite combinations of proteins and hormonal triggers, is infinitely simpler a system than politics. Politics, being the business of human organization and intra-human struggle, contains all the complications of cell and then all complications of historical elements. It can make sense as an emergent aggregate, but impulses and interactions are only clear as the aggregate emerges. The individual parts are too complicated. ~

Author

  • Frances Madeson is a freelance movement journalist, feature-writer, and author of the comic novel Cooperative Village. She hangs her editorial hats at The Real News Network, Truthout, Capital & Main, American Theatre, Scalawag, Antigravity, Tablet, Toward Freedom, and beyond.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.