Desperate Leisure: Ten Questions with Geoffrey G. O’Brien

After I shook Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s hand in the winter of 2012 we spoke briefly about the protests in which we’d participated. Geoffrey was in Berkeley, I was on Wall Street. And he showed me with his finger where the policeman had beaten his ribs. Now another fall is coming and Geoffrey will publish his fourth book of poems, People on Sunday. I spoke with him about the book’s eponymous poem, People on Sunday (1930),” which takes its name from Curt and Robert Siodmak’s 1930 German silent film Menschen am Sonntag, a black and white “film without actors” that follows the lives of five citizens over the course of a Sunday in Berlin.



                 Now they really are involved, drinking
                 Coffee with the elms behind them. The trick
                 To wet the coiled paper slowly so the day
                 Expands like a writhing insect
                 As trash is swept up and the resultant street
                 Hosed down, not everyone free to brag
                 In the black and white sunshine.
                 It gets in the eyes of the mechanic during his
                 Rotations of the left front wheel
                 Spinning like the crowds around a monument.
                 Okay, fine, but what about tomorrow?


Danniel Schoonebeek: Where does “People on Sunday (1930)” occur for you? The film, obviously, is set in Berlin, but part of what I think works so well about the poem is the way in which you look at American life by looking at foreign art. Can you place “People on Sunday (1930)” in any one American city?

Geoffrey G. O’Brien: When I resituated the film’s title as my book’s title, I also distinguished it from the eponymous poem in the book, “People on Sunday (1930),” thus moving it away from Berlin in both space and time. Although the film is intimately about Berlin, it’s primarily a study in mass loneliness, constrained and enforced leisure, and physical passages through the capital and dominated nature of the city-form. Berlin is then a case study and its lessons are available elsewhere in time and space, including now, in the New Yorks and Oaklands and Cairos and Madrids where austerity and protest have been circulating seven days a week.

Ultimately, the city the book considers, along with this specific poem, is perhaps Sunday itself, that moment in which a specific kind of work is traditionally suspended in order to recharge workers, making immiseration and alienation more bearable. Art too is a Sunday, a work performed or consumed in “free” time, but it happens to also be an activity and tradition in which better forms and cities of Sunday have been imagined, ones not limited to a day or a refreshing function for capital. The other invisible city of “People on Sunday (1930),” and of the book as a whole, is the moment in which the cycle of work and desperate leisure is refused for something else—gathering in the street with strangers, making new spaces in squares—an embodied recreation of a better politics rather than mere recreation.


Schoonebeek: Your pronouns have a conflict to them: in the poem’s opening line, for example, it’s “they,” not “we.” There’s a separation from the people in this line, as though one is watching the film but also maybe watching from a park bench. Elsewhere, the pronouns are immersive enough to suggest that you and I are present in the same washroom: “You use scissors, I’ll use razor and soap.” Is this conflict between separation and immersion a fact of how we experience American life? If it isn’t, what does this conflict tell us?

O’Brien: Dipping in and out of situation via pronouns felt to me an accurate representation of my viewing experience and of the film’s intentions. As I mentioned, the film is a case study of the urban form of capital and the damaged life it requires and sustains (and the spirit it can’t quite extinguish) focalized through Berlin, but the Berlin focus itself requires further focalization, hence the quintet of non-actors in the film, whose interactions are set among the populousness of the rest of the city out and about on the day of rest. The film intercuts scenes of general Berlin with intimate moments from this quintet and thus both encourages and discourages identification, a kind of prosody of sympathy I attempted to reproduce in the poem via pronoun choices that swing the reader from proximity to distance and back again. We can call it mobility or disruption or conflict, as you do—it is probably all of those things at once.



                                       …There are so many like him
                 Outside, and monuments, arches to be
                 Passed through in a car, and of course
                 The bridges, the smoke. That which can’t be
                 Passed through or under can still be passed by,
                 Advertisements on the sides of apartments,
                 Windows, trains, and trees. They’re all going
                 To the same unrevealed place…


Schoonebeek: As much as the poem is about leisure and languor, it’s also about work. The poem, like the film, ends with Monday and the workweek looming large. And in part the poem is so immersive because it commutes with throngs of people—through streets, “the bridges, the smoke.” Could you talk about what commuting in America is like for you? Your experience of moving with people through cities on your way to work?

O’Brien: Another way to think about the city, one for which Walter Benjamin is justly famous, especially in his work on Baudelaire, is that it continuously produces encounters and fellow-traveling (of the physical variety) with that class of people called “strangers.” In this it resembles poetry, a technology for communicating intimately with strangers, one that estranges its readers into an intimacy with the text. By contrast, the commute to or from work is an inert experience of alienation—exhausted workers facing their morning’s labor or coming back towards, but not yet at, their brief nightly reprieve from it. In the commute, strangers are your semblables, but little solidarity and connection transpire because they are also a logistical problem to be navigated (the crowd) and an unwelcome reminder of your economic and physical state of affairs. In my last book, Metropole, the also eponymous and long poem “Metropole” was quite concerned with commutes precisely for this reason—they mark a consistently missed opportunity to produce a commons, one poetry (at least some of it, at least some of the time) can and does spend its time thinking about and trying to produce, if always only in the no-place of the page.


Schoonebeek: People on Sunday was written and acted by five “non-actors,” each of them members of the working public who held down day jobs. And the public’s involvement in making art is a major thread of the poem, which also calls upon the people to take responsibility for their involvement in public life. “It’s time to change” and speak candidly about how sad it is “to be connected to somebody by so little / So briefly.” Are you after a poetry that rouses the public to participate in art? And do Americans have a responsibility to participate in public life?

O’Brien: The use of non-actors has its own specific history, but here it seems clear that the filmmakers are mounting a critique of enforced leisure, one they decided required weakening the fictive plane of the film, in part so that the film’s consumption wouldn’t be yet another moment of Sunday distraction. The actors are themselves and thus the film is, semi-oxymoronically, a contrived documentary, a reenactment of the present. The poem I wrote while watching this film worries throughout about how subjective experience can end up pitted against collective care and the formation of a public:

                 The four have forgotten about those who are not
                 In their boat but are surrounded all the same
                 By shoreline with unlimited populations
                 Maples by the water represent

And towards the end of the poem when the workweek is recommencing in the film:

                 Full morning already, fog in the park          
                 Wreathing the many coming off
                 The double bridge, each determined again
                 To block out the thought of four million others          
                 Doing Monday likewise out of sight.

I don’t think a poem can form a commons, but I do think it can track the desire for one as well as the impediments to its coming into being (private pleasure on Sunday, private misery on Monday, to name the two obstacles in these passages, and the system that spans them). The poem and the book want to think about what kind of people we are on Sunday and what we’d have to do to build an article in front of that term—to be a people rather than people.



                                                            …This is
                 Working out, there are definite foregrounds
                 And backgrounds, each composed
                 Then dissolving or stopping abruptly

                 Starting up again as though continuous
                 And yes, she’s still in bed so you’ll have to
                 Enter the water without her, splash of white
                 Where you just were.


Schoonebeek: Smash cuts occur often in silent films. Certain of the poem’s stanza breaks—“change // Clothes,” “stopping abruptly // Starting up”—have the jarring yet continuous feel of a smash cut. Would you call this an attempt to make the ekphrastic poem not about but of the work of art—a mimesis, if you will? And do you think smash cuts are also indicative of the way we experience our cities, jarring yet continuous?

O’Brien: Most immediately, the stanza breaks represent my viewing experience and the procedure by which the poem was written. I watched Menschen am Sonntag for the first time before it was available in the recent Criterion edition. Instead, I watched it in five installments on YouTube and resolved to write the poem in real time while I was watching. The breaks indicate the end of one YouTube installment and the beginning of the next. I was aware that the breaks, because they are not guided by a strict and repeating numerical count nor by the end of idea or sentence (and even if they were, actually), couldn’t help but become charged with mimetic possibility: smash cut, shift from the film’s non-actors to the city at large, the break with work that leisure is, and yes, urban experience’s paradox of discontinuous continuity. I’d say the poem attempts a solidarity with its ekphrastic object by repeating its breaks and giving them new life, but I’d also say the poem is an ekphrasis and repetition of a critique as well as of the artifact (the film) that renders that critique in aesthetic form.


Schoonebeek: Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan brought his self-named process of shooting through mirrors to People on Sunday as he did previously in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. Can you talk some about the distortions and tricks of the eye in the Schüfftan process and how they relate to seeing the city, crowds of people, maybe even our own culture? 

O’Brien: Again, I was thinking of this process as an inescapable but pleasurable site of mimesis and allegory. Basically, angled mirrors allow one to superimpose actors on a miniature set (against miniature buildings for example) such that one arrives at the right scale of environment to the actor’s body. Obviously, the process is an expedience, designed to obviate the need for expensive sets or difficult location shooting, but even in its expedience it expresses the film’s desire to do several things: (1) represent the human body in the environment that dwarfs it, against the city’s towers and industries; (2) extra-diegetically reverse that scale, however slyly and invisibly, by using human bodies that dwarf the miniatures they’re superimposed upon (this is the truth of the production not of the image the production produces). It thus seems both an accurate representation of the city and a wish it were otherwise; a wish Monday wouldn’t come, that the stores wouldn’t open, that strangers could keep meeting rather than moving lonelily among each other towards vast places of work. That wish is a political wish but it is also art’s wish: to reset initial conditions for thinking and feeling so that we can see better what is, what our conditions are—off-set, out of the poem, in the streets.



                                                    …Whose desire
                 Is this anyway and is it a cloud or the boat
                 Beneath the cloud, the blanket or the sand
                 Beneath that or the thermos and bottles, etc.
                 If he won’t move the other man will and if
                 He won’t serve them sausages the other
                 Does till everyone’s restored—losing some
                 Is okay because there’s enough and it’s not
                 Even lost—he cleans it off and eats it anyway.
                 Coughing and laughing, each can cause the other,
                 But laughing may last longer in a moment
                 While coughing goes on intermittently for days
                 Like a group of boys in ties who take turns
                 Striking each other. Who’s next is more painful
                 Than the blows themselves, the same with goals
                 In sports or growing up into shame about
                 Your nakedness.


Schoonebeek: Physical eroticism in the film and the poem—shoulder grazes, the “flirtation through / the awkwardness of the element,” and moments of failed domestic intimacy—is carried outward into the city. Which leads one to ask, “Whose desire / Is this anyway”? Do you think our cities, their buildings and monuments, are themselves a realization of our desires? We have on record our desire toward the divine in the Tower of Babel. But what about American cities?

O’Brien: The film is fascinated by the distance (and proximity) between bodies and so relentlessly measures it, as well as its susceptibility to disappearance or exaggeration. The element or medium in which that physical and social distance opens and closes is Berlin: its domination of nature, orchestration of labor, and vulnerability to the fascism about to take hold for a decade. I don’t think the physical plant of the city and its population density are the realization of a collective desire, but I do think cities are the places where real collectivities will have to form if they’re going to. The film suggests to me that you can’t touch another without awkwardness so long as there is no just medium (a public) in which all bodies and persons are established and recognized.

American cities today don’t seem much different to me. The crowd for the most part is a commuting crowd or a shopping crowd or an entertainment crowd within which most individuals see other persons as bodily obstacles or competitors rather than sisters and brothers; it’s hard to have any of Whitman’s optimism about an abstract fluid (a medium) called democracy or fellowship in which strangers are set. And yet Gertrude Stein speaks for me when she says in The Making of Americans, “I write for myself and strangers.” When I write

                                                            …They ride the tram
                 Like boys without jobs but even they are parted
                 By the numbers waiting on their buildings

I’m describing the daily fate of separation (they are not boys, they do have jobs, and private residences), but I’m trying to forge a connection with a reader who shares with me and everyone else the difficulties of that fate.


Schoonebeek: I love the metaphor you build around an act as simple as “coughing,” which “goes on intermittently for days.” You compare this to “a group of boys in ties who take turns / Striking each other.” And then furthering this metaphor you compare their behavior to “growing up into shame about / Your nakedness.” What I love about this moment is how it grounds two abstractions in an image that’s experienced in public in the city. Can you say a few words about this: how we locate our abstract feelings and behaviors in very real images we see in our cities every day?

O’Brien: The city is the place where the paradox of the “real image” occurs—unique interactions multiply until they are exemplary and generic, examples of particulars. The beginning of George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”:



                 There are things
                 We live among ‘and to see them
                 Is to know ourselves’.

                 Occurrence, a part
                 Of an infinite series,

                 The sad marvels;

                 Of this was told
                 A tale of our wickedness.
                 It is not our wickedness.


The city scale is one on which we can learn about our forms of life and discern what else might be possible apart from living among mere things and diagnosing only wickedness. In the opening of a serial poem about the seriality of urban experience, Oppen uses forms of the first person plural four times in nine lines. He wants to see the we in a world of strangers and towers and things. Another poem in People on Sunday contains the phrase “the we of weekends”—that wresting of the first person plural into emphasis, and from a location where it technically both is and is not (in the word “weekend” and in the weekend-form), records a desire to see a people on Sunday and to see it in latent form in the infinite series of images the city sends at us and as us.



                 Now the midafternoon when storefronts thrive,
                 Fountains rise a little higher, vision pans
                 Always to the left across construction sites,
                 Laundry hung out windows, public statues
                 (Men or animals) and even an obelisk
                 Crowds rotate around rather than confront
                 Their obvious destination. In time
                 It’s all sand, even the marble, so smile
                 While holding still whether naked or not,
                 Knowing or not, fat with discomfort
                 Or aware it’s a trap when surprised

                 To know this. Those in front of a camera
                 Are missing in a saintly way, statues with lives.


Schoonebeek: If you’re willing to allow that “People on Sunday (1930)” is a poem concerning American life, what commentary does it provide on Americans? Here is a poet looking at another culture’s art, of another city, in order to immerse himself in the goings on of his own. What does it tell us?

O’Brien: I think my poem, like the mimesis of stanza break, can’t help but be my own time and place’s wondering about itself on the grounds of another. Menschen am Sonntag also records a Berlin about to surrender nearly entirely to fascism; our historical knowledge of what is about to come, what the poem renders as “It’s still Sunday, full and orchestral if right / About to burn as well,” also records the political present, one characterized by growing repression of the right to assemble and protest (HR 347 and tear gas) and its good concomitant, the loving and angry crowd (the squares and the riot-form). I wrote the poem at the apex of Occupy militancy and hope, especially in Oakland, but also in the light of what that phenomenon faced: brutal police violence and a defense of capital that infringes on public space and how it can be used without fear of harm. In short, an incipient fascism not that different from Germany’s in 1930. The crowds on that Sunday in Berlin don’t know what’s coming and this poem wonders if it knows anything more about what is coming in 2013 and beyond.


Schoonebeek: You spoke earlier about “desperate leisure.” And there’s a tension in this film appearing between the wars (as Billy Bragg once sang) because we know fascism is on the horizon for this city and its people. But here in America, how deeply engrained do you think desperation is in our leisure? I know I feel this every Sunday, when work and late capitalism are breathing down my collar. Do you feel the public is bracing itself for collapse here in America? Are we desperate to get in our leisure while we still can? 

O’Brien: I don’t think we’re desperate for it, I think we’re desperate in it. Leisure barely works anymore. It doesn’t refresh the underslept body sufficiently, it can’t distract from massive immiseration and corporate plutocracy, the apocalyptic weather. About all it does is shrink public space (pedestrian eyes downcast on smartphones). I think of poetry as something other than entertainment because it makes conceptual and nonconceptual demands, makes its consumer a maker, and promises that speech between strangers isn’t over or fixed. Late in this poem’s Sunday afternoon, as the non-actors get ready to leave the park, that promise is figured physically:


                 Light to play a last song on the portable
                 While the final straggler makes her reluctant
                 Way across involuntary terrain
                 Over to the fact of the rest. She almost got lost
                 And that almost is crucial, with its being time
                 To return, the blue of the afternoon darker
                 Or deeper, a fight about to break out. Pleasures
                 Have to be shared, and the grimness thereof
                 When they’re about to fade.


“People on Sunday (1930)” by Geoffrey G. O’Brien, from People on Sunday. Copyright 2013. Excerpts used with permission of the author and Wave Books. 

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