The subject of this interview is Jill Magi’s SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011). This is the first of two interviews Thomas Fink conducted with Magi; the second interview will appear in our September issue.
Thomas Fink: Would it go against your intentions—and I suspect it would—to say that SLOT is exclusively critical of contemporary museum culture and sees no positive role for it?
Jill Magi: I’m interested in our poetry community’s perhaps limited trainings in how to critique something without discarding it altogether. In other words, is it possible to critique institutions of modernity while not falling prey to the argument, “they [historical museums] are bad; they should not exist”? I want to say that poetry is especially good at capturing this state of “seeing” while not discarding. Poets don’t need to decide either/or—our possibility is one of simultaneous acceptance and criticality.
TF: In the middle of SLOT, there is a quotation about a “Polynesian Cultural Center” run by Mormons (44), which comes from a sentence in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s article, “World Heritage and Cultural Economics” in Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/ Global Transformations that is itself a hybrid quotation/paraphrase (183). This sentence is followed by one that is very much in line with what I surmise to be the critical spirit of SLOT: “Such cases point to the troubled history of museums and heritage as agents of deculturation, as the final resting place for the evidence of the success of missionizing and colonizing efforts… which preserve (in the museum) what was wiped out (in the community).” Next, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes that when current institutions strive “to reverse course,” “there is no way back, only a metacultural way forward.” Do you agree with this second point? If not, why not? If so, how do you intend in Slot to characterize that “metacultural way forward”?
JM: Thank you for your close read, Tom. I think Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is suggesting that responding to historical events within a memorializing culture (modernity) requires many within that lived space to adopt a kind of “metaculture” or whole systems response—something between living with the framed memory and problematizing it at the same time. Hence, meta, or between. Yes, I felt quite “between” at the moment of starting to write SLOT so I think I can say with confidence it comes from a metacultural space.
I felt the very real need to remember the events of September 11th, but I did not feel sure that I should adopt any of the memorializing practices that were being adopted by cultural organizations and culture-makers around me. I also did not find “quitting” or completely turning away or repression to be satisfying responses either. I also could not rank my particular experience of violence as more pressing than many other experiences in history. So as I began my query recorded in SLOT I kept thinking of Paul Connerton’s work in How Societies Remember: that memory can be landscaped (and this is what institutions of acculturation do) and that memory is also, quite notably, incorporated (lived by human bodies and expressed through impermanence and exchange—through conversation, ritual meals, marks on the body or clothing and jewelry choices, family-based or small scale ceremonies: impermanent and fluid memorials that are more like performances and ritualized). And I thought about a poet’s hybrid impulse—to use the language of study, story, and prayer all compressed (quite incorporated!) rather than choose one: straight autobiography, history, or traditional argument. I thought this approach of compression, similar to when I wrote Threads, was appropriate for the work. Perhaps that is metacultural—meaning, employing many discourses from many cultural “engines” in order to express a way forward—a language taken from many but not quite situated in any one discourse.
You ask “how”? I think that what a hybrid textual space can offer us is the possibility to compare and not to conclude. Or maybe allow ourselves to have functional “mini-conclusions” as we need to. To keep coming to them, and leaving, coming back, and leaving. I wove and wove when I composed SLOT. I studied, took notes, wrote from my feelings, my imagination, and wrote as if I was writing an essay. I opened my notebook and allowed for a gush of feelings even in the midst of so many scholarly texts. I quoted, I hybridized. And wove and wove. This process of weaving was a great comfort to me. I had the image that a reader could dip down into certain parts of the weave and do their own thinking and feeling. I employed a fictional “I” who walks through spaces I have only read about—and as I did so, I imagined that a future reader might also read this “I” and overlay their own selves if they wanted to.
I wanted to share, in this book, that I was a person comparing historical events and also claiming my pain—anger even. That’s a critique of liberal guilt, actually–that often instead of taking care of one’s own feelings, the protest impulse takes on another person’s cause. I wrote SLOT in order to not skip any steps. I knew SLOT was a project I needed to undertake when a friend—a person of color—reminded me with a good deal of severity that this was not the first instance of terror in this country and that his people had to deal with such events in history quite often: that he thought about Rosewood, Florida as an act of terrorism, for example. I understood what he was saying, but I was also angry at his desire, in that moment, to suppress the pain that I wanted to express and share. It was Thanksgiving dinner of 2001. It was tense. Neither of us “backed down.” Around a table, as friends, as people with various experiences and memories, how could we ever both get what we needed? What would it take to comfort each other? What was the nature of my letdown? His? Why did that event around the table leave such an impression? How was “my event” an opportunity for him to say something he maybe had never shared before? Previous to the events of September 11, how did I take in historical events? I had linked history and my father and me pretty well in Threads, but what had I really learned? This complexity was the seed of SLOT. I wanted to think it all through—but I needed my feelings to guide me and I did not want to be confessional or solipsistic or “single issue.” So, a poetics of metaculture. In 2005 I started and continued until 2009 to read, study, think, write, listen—weaving this book.
TF: So the “metacultural” dimension of the book involves an intertextual, collagistic ethos; this hybridity guards against “fundamentalist” mourning, which, as we saw after 9/11, incorporates wholesale reification of complex cultures and manufactures rage via Manichean dualisms.
As for your Thanksgiving dinner conflict, Jill, the Ku Klux Klan did perform an act a terrorism in Rosewood, Florida, and yes, there were many such instances, but I can’t see any justification for silencing or shaming someone who wanted to mourn the tragedy of September 11th—especially right after it happened. Nor do I see how that kind of insensitivity could facilitate the fight against any sort of oppression, since the other could have taken “an opportunity… to say something he maybe had never shared before” without dismissing the emotional validity of your communication. That being said, has SLOT enabled you “take in historical events” differently than you did before?
JM: Rosewood is interesting and devastating, because the more I learned about it, the more I found out that the terrorism was “performed” by not just the Klu Klux Klan, but by lots of different citizens who were not even from that area. There were advertisements placed in newspapers to encourage folks to come and participate in the attack. So the federal government also “performed” this event via their negligence during Reconstruction and beyond. It makes me think about this: whole systems. How so many forces come to a head in “an event.” Rosa Parks’ story is another example. She actually was a trained protester, and the event of her not moving her seat was planned and had a whole group action behind it. We are quite addicted to the “individual heroism” model and I often wonder why. Maybe we try to believe in violence as sporadic—and so we tend to frame resistance as sporadic also. The reality is that both are often quite planned.
And thinking broadly about systems also helps me make sense of this incident with my friend. Yes, there was no justification for the silencing, but I thought it was a lot of information to work with in that it did happen—it could happen—everyone around the table participated in it. And I almost believed that I was silenced. But I wasn’t: I ended up writing a whole book! So there are entire systems at work when friendship meets history. That’s exactly what poetry can do: work with complicated systems and small-scale intimacies.
You ask what SLOT taught me. I think writing the book enabled me to learn something about time, research, and synthesis: art. That it is not possible to make memorializing sense of a painful event any time soon after it happens. I was able to practice the technique of “staying with” feelings. Staying under, in a sense. It is probably inevitable that I will need to exercise this again: loss and violence and injustice are a big part of life. It is also important and honest to bring up the fact that I was in gestalt therapy for a good portion of the writing of this book—(how often do the healing arts of therapy go unmentioned in our poetics!)—and gestalt practitioners often ask, “where do you feel this feeling in your body?” and “what information does it have for you?” and not necessarily “why do you feel this?” and definitely not “what will it take to get rid of this feeling?”
TF: In SLOT one of the most egregious excesses/absurdities propounded by the museum as quasi-educational institution and appropriated by teachers can be found in your exhibition of the handiwork of well-meaning proponents of integrative, student-centered learning:
Dear Venn Diagram:
Students will write a class story dealing with a slave who becomes free, using free-writing to express feelings, fast, without thinking, without crossing out, and preferably timed. (78)
“Free-writing” about slavery? Free-writing about the experience of a representation that can only dimly reflect an overwhelmingly extreme experience from over 150 years ago yet “without thinking”? And constrained by time and a “Venn Diagram”? What is not constrained and contrived about this writing? And the pun in “class story” (slave class vs. 21st century working or middle class) shows that language is more aware of itself than the original writers of this prompt.
Even worse, “the Colonial Williamsburg Escape Slave Program” “offers” a “dramatic” experience in which “guests are approached by a runaway slave” but “know that they are surrounded by slave-catchers and” therefore “must react instinctively to the situation” (44). You then quote an advertisement for the museum: “‘This has turned out to be a really intense visitor experience and is one of its most popular programs.’” The notion of “intensity” is ironized by that of “popularity.” Playacting as a nineteenth-century abolitionist amid pretend-slaves and slave-catchers is not inhabiting that life-and-death actuality, and why would its “popularity” be something to brag about?
And here’s an example of “theater” that undermines the seriousness of history being represented:
By climbing aboard the actual bus on which Rosa Parks’ protest, we can sit down and become the subject to a recording of the driver’s voice demanding that we, positioned as Rosa Parks, move or leave” (33).
What is truly “intense” is how vividly you have presented these “educational” devices. Do you feel that some aspect of your book (or your own realization after writing it) points to how museums—without relying on kitschy, sensationalistic, or otherwise ridiculous strategies—“capture” and sustain the attention of visitors and enable them to exercise their social/moral intelligence? How could the museums deal with the real need to acquire adequate funding while still producing more accurate, less ideologically challenged, and less potentially or actually offensive representations of their historical “materials”?
JM: I don’t know how museums could do a better job, but I think that as museum goers, we have choices as to how we encounter the artifacts there. I went to a panel once on “art and religion” where an art historian reported that guards at the Met often witness Buddhist practitioners worshipping and meditating in front of the “Buddhist art.” Yes, of course! So I’m thinking that what we do when we step inside any institution’s doors is up to us. Perhaps meditating, sitting with, sitting in front of, taking in various artifacts and doing our own research about their context is quite possible. Yes, I believe so.
So if a museum tries to feed us a particular narrative or educational program, our poetic trainings (which to some non-poets might look like intuition or spiritual training or intellectual curiosity even) can turn away from those narratives and still take in a good amount of information that we might use—not toward betterment necessarily, but toward an opening of reality, or questions for more study. This is why the artist Fred Wilson appears in SLOT. He subverts the narratives in museums not by dismissing their holdings. Rather, he rearranges and creates new generative, sensitive frictions. He is a fictional mentor to the fictional “I” in the book who slips through a loose floor tile in a museum and ends up in a basement where Wilson is at work.
As a word worker, I want to say that language is quite able to inhabit and shape an adversarial, cyborgian, metacultural, even healing space. (Throughout this discussion, when I use the word “healing” I am talking about something unpredictable, circular, and mysterious: so not “diagnostic” or even “progressive” and “conclusive.”) This is what Donna Haraway is talking about in her “Cyborg Manifesto”: “Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism.” This is also what I was thinking about when I reached for snippets of language from Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred to fold into SLOT: the healing rituals and prayers and chants recorded there.
Why not take the language we need into a museum or memorial site? Or create what we need right there? Or bring our pocket-sized notebooks? So that ritual acts of language—that sense of human breath and utterance—may be grafted on to any museum visit. We might make fun of the “poem in your pocket” instruction of “national poetry month,” but I think this is exactly what we can do when we enter contested sites, or face problematic programs of betterment, or lesson plans that, out of a fear for the full range of human emotion, do not allow for confusion, questions, anger, grief, forgetting. I used the address “Dear” toward some of my findings, because I didn’t want to only make fun of these educational gestures; I wanted to hold them close, recognize them for their strivings.
We can revise anything—we can always do something else, make something brand new, even while all the curricula are printed up and handed out and exhibits are designed and artifacts are bolted to the floor. We poets know how to move things around.
On another note you’ve picked up on: I use free-writing all the time in my own practice and in my classrooms! I find the ten-minute limitation of the “timed free-writing” session to be invigorating and generative. Yes, it’s absurd to mesh those words on the page—“slavery” and “free-writing”—but I included this passage because I wanted to say, in a sense, “I might be this very teacher. I might reach very hard for what appears to be ‘right’ and my gesture might be off. What would I do? I could be that teacher who receives the curriculum and gives the exercise a try.”
The “Escaped Slave Program” is just really rough—I’m thinking of the artist Sam Durant who works with reenactments, I believe—or he gets the wax figures from various museums who are about to throw them out and he manipulates them and so gets underneath the narrative and the visuals of the dramatic scene.
But I think to schedule a trip to Colonial Williamsburg is the first action that signals a particular historical desire. My parents took us there when were young—they were from immigrant backgrounds, very patriotic people, and wanted us to know about and love a certain idea of America. But what I remember most of all was the parchment paper and feather pen I was allowed to purchase at the gift shop. My sister and I took these writing materials home and began playing the game “founding fathers” where we would take on the voice of “patriots” and write letters to each other—with feather pens and ink and on this special paper—letters about big ideas as well as the weather, as I recall, and seal them up with wax and slip them under each other’s bedroom doors! And so I suppose the re-writing, the poetry gesture, began.
TF: Your attitude of openness and exploration, which can be linked with Keats’s “negative capability” enabled you to turn the Thanksgiving incident, what could have been merely a psychologically debilitating experience, into a productive, generative one. Since you mentioned “Buddhist art,” let me add that the Nichiren Shoshu priests from whom I have learned Buddhism teach the concept of “changing poison into medicine.” And perhaps the encounters with tragic histories in SLOT that mourning and reflection entail demand the attempt to follow through with such an attitude, because the alternative is to be paralyzed by what Freud termed “melancholic mourning.” In Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1994), Jahan Ramazani, admittedly not taking into account late–twentieth-century innovative poetry, argues that modern elegists frequently “shift” the elegy’s “psychic basis from the rationalizing consolations of normative grief to the more intense self-criticisms and vexations of melancholic mourning,” in which the living can be found punishing themselves, thereby avenging the dead and pushing hostility inward, and “at other times” turning “rage outward, attacking and debasing the dead” (5). What’s interesting is that there’s a lot of ground between “rationalizing consolations” and the brutal emotional violence that Ramazani describes. SLOT traverses that ground.
Regarding the “free”-writing exercise, it’s true that anyone “could be that teacher who receives the curriculum” and feels bound to do it. For more than three decades, I’ve taught English composition regularly, and free-writing has been useful for a good number of my students. My understanding, perhaps influenced by the pedagogical writing of Ken Macrorie and Peter Elbow, is that “free writing”—somewhat like the surrealists’ “automatic writing”—does not begin with a prompt, and surely not a prompt demanding a difficult imaginative leap. I’ve heard comp instructors talk about “focused free-writing,” but as soon as you impose a subject matter, I believe it ceases to be free.
JM: Thanks for your thoughts, Tom, on mourning and elegy. I have, for some reason, turned away from any systematic consideration of “the elegy” and your citation gives me a possible foothold. Truthfully, I feel pretty exhausted by mourning and considering death these days—I even gave a paper last year called “Quitting the Perishable”! Truthfully, I do not know how to write into any other space but that of silence and absence and probably what I’d call “troubles.” But I do feel like I’m turning a corner in my writing life: toward color, new shapes, the quotidian, the daily.
I’m curious, what lead you to your study of elegy? We poets can talk endlessly about form; I am always interested in how we find our subject matter. Please share if you are willing.
TF: Twenty years ago, I published the first book on the poet David Shapiro, and two years later, submitted an article on “The Seasons,” a longish poem of Shapiro’s published after my book came out, to Contemporary Literature. “The Seasons” has a strong elegiac dimension. Well, one of the outside readers accepted it but said I needed to incorporate Ramazani’s insights on elegy. I was happy to do it, and the article appeared in 1996. Since then, I really haven’t studied elegy, but her ideas have stayed with me. There are what might loosely be called elegies or at least partly elegiac poems in various books of mine, but not so many.
Jill Magi works in text, image, and textile and is the author of LABOR (forthcoming in September 2013 from Nightboat), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse), Cadastral Map (Shearsman), Torchwood (Shearsman), Threads (Futurepoem), the chapbooks Die for love/furlough, Poetry Barn Barn!, Confidence and Autonomy, and numerous handmade books. Recent work has appeared in Rattapallax, The Columbia Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and Common-place: Journal of the American Antiquarian Society. Her visual works have been exhibited at the Brooklyn Arts Council Gallery, apexart, AC Institute, and Pace University. She was a Textile Arts Center resident artist, a writer-in-residence with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and an arts grant recipient from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Jill teaches at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.