Interview: Anthony Cody on The Rendering
The Rendering by Anthony Cody | June 2023 | Omnidawn | ISBN: 9781632431141
In an interview with The Guardian, Juan Felipe Herrera said, “Poetry is one of the largest, most beautiful, most intimate and most effective ways of participating.” This statement feels embodied in Anthony Cody’s work: beautiful, intimate, and effective participation in both his immediate community and the larger global and historical community. In his latest collection The Rendering, Cody approaches climate change, the dust bowl, and other urgent issues through his unique, collage poetics. In addition to his idiosyncratic use of language, Cody utilizes white space, arrows, pictures, watermarks, and other visual supplementation. This book is poetry, art, activism, documentary, meditation. I invited Cody to be my guide through this experience.
Brent Ameneyro (BA): Anthony, I use the word experience because sometimes I feel like I’m not reading but experiencing your work in the way I might experience a painting. Can you walk us through your process? Would you mind inviting us into your world? Anthony Cody (AC): When I work with art, a painting, an archive (in the most expansive sense), a document, any external creation, meditation is usually where I begin. In the same way that poets sit with lines, words, and concepts, I often find myself sitting with images to try to explore, explode, fracture, magnify, and channel their energies via graphic, textural, and textual design. This process-work can at times be what sparks the poem, what leads into generating something entirely different for a poem without any visual elements and far removed from where I started, or generate an entirely new spiral in which I have to continue seeking and writing beyond a single poem. I think this relationship with the archive, in the largest, broadest sense of what an archive can be, helps us reveal the subtext of both the archive and the histories linked to the archival exist within. I want to create something that helps widen an entry point for us to come closer to the archive and to history, to see it not as far removed but as still tied to this moment and the future.
I explored elements of this process in an essay tied to my opening poem, “Cada día más cerca del fin del mundo,” in The Rendering on the Harriet blog. However, I’d like to go deeper, utilizing an entirely new Dust Bowl image to begin working toward generating a new poem collectively. This might be the best way to create a shared path through the experience.
Below is a photograph taken by Dorothea Lange while documenting the Dust Bowl for the now defunct United States – Farm Service Agency (now part of the FDA), titled, “This farm was abandoned in 1937. Near Dalhart, Texas, Coldwater District,” taken in 1938. Immediately I am struck by the missing pieces of the windmill, the abandoned, and the unknown capability of the wires to keep the windmill from falling over. I see the word STANDARD, still existing on the single most intact arm of the windmill.
Rather than dive into the poem, I sit and meditate on the image, rupture it within illustration and photographic software. Suddenly things begin ringing.
The intact arm, suddenly reveals an antenna. I keep going.
Now, I step back and continue in the meditation. Except, rather than look out the window, I return to the original image with a new lens via the remixed (of sorts) visual excavations.
And I write: How the windmill sphere turns into a baby stroller. Crying. How a box floats or falls. Who will catch it? How the ‘antenna’ furiously radiates. How suddenly there appears to be a crucifixion. What is the sacrifice? How it is now a ferris wheel. The blur of laugh and fear. How it is a dandelioned monstrance. Take this, all of you. Eat it.
But I don’t want to finish the poem here and now. That would be the moment in which I work through the language and image and decide if the poem will include or exclude the image, or perhaps be something completely different. Instead, I propose that the above images and the italicized text be a collective leaping point.
A poem prompt for you, in steps:
Without stopping, meditate on the above images for 10 minutes total.
After 10 minutes, immediately write down five words.
Answer the question: What do you radiate toward?
Write down the words: antenna, blur, baby, float, and fall.
Cross out one of the words (from step 4) you’ve written down that does not spark for you.
Write down: one sound
Create a poem that collages the words (from step 4 and 5), the answer (from step 3), and sound (from step 6) into a creation of your own.
An escalation and variation on the prompt above:
Locate an image of your choosing.
Without stopping, meditate on the image for 10 minutes total.
After 10 minutes, immediately write down five words.
Answer the question: Who do you antenna for?
In five words, how would the ‘who’ (from step 4) respond to the image you selected (from step 1).
What is the sound of your image?
Create a collage poem that includes all of the above, including the image you selected (from step 1). [Note: You define what ‘includes’ can mean.]
Perhaps this can be an effective primer and entry point into The Rendering and into the ways we can generate new intersections to invite into the image, the archive, the memory, the present moment, the histories, to fashion a poem, a docupoetic, a book.
BA: Borderland Apocrypha is a heartbreaking collection. It is an historical text, a map of horrible truths. But there is also this closeness with the earth that I felt when reading it, a closeness with something primal and with something that feels like eternity through an atomic lens. This is the bridge that I saw between that book, your first, and this new work of art, The Rendering. How do you nurture your relationship to the earth? How do you develop this way of cutting through time and space to reveal truths (cosmic truths, instinctual truths, historical truths)?
AC: It took me many years to understand my own relationship to the earth. Much of that relationship was dictated by a lack of access to greenspace within my community and a context overshadowed by growing up in an industrial neighborhood that was razed in the early 90s to make way for a highway off-ramp.
I was in middle school, when suddenly: the trees gone, the rosebushes shriveled, the lawns peeled off, and the even the box manufacturing company at the end of my street shuttered. And what arrived was debris, dirt, and a storm of mice as heavy equipment moved the earth to make what they needed. What the city made was an off-ramp facing my parent’s front porch and a dead-end street that became a dumping ground for other people’s trash.
My parents and grandparents were aware of this reality, and helped foster a connection to the earth. My parents sensed that lack of access, and rather than take trips to some kind of theme park (which we probably couldn’t afford) we went on day trips to the ocean or to the mountains. Each year, these trips were the destination, to simply go and be near living, breathing things more immense than ourselves. Add in that both sets of my grandparents kept gardens and fruit trees in their yards. I’d wander alongside them as a child and adolescent, knowing when to pick the perfect strawberry, nectarine, watermelon or lemon, or how to experiment in the grafting of hybrid fruits, like a pluot. Even as I write toward this memory, I can hear a car speeding down the highway in the memory.
In terms of cutting through time and space, I think that has been nurtured by my mentors and friends Juan Felipe Herrera and Bernardo Palombo, both have a deep reverence for nature and who have lived through so much in their time. Each of them can slice through the chaos of their schedule, and sit with you in the moment. I can talk to both of them and pick up where our last conversation stopped or about a memory from 40 years ago, and suddenly there is a new clarity.
More than this, I have to admit that my undiagnosed ADHD, which is now at an all-time high with the pandemic, makes me far too comfortable in being overwhelmed with information. So comfortable that even when at capacity, I still seek out more stimuli. It is not uncommon for me to have a tv, a podcast, a song, a book, some kind of research or archive around, and a poem up while I work.
And really what the aforementioned mentors and my own brain have done is propel me to keep simultaneously attuned to the smallest of details, how a red-tailed hawk will fly outside my window between 2-3pm every day as I try to quiet all the volumes that are swirling around me into a focal point of attempting to be present.
BA: There’s a 128-page PDF accessed via a QR code in this collection. I admit, I didn’t follow the instructions to print it out, but the phrase “rampant individualism” from that document followed me in my subconscious after I returned to the book. I kept thinking, what is the right amount of individualism? Enough, I think, to create a book such as this, surely, and enough to empower and encourage freedom of thought and expression, but perhaps not so much where it breeds power and oppression (pardon the unintentional rhyme). What is the ideal amount, the ideal state, or the ideal realm of individualism?
AC: Last year, a live and rare album was released by Rage Against The Machine. The album contains a live version of “Zapata’s Blood.” And like many of their live performances of the song, Zack de la Rocha does a call and response of the Zapatista saying, “Para Todos Todo, Para Nosotros Nada”, with a common English translation, “Everything for everyone, and nothing for ourselves.” The version of the song was recorded at Pink Pop, Hilversum, Holland - May 1996. It’s running time is 3:49, and from 2:06 to approximately 3:30 (about one-third of the entire track), he simply repeats, “Everything for everyone, and nothing for ourselves.” He begins it as a as a yell eventually arriving at a whispered chant to the self.
This incantation was the accelerant for much of last year, looping the song as I revised, designed, and laid out The Rendering.
Inasmuch as the line resonates, I think there is something to be said of rampant western individualism that requires the second half of the phrase to say “nothing for ourselves,” which in my opinion points back at the self, versus a more literal translation “nothing for us,” which points to us, the collective.
Imagine beginning your day saying this, how would it shift? Imagine this being your guiding principle in your decisions, how wide would the world expand? Imagine landback, not as an anthem, but as a practice of government.
Thinking through balancing individualism as it relates to my own practice, I am aware of how individualism and ego can become a blockage in making what the poem wants. Instead, I am always trying to arrive at a balance of fulfilling what the poem wants while also fulfilling my own aesthetic urges, while also navigating and knowing that the archive has been a site of violence, erasure, and harm to help peel away its truths.
As for the QR code muralpoem and assembly, as well as the soundsculpture, I want this collection to explore the ways that a book can be pushed out beyond its pages and into other communities (e.g. how does a poem function outside of a book and instead projected on a wall at your local market). And, given the subject matter of the collection around loss, annihilation, and climate collapse, the QR code is a way for me to critique my own art making and publishing remain complicit while exploring ways to struggle forward.
BA: Some of the images make me feel like you are conducting a Rorschach test on your readers (pages 13, 15, and 41, to name a few). Are you interested in the relationship between your art and your readers? If I were to call a purely text-based poet a “curator of language,” how would you describe your multimodal approach to poetics?
AC: There is some truth to your interpretation. A poem, regardless of its form, reveals as much about ourselves as readers of the poem as it can about the poet who wrote the poem. In this way, I think of a poet as a composer or cartographer of sound and symbol.
Edgar Garcia’s introduction in Signs of the Americas (University of Chicago Press, 2020) resonates for me:
It is a popular misconception that the era of the pictograph has come to a close. That says less about the pictograph than about our inability or reluctance to read such signs. The study of literature in the West largely stands on the premise that literature begins with letters.
Garcia’s approach to thinking about text and visual as being one in the same is quite profound to me. Historically, there is a tendency to separate the visual from the literary, the visual being deemed less advanced or the first step toward literary. I see poetry as an opportunity to examine the concept of the borderless, which for me is a place where the margin, image, sound, and text all work together to transcend the need for space. A poem can exist within a QR code to be taken into new spaces, or it can be an instructional assembly, an archival voice, a choreopoem, a drawing, a photograph, a soundsculpture, a projection, a gif, a sonnet, or an altogether new form that obliterates what we have collectively perceived as the limit of the poem. And, moreover, this borderless construct invites us to make the things that each of us need to exist and move, particularly in the face of increased bans, laws, militarized borders, and carceral capitalist tactics designed to keep us in a state of arrest rather than be our truest, most free identities and selves.
Circling back to the start of your question, I have always been interested in the dynamic created between the poet and the reader. I want us to collaborate and push beyond the rigidity of form (and modality) and border (and page): to break the things that need to be broken in writing so we can build anew together.
BA: I’m going to borrow from your poem “Megadrought, DustLore1.5°c” here if you don’t mind: “Anything in perpetuity is exhausting” and “The annihilation of anything is exhausting.” This idea of being exhausted by it all is often a reason people throw their hands up and accept atrocities as inevitable. How do you fight exhaustion to keep doing this kind of work?
AC: A friend once told me—we are of Irish/Mexican descent—work is our fuel. It was hilarious at the time, but in some ways true. My maternal grandfather left home as a 9-year-old child and never stopped working and doing. My maternal grandmother left school, around 11 years old, to care for her siblings, which turned into caring for her children, which turned into caring for her grandchildren. My paternal grandfather worked as a butcher, and in retirement worked on his own small piece of land until suffering from Alzheimer’s. My maternal grandmother cooked and baked, and then pivoted to working the plot of land her husband worked, mowing and pruning, until her own passing. So yes, work is fuel; particularly, in their own narrative of simply grinding to survive. I’ve seen exhaustion in their eyes, in the eyes of my own family, in the eyes of those I hold dear. Yet, they remained relentlessness in continuing to meet the day and resist the structures that have pressed hard upon them, that continue to press hard upon all of us.
Sometimes, it is the homies that help you fight off exhaustion and stay relentless. When I become mired by the anxieties of writing about climate collapse and annihilation, I find a lifeline from Angel Dominguez in Elderly Mag:
“I’m tired of acting like this apocalypse has anything to do with the ending of the things I hold most close. Perhaps that’s the under-cover truth to this whole apocalypse ruse. It’s the end of the colonizer’s world. It’s the end of white-jesus. It’s the end of borders. It’s the end of capitalism. It’s the end of white supremacy. I have no reason to fear the end of “this” world.”
And you read it, thank them, and you dive back in.
Which is to say, I don’t know if I have good coping mechanisms, I just go harder. I try to surround myself with a community of people who go just as hard. And I hope that my own practice and process honor a lineage and community of relentlessness.
BA: Speaking of exhausting, some of these poems are downright taxing to read. I’m thinking specifically of the poems without vowels on pages 113-124. There is an apparent intent to make the reader put in work throughout all your art—can you speak to that intention? How do you end a difficult book with more difficulty?
AC: The vowelless poems unsettle me. They arrived while I was in the midst of writing the collection and I took two of my nephews and one of my nieces to the Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio at Fresno State. We were making handmade books with their drawings, and the younger nephew walked up to the board and drew a bird. I asked him to label it, and he wrote brd.
Over the next few weeks brd stayed with me. Suddenly, in thinking through annihilation and climate collapse within the context of writing The Rendering, I asked myself who from inside the collection would write a poem around brd, and what would they say. What arrived was this series of vowelless poems. They come from an unknown future and from some living thing I cannot imagine. They lament, but struggle through. Now, after writing them, when I do read them aloud, they ask everything I have of me. However, when I’ve shared them, or been fortunate enough to publish them, the vowelless poems have sparked a tremendous response from readers and audience members.
I’ve talked about this struggle with the collection and these specific poems with my friend, the poet, J.J. Hernandez. Like clockwork, he returns to me with a quote from Haruki Murakami, “Evolution’s always hard. Hard and Bleak.” This is necessary work, and I want us to struggle through the dismantling together.
BA: If poetry was like the NBA, with a focus on East versus West, I would want you on the West All-Star team. You are a California poet through and through. Who would you nominate to “play” alongside you?
I am honored by this compliment. Truly. For much of my life, I have struggled to fit in due to my mixed identity. I’m always neither or not enough. Even now, saying that aloud creates an existential crisis.
I get nervous making any and all lists, especially when I think about California. The rich history across eras and communities in the bay area, the central coast, the Los Angeles area, the expansive north, San Diego, and the greater San Joaquin Valley could each collectively field a full roster of poets that have proven transformational. In fact, the more I think about the formability of each region, the more I feel, in some bizarre way, California is somehow under recognized. The “Big Five” publishers are not here. The off-beat, little engines presses that can and do are here. Steadily and tirelessly, poets are forged here, and we create and widen a path for others.
However, honoring the spirit of your question, and thinking through the nuance and spirit of “play,” I think it would have to be based on those with whom I hold close and have entered into a lifetime of “play” with; a simple two on two, NBA Jam arcade game inspired format. I’d choose to team up alongside the GOAT, who I am blessed to share a life with, Mai Der Vang. I’ll just box out, take the charges, set screens, and roll to the rim without fear. She will arrive with that same intensity.
Anthony Cody is the author of two collections of poetry. His most recent collection is The Rendering (Omnidawn, 2023). Anthony’s debut collection, Borderland Apocrypha (Omnidawn, 2020), was winner of the 2018 Omnidawn Open Book Prize, selected by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. For his work, he has been awarded a 2022 Whiting Award, a 2021 American Book Award, a 2020 Southwest Book Award, as well as being named a finalist for a 2020 National Book Award, a 2021 PEN America / Jean Stein Award, a 2021 L.A. Times Book Award, a 2021 California Book Award. In 2020, he was honored as a 2020 Poets & Writers debut poet.
He is a CantoMundo fellow from Fresno, California with lineage in the Bracero Program and Dust Bowl. His poetry has appeared in The Academy of American Poets: Poem-A-Day Series, Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, among others. Anthony co-edited How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heyday, 2011), as well as co-edited and co-translated Juan Felipe Herrera’s Akrílica (Noemi Press, 2022). He is co-publisher of Noemi Press, a poetry editor for Omnidawn, collaborates with Juan Felipe Herrera and the Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio, and is faculty in poetry at Randolph College's Low Residency MFA Program.
Brent Ameneyro is the author of the chapbook Puebla (Ghost City Press, 2023) and the collection A Face Out of Clay (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2024). He is the 2022–2023 Letras Latinas Poetry Coalition Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. He currently serves as the Poetry Editor at The Los Angeles Review.