Thomas Fink with Jill Magi

Image from Jill Magi's Slot
Image from Jill Magi's Slot

Thomas Fink is a frequent contributor to The Conversant. The subject of this interview is Jill Magi’s SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011). You can read part I of this interview here. 

Thomas Fink: Please tell me about your development of a relation between some of the photos in SLOT—especially those of the expressive hands—and the poetic text.

Jill Magi: You ask about the photographs. I recently wrote an essay on poetry and photography for Poetry Northwest. Here is a snippet:

As I worked on SLOT, I intuited that page after page of text only was not ideal, even if that text contained the visual via description and self-reflexive language on the act of looking. SLOT is about resisting landscaped memory in the post-disaster experience. Looking, including looking away and not picturing, is key in this work that asserts the importance of the personal gesture (incorporated memory) amid official versions of an experience (inscribed memory). The photos in SLOT attempt a turn away from received images of the World Trade Center disaster while refusing erasure.

I note the presence of my hands in the photos: untangling string and uncovering veiled museum brochures. I think of the common Estonian greeting my father taught me: “how does your hand go?” where “how are you doing?” is indicated by how well you are making, working.


I am also completely influenced by my love of textiles and thread—I stitch—I’m an embroiderer. Stitching and threads are feminine, pliable, they indicate repair, and in these photos—made in my studio space at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council—they signal hair and grooming, care, untangling. Perhaps they indicate the work it takes to untangle grief, thoughts, an excess of information. When I took those photos, I was listening to Alice Coltrane’s music in the space: I think of the harp, of hands combing strings and her beautiful soundings. I also latched on to Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred while writing SLOT and found a piece called “The String Game” and the language in the passages, “Because the string broke for me . . .” (13), is taken from this poem.

Finally, Cecilia Vicuña’s work is very important to me. She encouraged me to keep writing, early on, before my first book Threads was published. I came to understand the magnitude of thread gestures—thread and threading as related to breath, language, line, the “con” of connection, the feminine—via her work. The photos in SLOT are small nods to these influences.

TF:  Indeed, I sense a significant difference between the two titles, Threads and SLOT? Do you?

JM: Well, yes. Threads, as a title and project, came from this image of thin and tenuous connections in my family because of migration, war, changing languages, suppressing one’s home language, and the violence of religious conversion and apostasy. SLOT was originally titled SLOT: The Exhibitionary Complex because when I began the book I was thinking of public memory and display, and Tony Bennett’s work on museums and historical sites in The Exhibitionary Complex was foundational. So this book is not a family story—its originating event being very public, shared. And while I can’t really trace the choice of SLOT as a title on its own, I was thinking of “archive” and “files” and making a space for an object or information.

Lately I find myself unable to parse out “the personal” from “the political” and in fact, I’m totally baffled by that distinction even as the feminists have forwarded a phrase that’s supposed to collapse that boundary. “The personal is political” still admits distinctions and I’m no longer comfortable with that though I hear myself use this phrase—along with “micro/macro,” a holdover from my days as a sociologist in training—and as I speak these phrases, I want to footnote them with disbelief.

I am becoming more interested in Deleuze’s notion of the smooth and the striated—two kinds of spaces where striation is about maps, logic, the law and structured by warp and weft. And smooth space is nomadic, vectoring, assembled through accretion and structured through “fulling”—the process used to make felt. So in this framework, striated and smooth spaces may be personal and may be political also—that’s not the primary dichotomy. I think that poetry crosses into both of these spaces very well.

But back to your title question: finally, dare I say that SLOT works as a title because it’s dangerously close to “slut” and while the bookis dubious about the erotics of historical display, it does partake in this discourse, even by showing it to be problematic?

TF:  In the passage that you referred to from “The String Game” by Dia!kwain (13 and Acknowledgments) that appears in the Rothenberg anthology, you leave out the first five lines, change the meter slightly, as well as capitalization patterns, and subtract the last two words from the line, “The place feels as if it stood open before me.” Your passage reads:

Because the string broke for me  

therefore the place does not feel to me                    

 

as the place used to feel to me           

on account of it

 

The place feels as if it stood open      

because the string has broken for me           

 

therefore the place does not feel pleasant   

to me because of it

Do you remember or can you try to reconstruct the reasons that inform your selection and omission of elements from this passage?

JM: First, thanks for getting the title right! I am glad I recorded the proper title in the book because obviously I can’t remember!

I can’t remember exactly. But thinking about it, if here I’m building theory after the impulse was performed, I could say that I am very aware that the Rothenberg volume points to a lot of ritual language and performance: collectivity. I embrace the fact that I am a single author writing a book that will sit quietly in someone else’s hands for most of its life. So the individual breath and voice is important—that very singular “I” and “me” even if fictional—and in SLOT the “I” is often fictional.

TF:  Your quotation of Dia!kwain is especially powerful because it seems to beg to be read in light of ways in which  September 11th has been mourned. The noun “string” surely includes what you’ve already associated with it, but also, in sports, it’s often used to signify a winning or losing streak, so in this case, one might say that the “string” that has been “broken” by September 11th is the absence of foreign invasion on the mainland U.S., since the December 7, 1941 attack was on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. However, the prepositional phrase “for me,” repeated four times in the eight lines, indicates a focus on individual subjectivity. “The place used to feel” “safe,” I suppose, to the speaker, whose sense of security was predicated on the kind of racial privilege that, as we noted earlier, exempted her/him from the homegrown terrorism of an event like what happened in Rosewood, as you represent the “Thanksgiving” situation later: “It was supposed to be a holiday. I wanted to speak about my event, but he insisted on history and for a year I was angry, even though I understood ‘Rosewood’ ‘my people’ ‘original terror.’// Survey:// Did you know that the attack on Rosewood was planned and publicized?” (29) But now “the place” (New York City—home) “feels” vulnerable to destruction; it has begun to “stand open” to all sorts of threats. That this is “not… pleasant” is a marvelously egregious understatement. Is my interpretation full of shit or is there anything to it? How would you talk about the possible recontextualizations of such quotes in SLOT?

JM: You are not at all full of shit! Very interesting what you’ve pointed out about the “line” of history—from Pearl Harbor to present. And speaking of Cecilia Vicuña—she has pointed out that the CIA-backed coup in Chile also occurred violently on a September 11, 1973. History and its symmetries and repetitions and continuations can be chilling.

I remember talking with my father shortly after the attack—my parents moved from New Jersey to West Virginia some years earlier—and he quietly urged me to move, saying that it was not wise to live somewhere that is a target. Of course he was, in that moment, speaking from his own childhood logics and his family’s decision to flee Estonia during World War II—if we can call that kind of flight a “decision.”  So I suppose an even more personal association with state-based violence opened up for me. Hence the personal pronouns.

About the understatement of “not pleasant”—perhaps there is some passive-aggressiveness there. Maybe I did not want to speak to “the powers that be” with a rhetoric that had the inflection of protest: something perhaps “showy,” something to dismiss easily. Maybe I wanted to skirt overt heroics and displays of loud mournfulness.

When I give readings from SLOT I just respond well to the quietude in that phrase. It is an anchor of some sort. My body relaxes into that phrase. I feel it to be just the right rhetorical register, if that makes sense. Perhaps it is the protection of a kind of taciturn Bartleby-esque response.

A couple weeks after the attack I had to go back to work in lower Manhattan. The CCNY Center for Worker Education, where I was an academic advisor and adjunct for many years, was about nine blocks north of the WTC site on Hudson Street. It was incredible to catalogue the discomforts I experienced all fall: going to get a sandwich and glancing downtown at a giant smoking pyre; walking from the subway and feeling grit under my feet; seeing others get off the train and pull masks over the faces and I thought they were being dramatic but I think now they were the wise ones; watching sanitation trucks spray the streets down daily; the smell; the sinus congestion; the posters of the missing and then the tape marks of where they used to be; the phone banking we did to attempt to check in on every single one of our nearly 900 students; the parade of trucks bringing the debris north on Hudson to take over the pier to dump on barges headed for Staten Island; listening to my advisees report on their traumas and losses; the news, I think about a year later, that they found the body of one of our students who had recently graduated; then the parade of visitors and tourists. Every single thing: not pleasant. Not totally devastating either: I was alive, I was OK, and I felt a sense of collective courage from other New Yorkers.

But I also felt incredible denial. So much so that I made my own appointment with a CCNY therapist to talk about things. No one at my workplace knew that I had done this. What was I ashamed of? Why didn’t we all partake in that resource? There was so much silence, so much understatement. Maybe it was confusion. I don’t know. So, how to rather quietly say, “things are not alright” like Melville’s “I’d prefer not to” while politicians instructed us to go shopping or go to war and public dissenters began to protest the war and/or build conspiracy theories. None of these “collective” discourses satisfied me.

Tom, would you like to share what you remember as a New Yorker? One of my good friends and co-workers at CCNY began to ask people that fall what music they were listening to. Do you remember this? I reached for John Coltrane and sat and listened to the album “A Love Supreme” when I couldn’t bear to look at the TV anymore. Do you remember if you turned to literature or poetry for comfort? Were you teaching at the time and if so, how did your classes go?

I also remember turning, very willfully and systematically, toward poetry after September 11th. Four years after, I left my full-time job and have been contingent labor and a poet and artist ever since. Sometimes I think it’s almost stupid that I responded to tenuousness and violence by designing a life that’s more tenuous, on paper, than before the attack. I have said this many times: “I’ll be damned if I die at work.” How dramatic! But true. What about you? Can you track any changes? In the lives of your friends and colleagues?

TF:  I didn’t have the very proximate experience that you did. I grew up in Manhattan and lived there until 1988, when I moved to Suffolk County, Long Island. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was riding to work on the Long Island Railroad, eager to teach my second day of classes at CUNY-LaGuardia Community College, and remarkably, I was reading Jane Augustine’s account of HD’s representation of the bombing of London during World War II. Then the news came that no trains would be going into Jamaica Station, Queens. No reason was given. Merely annoyed and realizing that I could either fret about missing my first class or use the time wisely, I kept reading. But then a cell phone call came in to someone, so as we were heading back to where we came from, we found out why NYC was off limits.

Late in SLOT, there is a report of a conversation:

Around the dinner table, with your hand you make a gentle chopping motion in the air off to the side of your face. “Global politics and this current war,” you say, “are backdrops to my depression” (105).

Well, Jill, depression was not something I had to contend with, and I didn’t think that collective agonies and exigencies should ever be a “backdrop” to personal experience, but a few weeks before 9/11, my father told me he had lung cancer. He asserted that he had a chance to beat it yet my mother was shaken, as I was. And my second book of poetry, eight years after my first, and my second book of criticism were published on September 1. (However, the poetry book launch occurred in January 2002, three days before my father died.) There were a lot of hospital visits, etc. As it was becoming apparent to me that my father would not be cured, my poetic (anticipatory) mourning consisted of writing a short biography of him and collaging from his letters to his grandchildren, my daughters.

The horror of 9/11 hit home to me, but the other contexts made me concentrate on that horror less than I otherwise would have. Out of respect for the event’s enormity, disgust with mass media’s tendencies to over-depict, and perhaps self-protection, I did not look at the endless footage on TV of the planes crashing into the towers; I limited interface with media. We tried to discuss 9/11 as carefully as possible with our 11- and 8-year-old kids. I thought almost from day one, then for a long time, about how this tragedy called for an equally unprecedented political transformation, not the donning of rhetoric that had failed again and again and had often intensified conflict. So I was very much in touch with the idea you raise above via the allusion to Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to”—that is, not to sling and promote modes of language and thinking that have been thoroughly inadequate in the past. I fervently hoped some part of the U.S. left would build an analysis that pointed to a policy of respect for Palestinian autonomy, diminished military support for Israel, and less priority given to U.S. corporate interests in the Middle East without demonizing our country or “the Jews” or suggesting that “we” had gotten what we “deserved.” Such an analysis, I desperately hoped, could persuade moderates in government and industry to deflect war-lovers from their goals so that serious efforts at multilateral negotiation and reevaluation of extent policies could take place. Actually, a less specific version of that kind of left analysis did happen—in the foreign policy rhetoric of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. (Yes, the words that got him the Nobel Peace Prize haven’t lived up to his actual foreign policy. He never has to run for re-election again; let’s see what he does in the next few years.)

OK, Jill, now I want to go back to your reference to “The Exhibitionary Complex” (London Consortium), the Gramscian analysis of hegemony and Foucault’s treatment of self-surveillance by that major crooner Tony Bennett, as a significant part of your investigation of museum culture in SLOT. Here is what I take to be Bennett’s thesis about nineteenth century British museums’ ideological functioning:

Museums… stood as embodiments, both material and symbolic, of a power to “show and tell” which, in being deployed in a newly constituted open and public space, sought rhetorically to incorporate the people within the processes of the state.… For those who failed to adopt the tutelary relation to the self promoted by popular schooling or whose hearts and minds failed to be won in the new pedagogic relations between state and people symbolized by the open doors of the museum, the closed walls of the penitentiary threatened a sterner instruction in the lessons of power. (99-100)

Cited as one of your sources (SLOT 65), Greig Crysler and Abidin Kusno’s article, “Angels in the Temple: Construction of Citizenship in the United States Holocaust Museum” (Art Journal 56.1 [Spring1997]: 52-64) puts Bennett’s points in a contemporary context by indicating how the museum’s curators have sacrificed historical specificity, including the multiple causes that led to “the Final Solution” and the heterogeneous aspects of the label “Jew,” to “teach…the ideal citizen of the museum’s narrative” (63) the alleged ideal of American pluralism: “The museum” presents “Judaism as an effect of the progressive forces of history in which the Jew passes from intolerance to tolerance, victim to witness, statelessness to citizenship, death to rebirth”; “the Jew becomes an embodied metaphor for the transcendental history of the state” (64).

You follow Bennett, Crysler and Kusno, and other compelling cultural critics, like Dora Apel in “On Looking: Lynching Photographs and Legacies of Lynching After 9/11” (also mentioned on SLOT 65 and quoted, I surmise, on 114), in refusing the Museum’s pedagogy, including its forms of consolation and comfort that depend on the payment of your hegemonic consent. However, in the verse portions of SLOT, you do so by employing modes of fragmentation, cutting, and dispersed, surprising catalog, and multivalent allusion rather than their essayistic modes of academic argumentation, even when the “architecture” involves an if/then structure:

Because I flee consolation

if I midnight. If I contest claims to store, stock, arcade,

exhibit, slot—

If a frame

made from the body

is broken and vulnerable to vines,

then everything is touched with names, everything touched with engrave,

everything touched with scar, art, touched with slavery, a profit is touched

with generous support, a museum basement, stairs, name, and hope.… (123-4)

“[I]f I midnight” is such a dynamic lyric utterance! Puns on “store” and “stock”—linking commerce and (conceptual?) organization—are as pungent as the slot/slut play that you mentioned earlier, and later assonance relates “scar” and “art.” “Arcade” alludes to old-fashioned entertainment and Walter Benjamin’s project. Probably other things, too.

JM: Yes—and Erica Hunt’s collaboration with Alison Saar—Arcade, published by Kelsey Street and now out of print, I believe—was also on my mind.

TF: And, six pages earlier, here’s a whole page plus one superficially more “legible” paragraph that is really “arresting”:

Unfold the storm keys.

Read new columns held damply.

And bones, their bones, the clean of it, gone.

What walls and wills deliver or cut? Answer:

Four weeks. Five years. Minutes after.

Still, each time I go back to the site,

I dream of a huge aboveground tomb whose stone door glides back and forth,   obstructing my view of half the city. The white marble glows brightly and threatens to blind me completely. I think to take a photograph.  (118-9)

 Could you take a look at these passages, two years or more after you wrote them, and tell me what you see now? What do some of the specifics of the language, allusions, formal choices do for you (or to you) as a reader now?

JM: First, Tom, thank you for sharing your 2001 experience. I do not take this information lightly and I feel privileged to be in conversation with you about this.

Your story also reminds me that one week before September 11th, 2001, my co-workers and I attended the funeral of one of our most beloved colleagues, Ed Rivera, the author of Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic. Ed had been one of the first of his generation of New York Latinos to get an advanced degree and establish a literary career. He was a giving, non-hierarchical person and his book is a fantastic, funny, poignant read. He died unexpectedly right before the semester began, and we were all in shock. Then September 11 happened, and this delayed Ed’s memorial service at our school a bit.

And how profound that you had two books come out at that time.

SLOT was published in 2011, when there were 10-year anniversary events happening. But more pressing for me was that my mother died in April of 2011. Every time I read from the text, my throat closes up a bit and I have to work to push air through. I actually look forward to never reading from that work out loud again: too many ghosts.

Before I go on to your more specific questions, I really want to say this about poetry—even though I am not a person who believes in any “pure genre” and I don’t care if SLOT is called a poem or not: I found art and poetry after thinking that I would be a sociologist. And even today I read just as much cultural studies and anthropology as I do poetry or fiction.

I am completely enthralled by the study of institutions, power, and bodies: hegemonies and then the ways that we can count on individuals and groups to resist, to not offer consent, or to subvert and reinvent. And I love what the book can be when it makes an embodied argument—when poetry or poetic sense enters the scene. This is life. We navigate our days with an array of feelings and actions—of obedience, trickery, subversion, humor, pangs of loss, moments of isolation and moments of profound solidarity. I love books of theory and social science and the careful study that goes into them—but I knew, years ago, as a sociology student and then adult literacy worker, that I wanted to make books that could contain something of the unexplained: the individual breath, the poem. If my work is called “experimental” because I’m doing this, so be it. I am just overjoyed to work in this way—and when I am working on a book project, I know that the writing is actually re-shaping my reality, my own body.

We talked about this last night in a graduate poetics class I teach. How writing changes the body. Changes reality. If we have courage and if we have the support of a few others. And it is not about healing or betterment that can be measured: it is about evolution. I had the privilege of studying with Bhanu Kapil and she directed me toward these concepts via Elizabeth Grosz—a feminist Deleuzean philosopher—and this notion of art as an evolutionary force is very alive in both Grosz’s and Kapil’s works. I felt this potential when I “became a poet” and Grosz has now given me the exposition, in her book Chaos, Territory, Art, to know this even more deeply, to name it.

On to your questions about the passages you quote—yes, SLOT came out two years ago, but it was a book that took about six years to write, and so I can’t recall the when and why of composing those passages exactly. Still, I think I can say some things—

“Unfold the storm keys” is puzzling, but as I read it now, I think I see traces of some things that I was meditating on. Most importantly, the AIDS quilt. As a memorialization project, I think of this quilt as one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard of. But my brain has a very tricky time understanding its unfurling, its travel, its storage. The website for the quilt says the quilt weighs 54 tons! I work with textiles, and my mother taught me to sew, and she was a quilter, and so while I was contemplating memorialization for this book, I had image after image of the process of setting up this quilt for display. What did that involve? How many people? How did they handle the weight of it? Was it always taken apart into sections for travel and then reassembled? Am I not even understanding its construction properly? I think of the ceremonial nature of unfolding it, settling it up, handling and re-handling its material from a logistics standpoint—so much a part of the memorial object itself.

“Unfold” also pertains to the body opening up: from folded-over protection, self-soothing, to wide open availability, trust, and risk. But how do you unfold keys? And what are “storm keys”? “Key” can be read here as an epistemological tool—unlocking history, knowledge, or the key as part of the process of arriving at knowing. Another opening, along with “unfold.” Then, some of the photos that I began to incorporate in SLOT were photos of clouds: lovely, large, heavy, grey clouds over the New York harbor. As I began to know that those images should be part of the book, I suppose I “saw” that arrivals at knowledge would not necessarily comfort—whatever we were opening into as citizens was unsettled, unsure, weighty, wet. Post-event understandings had the potential to be “stormy.”

Is that all just plain maddening? Maybe. Maybe that’s also why SLOT is hard for me to read from.

The passage at the end of that page is a transcription of a dream I had while writing the book. So maybe “versus” storm, here is the light: but it’s blinding, it’s too much. The marble—a traditional stone of memorialization—overwhelms. The speaker here is pulled between what is dark, damp, constructed—the storm and the “new columns” of future museums and memorials—and too much light, too much above-ground display. Yet the self-reflexive distancing of “I think to take a photograph” provides momentary relief. The speaker has the opportunity, via her own framing gesture, to “come out” of the impossible conundrum, at least for a moment. Here the act of photography may be a kind of manic or desperate “why not—what else should I do?” gesture of agency.

The part of this page that provides actual comfort is where time is invoked. In an earlier version of SLOT nearly every page had a time marker. Including those forward-moving reminders—from event to futurity—provided a steady compositional pathway for me. In this passage, in the face of unresolved questions, the passage of time—the arbitrary nature of numbers assigned to time not necessarily progressing in a linear fashion—is the one thing that feels sure and even restful in this landscape.

TF:  Jill, Thank you very much.

 


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.

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