Leif Haven and Mia You

Leif Haven and Mia You
Leif Haven and Mia You

Leif Haven’s Arcane Rituals From the Future was published this spring by 1913 Press, selected by Claudia Rankine for the publisher’s 2014 Prize for First Book. Mia You’s I, Too, Dislike It is forthcoming this year from 1913 Press. Leif, based in Oakland, Calif., and Mia, based in Utrecht, The Netherlands, met for the first time and conducted this conversation via Google Drive.

Mia You: Hi, Leif! I really enjoyed reading Arcane Rituals From the Future, and I was especially struck by your pervasive use of the imperative. This makes sense, in thinking about your collection as “instructions” or “procedures” for rituals, but it struck me especially because the imperative, counterintuitively for me, doesn’t feel imposing, nor aggressive, through your truly remarkable handling of tone. Why did you feel that the “tense” of the arcane future should be the second person?

Leif Haven: With these Arcane Rituals, I’m glad that you didn’t feel that it was imposing or aggressive. Rather than be prescriptive or directive, I think they are something closer to recipes for magic, and they can be read and interpreted as needed. This especially applies to the “Instructions” poems (some here and here).

My relationship with poetry is always antagonistic – I start out wanting to break it, and then I demand that it do impossible things. The best thing I could imagine doing with poetry is creating a “perfect world.” The only place that this kind of magic can come from is from an arcane future – one that we can’t even comprehend or conceive of now. From a practical standpoint, the imperative allows for an easy route to eliminate the “I” or the ego from the poem. I think it allows the text to possess something other than the self – in a weird way, the imperative seems to allow the speaker to slip away, and become only text, if that makes any sense.

There’s this moment in your poem “3 Minutes in Seoul” where there are instructions for what to do when going into labor, followed by the instructions for making a pouch of some unnamed instant food. The voice of the poem kind of slips away from the text, because the speaker is the writer of the instructions on the food. It’s interesting because the reader knows that the speaker is reading – the writer becomes reader in the poem, and the instructions become the poem:

When your contractions are three minutes apart, you may call your obstetrician or midwife to notify them that you will depart for the hospital. You are officially in labor. … To finish your labor:

1. Remove pouch from box. Place unopened pouch directly into a pot of boiling water, and boil uncovered for 3 minutes. 2. Carefully remove pouch from boiling water. Cut pouch open and pour contents over food (steamed rice or noodles, etc.). 3. Enjoy.

From another practical standpoint, many of the poems in the first section of Arcane Rituals From the Future were based roughly on “translations” of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Philosophical Investigations, and Blue Book, so the poems sometimes inherit his tense from the text while he is gently or firmly suggesting that you “imagine…” something in a thought experiment.

In another way, I think that the imperative is kind of an implied part of a poem – the writer is creating an experience for the reader, and the implication is that the reader should experience each word/phrase/idea/concept in this way that the poet has mapped out on the page. So the poem itself can be imagined as an imperative by the poet to the reader, to experience language in a particular way.

Let me ask you – since it came up in my rambling answer – some of the parts of your book have something of an antagonistic attitude or fraught relationship with poetry and the poetry community, and at a basic level there’s some kind of conflicted status of the text. I’m thinking about the “Bob Perelman Quartets” specifically, but I think it’s present in much of I, Too, Dislike It, where the text questions the text’s ability to be text or poetry or anything. The first poem in your book, “Thirty, The Party’s Over,” starts with questioning the love of poetry, questioning motives, and later includes lines like “can this be / the raw material of poetry,” where obviously it is already the raw material of poetry. This isn’t much of a question, but can you speak to this?

MY: Well, I think the question you bring up goes back to the original reference for I, Too, Dislike It – the ambivalence in Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry.” In it, she, of course, professes her dislike for poetry, but even “with a perfect contempt for it,” she finds “a place for the genuine.”

My collection is less about actually disliking poetry than trying to figure out what that “genuine” is. I’ve always been curious about whom the “I” in Moore’s poem is identifying with here – who is “I,” and who does she include or envision as the “too?” What is the relationship between “I” and “too” outside of their shared dislike of poetry? This collection, in a nutshell, comes from this idea: trying to figure out who the “I” is in my poems, and who is the “too” I want to be part of, or at least to put myself into relation with.

All of my poems come from a deep place of love for poetry, of believing that it can offer something (“the genuine,” maybe) that nothing else does; but love is always a mess. For example, I love modernism. I love Moore, I love T. S. Eliot, I love Ezra Pound, I love Gertrude Stein, I love Guillaume Apollinaire – all of whom appear in my poems, although sometimes doing things like masturbating in public toilets or being willed to commit suicide.

I also love Language writing and consider those poets named in “The Bob Perelman Quartets” as my poetry fathers. Fathers are there to hate, to revolt against, to be the object of patricide, of course. But there are also male poets I don’t regard as part of my ancestry. I’m not going to write “The Robert Pinsky Quartets” or “The Les Murray Quartets.” I deeply admire Bob Perelman’s poetry and prose, but I also see the limits (just as I see the essentialness) of what his work can do for my pursuit of “the genuine.”

I guess, in that sense, our collections stand in opposition: mine is a search for some kind of “I,” from the standpoint that a stable “I” has never been possible; whereas in the “perfect world” of your future, the “I” / the self will become eliminated.

Living in our current post-post-structuralist world, I’ve been curious about this, about whether there really is value in creating text that is just text – outside of a self, the ego, and without positing a self. Again, I have loved this as a tenet of modernism and of Language poetry. The death of the author and the death of the speaker, definitely! And yet…! So, why do you see value in this? And should it be a universal value/imperative?

LH: I guess I think of value itself as just problematic, or at least, I find it challenging to argue for a value in a text, whether or not it is tied to a self. I don’t know if I do see value in a text that is just text, but isn’t it also a challenge to see value in a work that is not just a text? On the other hand, is it possible to suppose a text that is ever just a text?

I think it’s interesting that you articulate the difference in stance as something like the search for a stable “I” vs. the attempt to eliminate the “I” – you articulate your work as, “a search for some kind of “I,” from the standpoint that “a stable ‘I’ has never been possible,” so in a sense it is a hopeless utopian project, similar to my “instructions for making a perfect world” – while part of the goal of the imperative/instructions in my work is to eliminate the “I” from the poem, it is also about creating an interaction with the reader. In a way, it’s about creating a self that while not necessarily stable or articulated is defined by that readerly interaction. I guess you could say that it is Barthesian in that the goal is to eliminate the author and create the text that is in relation to the reader – in that way, I think it’s hard to even conceive of a text that is just a text, because there’s no way for a text to exist in a void.

Of course, on some level I think that it’s impossible to create a text that isn’t tied to a self, or a possible self, even if that self is necessarily unstable. The text betrays a self whether that self is stable or even real. I don’t necessarily see the project of the “perfect world” as the single-focused elimination of self, so much as an array of possibilities that obliterate the cohesion of the “I” – so many things can happen in that reader/text relationship that it’s impossible to posit what the world is in the future.

When considering how you explain your book  as a number of attempts to define an “I” – it becomes clear that our two books stand in opposition spatio-temporally as well – where yours in some ways conjures past, experience, heritage, to attempt to articulate some authentic self or stable and cohesive “I,” mine starts from the present but reaches into the future where the definition and articulation is necessarily undone.

If I, Too, Dislike It looks like this: PAST}PRESENT, then Arcane Rituals From the Future looks like: PRESENT{FUTURE.

One attempts to create an object — the cohesive, stable self — out of a limited number of inputs, while the other seeks to disseminate the self into an infinite number of possible future selves or future worlds, while dismantling or destroying the idea of the original self.

So to return to your question about value — wouldn’t we define the value of a text as the effectiveness with which it achieves its stated goals — in this case the project of articulating the “I” or creating a “world”? In that way aren’t we both pursuing an impossible project? Can there be value in the pursuit of the impossible? How do you assign any kind of value to something that by its own criteria is a failure? Is there some sort of shadow goal or some kind of alternative theory of value that we can use?

MY: I completely agree that we’re both pursuing impossible projects. There’s is nothing I’d want more than someone to read the book and think, “Yes, and yet no… What was that about?” For example, I really wanted to try to produce lines that wouldn’t work as excerpts – to throw in something that would be the needle scraping across a record. In “Unpacking My Living Room,” I say that I want my son to see this poem as an aesthetic horror, like the embarrassing souvenir my parents gave me but I can’t bring myself to throw away. In a nutshell, that’s how I want my book to fail and to succeed.

The desire to create a cohesive, stable self only arises from knowing, always already alterity, that it’s impossible. And I’ve been pregnant, given birth, become a mother. I literally have my children’s cells still living inside me (in my brain, in my bones, in my lungs), and I look at them running down the street and eating pizza and singing a song I’ve never heard before, and it is the trippiest, most sci-fi thing ever to think these organisms emerged from my body. And to realize that as they grow, they are continually emerging from that pizza, the air they breathe, the pavement against their feet. The self is disseminated – and is a potentiality that finds articulation only through relations, conditions, situations. So what is there beside how we value what’s in ourselves, in others, and how others value what’s in themselves, in us?

Recently I read an essay by Carl Phillips, “Toward a Politics of Mere Being,” and I found this right-on: “Others write otherwise, as they must, as they should—as we all should, if collectively we are to be an accurate reflection of what it will have been like to have lived in this particular time as our many and particular selves.”

But speaking of “our many and particular selves,” and our intersection in the present… what are you working on right now?

LH: Thank you for redirecting away from the utterly impossibleness of trying to talk about what these poems are about! My first reaction to your post is “that was extremely well said,” and then “what an interesting question.” I love that quote, and also the alien-ness of being yourself but also someone and something else.

Re the work:

In the past two years I wrote two novels plus a book of pseudo scriptural gnomic meditations/poems about the concept of “nothing.” The last isn’t really worth talking about – I’m completely serious when I say it is about “nothing.” The fiction is perhaps easier to talk about: the first is a speculative fiction set in the near future about how, when confronted with the disastrous consequences of global warming, people turn to artificial intelligence, despite the other, perhaps even more real existential, risk it might pose, to help “bail out” the world. Like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, et al, I read Nick Bostrom’s brilliant Superintelligence (and a lot of other books on AI) and needed to work on something to think through the problems posed there – in some ways, it’s like a very complicated version of “The Trolley Problem.” I’ve pitched this book to a few agents. The other novel is about a woman named Becky who happens to be a prepper. I finished that in about three months and then decided to stop writing. That was around the end of last year.

I don’t think this will be a permanent halt, but I needed some time to think about what it meant to be writing. I had been showing up and doing the work every morning for so many years that I’m not sure I knew where I was going or what I was trying to do anymore.

In the last couple months, during the time that I would be writing, I’ve been learning programming languages: Python, Javascript, Ruby. I’m not sure if this is something that I will pursue professionally or more seriously, but I find that doing things in these languages is not unlike doing things in poems – the results are perhaps more tangible or quantifiable, but it feels similar to me. I think if nothing else it will probably lead me towards other new work.

I have continued with one “project” – I keep a file of dreams and update it when I can. It probably has a few hundred entries. I would like to continue having stranger and more compelling dreams, and remember them well enough to write them down to save or share.

So, what about you Mia? What are you working on? Tell me what’s happening with I, Too and any other projects!

MY: You will not believe the amount of time I just spent reading about the “Trolley Problem” and fat villains and potentially homicidal doctors. But, Leif, how do you write so much? Two novels and a poetry book within two years?! That’s amazing. I really admire that you have this dedication, devotion. I’ve always wished I could be the person that “shows up and does the work” with writing. I’m trying to learn.

My father got his Ph.D. in computer science, so in college I thought I should learn a little bit about programming. I took a C++ class. Does that sound laughably basic? But I enjoyed it. I loved the systematic nature of this language, the opportunity to learn a new grammar, and that the goal, a lot like poetry, was to “speak” in the most elegant and effective way.

Both of us seem to be examining the limits, the definitions, of personhood or being human in our next projects. I’m working on a poetic sequence (or short story, depending on how you want to see it) that charts a woman’s pregnancy. When she finds out she is pregnant, she realizes she’s been wanting to die. Becoming pregnant, a mother, is not what makes her suicidal; it’s what makes her realize she might have an obligation to live, to have a future. She grapples with whether it’s better to die before the child is born or afterward, so that the child can be born. What is her responsibility here – to her fetus, to herself, to her partner? What would let her die with the least amount of guilt? Is this a version of the “Trolley Problem?”

I started thinking about this project because of the bizarre debates recently about abortion, women’s rights regarding their own bodies, the conditions of motherhood, legal “personhood” (which corporations are granted in some cases, and mothers not in others). Also, I grew up in a Korean, fairly Confucian, household, so I grew up always feeling indebted to my parents – they gave me life, they raised me, I have to be grateful and one day repay them. But I’ve also really struggled with depression, and I’ve been cut off by my parents for not ending up how they wanted. When my kids were born, I realized, “They never asked for this. I did. Yes, I gave them life, but I also sentenced them to it. And to death. That lies on me.”

So it’s really a question for me, what would a truly “good mother” do in the above woman’s situation? What if the choice what not “Do I keep the pregnancy or not?” but “Do I keep myself viable or not?”

LH: You described this answer as a downer via email, but to me it just seems refreshingly honest and relevant and challenging. What a challenging premise to write from, both personally and philosophically. Sometimes I think – in my own writing and other writing – that the challenge isn’t finding the right answer, but finding the right question. That’s the only way I’ve found to be productive: it doesn’t seem to matter if there is a right answer, and maybe an impossible question with no right answer is the best starting point. It’s almost like putting yourself in the worst place forces you to find a way out.

This seems like that kind of problem that won’t ever have a good answer, and that makes me interested to read it – even if it is ultimately a downer. I see it almost like a reverse Trolley Problem, where death is the desired outcome – it’s like choosing between death and death, and the challenge is to avoid succumbing to nihilism? Or choosing the “good” death. Nihilism is perhaps a hard temptation to resist in the world where a corporation might be considered a “person” before a mother. That kind of “logic” in the public discussion around abortion and personhood makes me feel hopeless.

W/r/t C++/Programming: At AWP, I did a couple readings where I read from the long poem I mentioned above, called “Instructions For Making A New World” – and it’s interesting now to think of the most basic definition of software is “a list of instructions.” It makes literature and software seem, at essence, very similar: both are a list of instructions designed to accomplish an effect greater than any single one.

When I was maybe 15, I bought a big, thick softcover book on C++ because for some reason that seemed like the best way to learn the language, and I had heard that was the best language to start with. I didn’t get far – I’m sure you’re far more “conversant”  in that language than I am! I think the mistake I made was that I tried to read the book rather than use the tools (the language) to make things. That makes me think, now in retrospect, that perhaps this is a useful way to think about any work – maybe it isn’t ideal to read through a work and assimilate the information, but to use what is there to explore the limits of what the work can do. Is this a relevant way to read? Toward criticism or theory? Is this a useful thought for work like your current project that explores the limit cases of “human” or “person?”

The concept of limit cases seems particularly relevant to your project – and again useful to logic, or programming, where the a “bug” might be in the extreme or unlikeliest possibilities – your premise seems like a situation that “breaks” the program – whether that is ethics or something else.

I know that I’m maybe ending this conversation in a question, but isn’t that exactly the best way to end?


Leif Haven is based in Oakland, California. His first full length poetry collection Arcane Rituals From the Future was selected by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the 1913 Prize and was recently published by 1913 Press. His writing has appeared online and in print. He is currently editing a novel, Sempervirens, learning SQL, and raising a six month old border collie rescue mutt, Ronnie.

Mia You was born in Seoul, South Korea; raised in Northern California; and currently lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands. She works as Central Editor at Poetry International Rotterdam while completing on her PhD in American poetry at UC Berkeley. Her poetry has been published as a chapbook, Objective Practice (Achiote Press), and is forthcoming as a book, I, Too, Dislike It (1913 Press).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *