Conceptual writer Robert Fitterman on his new book, Holocaust Museum
Poet and conceptual writer Robert Fitterman tackles a heavy topic in his latest work, Holocaust Museum, a recontextualization of captions for photographs displayed in the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Fitterman sees modern poetry moving toward appropriation as a means to critique and create conversation around a range of texts.
This Friday, November 22, the New York-based author will be in Denver for the release of Holocaust Museum, which is being published by local non-profit Counterpath Press. In advance of tomorrow's reception and reading, Westword spoke with the writer about his latest work and why he chooses appropriation as his method.
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Westword: What was the catalyst for the creation of your latest book, Holocaust Museum?
Robert Fitterman: It's funny, because I was just writing to a friend that this is the only book that I've ever done where every time I think about the genesis of the project, it sort of shifts in my mind. (Laughs.) It's a funny kind of experience. I mean, I guess I know what the genesis is, but as to why I wrote the book keeps changing on me. A lot of it for me had to do with not the obvious things -- what does it mean coming from my generation to take a look at the Holocaust again.
I don't have any super-direct connection -- my parents are not survivors or anything like that. I'm Jewish but that wasn't the impetus for the project. I was thinking a lot about ways in which we deal with catastrophe; I guess there is a sort of intersection between how catastrophe is mediated by the news and the many ways we think of our experiences with really dramatic trauma and how it gets mediated for us.
Then, how we really only have the experience of an image-based relationship with catastrophes. I thought it would be interesting to think about what that would look like with just language. So Holocaust Museum removes all of the images and just has the captions.
What does the contents of the book look like? How are these texts organized?
What happens is, you're looking at hundreds of captions and the book is organized in a predictable narrative -- you're basically walking through the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum. It begins with propaganda and goes through everything from gas chambers to deportation to et cetera. At the end, it's liberation.
One of these other things that turned out to be interesting about the book for me is, there's a really strong tendency in poetry right now towards appropriation. Most of this word "appropriation" bounces off popular culture and media culture in ways that are usually pretty funny or ironic or have a lot of critical distance. This is something that interested me -- what it would be like to do an appropriation project that was dead serious. The distance -- I guess you could say it's an intellectualized distance -- is definitely still a really emotional text.
It's not like looking at Duchamp and saying, "Oh, he's really pulling my leg." There's no leg-pulling -- even though I didn't write any of this book. It is totally appropriated from the captions of the photographs.