Seeing the Mom in Pop: A Conversation with M. I. Devine
By Naya ClarkDecember 16, 2020
The book has an accompanying record, Warhola, released by the pop music project Famous Letter Writer, of which Devine is a co-founder. Praised by the Brooklyn arts journal Two Coats of Paint for “a compelling and extraordinary sound” similar to the music of Talking Heads, the songs pair well with the analytical text.
In this interview, Devine discusses his writing style in Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry, the trope of motherhood in pop culture, and present-day trends such as TikTok influencer DoggFace and the passing of Chrissy Teigen’s baby.
NAYA CLARK: Can you tell us why you called your book Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry?
M. I. DEVINE: Andy Warhol’s mother is a little bit anonymous, and one of the things that attracts me to pop culture is that it’s about anonymity. It’s about the energy that pulses through us. It’s about a guy drinking cranberry juice, skateboarding on TikTok: DoggFace. It’s that energy that will save us because that anonymity is what connects me to you, it connects all of us. Pop always wants to preserve that. I think that’s why people freaked out with that video. He’s drinking cranberry juice, which is a little bit like Andy’s Campbell’s soup cans. These things that we consume — it’s beauty, it’s energy, it has a face, but it doesn’t really have an identity, right? Pop dissolves us and connects us in that way. Andy Warhol’s mother is that anonymous force for me.
The death of pop is like the celebrity takeover of TikTok, right? The idea of fame becomes really a destructive energy because it’s very stable. It’s very locked in. I think Andy’s idea really was that everyone should be famous for only 15 minutes. Warhol’s mother, to me, brings up that feeling of anonymity. Who was this person? What is this energy, this deep history behind pop culture? The flip side of it is fame. The story of fame always gets told, but the story of that energy that connects us all, like DoggFace on his skateboard, that doesn’t really get told. That’s what the book is about. DoggFace on his skateboard, to me, is early cinema. It’s 2020, but it’s 1890. Pop puts you into a time loop.
Would you say that these kinds of mundane slice-of-life things like DoggFace listening to Fleetwood Mac on a skateboard while drinking cranberry juice are becoming more popularized because more people can relate to them?
We’re remembering how important they are. There is a part of the book about repetition. The pantry is the place of repetition. When you see Andy Warhol’s soup cans, repeated 32 times, that’s a slice of life. And everyone says, who cares, right? Everyone takes repetition for granted. Everyone takes for granted a slice of life. But I actually think DoggFace is like the American sublime. You know, he’s got his arms open. He’s going into the sunset, and I think it’s a memory. Art remembers that this is what it can do. It can return us to who we are, and who we are is each other. It recovers something for us. So, it’s not just that it’s being popularized. Maybe the technology is making it easier to do that. But the technology is also tempting you to become famous on TikTok. And that can betray the feeling of connection.
Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry is made up of a series of experimental essays. Why do you think this form is appropriate to discuss pop culture?
I wanted the prose to pop. I wanted the prose to feel like it was enacting the very ideas that I was arguing about pop culture. Pop connects you and me. So, my prose rhymes at times. Pop skips over, time travels. I do things like connect the rapper Noname — who’s got a great name, by the way — with T. S. Eliot’s ideas about the escape from personality. My point in doing that, unintentionally, intentionally, to show that this is all happening on a spectrum. There is no past. There is no present. Today is 1921. The border is being shut down. Today is 1963. Kennedy is being killed forever. 1921 is always happening. People are always suffering. There’s no past. And there’s no real future. There’s only the present. And the present is the space of pop. Pop gives you that ability to leap through time. The writing needs to live up to that.
I also really appreciated how you incorporated Noname in the brief hip-hop segment.
I wanted more, but I had space demands, and there’s so much music. Dylan. Cohen. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. Tribe. Kendrick. I had a section on MF Doom. For another book!
What did you start off with? How do you compile your works? When you decided to gather this all into a manuscript, what were you working with? What did the organization process look like?
I thought to myself, “What if you could transcend boundaries? What if you could have essays that kind of feel like poems?” And doing that would allow you to make very loose associations between things. So, all of a sudden it became a pantry. To answer your question briefly, the idea of the pantry came to me in a very simple way. Warhol’s mother’s pantry, right? When she opens her pantry and picks up a soup can; when we look at his soup cans, are they really portraits of his mother? A pantry holds everything. It sustains you. There are cookies, there’s soup, there’s stuff that you might not like, there’s variety. And you can kind of dip into it at different points, right? The pantry becomes the reigning metaphor. The book became an extended essay on my own memory and engagement with art. I only have my art. You have your art, and I have my art, we have our own engagements. There’s only so much that I could hold in my pantry. That’s one of the organizational strategies: to actually manifest the idea of the pantry.
In your book, the role of mothers in pop culture is a recurring theme. Not only Julia, Andy Warhol’s mother, but also the mother in the 2018 horror movie Bird Box, who protects her two children from the invisible force the viewer never gets to see. What’s your interest in this topic?
For me, the mother, and maybe it’s conventional, but the mother becomes a sustaining force that returns us to each other, that connects us. Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry: she is the unknown one, right? How many mothers? How many versions of her were there? The mother figure multiplies and connects us to each other. And this is archetypal. This is Molly Bloom. This is the Yona Harvey line that I quote, a woman calls across a continent / & no one answers. The mother figure does become a kind of metaphor, I think, for connection, for language, for returning us to a kind of childhood, where we play, where we speak again, where we learn again, where we see each other again for the first time.
In the beginning of the book, you compare the early years of pop art to America’s current social climate. What did you want the reader to think about when you did this?
The question is how you engage with art in a way that suggests a timelessness to these issues. The preface, the overture of the book, puts us in a scene of the immigrant arriving as borders are closing. And so that leads quickly into an act of erasure. Which leads to Donald Trump and Trump Tower, which stands on the site where there used to be a department store where Warhol created pop window displays. So, forces at the beginning are linked with openness and open boundaries, connections, possibility, and children. Other forces are linked with erasure, taking things down, cities that are flattening us. Those were two kinds of mapped polarities. And they’re in play throughout the book.
It’s not me really making a claim. I’m just putting that out there and allowing that to be seen as two elements of pop culture. On the one hand, there’s play, there’s love. There’s a lot of compassion and solidarity, which we always see, but pop also has forces of massification, of exploitation. You can’t talk about pop without talking about these two sides, about fame and anonymity: a kind of violence versus a kind of love.
In pop culture right now, motherhood is a sensitive subject. Having children is a sensitive subject. Can you discuss the resonance of this topic in pop culture today?
Yeah, that’s awesome that you notice that. It’s part of an archetypal pattern in a lot of ways. That’s what pop gives us. It’s what happened with John Legend and Chrissy Teigen. We connect to this story in a way that is deeply moving, and pop allows for that, reminds us that we are humans. It’s not just gloss on a screen. In one part of the book, I write about the movie Roma and this incredibly long, still scene of the maid with her stillborn child in the hospital. I compare it to Warhol’s 1964 film Sleep, which also makes you wrestle with the idea of the body and our own vulnerability.
Let me let me put it this way very simply. Pop is about repetition and routine. But what if we don’t actually understand why we need repetition? Here’s my claim, and I take this from different people: we need choruses, we need repetition, because we’re always forgetting who we are. We’re human, we’re bodies, we’re very vulnerable, and art reminds us of that. Art allows us to be vulnerable. It allows us to deal with our suffering. It also gives us some kind of beauty in that. We are all participating whether we want to or not. What’s happening is that we are allowing ourselves to be pop, we are allowing ourselves to see the “mom in pop,” and the “mom in pop” is the thing that connects us.
What guides your research? Where do you start? How do you make the connections?
Crossing boundaries is really important in my writing. I think one of the problems with academia, all these PhDs and MFAs, is that people don’t cross boundaries. My goal is to write a poetic text as a form of cultural criticism, to keep those two balls thrown in the air at once. I start with things that can be seen as connectors. It’s actually me arriving at the artwork and doing my part, I’m participating in it. I’m participating, and I’m allowing it to affect me. That’s one way I justify the method. So, for example, Kendrick Lamar leads to John Donne. They both lead to how poets talk about God. In some sense, I feel like all of that is about redeeming ourselves, right? That our writing should be an act of redemption that allows us to come to terms with what artists are about, and who we are. I hope my writing at its best shows traces of that struggle, but also joy. It should be joyful and playful, because art is fun, and pleasurable. It’s like skateboarding and drinking cranberry juice.
You want to wear your heart on your sleeve, you want to wear your learning lightly. You want to write in a way that talks to the reader as somebody who is smart and worthy of a conversation. You want to entertain them. So, a lot of my writing is choreographed to lead you to jokes, or puns, or playful spaces that make the reading experience a pop experience. There’s something sensual and pleasurable about it. It’s an attitude toward the world. I don’t want to be defensive. I want to be open and allow the writing to change. When I think it’s good writing, I’m writing it fast. I’m laughing as I’m writing it, thinking to myself, “This is absurd.” And that’s usually the best writing.
Do you think that your research has that same playfulness?
I think so. I’m trying to save the humanities! I’m trying to show that our humanity is interwoven with the art we look at, the TikToks that we share. TikTok today is basically early cinema. They’re no different. I’m trying to say something about the humanities and their viability in our world.
I know it’s probably difficult to compress your book into a singular idea, because there are so many different conclusions that can be drawn. But if you feel Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry could state one thing about pop, what do you think that is?
The book is interested in the way forms bind us together, and pop gives us these forms. It gives us repetition. It gives us choruses we learn to sing by singing along with each other. Think of Allen Iverson repeating the word “practice” 50 times when he was playing for the Sixers. I think of Andy Warhol painting a soup can 32 times. Did those things mean anything? Well, it turns out Allen Iverson was elegizing a dead friend. It turns out Andy Warhol’s paintings are really portraits of his mother, in a sense. So, my point, I think, is to say that we don’t really know what these forms are doing to us. They’re binding us together. They’re connecting us. Repetition, particularly for me, is about memory, and about connection, and about playfulness.
Why Andy Warhol? What’s the significance in your personal life that makes Andy Warhol so interesting?
I was really struck at one point by the simple realization that Andy Warhol changed his name. Because there’s a sense of that self-invention that is classically American. I guess I was actually more interested in Andy Warhola, that one letter difference. I felt myself deeply connected to Andy’s vulnerability, not just in his self-invention but really in the America that produces that. This America that produces the triumphant individual, but also the America that is the source of so much suffering. Warhola is the immigrant who is crossing boundaries. That’s why I spent a lot of time with Andy as a vulnerable kid. I found that he was worthy of a study that was a little unconventional. And I hope I achieved that at moments, giving parts of my own memoir, painful things like losing friends, but also growing up and meeting artists and making art.
Naya Clark is an Atlanta-based freelance arts and culture writer. She has a BFA in Journalism from Georgia State University and is an assistant editor at Urban Ivy. Her interviews largely focus on literature or the legacies of underground, DIY arts communities. Her work has been published in Southern Humanities Review, The Rumpus, Split Lip magazine, The Literary Review, Plasma magazine, and others.
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