Lauren Levin and Sara Larsen interviewed each other about their respective books, THE BRAID and MERRY HELL, in early April via Google chat. These two Bay Area poets draw on a decade of friendship and artistic cross-pollination to discuss feminist rage, genre fuckery, and the mantras of survival.
THE BRAID is a fever dream of pregnancy and early parenting in the era of the police state: a love poem shot through with ambivalence, a sustained fuck–you to Ronald Reagan and his legacy, and a moment of feminist possibility on the far side of collapse. In MERRY HELL, Helen of Troy rejects empire and exposes the “misogynist spell” of the narrative that condemns her for the horrors of the Trojan War. Helen’s story is interwoven with circumstances surrounding the Pétroleuse, or women incendiaries, of the 1871 Paris Commune as well as our current moment’s calamities and possibilities. Both books are available at Small Press Distribution.
Monday, April 10, 2017
Sara Larsen: So, my dear friend, my heart was just bursting with your book! I was really struck by the form of The Braid and especially loved that the first line of the book starts in media res: “And then Lindsey and I talk about vulnerability and what it means”… as if we are already there with you and Lindsey.
Can you say more about the title and how it might relate to your process in writing the book? Also, did you conceive of it as a book ahead of time, or did you just begin?
Lauren Levin: The title feels related to the way I think: very associative. And the process of the book was bringing strands of different content (maternal, political) together. Which is a kind of braiding. And also trying to pull things apart. For instance, pulling apart the anxieties of parenting and thinking about them as related to political or collective anxiety. So it felt like an in-and-out motion, a kind of weave.
SL: I feel like the first line interpolates the reader right away into that idea of putting things together and pulling them apart…which is something so many of us already feel is happening all the time in our lives.
LL: Thank you. That’s good to hear. The in medias res..I don’t know that I had a conscious reason for beginning there, except that it propelled me forward. But I was struggling with the artifice of art: that however visceral the writing, one is making something and thus shaping, presenting the experience. That question combined with the feeling of desperation I had at the time. I wanted to imagine I was doing more than I could really do. I wanted to pull people in. Though I’m also skeptical about pulling people in! And about what art can do.
SL: “And then there’s being you and which you will I be/and I fear it happening and fear it not happening and then I feel stuck, and there’s the one embryo not happening”
LL: Ha, exactly. That’s me in a nutshell. Pulling both directions.
Your book also starts with an inclusive gesture. I’m thinking about your epigraph of sorts: “So I’m sure you remember back when we all lived in Sparta.” It pulls the reader into a collective experience. Why did you want to begin the book there? What does it mean to invoke a “we,” and Sparta, at the opening?
SL: Time as elastic and non-linear is really central to Merry Hell. I think both because I want the reader to recognize that they are part of the story, whether it is the conventional story (stories, really) or the version that I wrote which is a counter-epic and a refusal of patriarchal narrative. I’m also genuinely into what Ezra Pound talked about, “All eras are contemporaneous in the mind”. We are still living Helen of Troy’s story, still living the story of the Paris Commune. The USA is Sparta: militaristic, patriarchal, scapegoating…in this case, scapegoating women or a woman: Helen.
LL: I jotted a note to myself while reading “Do we still live in Sparta?”
SL: We do—unless we do the work to undo it, to imagine something else.
LL: Yes. I’m researching the play Othello for a new project and it’s really painful to see how many racist and misogynist tropes have been consistent over hundreds, if not thousands of years. They are our undercurrents, our thought before thought. Which makes the work you are doing in Merry Hell so powerful.
SL: It really is painful. And I really felt like the women had a different story. Like they had a different newspaper article that almost no one ever read.
In The Braid, it was really intriguing to me that one of the strands in the book was this idea of the pastoral and the pastoral seemed so blasé, uncaring, Reagan came up a lot in relation to it, white ambivalence…can you tell me more about what the pastoral in your book represented to you?
LL: To draw on what we were just discussing, one of the hard things about trying to do feminist or anti-racist artwork is the feeling that this work has been done before and keeps being buried. Struggles have been fought, battles have been won and lost, and we have to recuperate our history every generation.
So one of my questions is, how does this cultural erasure work, and for whose benefit?
SL: Yes, and how can we continue to work with it in new ways?
LL: Exactly. Thinking about the pastoral helped me with that. If pastoral deals with pleasure and peace, shepherds frolicking in meadows, it’s also all about what has to be excluded to make that peace possible. That happens very literally. In Virgil’s first Eclogue, one of the founding poems of the genre, there’s an eviction. One shepherd has been evicted by his landlord. The other is giving him temporary shelter so they can forget their troubles. The poem has an uncanniness to it. It’s haunted by this eviction, which it’s also trying to push away. Also, the poet-shepherd, the one who stands in for Virgil, is the one who hasn’t been evicted. He’s praising his landlord, who represents his poetic patron, for letting him stay.
The poet saying “Hey, landlord, don’t kick ME out! I’ll forget that you evicted someone else, I’ll ignore what’s going on over there, as long as you let me stay,” that’s where I see a connection to whiteness. What James Baldwin calls white innocence, “the innocence that constitutes the crime.” The willingness of white people to avert our eyes. Another example of that kind of pastoral is Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting dressing up as shepherdesses, while in the countryside the peasant women were leading bread riots.
I do think there are lots of other ways to imagine the pastoral than this cruel side of it. In Alli Warren’s poetry, for instance, the lushness and sensuality of pastoral…the idea of having what one needs, of bounty…becomes an anti-capitalist drive. But I was working with a kind of rotten, vulgar pastoral. I think dumb versions of genres are important, too. They probably impact our culture as much if not more than the scholarly ones!
SL: Well, I’m glad I asked that because I think questioning genres is something our two books have in common – The Braid takes up the pastoral and Merry Hell interrogates the epic (traditionally a man’s space).
I also love that David Wojnarowicz is present in your book. He is one of my heroes and is present in the lineage of my book – the fuck you lineage – the you-can’t-ignore-what-you’ve-done-to-my-body lineage! He confronts power, Reagan, the FDA… says lay my dead body on the steps of the FDA.
LL: Yeah, both what you say about the traditionally male space of the epic and David Wojnarowicz makes me think of all the sex and death in your book. There’s a powerful, violent energy. Maybe you can talk more about how you’re connecting the epic with that energy? The violence to me feels like it partakes of something horrifying. It’s about rape culture. But there’s also something regenerative about it. The body of myth is blown apart and re-seeds the new. So I’m curious about your thoughts about eros and violence, or the eros of violence, in Merry Hell. (Just realized that your title also brings up that juxtaposition!)
SL: It’s the pissed off energy of a half-goddess who has borne the burden of the mythic war.
Helen was born (in most stories) of Zeus and Leda, when Zeus in the form of a swan abducted and raped Leda. I think the eros of violence, the way that there is a gross pleasure in violence against women in our culture is a theme and is called out throughout the book. And Helen, and the women of the Paris Commune, whose stories are also present and woven in, not only tell the whole truth of what has happened to them, they tell the counter-narrative, the women’s stories. I felt like Helen was saying, I was never abducted by Paris, I never fell in love with him and ran away with him, I left this sick empire of my own volition! She explores her own power and turns the story on its head while moving through everything that her life had been up to that point. And the women of the Paris Commune are weaved into this counter-narrative as if it’s all happening at the same time and at the same time as what is happening in our time under high capitalism. I contend that it is all happening at the same time, that we are in revolutionary Paris, in empire in Sparta, in Oakland / USA now. Historically, it was really the women who began the revolutionary time period of the Commune. The poorest, most abjected women. And their power burst forth. So I was really interested in these moments, real or mythical, where women owned the story and thereby owned their bodies, their minds, their spirits.
LL: I think that’s another connection between our books. I’m having trouble putting it into words, but something about violence and gendered feelings. Ugly feelings.
SL: I agree. I resonated so much with that in The Braid – ugly feelings. And how honest it was to surface them and how the difficult surfacing is totally necessary.
LL: Because one’s narrative has been suppressed. But suppressed might be the wrong word, because that implies there’s something clean and neat there to find.
SL: Well it’s like, the narrative is a braid. I resist the idea of one narrative like I resist the idea of one line of time where we are separate from past or future. I felt like similar work was happening in The Braid.
LL: Yeah, like trying to construct a narrative for oneself out of these shards and scattered bits. Maybe we imagine the transformative moment as a kind of alchemy, a smelting where the rage of the Paris Commune and Helen’s rage and the rage of postpartum depression and of anti-Reagan protestors come together. And combust!
But the hard thing about the individual moment (of violence, of joy) is what happens next? I guess that’s the braid. How to both destroy and weave. I feel like there’s a similar struggle in Merry Hell in that you invoke a kind of journey to the underworld. You say: “Did i drown / in a boat/ between worlds,” and I was thinking about how you’re both taking an epic journey, trying to transform its narrative, but also go to a space that’s beyond any kind of simple reversal. Like your line “hands femme and beyond femme.”
SL: The thing about going to the underworld is that there is this mythological insistence that tells us that we need to go to the depths, to scary unknown places within ourselves in order to transform…and also that in an external sense, we are urged to leave behind the decorous safety of the culture. In our case in the US, we live in a death culture that simultaneously denies death as it perpetuates suffering. We need to transform, we need templates, we need stories to help us.
I was struck in reading your book that that was happening so fully, so powerfully but from a different side of things than where my book stood. That we can’t just sit around in the version of the pastoral that you critique. And how are other bodies – Alejandra, Tony, your mother, or Helen, Louise Michel, the witches of Tyburn, Leda—our own bodies?
“I was killing myself so lustily with birth”, you wrote. Can you say more about transformation and bodies and journey in The Braid? (also, as an aside, I see it’s almost 11 am…let me know if you need to wrap this up!)
LL: Unfortunately I do…but I could talk tomorrow. I have so much more to ask you!
SL: I have so much more to ask you too! We can also do a part 2 over email? Just another idea.
LL: I do like doing it this way because we can weave together more….we’re spending time in a space between our books which is surprising and fun. I could do tomorrow morning kinda same time…9:30 to 11? I should maybe reread The Braid before then…realizing I don’t remember my own book.
SL: HAHA. Me too re: Merry Hell.
LL: Did my answer about the pastoral make sense? I feel like that’s a hard part of the book to explain. In writing group Brandon Brown always had interesting questions about the pastoral and my answers were always some variant of “Um…well…”
SL: Your answer about the pastoral made total sense and is so intriguing. I never heard anyone approach the pastoral that way, and it’s like you answer yourself dozens of times in the book and the answers are always different which I love…genres are hard nuts to crack.
They are so taken for granted, as-is. They are ideological!!! It’s a great aspect of the weave.
LL: Yes, it’s true! I also usually answer the way I answered you because it’s the most straightforward connection to the politics in the book. But I think it’s true that what I’m thinking about with the pastoral involves multiple strands in itself. Invoking the pastoral is also about my own longing for peace. As a respite from anxiety of all types.
SL: For sure.That resonates with me.
LL: And my love of pleasure, sensual pleasure, which relates for me to what I was saying about Alli’s work. I think there’s a line in one of the poems in The Braid about a hot tub, ha ha.
SL: Ha, totally.
LL: Hot tub is pastoral.
SL: It’s also pastoral in a good sense how you talk about Tony and Alejandra and even your parents’ bodies.
The peace there.
LL: But all those pleasures come together with one’s distrust of them. Yes, that’s true. About my family. I don’t know if I ever made that connection, honestly, but it’s totally true.
SL: Even when shit is all over the place or you are arguing about diapers.
LL: Yes. It’s a more frightening pastoral. Kind of like how your epic is a frightening epic. Not a manly, put things back in place epic. It’s a shattering epic. Like that moment when I talk about how Alejandra’s face is like a landscape with emotions moving across it that aren’t feelings. It’s not a tamed landscape. And in that sense it is and isn’t pastoral. It’s a peace that passes understanding. Says this very secular person, ha. I guess the book worries about the peace I find in other people’s bodies and also marvels at it. The two faces of parenting. The connection is powerful, beautiful. It can also become intrusive. And how that also relates to aspects of whiteness. White people’s traditional comfort with using other people’s bodies for our power and pleasure.
SL: Yeah, for real. I also think movement of bodies in both of our books cuts both ways…it’s both exhilarating and risky, taken up voluntarily but also so necessary to survive that it doesn’t feel like choice sometimes.
I suspect that part of what is scary in Merry Hell, for me as well as others, is its insistence that we are there, not as readers or listeners but as part of it, that the “characters” are us. In many ways it’s a book about living in Oakland.
LL: Yes. I noticed the “hell-i-cop-ters” that are always linked to protest in Oakland, the kind of grimness and resolve and heart-fluttering of hearing them over downtown when one is heading there.
SL: Ha, yes. Exactly. The ubiquitous helicopters. hella cop tors. hel i cop tors
LL: You know, what you said about moving and survival made me suddenly think about Merry Hell as a migration story. I feel a little reluctant saying that because writing a migration story, if done badly, could be appropriation of other people’s narratives. That’s not what you’re doing and that kind of story isn’t overtly there in the book. But the stories of people dying on boats enroute to Europe from Africa do come to mind when I think about movement that is supposedly ‘chosen’ but really enforced. And how Western culture draws labor power to itself, and the labor power of women.
SL: Yeah, I hear that.
LL: So many images of laundry in your book.
SL: So many of the women of the Paris Commune, who were poor working class, would take in laundry
and the image just stuck with me – always washing out the dirt, always with your arms in the water, communal laundry tubs as a space of exploitation in terms of labor and class struggle but also of a feminine space.
LL: It is an incredibly powerful image. The dirt at the heart of empire. And the circulation of water between bodies, and the laundry tub echoing with the ocean that Helen is crossing.
SL: Tub as womb and all that,but more so, tub where women would talk and Aphrodite, “the shine goddess”, washes laundry in Merry Hell. Yes, echoing the ocean that Helen dives into and drowns her “self” in.
You have laundry, too. On page 74 of The Braid: “To refuse both work and leisure / it smells of laundry and ink”
Let’s pick up tomorrow again…Sending so much love and thanks for a beautiful opening of this conversation! Looking forward to talking more later!
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
SL: Hi there. Ready whenever!
LL: Hi! Do you want me to talk about bodies from yesterday? *i.e. your question, Can you say more about transformation and bodies and journey in The Braid?
SL: Yes, Can you say more about transformation and bodies and journey in The Braid?
LL: I can try! When I’ve talked about the book, a line that often comes up is “Braiding is a social art because you can’t see your own hair.” So there’s a way that I’m thinking through how I learn in conjunction with other people. With other bodies and my own body. Which maybe seems abstract. But I guess the book was thinking through some of the embodiment and violence and intensity around having a child, for one thing.
That made me think about separation and coming together. The longing to be touched and the longing not to be touched. Trying to figure out, is this body part of me? I think there’s a tendency sometimes in poetry to valorize love and empathy as affects. That community love is going to save the world. But love is complicated and ambivalent. And empathy has its limits. Other bodies go through struggles that I can’t know or understand, and shouldn’t try to appropriate.
So I was trying to think about bodies in collision…anger, love, fear. Every kind of feeling without making an ideology out of a certain type of feeling, if that makes sense.
SL: This passage stuck out to me: “When we first got Alejandra home I hallucinated her / floating above my bedsheets while I slept / A spectral constant cry, she was also an unformed body / Her body was a link between the beauty of form / and the image that persists in one’s mind / of a person in their absence and presence.”
LL: A newborn has the spookiest kind of body! It’s everything, the most physical, the most demanding, and yet it’s also constantly transforming and constantly with you, no matter where you are, so it has a hallucinatory, ghostly quality. I did actually have those visions of her floating above my bed crying. Sleep deprivation.
SL: Whoa, that’s wild! Going back a beat, about thinking of bodies in collision, I think that’s why The Braid hits on such a deep level when reading it. We really are so used to valorizing certain feelings above others…I love what you say about not making an ideology out of a certain kind of feeling. And this conversation leads me to also ask, how is the form of The Braid, the kind of lines and rhythm of the piece, influenced by the form of your life during the time you were writing it? There were times when I felt like the poems had this urgency to get everything out, like you knew you had limited time! And other times when it seemed leisurely.
LL: I want to go back and address this after I ask you a question because I’ve just been talking for a while. :)
LL: I have one to follow from the ‘bodies’ question. Both of us are dealing with topics that are often gendered, at least on their surface. If you’re writing the anti-patriarchal epic, I’m doing the pregnancy and parenthood thing. But I feel like we both have some desire to push at ideologies around feeling and around gender, too.
So my question, tell me about femme. Femme energy, femme union, femme hell. I noticed how often the word ‘femme’ came up and that you are not using the word ‘female’ or ‘woman.’ I love the lines that push at gender a bit, such as when you say “I am not a desire/I desire more/than desire” or “the hands femme and beyond femme” that I quoted before. So I guess I’m curious about that word femme, how it came to mean and signify for you, and what pushing into that gendered ‘beyond’ is like. Sorry, complicated question.
SL: I’m happy to talk about this.I used the word femme because I don’t believe that the cis-gender woman is the only woman. I really needed a way to gather in people of any gender who relate to or identify with the femme or the feminine. I used femme because I like that it evokes so-called femme qualities, being femme-y or overly femme-y as one way to subvert or undermine dominant cultural norms of femininity. I also like the sound quality, I love shortening or pulling words apart and femme does that to feminine. But mostly it was because I don’t want to put a limit who is a woman, who has access to those qualities/identities in the book. And femme is just one way to present as a woman among a range of presentations, all of which are beautiful and powerful.
LL: Yes. That was the way I read it and that makes a lot of sense. Should I go back and answer the question about rhythm in The Braid?
SL: Yes, please!
LL: The sense of urgency came from not having written for a year and a half before I wrote The Braid. I had kept notebooks but not put any pieces together. It was a tough time, starting with pregnancy. Til Alejandra was about 8 months old, I was just so anxious, and not sleeping much. I felt like a bomb had gone off in my life. So when I began being able to write again, I wrote in a mad dash. I think I did feel that I would never have enough time, or I was writing in an attempt to recover the time in which I had been silent.
SL: I remember talking with you about the afternoon you had to yourself once a week.
LL: Probably what you describe as a leisurely quality is also trying to reclaim something. Early on so much was happening. Bodily changes, early parenting chaos, mental health crisis. But I had no time or capacity to reflect. So when I got that again, I had a tremendous hunger to try to understand, to think through what had happened to me and to connect it to larger currents in the world.
It was an interesting time. I mean, awful, too, to be honest. But so visceral. And it was interesting to realize that parenting didn’t feel like “life” to me. That this new part of life felt so unrecognizable. It made me think about how isolated and walled-off different forms and stages of life can be from one another. I think it’s good, ultimately, that I was chopped up and thrown around a little.
I have a question for you about being oneself and not being oneself. This is a little silly, but somehow Helen in the book summoned up PJ Harvey for me. (Which I mean as a high compliment.) What did inhabiting a persona in the book do for you? Is Helen a version of Sara? Or is part of Sara part of Helen? Does Helen enfold other spirits (like my vision of PJ Harvey?)
SL: Ha, I love that!
LL: I love that we’re the same age so I know my touchstones are meaningful to you. Our conversations about riot grrrrl.
Helen is me in that through her I was able to express a number of (what felt like) otherwise inexpressible emotions and impulses, including some deep rage and telling truth to power, which in this case is not only the patriarchy but also capitalism and oligarchy and hierarchy. Talking about being broke or poor, which I do often in the book, both intersects with my life and also goes beyond it. The women of the Commune mixed bread with paper and straw so that they didn’t starve – that was never my story or situation. But it is true that the morning I wrote the poem that ends “i have 40 cents in my checking account, zero in my savings”, that was true for me the day that I wrote it, and at that time in my life, money stuff was a continuous struggle. I needed to talk about working class women too, partly because that is where I come from and partly because their stories insisted themselves upon me as I wrote – it felt like they needed to talk via me into the poem.
But Helen is also her own story, she owns her own life in the book. Poems speak multifariously, they are unlimited in “who” they are about, they don’t bother with caring about paradox or limits when they work and I love that about poetry. The central lines to me in this poem are
what they didn’t want me to sing i sing
what they didn’t want me to say i say
what they didn’t want me to see i see
i leave for hell in a boat
SL: That’s the mantra of Merry Hell, not limited to me or Helen but for anyone reading it.
LL: I just realized I should probably start working soon. Does this feel like a good place to end for you?
SL: Oh yeah, it’s 11:15!
LL: I think your line about the mantra of Merry Hell could be the right ending.
SL: I agree. This was so fun, thanks Lauren! I could literally talk with you all day
LL: You too. It was really fun. Love you!
SL: Love you too!
Sara Larsen is a poet living in Oakland. She is the author of Merry Hell (Atelos, 2016). Her previous book is All Revolutions Will Be Fabulous (Printing Press, 2014). She is also the author of chapbooks Riot Cops en route Troy and The Hallucinated, among others. From 2008-2011, she co-edited TRY magazine.
Lauren Levin is the author of THE BRAID (Krupskaya, 2016) and the forthcoming JUSTICE PIECE/TRANSMISSION (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2018). From 2011-2014, she co–edited the Poetic Labor Project. She grew up in New Orleans and lives in Richmond, CA with her family.