A One Question Interview with Erica Mena

There are only a few weeks until Erica Mena’s Art of Stealing Workshop, so now is the time to sign up if you haven’t already!

Wondering whether this class is a good fit for you? Curious about flarf poetry, erasure works, and adaptations? Then come chat with Erica tomorrow night at our Winter Reading and Open House (Wednesday, January 15 at 7pm,  186 Carpenter Street in Providence). She’ll be doing a brief reading alongside Ren Evans, Danielle Vogel, Victor Wildman, Maria Anderson, and Laura Brown-Lavoie.

Mingle with other writers in the community, find out how to apply for scholarships, and join us in a toast to the writing goals each of us has for the new year!

I spoke with Erica about originality, authority, and the desirability of foregrounding other works in our creative practices.

Your winter class focuses on different modes of “creative stealing.” Given that we are all– ideally– readers, viewers, and students of existing art and text, what does it mean to create original work?

L.H.O.O.QWell, one of the things I’ve begun to question is the assumption that there is such a thing as “originality.” This for me started in my work as translator, when struggling with the question of who wrote the text I had translated. I had, of course, but so had the original-language author. We both had, but we had written different texts. My text was based on the original author’s, derivative in the literal sense, but not dependent.

Embedded in the concept of originality is authority, and if you pull back even further it has to do with value, both in the artistic sense and more insidiously in the capitalistic sense. The fantastic philosopher Walter Benjamin exposes this in his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” when he tries to pin down what makes the original different from a reproduction. He’s talking about paintings and photographs, and he settles on this idea of the “aura” of the work of art. An aura that is diminished by its reproduction, in his understanding.

But when we think about this in terms of writing, which has been easily reproducible for much much longer than visual art, original doesn’t mean the manuscript-as-art-object. It means the authority to sell/distribute/profit from the text. It’s tangled up in legal concepts like intellectual property and copyright. It has more to do with distribution than creation.

Of course there’s another thing at work here: the Romantic’s concept of an individual artist as god-like genius. While modernism and the 20th century did away with a lot of the artistic baggage of Romanticism, for some reason this idea became entrenched. The individualism here has no room for multi-authored works (collaborations, translations, etc.), and no room for influence. See Eliot’s fantastic essay on that. Certainly not for the kind of influence that acknowledges a huge web of cultural indebtedness, often completely unacknowledged in the artistic process.

So I guess my short answer is that I don’t believe in originality. I don’t believe that it’s possible, or desirable. I think that as artists we create in a context of influence and collaboration, and that doesn’t mean that what we are creating has less value because of it. In fact, I would argue that our work becomes more valuable the more it engages with the cultural artifacts that inform it.

And ultimately, by foregrounding the role of other works in our own as a practice or as an exercise, we realize that we don’t actually have to try quite so hard to be “original” – to create works that are reflective of ourselves and our artistic vision. It’s impossible not to.

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and book artist. Her work has been published in Vanitas, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Asymptote, Words without Borders and others. Her translations include Return to the Sea by Etnairis Rivera (Arrowsmith, 2006) and The Eternonaut by Hector German Oesterheld and Francisco Solano Lopez (Fantagraphics, 2014). She holds an MFA in literary translation from The University of Iowa and is an MFA candidate in poetry at Brown University. She is the founding editor of Anomalous Press.

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