Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press and includes work by poets and playwrights Joyelle McSweeney and Darcie Dennigan. They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to discuss Coke bottles, multiple hearts, flowers of extermination, and blowing up the Cartesian grid.
Michael Martin Shea: Hi Joyelle! Hi Darcie! Let’s start off with your BAX work. Both of your pieces in BAX 2015 invoke the judicial world, creating or projecting an imaginary courtroom in which the action of the writing takes place, so-to-speak (replete with inscrutable judges and their whims). What does this atmosphere of the legal—its trappings and forms of speech—provide for your writing, in terms of either craft or politics (or both)?
Darcie Dennigan: I think authority is funny, author-ity even funnier. The idea that any piece of writing or any writer could settle an argument . . . I like Dead Youth a lot and especially the excerpt in BAX for this reason. Its set-up enacts the absurdity of authority (political and poetic) and its language does too—its wordplay just keeps enlarging (and diminishing) its arguments.
The speaker in Stevie Smith’s “Our Bog Is Dood” (the one who walks away rather than pick a side or cast judgment) is the godmother of the poems in Madame X (Canarium, 2012)—for better or worse. I don’t have enough distance yet from my new book to say who or what is the governing or political spirit.
The literary world is replete with inscrutable judges. But knowing that is nice, because if one can adequately defeat one’s ego, then one can write freely, without condescending to those judges. “The irony of the authority of the published poem is that poetry is not made by publication.” I think I found that quote in Linda Russo’s book, To Think of Her Writing Awash in Light, but I’m not sure.
Joyelle McSweeney: For me, an absolutely fatal and dismaying text for thinking about the possibility of Justice on a planet with a bunch of humans running around is The Merchant of Venice. The courtroom scene is supposed to be this amazing, feminist moment where Portia delivers the ‘quality of mercy’ speech—that speech reminds me of all the euphemistic lies that were ever told to justify colonialism, to justify the acquiescence, oppression, even termination of whole groups of people by any hegemonic power. In the name of mercy she totally rolls the whole machinery of hegemony over Shylock, just destroys him. That always comes back to me when I read accounts of or experience the failed quest for Justice, or, even more frequently, the denial of Justice in the name of Justice–think Guantanamo, lynchings, the fates of kids in juvie, the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the prosecution of Purvi Patel, the death of black men and other vulnerable people at the hands of the police, and the exoneration of those police thereafter. The legal system—the ‘justice’ system—seems to be a stage for delivering the opposite of Justice. Therefore it is the scene of Farce, and like a violent flower, my play explodes from that scene. To quote the Pampas poet Juan Carlos Bustriazo Ortiz (in Michelle Gil-Montero’s translation), “don’t light the flower of extermination for me.” Don’t light the flower. But then, what if real Justice did show up and explode the scene of ‘justice’ with her blindfold and her sword? Maybe this is why people are always impersonating Justice in my works—just in case magically Justice herself gets summoned.
MMS: Darcie, one of my favorite pieces in your new book is “The Stranger,” an extended meditation that, among other things, asks if there have ever been any female absurdists, and—if there have not—whether this lack is due to something inherently gendered in this approach to artistic production. And Joyelle, you’ve mentioned elsewhere how motherhood severely altered your sense of yourself, making it more embodied. I’d love to tease out this question that Darcie asks: are there any female absurdists? Or, on that note, what role does embodiedness—or more specifically, the embodiedness of gender—play in your writing?
DD: After I wrote “The Stranger,” I read Joyelle’s essay “The ‘Future’ of ‘Poetry,’” which presents one answer to the question of embodiedness as it talks about how a child one has given birth to then becomes a portal between life and death and “their numeration and nomination the place where text happens.” That essay led me to Hiromi Ito (insert multiple hearts)—absurdist for sure—whose falsetto is easily outstripping a male chorus as it gravely intones, “They give birth astride of a grave.” I don’t know–who are the American absurdists? Is it our Americanness or our femaleness that’s preventing more writers from wallowing in the incongruities?
I asked my husband (an artist) to draw me a picture of a female Sisyphus and it seemed that the best he could do was an ungendered figure. Even with breasts, when pictured in that boulder-pushing state, the figure was not clearly a woman.
JM: These days, I think of myself as drenched in farce and absurdity—specifically because of having to occupy that place where opposites are jammed into the same space and causing the oscillating, beating, clanging noise. I think about Farce as a violent form where opposites are hosted at the same time—exuberance and dismay, abnegation and frivolity, mendacity and hope. They are all smashed into the same microcosm and beating against each other and releasing amazing unnameable energies which might blow the planet apart and issue in something else or might just blow it apart fullstop. Another name for this is the Sublime so maybe now I’m also a Romantic again and at last.
MMS: You’ve both worked not only as poets but also as playwrights, though at least some elements in your plays seem difficult, if not impossible, to perform live—which leads to the temptation to see them as simply extensions of poetry and not actually meant for the stage. And yet—Joyelle, a version of Dead Youth was performed in New York, right? I’m curious as to how each of you see the boundaries between poetry and plays—if there is one—and how these two forms of writing intersect in your own process.
DD: I think it’s better to see the boundaries afterward, if I can, because otherwise what I write is boring. Last year in Providence, I did stage a poem-play that I wrote (for which I asked Joyelle to write an introduction), and this year I staged the book-length poem I Mean by my friend Kate Colby. What I learned: I want a grant to hire a full-time choreographer. There wasn’t enough of a distinction between words on the page and words coming from multiple people’s mouths—but had there been much more movement, that would have been something. Movement and dance could come in where the words fail, or where the meaning could be multiplied.
Across genres, the works I love seems very similar/boundary-less. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; a play by Sibyl Kempson called Fondly, Colette Richardson; Renee Gladman’s Event Factory; basically anything by Bhanu Kapil; (okay need to name poets now! Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poems, Tommy Pico’s IRL). I love their appearance of spontaneity, multiple tones of voice, the deepening of mysteries, vibrating silences underneath the prayer or prattle.
JM: I very much hear my plays as I write, and then when they are staged all this shining language is just hanging on the air. I’ve found that it’s very easy to stage my plays because you just have folks read the words and then all the forms become sonic and obvious and hilarious and even overdone and everyone is laughing hysterically. I’ve also found that when professional actors (instead of poets) read my plays, they love them—because the words are fun to say, like a really flashy costume they can flaunt around in. Also, for actors, the more lines the better, so the ornate and goofy verbosity and phonetic spellings that can be a challenge in a poetry context become A-OK for actors!
MMS: Joyelle, it’s hard to talk about your play, Dead Youth, or, The Leaks—from which your BAX piece is excerpted—without noting the presence of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange (though an Assange who doesn’t talk very much like the Assange of the news cycle). And of course this isn’t the first time you’ve inscribed a controversial figure into your plays (Chelsea Manning figures in 2012’s The Contagious Knives). What do these figures—who gesture to the so-called real but never even approach a sense of verisimilitude–provide for your work?
JM: To begin with, Chelsea Manning is a goddess, may she find peace and strength. OTOH, Julian Assange, c’est moi.
I wrote The Contagious Knives during Chelsea Manning’s trial, when she was still going by Bradley, which is what she’s called in the published play. That makes the play out-dated, but I like that–like this play is a little piece of history, a little piece of jetsam, a flea in amber. Like the character Louis Braille (my alter ego), I wanted to somehow get to/rescue Chelsea Manning, who was then being held in solitary confinement in (I imagined?) an underground cell, and I would get there ‘down the drain’ if necessary. So the play is quite classical—a journey to the underworld—but also obscene, florid, high, violent. I built my play around her to make a safe space at the middle of it for her, and to show the farcical and absurdist and deadly world she has to walk through, to which we all contribute, or at least, I do, as an Anthropocenic human.
[I’d love to hear Darcie’s take on this, but] the historical figures in my play are/are not the figures they share names with, whether those figures are Abduwali Abdulqadir Muse (another victim of American ‘justice’), Henrietta Lacks, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, or Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Louis Braille. The way they are-but-are-not creates a supersaturated and/or an impossible condition, which supercharges the circuit of art and pours out destructive/creative energy. That’s the force of farce.
Also, again, Julian Assange and Louis Braille, c’est moi. This play is the true record of my struggles to tolerate the gendered space of motherhood, disability, and the sense of being unable to thrive on this planet and at this time.
MMS: Both of you use a lot of wordplay and puns in your writing—especially in your plays. How does the materiality of language (i.e. its sonic quality) create humor for you, and what does (or can) that humor do?
DD: Maybe I trust mishearings, echoes, doubleness, slips of the tongue more than a straightforward statement? Or, these are more physical than intellectual and therefore anti-authoritarian? Speaking of, I used to read/”teach” The Canterbury Tales with/to 9th graders, and as I am typing this and noticing that I keep using the word authority for some reason (I hate being in charge), I also keep thinking of the Wife of Bath and her “auctoritee.” There’s that part where she’s talking about reproductive organs and asks, “to what end” were they made? And then she says “whoever wants to, let him enlarge on the matter.” Haha. Anyway, as my fellow Providence poet Mairead Byrne says (writes), “you have to laugh.” She has a poem where she says this like 9 times. I think that’s the whole poem. It’s so good.
JM: Puns are amazing. They are embarrassing, and art should embarrass the doer. I feel embarrassed. But also, the puns shove at least two meanings into one sonic space and open up a weird uncertain aperture of uncertain duration and force. It spreads out space and fills it with—what? With something non-Cartesian. Non-Cartesian because it makes more space. It blows up space. That’s what I want to do: blow up the Cartesian grid.
MMS: At one point in Darcie’s “The Ambidextrous,” the speaker says, “We are against . . . everything . . . but at the same time we love the whole thing”—which I love, because it captures what I feel so often as someone both opposed to and complicit in US-ian global capitalism. Like, I know that Coca-Cola has an atrocious environmental record, yet I love Vanilla Coke. What does this line mean to each of you, and what can we do with this contradiction (if you feel it too)?
JM: Yes. I was thinking today that the most ridiculous example of this is the DMZ—the demilitarized zone, which also designates one of the most heavily armed borders in the world. In the DMZ, great biodiversity is flourishing between the two arrayed troop installations, and the nations harass each other with pop songs, flagpoles, balloons, etc. We live in the middle of that paradoxical, contradictory, and/or bananas situation. We are the DMZ, with our pop song and flagpole warfare, armed to the teeth with plastics, carcinogens, rapacity, predation, toxic metals, dismay, exuberance and Coke. In fact, Coke bottles have been used as instruments of individual and state terror and torture, especially near US bases. Sorry.
DD: I don’t know what we can do with this contradiction except live it—we are living it.
MMS: On a similar note, you’ve both written about the collapse of the Anthropocene, our coming ecological catastrophe to which we, as a culture, seem to be unable to organize a coherent, effective response. In fact, Joyelle, you’ve even mentioned before, in writing on the Necropastoral, that the notion that we’ll survive, somehow, is an Arcadian fantasy. How does this sense—of doom, of dread, of what-may-come—influence your writing? How can you write poems and plays for the end of the world?
DD: Basically, this question is a chance for me to ask myself, “why are you not silent?” And the answer (right now anyway) is, “I don’t know.” But that’s actually a core part of my work: the idea that I don’t have an answer. I’m just present and filtering all ideas, trying to follow each [world] to its end. My husband tells me that it’s the end of the world every morning, which is . . . but still—I don’t know. I mean, life as we know it—American, well-off life of grocery shopping and saran-wrapping everything and regular showering—is already over, but people are still doing it, like in a dream. Plastic is over, it’s killed us all, but we’re still here, processing polymer.
I love lost civilizations (though unless you’re a sculptor or very rich with a mansion of stone and steel, the most that may survive of you for future inspection is your fecal matter in some hospitable ecosystem). And I think of that story (from where?) of the woman in Hiroshima the day of the bombing, whose elderly parents were across town; she wondered if she should run to find them or if she should stop and help the people next to her, and hope that someone close to her parents was helping them. How can I do that: open up my sense of community/responsibility like that? Also, how can I understand “epic catastrophe?” My mind can process, “oh, in 100,000 years some un-human archaeologist will find your sewer system and know you ate apples,” or my mind can process, “my children are drinking trace amounts of arsenic in the Providence water”—just the very large or the very small and that’s all. So writing toward answers is important. If one final answer ever came to me, that would be an occasion for silence.
Finally, I know & love Joyelle’s essay, “The Loser Occult,” where she’s rejecting the idea of patrilineage—and I think that if this is the end of the world, then this is the perfect time to write. Without a future, we are free of the burdens of tradition, promise, recognition, and moreover, of value, of belief, of power and powerlessness. Ambivalence all around!
JM: Darcie, I’m honored that that essay chimes for you! Yes, the Necropastoral is basically a pessimistic, Anthropocenic outlook. Shit is not going to get better. We’re going to (immediate next generations are going to) have to radically reorient expectations about lifespan, about what to expect in a life, of life. Of course, hegemonic structures are going to affect how this is experienced. The negative effects of the Anthropocene are deeply unjust because they arrive with different speeds and different intensities to humans on different parts of the planet (or even to different socio-economic, gender and racial groups in the same part of the planet). The regular arrival of catastrophes to Louisiana, the persistence of HIV, the lead poisoning in Flint, the birth defects in Fallujah, the spreading and devastating impact of Zika in South America and now in Puerto Rico—these are all climatological/biological phenomena which cannot be extricated from human legacies of hegemony in various forms. In this situation, I feel all enlightenment principles drop away: the Cartesian grid drops away, erodes around us, releases a grave stench which rises up from colonialism and industrialisation and all kinds of depredation, a stench so exorbitantly, hallucinatorily fetid it is beyond rational capacity but is not beyond Art. On the contrary, Art swells acutely and occultly at this time. Mutation, contamination and inundation are among the principle modes of the day in this part of this hemisphere of the globe, and each of these conceals or reveals depredation and scarcity—and so Art must be based on Mutation, Contamination, Inundation, must spectrally reveal depredations and scarcities, like some kind of Victorian spirit photograph or grave telephone. Contemporary materials are protein, combat metals, transcriptase, carcinogens. Art will have to be made of this stuff too. Decadent art for an age of decay.
Darcie Dennigan is the author of Palace of Subatomic Bliss (Canarium Books, 2016), Madame X (Canarium Books, 2012), and Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse (selected by Alice Fulton for the Poets Out Loud Prize, Fordham University Press, 2008). She’s currently working with composer Jason Thorpe Buchanan on the libretto for an opera version of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and with artist Carl Dimitri on Age of Aquarius Risorgimento.
Joyelle McSweeney is Associate Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. Her first collection of poetry, The Red Bird, was chosen by Allen Grossman to inaugurate the Fence Modern Poets Series in 2001. Her poetry, hybrid fiction and other prose, translations, and critical writings have appeared in journals such as Boston Review, American Book Review, and boundary2. With Johannes Göransson, she publishes Action Books and Action, Yes, a press and web-quarterly dedicated to international writing and hybrid forms.