Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Pagel’s book Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press, 2012) and was recorded June 8th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Can we start with your table of contents? It hints at a musty, encyclopedic cabinet of curiosities which then get delivered out of sequence and in elliptical, lyric fashion. Apart from obvious pleasures of designing the table, how does it relate to a book-length conceptual framework?
Caryl Pagel: You can decide if I should answer. I’m happy to, but this table’s one of the major things that changed when Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death went to print.
CP: The finished book provides a more traditional table, though I still can speak to the former one.
AF: Please. Especially since your book already felt haunted.
CP: One main inspiration came from the formats of various antiquated texts I was reading. Or even Sebald: he’s more recent but still includes these strange, horizontal summaries of what happens in the chapters. Though my own titles, as you’ve mentioned, didn’t necessarily correspond with their supposed sections. They worked more like adjacent descriptions. Pulling out these descriptive clusters helped me to think about how titles work, and what associative phrases can do. Since this book tracks experiments with form, and becomes its own experiment as a book, I kept wondering, what is a table of contents’ point? Is it purely organizational? Does is it just list the page something sits on? I played with the idea that perhaps instead of saying, “Levitations” comes on page 13, my table could preview material or ideas and create this sort of suspense or ghosting. In the end, we changed it. I can’t remember why. I think potentially in order not to alienate readers, so that they’d more readily accept the general weirdness.
AF: Part of what interests me: I’ve read a lot lately about paratext, about multiple levels of meaning shaping our engagement with the text, meanings that typically don’t get analyzed because considered background or secondary or non-authored. So I’d appreciated how your table functioned as paratext alongside, as you say, thematics of the paranormal. I like how, now that the table exists only while we discuss it, that makes it all the more “para.”
CP: Right. Many parts of the book seem related, though might not do the exact same thing. The “Bodies” poems sound sort of like ghosts of encyclopedia entries or mythologies or fables that disintegrate and change throughout. I tried to find every opportunity for doing that when I’d started to think of this as a book.
AF: What did you read for this project? Did you read specifically for the project?
CP: Hmm. I did a lot of reading, although it was much looser than formal research. It was more that I fell in love with one set of materials which inspired many of the poems…and then various events that happened around the books also became source material. These books were the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.
CP: Yes. The poem “Table Talking” addresses this most directly. It mentions William James and the broader Society. But my interest began with strange experiences surrounding (this all sounds goofy when I discuss it) working in a building here in Iowa City, where I return to each summer. They took place in Seashore Hall, on campus, which is sort of famous for being haunted. It has a lot of vacancies. Hallways end and disappear. It’s just this place I’d already thought a lot about by that particular point in my life, which was a couple of years ago, a time filled with ghosts and griefs and elegies. I already felt prone to the dark side, or what have you. My poems had moved in that direction. But one day I stumbled upon, in the Psychology Library—which always seemed empty and tucked in some hidden corner of this crazy building—their row of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. The library had collected maybe 20 volumes. More volumes exist, but they owned a bunch. And while I waited out a thunderstorm (I know, this whole story’s very romantic) the books just fell on my head and I opened one and it opened this whole new imaginative world for me. My poems don’t always address that in an obvious way. But I began to study the group of scientists who founded this Society in the late 1800’s. William James is probably the most famous member. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one. A bunch of the scientists worked at Harvard. Some lived in London. Basically their idea was that we experience, or perhaps think we experience, or have heard about someone experiencing paranormal or psychic activity. We may or may not believe it. It may or may not be real. No known source exists for this apparitional or telepathic behavior. So the SPR addressed the paranormal, though they also studied coincidence or intuition or visions. They didn’t laugh at that stuff. They performed scientific experiments. They developed methods of organization and fact-finding and compiled evidence. It wasn’t necessarily: we want to prove ghosts exist. It was more: we plan to record all the ghost sightings we can and look for patterns. That approach to the unknown appealed to me. And the writing seemed amazing. The Proceedings, these volumes, were filled with experiments and testimonies, pages and pages of testimony from individuals seeing things, not knowing what they are. Or testimonies of mediums or clairvoyants or people who’d walked outside and been scared by a shadow. So when I refer to my research, I mean reading these volumes and just living with them. I checked them all out that day. I came home with a big old box. And the librarian, the work-study student laughed, because most volumes hadn’t been checked out since 1931.
AF: That’s often the case with books I check out.
CP: But I took these, then shortly thereafter the Psychology Library closed. I went back one day and it was gone.
AF: While you had the books?
CP: I still have the books. I renew them once a year though if I ever did return them—they’ve gone out of circulation. The university won’t let me buy them, but also won’t lend them to anyone else.
AF: I remember James’ Varieties of Religious Experience and his Principles of Psychology, and am especially interested when you mention testimonials. Your book’s saturation in a trancelike, lamps-about-to-burn out, late-nineteenth century ambiance, does that tonal quality derive from the readings themselves? Did they evoke that mood in you? Did you deliberately construct it for elliptical narrative effect?
CP: Something happened with my mood. Just reading this stuff all the time, encountering a language more like testimony, trying to filter the unknown through my way of thinking—all that definitely influenced me. You can see this in the book’s weird, antiquated turns of phrase. But more than just the language, it infected the spirit of the book, the desire to reconstruct enigmatic experiences at a later date, even those that still don’t make sense. Like people devoted to describing dreams, trying to see how close language can get, which often is not very close.
AF: When you pose this question of how effectively description can grasp experience, the experience is one of reading, some sort of mood that reading brings on, right? It seems a particular form of experience, which is the spell the Proceedings produced.
CP: The spell of the books, yes, but then honestly how they transformed me. At least for one particular year, when I felt very open to paranormal experience. I still didn’t believe in anything exactly, but tried to figure out if I could conduct my own psychic experiments. Or if I could pay attention the way some of these scientists paid attention. So the process definitely was based in my reading, but was not purely textual. At the time I’d moved into this supposedly haunted house. I was looking all over. Once you become obsessed with something you find it all over the place. That’s one of the most powerful parts about reading—not just when language stays with you, but when it becomes physically and mentally transformative.
AF: Well your book could seem to present a vague narrative sequence. All I mean is from “Levitation,” the opening poem, to “Spirit Cabinet,” which is the final poem (and which, like many pieces in the book, starts and ends on the same word) forces of outward and inward motion remain at play. There will be out-of-body scenes, but also grounded introspection, which again raises questions of what role embodied experience performs here. What status does the “I” possess? This “I” often referred to in a clinical yet slightly abstracted, mystical, confessional tone.
CP: What I’d mentioned in terms of research, and also elegy and grief and more personal things, all of this revolves around—now it seems so obvious to say—the idea of the body, the “I” and the body. And how much the body has to do with this “I.” And what happens when the body disappears or disintegrates or transforms. Where does the “I” go? Part of this manifests in a floaty “I.” “Levitation” provides one example, where the body does things the mind can’t process, hasn’t seen, or couldn’t see, or stays incapable of recognizing in some way. This body/mind split also manifests in the book’s obsession with naming. Naming the body or the self or the self’s identity—what does this process have to do with the “I”? Who is the labeler, labeling? When the name changes, does the identity change? Where is the “I” when the mind goes someplace the body can’t follow? The title, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, refers most directly to…this story about William and Henry James. When William died he’d asked Henry and William’s wife to visit mediums and see if they could communicate with him via an agreed upon word or name. For example, I would say: Andy, if there’s life after death, if there’s any place my mind or consciousness goes, I’ll communicate that to you through the term “pineapple.” This idea of designing an actual code between life and death fascinated me.
AF: Your epigraph from Inger Christensen refers to the solace of names. I’m calling you from Australia, Melbourne, remembering Bruce Chatwin’s study of Aboriginal song lines, these elaborate songs memorized as the equivalent of dreaming, of haunting, mapping, of travel all at the same time—also the closest thing to property or possession. I’m curious if you could talk a bit about the solace you take in names and naming.
CP: As long as we’re starting with that Christensen quote, have you read Alphabet?
AF: I haven’t.
CP: It deals with what you’re describing. Inger Christensen was a Danish writer who died a couple of years ago. She wrote this book, Alphabet, which employs the Fibonacci Sequence. I’m not sure if you remember the mathematical sequence that goes from 0 to 1 to 1 to 2 to 3 to 5, and traces the mathematical manifestation of spiraling. Through it Christensen organizes a way to talk about all spirals in nature, all the places this pattern repeats itself. And her project forms its own repeating patterns. So the first line of the book is “apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist.” Then each section progresses through the alphabet, while following patterns found in nature. She lists very, very specific details, from the minutiae of chemicals and cellular phenomena to animals, flora, fauna, geography. And at first she’s just listing. She is very much obsessed with the power/fallacy of names and I found myself thinking of that spiraling process as a way of creating a body, as counteracting the apparitional nature of a lot of my book, which builds off abstraction. Whether that’s an index or encyclopedia or, as in “Herbarium,” the idea that accumulated names can construct something bigger than their bodies. Because eventually Alphabet becomes huge and its lists get overwhelming. So Inger Christensen is an inspiration, and I return to her book over and over. I’m not sure if I can say exactly what that solace is, but it seems magical somehow. She recreates our entire world, our physical world, through this listing. And one of the most magical things (you should buy this book immediately—it changed my life) is how she goes in and out of the political and personal the further she gets. So when she gets to g’s…she begins with natural things, but then has to bring in “guns exist” and “war exists” and all these manmade things. At first her repetitions feel deeply comforting, though as you read more you realize how haunting they are and how many parts of the natural world have disappeared or will disappear, or that we’ve ruined in some way. But after that come moments when love exists and a walk in the rain with your lover exists, and the book spirals back, as the whole project keeps spiraling, and will not allow you to wholly embrace the apocalyptic vision one feels at some points.
AF: You’d mentioned your “Herbarium.” What about Dickinson, and Dickinson’s herbarium? I mean we once would have thought Dickinson’s herbarium consisted solely of the domestic. Now she’s considered a poet with much greater scope. What’s your relation to Dickinson’s herbarium in writing this book? What is Dickinson’s herbarium? I hadn’t known she made one.
CP: It’s a collection of plant life and things she found in her garden and the woods, with her notations, her labels. I can’t explain why it captivated my imagination. This certainly has to do with spending much time with Dickinson’s work, her rhythms and her “I,” so that when I did discover her herbarium, after reading all of her letters for years, and her talking about all of these places, it did seem magical. In part because of how ordinary it is. There’s nothing special about an herbarium. It’s a somewhat strange thing to assemble. But she faithfully collected all this beautiful plant life. The book itself looks beautiful, first of all. Though then she would name the flora. She would label them, as anyone with an herbarium does, but not always correctly. Editors of her herbarium intervened and revised much of her naming. The headings I borrowed come from that. I was fascinated with these layers of lists or addendums or revisions, which the legacy of Dickinson always has to deal with.
AF: Dickinson often seems happy to adopt an out-of-body vantage, or to project herself as dying or already dead. This reminds me of, in your “Botched Bestiaries,” how often “I” gets listed among the common names. This idea of not only constructing lists, but placing yourself in a modest object-position within that list, interests me. Could you describe the transcriptive, citational, collagist practices for the Beastiaries?
CP: That “I” thing’s interesting because I’d never really associated this “I” amid the common names with my actual “I.” I’d pictured more of an objective, universal “I.” But now I see what you said.
AF: I like both of those.
CP: In terms of collaging: first our conversation has moved very much in the order that I wrote these pieces. I started with the more visionary psychical research poems, then went on to the naming, plant-based ones. And then the Botched Bestiary parts probably were most recent. So during the Botched Bestiary phase I’d thought about many of the issues we’ve discussed. For example acts of naming, and how identity can float. Also how research and collections and texts inform our sense of self and the knowledge that makes up consciousness. How do we know what we know? Here collaging provides a focused way to look at a whole bunch of sources at once, to put together all this information in one place. Plus I was reading, as I cite in the back of the book, The Postmodern Animal by Steve Baker, his study of how the body, specifically animal bodies, get represented in contemporary art. Pieces like Rauschenberg’s Monogram. Much postmodern art, specifically sculpture and installation, deals with ruined bodies or surreal bodies, or moves into post-human conversations (all these hybrid bodies), foregrounding hybridity and messiness as one way of actually speaking to and about the body. So the Bestiaries started as a loose translation of what I saw happening in postmodern artwork. I was thinking, how could language pull these various parts together? That’s why I used quotes, as hinges. I tried some more procedural processes. I looked at all these animal studies and gathered information, then pulled out the common names as a way of making this weird, imaginary mythology or history or definition of what the body is, what it has experienced, what it has seen.
AF: Still on this question of collaging and adjacency: as a Dickinson aficionado, can you give your theory of the dash, since you use them too? What does only the dash allow?
CP: That’s a big question. Dickinson remains the master of the dash. She teaches everyone its strange, magical quality. It gives pause in a visual way, but seems more a dart or arrow, shooting ahead while creating space. There’s a bit of contradiction in that symbol, which of course connects, however loosely, while also violently stabbing the separation.
AF: When you first said “dart,” I’d thought you meant in terms of tailoring. I pictured Dickinson’s fascicles stitched together. But I also like this violence of the dash. And what about blank space? Atmospherically, and in terms of content, how does blank space play out your book? What does it mean to have a blank space in your title? Or is there not? I thought I saw one in my PDF.
CP: The original had one. It didn’t end up on the cover because of the design. But it makes sense to include blank space where bodies keep falling apart and coming back together and appearing apparitional. A lot of these spaces seemed rhythmically dramatic. Theatrical. Some just felt weird, probably alienating. I tried to keep both possibilities alive because I didn’t want that space to be just visual or just controlled. Though most of the book deals with form in one way or another. There’s a whole bunch of sonnets. The “Botched Bestiaries” have their own encyclopedic form. “Taxidermy,” and some of the longer narrative pieces, were written in syllabics. There’s the obsessiveness of trying out different forms (or in my mind experiments), in part to highlight the scientific/organizational modes of thought I’d developed reading. Still, if these poems didn’t have spaces, or some of the other strange things happening, they would seem a lie. They would look too perfect. They would try to engage or produce the uncanny or paranormal without leaving gaps for mystery and enigma and apparition. I guess that’s how it happened. This is all easy to discuss now that the book’s finished. I’m not sure I knew while writing it.