How We Endure: The Millions Interviews M.I. Devine

November 11, 2020 | 5 books mentioned 8 min read

“Julia Zavacky comes down to us today as an eccentric accomplice to an eccentric artist well supplied with accomplices—a factory of them,” M.I. Devine writes, describing the mother of Andy Warhol. “But what if, instead, Julia, you signify—your journey, endurance, sacrifice—a human depth upon the surfaces of things, even the surfaces of a son.”

Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry is an inventive, playful, and rangy consideration of that human depth upon the surfaces of things—an examination of what it means to put “the mom back in pop.” It’s the type of generative book that left me with a personal syllabus of poetry and film—Devine has a way of magnetizing himself to past and present, bounding across references and texts.

M.I. Devine is, along with Ru Devine, the pop music project Famous Letter Writer. Their debut album Warhola was released on Big Deep Records, and was recently featured on NPR. Devine earned his PhD in English from UCLA. He has won the Gournay Prize for Creative Nonfiction, was a finalist for the American Studies Zuckerman Prize from the University of Pennsylvania, and has received support for his work from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is an associate professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

We spoke about the definition of pop, the merits of playful literary and artistic criticism, and how Warhol still haunts us.

The Millions: The first section of Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry begins with a photo of Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia. The arrangement of the photo places Julia at the forefront—which is true of the book as a whole. I feel like Warhol “haunts” this book more than he is physically or literally present in the text. What is the spirit of Warhol himself in the book?

M.I. Devine: Well, there’s maybe a double haunting, because for me Andy is Warhola, the immigrant’s son.

So, let’s start with Julia Warhola, his mother. Her infant daughter dies in her arms while her husband is in America. (I’ve called this elsewhere the Pietà of Slovakia). She came here alone when the border was closing in 1921. Year of pandemic, persecution: sounds familiar, right? Everything is haunted: now by then, 2020 by 1921, Andy by his mother, a name by its erasure. Call it a haunting, or call it the deep continuity between all things. I call it pop. Why not?  

That’s how the book starts, with a kind of prose poem about this nobody woman crossing the water, this folk artist. She’s my “reusable muse.” She cut soup cans into flowers, and taught Andy how to use scissors, how to remake, recrop, repurpose. 

covercoverTo your question, then: Andy as a spirit of reproduction—in every sense of that word (as child, of course, but also as force, as strategy) is what haunts the book. To reproduce is to repeat, and pop is always a bid against death, against our own ends. It says we’re not just these woods we wander in, to quote Richard Wilbur (wildly out of context—which is a very pop thing to do!). It’s a portrait of Marilyn the day after her death. A soup can that’s maybe your mother, for sure. And it’s Kendrick Lamar singing “Promise that you’ll sing about me,” it’s Leonard Cohen’s Casio “Hallelujah.” It’s a way to live. Our equipment for living. How we endure. 

I see Andy, in other words, as endlessly affirming. Our desire to cut through. To make new. Tyehimba Jess tells you to use scissors on his poems in Olio and I see Andy there. I see him in the long takes of Cuarón’s Roma, a mother and her stillborn child.

You might say that we know so much more than Andy. Maybe so. But of course he is that which we know. 

TM: Your references to film and music are encyclopedic in this book—and both well-crafted and entertaining. How would you define “pop,” and where does poetry belong within or related to that definition?

MD: Pop means saying something deep in a stupid way.

To say something stupid in a deep way, of course, is to be an academic. (Okay, okay, maybe that’s just from a meme I just shared. Ha! If it’s not it should be.)

But I think there’s something there. Stupid is flow. Stupid is your body. It’s your stupid limits and our stupid forms and the stupid fact that we all die. Andy suffered seizures as a kid and he knew all about the body. We’re not free. So much we can’t control. Right? Right. Pop is most pop, most stupid when it leans into that, let’s say, and a little bit of light shines through, and then we feel at home. We sing along. Pop is deeper than you suspect and probably more superficial than you can take. It’s the skin and the soul. It’s Stevie Smith’s poetry. It’s waving and drowning, the body and the sign; it’s a dead man explaining it all at the end, which is an absolutely stupid and wonderful thing.

Pop is MF Doom, a rapper who wears a kind of superhero mask. It’s repeating the title of his song “Sofa King” three times fast. (Try it.) And pop is especially the opposite of pop, obviously. Doom has a line that goes, “All fake rappers, 23 skidoo.” As far as I can tell, it’s a reference to, among other things, a very early Edison film called “What happened on 23rd Street”—a stupid little bit of cinema in which a woman stands on a subway vent and, voila, you know the rest, Marilyn Monroe. “23 skidoo” means beat it, stop watching, scram. And it means Keep Moving! Which is what all pop says, right? How did that expression reach Doom? Who cares? This is pop’s archivist poetics, the thrill, remixing, flowing, telling us what’s real and, you know, what’s not—who’s just the fake rapper. 

Perhaps this sounds stupid. If so, I’ve answered your question.

TM: You write about one of the poet Philip Larkin’s selfies: “He’s thin here, alone, taking a picture of a mirror, which of course is what we all did before our phones grew smarter.” Later: “Can a form be selfish? And what’s that even mean? What are forms but rooms you put yourself in, self-portraits that keep things out, let things in?” How would you describe the “form” of this book? 

MD: Oh, God, talk about stupid, using Philip Larkin in a book about American art! What was I thinking? And of course it gets worse: while traveling in Genoa, I took a selfie with a bomb that is unexploded in this absolutely stunning cathedral. It just sits there like a statue. And a few things occurred to me: 1) The British fired it there about three months after Coventry, Larkin’s hometown, was absolutely razed in WWII. And 2) The rather Gothic bomb was shaped almost identically like the cathedral. Okay, I’m getting to the point: Later that night, I watched a Pearl Jam cover band (quite good) and took notes on all of this—Italian Eddie Vedder singing “Young girl, violence,” Larkin’s city erased, the bomb unexploded in a church. Now what part do I leave out? What part do I keep in? I began by writing about how forms repeat and endure, and somehow I ended up here! With Eddie Vedder telling me that things change by not changing at all!

coverThe point is: this is all very Andy, who’d be a great writing teacher. He said, “When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.” So, I guess I’ve tried to be a bit stupid, which is maybe what literary criticism needs.  Writing is taking a selfie and it’s knowing you can’t help but let in the chaos, the clutter, the noise. When I finished writing my book I read Amitava Kumar’s Every Day I Write the Book. It’s advice for academics, but it’s really just great about writing as every day practice—as pop, and open, and conflicted, and stupid, even, and, look!, there’s Elvis Costello! Writing is life. 

So order and chaos, pattern and chance, I wanted all of it in the pantry, footnotes that aren’t footnotes at all, distractions, startling juxtapositions. It’s all part of the journey, starting with Julia’s journey—for the reader. Into America, into the violence and beauty. Into great writers and artists I love. Into my writing.

TM: “I am not Jesus,” you write. “I can’t speak plainly. I’ve wept and fasted. Write and wait. Give you what I cross out.” There’s a great rhythm and layers to these lines, which I see reflected in the way you write of John Donne: “Donne doesn’t explicitly say whether God exists outside of language. Perhaps because Donne so loves the wor(l)d that he just doesn’t care. Like Hopkins, he reads in the Book of Creatures the unmistakable authorship of God. But undone, always undone is Donne. He has to complicate things. God is a strange king. And so hard to know.” Maybe it is because I have been reading a lot of that pun-admirer Marshall McLuhan, but it feels like punning and play are a big part of your prose. Is Warhol adjacent or present in that linguistic and intellectual play, for you? How about his mother?

MD: Well, to quote Kumar quoting Geoff Dyer quoting Albert Camus: “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.”

Look, there’s a deep humorlessness that stains our understanding of art and creation. It took, what, about half a century for art critics to actually even read the words Picasso and Braque were cutting up in their paintings. Cubism’s a cut up! Oh, now I get it! Visual puns, verbal puns: to get it means you use more than your mind; you use your body; you let art touch your body; you laugh when you see that cutting up “Le Journal” makes some joyful nonsense. Jouer. Jouir. My book’s brilliant cover designer, Jeff Clark, ran with that idea. Collage is less about fragments and more a punning strategy about depths and surfaces. 

Am I divine? I’m not. And this feeling of epistemological play is rooted, I guess, in a broader approach to writing. Who am I to say what art should teach me? Art will not be possessed, nailed down. Andy’s mom titles his book 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy and Andy’s like, Nailed It! One of his earliest religious works: “The Lord Gave Me My Face but I Can Pick My Own Nose.”

But the part you mention first is from “Dead Poets”: my elegy for Sam See, a poet, professor, and dear friend who tragically died. I process his death by returning to early childhood encounters with Duchamp in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Looking through peepholes at death. At life. I found it all terrifying and wonderfully out there as a kid. This sounds bleak, right, but pretty soon Andy crashes the party and the elegy, as all elegies do, turns joyous. I didn’t plan that. But it’s precisely because of this spirit of play, of affirmation and life one finds in the pantry, I guess.

Death is stupid, like I’ve said, and our only hope is to outwit it. 

Jesus said to Lazarus “Come forth.” But he came fifth so he lost the job. 

TM: There’s a fascinating bit here about film historian Tom Gunning’s observation that in early film, spectators were cued to the act of display and movement, something like “See the still image spring to life!” You mention that this “pop throwback” has “become more and more common post-9/11,” and consider it “an attempt, I think, to recover a shared experience.” Why didn’t it return after other traumatic events?” What was it about 9/11—and us then and now—that prompted this resurrection?

MD: The 21st century has seen the great early cinema revival, no doubt. Our 1890s peeps watched cat videos on a loop, and, turns out, we watch cat videos on a loop. Sure, some of our cats are more poetic (please google Louiswildlife, a German cat, immediately) but the point is what you’ve said before: a kind of haunting. And hauntings are good! That’s where the spirits are! In lots of ways our digital habits have returned us to the wild sublime of the medium. Dogface 208 skateboards and sings to Fleetwood Mac on TikTok to a trillion views and it’s like you’ve never seen the sunset before; it’s like you never seen our massified, inhuman infrastructure of roads before; it’s like you see for the first time the body in space, singing, free.  

This return, I think, began, ironically, with a brutal collective GIF: 9/11. After the Towers, and the run-away machines, artists responded in all sorts of ways, from Foer to Scorsese in all sorts of magical ways that I write about. I think we’ve been trying to heal that wound, taking new control over our machines, because that’s what pop does. Remixing, recovering, going “old school.” Back to innocence. We are like Andy the amateur not quite sure knowing how to use his camera, you know? And that’s beautiful. It’s a way of unknowing better, which is all we can ask for from art. If readers tell me that they unknow art and America and Andy and even writing better after reading my book, well, that’s all I can ask for. 

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Longing for an Absent God. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.

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