Jeffrey Howe and Narmin Ismiyeva sit down with Michael Rowland to talk about his book Infinity in Bits, forthcoming with Equus Press in October 2021.
EP: How do different sections ‘talk’ to one another? Are they to be read chronologically or are the ‘cards’ to be shuffled and new original readings be made out of them?
MR: Each card and text has a life of its own, but one can read the Major Arcana, The Court cards and the Pip cards as flowing stories, albeit in an abstracted manner.
EP: Infinity in Bits reads as a rather ‘urban’ book with traces of Prague visible here and there. How does this urbanism as well as references to the popular/consumer/mass culture (mention of Tesco store chain, for example) combine with the mysticism of the Tarot reading?
MR: I suppose the ‘Urbanism’ helps to draw the reader away from the traditional ‘mysticism’ of the Tarot. Whilst the historical contexts and esoteric traditions of the Tarot are absolutely engaging and fascinating, they are not key to my own interpretations. I see a more practical value to be had from their use as a psychological aid. Not forgetting the fun that can be had with this colourful tool. I also love to see the commonplace in literature which essentially is trying to hit an intellectual note. Joyce did it. T.S.Eliot did it. Beckett did it. Frida Harris wanted to do it in Alistair Crowley’s Tarot pack, which she illustrated. She painted a version of The Fool as Harpo Marx. I love this! Crowley said ‘No.’ Shame.
EP: How does Infinity in Bits play with the archetypes that the Tarot cards might represent (e.g. The Fool, The Devil, The Magician, etc.)?
MR: When creating my own pack I paid careful attention to, and stayed faithful to, three major packs: The Marseille, The Rider/Waite/Smith and the Crowley/Harris packs. These were at my fingertips the whole time during the writing; along with my own pack.
EP: In the introduction, you mention that you’ve been inspired by Jodorowsky’s work. In Infinity in Bits, there are also references to his movies, especially The Holy Mountain. Could you elaborate on the connection?
EP: My friend Lusi Lu gifted me with Jodorowsky’s Marseille pack along with his book, ‘The Way of Tarot’ in Gallery Hala C, at Jessica Serran’s ‘I’m Not Ready to Say I Love You’ art exhibition. Being a fan of Jodorowsky’s films I devoured the book in two days and vowed to visit him somehow; maybe get a Tarot reading from him in his local Parisian cafe. In my mind it was to be a pilgrimage not unlike Bob Dylan’s pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie at the Greystone Hospital in New Jersey 1960. The very same afternoon I received an FB advertisement notification that Jodorowsky had made a last minute decision to join the Prague World Book Fair at Výstaviště in five days time! Lusi and I were there both days, for the reading and the signing. One week on, only 20 metres away from where we met Jodorowsky and his wife, Pascale, I read over twenty spreads for querents as part of Jo Blin’s Red Carpet performance for the PQ festival (Prague Quadrinalle – Europe’s largest performing arts festival). I was one of Jo’s ten international artists doing ‘things’ on red carpets in the 40 degree heat open space in front of the trade fair palace.
EP: Towards the end of the book, especially in the Pip Cards texts, the ‘voice’ of the pandemic and the lockdown becomes more pronounced. How does the virus incorporate itself in the universe of the Infinity?
MR: The Major Arcana were written in the winter before the pandemic. I locked down with Jo Blin and wrote a card a day during this time. I did not want to be heavy handed in my acknowledgement of my immediate surroundings, but I feel it would have been remiss of me not to make reference to where we were, and what was happening at this time. I rarely write without drawing something from my actual environment. This is another reason that ‘urban’ references slip into my work a lot.
Acknowledging also my debt to Jo was important. It was Jo who gifted me my first pack, a Rider Waite Smith pack, handed over and unwrapped at a Twisted Rod concert in Malostranská Beseda on my 48th birthday. I started giving Tarot readings immediately, like a child excitedly pretending to do joined up handwriting. Jo became my first regular querent. At the start of 2020’s Covid–19 lockdown Jo invented a 78 card reading for us both that has to be seen to be believed. I can think of nobody more perfect to have helped me see this project through to its end.
EP: Your work brings up an interesting parallel between the writer as the tarot reader, and the reader as the querent, who “decides what this means to them”. Would you say that every reader creates their own book while the author is primarily a medium?
MR: You could say that, yes. In this sense it also works like art. A work of art is created and then it is made public. The artist cannot always be there to explain the work. A written explanation from the artist also does not work the same on any two people and it does not work for all time, even for the artists themselves. The Tarot reader and the artist are both counting on the viewer or querent to ‘play the game’.
EP: “Everything is a metaphor for everything else.” In today’s endlessly mashable, memembable, recombinable culture, the possibilities for creative expression do indeed seem infinite while, at the same time, highly fragmented. Everything is a bit or sound byte of something superimposed and juxtaposed onto something else in an endless chain of floating referentiality and signification. To paraphrase your quote from T.S. Eliot, we are always trying to borrow and better. James Joyce anticipated this with the writing of Finnegans Wake. Who knows what he would have done with in the age of the Internet? All that of preamble to ask, is this what you had in mind with the title Infinity in Bits—this highly fragmented reality of endlessly multiplicative combination and recombination we find ourselves living with today?
MR: I am tempted to simply say ‘Yes.’ But the question is so good it deserves more. I don’t believe it is only today that humans are coming to this conclusion; that we are living in a highly fragmented reality. The zen masters knew this, Deleuze and Guitari knew this, and any number of philosophers, scientists or stoners who took a moment to ask themselves ‘WTAF?’.
Poetry works because of this. I mistrust plain statements, and I mistrust stories which do not go off on tangents. Actually, to be honest, I am as susceptible as the next person to a well told tale with a beginning, middle and a happy end, but this is usually as an antidote to reality. When you give yourself the opportunity to engage with reality, I believe you should have fun. Tangents keep me happy. The Tarot is a master of tangents. If you want to play, you have to be ready, you have to keep up, and it’s nice to remember that the Tarot originated as a game, a pleasant portable pastime that just so happens to allow one’s imagination to take the lead and dance.
EP: “You were born to be reborn.” We do seem to live in a great age for reinvention of the self, don’t we? Granted, this isn’t true across the board, but there are often opportunities to remake oneself, to break out of whatever box you’ve been born into or inculcated to. You encapsulate this situation nicely in a couple of lines: “No human should ever have to speak ‘business English’” and “I am left alone to sit and wonder, “If clothes do maketh the man, when naked, what in God’s name am I?”. While I don’t know much about Tarot, this seems to me to be very much the ethos of it: the possibility of being new or achieving something new or shedding something old with each shuffle of the cards. Would you say this is the case?
MR: We have to shake off so much crap every day. We accumulate things psychologically that are of no practical use to us whatsoever, and yet we make these things part of our ‘story’. Anything which can help us stay fresh has to be worth a look. The Tarot does not work for everybody. Poetry does not work for everybody. But each of these things is so infinitely malleable that they can work for any person given the right circumstances. There are stigmas to almost anything you can name, and as soon as you find yourself stigmatising something I would say that now is the time for tangents. Why the stigma? Why the judgement? Give yourself a break. Just because you don’t like rice pudding doesn’t make every rice pudding eater a twat.
On a more serious note, we don’t all have control of the ‘stories’ we find ourselves in. Whilst the Tarot cannot tell the future and it cannot tell you what you should do, it can occasionally provide the querent with a balm. The tarot used well can offer encouragement, insight and humour in dark times. E.M. Cioran said, ‘There is nothing to say about anything. So there can be no limit to the number of books.’. Again I would like to say that only through permanent revolution of thought and process can we hope to free ourselves from fictions in which we do not belong.
EP: “The dream of what’s happening to me is so much more attractive than what’s actually happening to me.” I like this line. It has a timeless quality to it. I would say it’s true now more than ever in a time when diversion, delusion, and amusement are not only accessible to us but actively targeted at us. How does Tarot help cut through some of that fog? Does the reshuffling of possibilities provide some clarity, or at least some flexibility, with regard to one’s situation and options?
MR: It does. As long as the Tarot doesn’t become a crutch. As long as this pack of cards can be read with a pinch of pepper and salt, it can provide you with beneficial insights. There is no magic, there are no ghosts, no gods, no spirits at work, only the mind. Keep it light, keep it safe. Professional analysts use this tool in their therapy sessions and Tarot readers make many analytical statements. This does not mean that the Tarot reader can replace professional help. The Tarot ‘cuts through the fog’ as you say, in that it can reveal to you what you are really thinking at a time when you truly suspect that you are not being honest with yourself. The thrill of the Tarot should remain scientific in my opinion.
Having said that, the Jungian synchronicities which begin to occur when studying and using the Tarot on a regular basis are worth note. The pack has an incredible propensity for shocking us with its knowingness. I believe that this is because we are all capable of magnificent feats of invention. Except those who aren’t. I would recommend not reading to those who are not capable of invention. It can be very disheartening to an excitable, novice reader.
EP: “We never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” True. Humans are gifted self-saboteurs. I think this is what makes Tarot so appealing, every shuffle represents a new opportunity. Even if you’ve missed an opportunity, there will be another one. Things need not stay as they are. “Tomorrow will not be how we imagined. Ever.” Was this one of things that drew you to Tarot? I know you talk a bit about this in your introduction, the instant connection you had with Tarot, but what underpins that connection? To what degree does perspective itself shape the reading of the possibilities the cards lay out?
MR: What drew me to it initially was the theme of a blog I was writing at the time. I chose to aim my reviews and comments on local art exhibitions to people I knew, who claimed not to understand conceptual art.
I was attempting to show in a very clear, basic way that even the most befuddling concept art is based in a tradition which is quite easy to understand. I wanted my Mum and Dad, for example, to absorb the knowledge that Duchamp’s toilet, and Malevich’s ‘Black Square¨ happened one hundred years ago. I wanted them to engage, and see that students of art today are faced with an infinite amount of things they can do which can be called art. I wanted to show, in an entertaining manner that we are all looking at the same thing from a different angle. There is no secret, hidden meaning to any art. The answers are there for the taking. If you want it. The Tarot were a pictorial puzzle to be unlocked to me. I love the analogy between fine art and ‘getting to know’ the cards.
EP: “Under no circumstances trust anyone if they deal in ultimatums. Including you.” I love this sentence. The irony and paradox are a lot of fun. Themes of totality figure heavily in your book in that you seem very much opposed to totalizing systems, ideologies, etc. This manifests variously in lines like “Underwear is not inevitable and neither is your sanctity” and “Death,” the maître d reflected “The only true form of spontaneous solidarity”. Tarot seems to represent opposite of this totality: “No fad but permanent revolution permanently”. While your text is very playful, it addresses some heavy themes. Was there an intention in the text to warn about the dangers of totality and stagnation, while advocating not just for change but for perpetual change?”
MR: Yes. It’s funny though, because as much as I believe in permanent revolution, I can’t help but visualise even this as a totalitarian conclusion. I am an optimistic person and have not given up on the search for a sentence, an image, a word that would trigger a positive chain reaction amongst humans resulting in peace on earth. No, I am not joking. But it is this optimism which drives people towards the Tarot I think. The belief that there is something better than this. The belief that just one more card will reveal to us the answer. One more poem. One more painting. I love what Cioran said about the endless possibilities, but I can’t in good conscience subscribe to this aphorism.
EP: “There was more to life than requited love and not much more to life than friendship.” I don’t want to say that there is a central point to the text because the text covers so much, but is it reasonable to say that this line is at the heart of it, that love and acceptance (e.g., friendship) matter so much more that the pursuit of gratification, more than pursuit generally?
MR: The two words, ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ should be synonymous. The use of the word ‘requited’ in this sentence refers to classic love songs and poems and their unrealistic expectations of sexual relationships.
EP: One final question is much more general and aimed more at the non-Prague readers. You’re very plugged into the experimental art scenes in Prague locally and more widely in Europe in general. What do you see happening in those scenes now? What are you excited about? What do you want to get other people excited about? Please, point us in the direction of new and interesting things either happening or about to be happening.
MR: Well, I am glad you asked, because my next book is about exactly this! The English language poetry scene in Prague is taking off in a big way. The theatre scenes, and the performance scenes all seem to be gelling in a beautiful, organic way right now. It is early days but there is so much going on, I don’t even know where to begin. ALIENIST is a big mover, and so is OBJECT PARADISE. OBEJVÁK and MULTI-LINGUAL POETRY. BLOOD, LOVE, RHETORIC and ISOLATION COLLECTION. There are collectives popping up which are wonderfully inclusive and are beginning to gain and share attention. The scene is welcoming and just brimming with positivity and experimentation. I am so happy to be living in Prague at this point in time. The possibilities seem endless since nothing seems to have blown up yet. I mean it is just a matter of time before Prague’s art scene shifts from the local to the world stage. You’ve seen them, I’ve seen them; there is some wicked talent here and I am just glad to be rubbing shoulders with the fuckers!