Karla Kelsey and Aaron McCollough, editors of SplitLevel Texts, talk to their latest authors, Carla Harryman and Catherine Meng, about their new books.
Karla Kelsey & Aaron McCollough: Catherine and Carla—thank you for doing this interview with us. We are so pleased to release both of your books as the second “pairing” of SplitLevel Text titles. The first question is broad but comes out of working so closely with W—/M— and The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century, and speculating about process. We wonder if you could describe the relationship that you had to time when you were composing your books and whether or not it shifted during development and, if so, how. Do you feel your books are “of” or “in” a certain time? “About” or “at?”
Catherine Meng: Most of my work is the product of self-imposed constraints. I prefer to write first drafts in forms or off of word lists in particular. I find a sort of security once I assign myself perimeters in which to write into. In this instance, it was Daniil Kharms’s mandate in The Blue Notebook to write every day “at least half a page”—if you don’t write at least write “today I wrote nothing.”
This seemed like a great challenge, complete with a readymade excuse. I decided to up the ante and write every day for a year. So starting July 20th, 2009 I resolved to write at least half a page every day until July 20, 2010. I also decided to quit drinking on the same date. A friend once told me he quit smoking for a year. Literally. On the 357th day of non-smoking he lit up a cigarette and resumed his smoking career. I love that because it speaks to our reverence for anniversary but more importantly habit—some quote I recall about habit being a shackle for the free. I’m getting off subject but YES—I told myself I would quit drinking and I would write every day for a year—so there is that yearlong chunk in regards to time.
Additionally, the time I was able to muster each day was predominately 6 AM to 9 AM, before work. I would say 89 percent of this book was composed during those hours, sitting on my back porch chain smoking and drinking coffee. I usually felt rushed. Whatever writing I got done was cut short by having to get to work (another subconscious constraint I suppose). When asked the question now, I would say yes, I do think my relationship to time shifted—in that, prior I would have said one or two hours is not enough time to write—but by the end of the year I got it down. You learn to make due with the time you are allotted. And by July 19, 2010 I was pretty efficient with my window of writing opportunity.
As a result of this self-imposed assignment, the work produced was more diaristic in approach than anything I’d written prior. I have a bent for seriality, and that was in play as well, and in turn the idea of an extended narrative. More directly, this book is very much “about” a certain time—the personal filtered through the world happening, or vice versa. Part of this project became trying to document those things simultaneously. So yes, this book is “about” the year I read Jack Spicer’s Collected Poems, an Elizabeth Bishop biography and Jed Rasula’s This Compost. This book is “about” the year my partner’s father passed away. This book is “about” the year my parked car got hit and totaled by a drunk driver and what I observed once I had to walk three miles to and from work. This book is “about” the year the Bay Bridge spooked me. The book is “about” the great recession. This book is “about” the year a hummingbird built a nest in a potted fichus outside my front door. This book is “about” the year I fell in love with all sorts of unobtainable things, until the year became about the book and the book became about the year.
In trying and of course failing to include everything that happened, a different sort of psychic space opened in the writing mind (time itself split open and expanded), kind of like the moment, or so I’d imagine, you realize you are in free fall. So this book is also “out” of time, I suppose—or attempting to capture (or caught in?) that flux.
Carla Harryman: The question of time of the writing is complicated in respect to W—/M—,because it was completed over a 17-year period with at least 11 years in the middle in which the work was in its first draft waiting to be (or not to be) finished. While the diptych was begun under the aegis of a shift of seismic proportions in my personal life (the move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Detroit in 1995), it was left waiting, or held in suspension, at a moment of social and political crisis following 9/11 and, more saliently, the American invasion of Iraq. The reason for this “suspension” seems deeply connected to these historic events, even if only because of a shift in the psychic relationship between past and present that was under construction for me at the time of moving to Detroit.
“Look Again” is a fusion of different temporalities. The title suggests that looking back is signaled as a retake, something that produces not a fixed but a next temporal form, a non/narrative form. This form is figured around the psychic and intellectual processing of experience and knowledge—based in a trajectory of childhood to adulthood and common themes, including those of race relations, erotic relations and desire, the hidden or unmarked fluidity of social and class boundaries and physical and social mobility (to name some). I mark this timeframe as existing between Los Angeles and Detroit from 1958 to 2012. In 1958, I was six years old. The timeframe obviously exceeds the time of writing and indicates that which is carried forward in writing, in a present or extended moment.
The psychic or intellectual processing I mention above is located in fabricated events that touch on some form of reality that bring together and “multiply” (a reference to Tyrone Williams’ comment on the back cover). These binaries include personal/impersonal, intellectual/experiential, interior/exterior, church/state, anarchy/order, child/adult. I have recently encountered Nicolas Abraham and Mária Török’s theoretical commentary on introjection (thanks to Gail Scott, who was introduced to their work by Lisa Robertson) defined by their English translator, Nicholas T. Rand, as “a constant process of acquisition and assimilation, the active expansion of our potential to accommodate our own emerging desires and feelings as well as the events and influences of the external world.” I can observe this text as one engaged by a sensation of and reflection on this or a similar kind of psychic processing. The writing registers a temporality of what we might call “introjection” in one of its dimensions, which would be that dimension closest to compositional time—constituted variously by instantaneousness, pauses, gaps, lurches, flow and parataxis.
This first “book” of the diptych was begun during the only period of my life in which I was eligible to collect unemployment, although that lasted only about three months. It was a time of acute alienation and also getting into the scene of a culture so different from the one I was and am still from (as it seems, without family or “clan,” an immigrant, even from within the country, is always going to be half in and half out of the culture). I existed, and continue in this manner, in a kind of psychic nowhere: a concept that I had become deeply engaged in all through the 1990s in my studies of utopias, feminist utopia, utopian horizons, and, via Ernst Bloch, the utopian imagination. Thus there remains for me fascinating resonances and overlays brought forward into this new and developing physical and psychic region, identified with but not entirely commensurate with Detroit.
How might this connect with my first impressions of Detroit? In contrast to California, most vivid was the sense that there was no such thing as public life (or public life was always already territorialized toward a negation of public life). Everything seemed to happen inside, behind a wall. Public utterance was the territory of official culture only. Later the free cultural and music festivals in Detroit brought out the other to this circumstance, to some (qualified) degree. Yet, some of what happened behind doors and walls was amazing to me—invisible worlds existed within the interior, and with these an opening to the strange rhyme between the life of the writer’s mind and what was not apparent to the street. Some of this had to do with race relations and forms of cultural connection that cross economic and race lines in modes that are not predefined by the news and cultural media that create the stories of shared reality within the Detroit area and mass culture.
Pressures between divergent structures of living informed the approach to the writing. Like Catherine, I frequently write with constraint, usually time-based. But given the great distance between the first drafts and the last, it would be somewhat nostalgic on my part to reconstruct the initial process (though I can say I wrote without a plan for content and yet wanted to create a content-rich text: this requires a kind of attention that is similar to the attention necessitated by live performance and improvisation). The changes in the work that came more recently were in response to the work as an object-in-the-making.
I have gone on a bit long, so will briefly mention “Portrait of M,” the second part of the diptych, which is the more rhetorical, wilder perhaps, and less narrative-, more poetry-based, side. Here time is perhaps more systematically coded as a nonrational time, a hyper-performative break from clock time. Partly, its drive is to undo temporal rationality as an aspect of the attempted portraiture. This is related to the politics of gender this piece queries and pursues.
KK & AM: Your responses are so resonant—both with one another and as individual thoughts towards the confluence of process, time and life. The next question we have is one about content. Both of you highlight both process/constraint and content. We’re thinking in particular about Carla’s statement, “I wrote without a plan for content and yet wanted to create a content-rich text: this requires a kind of attention that is similar to the attention necessitated by live performance and improvisation,” and Catherine’s paragraph on extended narrative and serial work (as the year became the book and the book became about the year). This attention to both content and process is refreshing in what seems to be a contemporary climate inclined to divorce the two, to prize one at the expense of the other (here we think of recent debates around Conceptualism as played out through Cal Bedient’s Boston Review article “Against Conceptualism” and Vanessa Place’s Constant Critic response. We wonder if you would both be willing to say more about the relationship of content to process—in these particular books and/or in your work in general as it has evolved (have there been turning points?) and/or in the contemporary landscape of poetry?
CH: For “Portrait of M”:
Content of the portrait is predicated on gender and economic systems “outside” the text. The text does something with these rather than representing them through standard conventions of representation, or creating a narrative about them, or holding a mirror to them—unless one thinks of a mirror as a looking glass one can enter and move around in, and, via circulating in the mirrored space, perceive the other side of the mirror as reciprocally (yet non-identically) estranged from that place one is now in. This nonidentity is further qualified by the fact that the “looking glass” side of the mirror is improvised with language as medium and limit of the improvisation, while the other side is the incoherent “real” and the manufactured landscape of “the given.”
I bring up this aspect of mirroring because it is an activated trope in “M,” with its many references to “mirrors” and also through the figure of the double, which is the form for the narrator and narrated figure of “M.”
“M” as figure (and, more so, as text) is in revolt against the conventions of representation: of war, gender, finance, desiring, power, coupling. But “M” also can’t avoid them: these are also features of revolt’s encounter with that which it is subject to and resists. “M”also constructs an authoritative relationship to the subjects and objects of resistance, appropriating the authority derived from the given world. It also enlists the concept and rhetoric of representation to read the objects of its estranged looking-glass world:
“…she confesses that her broad rhetorical representations of human action are devised as a trap in which people are inveigled to tackle each other without suffering any consequences…”
“These figures represent the wrong side before the time of plastic and rubber human and animal forms are blown up to mammoth proportions…”
“Enslavement is symbolically represented by two figures descending a ladder in one pair of shoes.”
“He wants to represent Minerva as a Gangster.”
“The director’s letter is an effort at even-handedness, at neutral representation.”
While “Portrait of M” was initially written as one continuous paragraph that broke as many rules of writing as it could while investigating “doubling,” “mirroring” and “revolt,” I reworked it by breaking it down into shapely units of writing that occur in a sequence. This process is quite different than that enlisted in composing “Look Again,” a text figured through an autobiographical subject. This subject is not the author. It is a fabrication, except insofar as its narrative is that of a duration that I physically and intellectually inhabited: its narration is the direct result of the compositional time of the writing. Each sequence was written separately, on some other day, or on some other presumed, if not actual, day. The content of the work is developed using links. The link between one segment and another might be obvious or subtle. These links, or hinges, are instruments for movement across time and space.
I bring in the word hinge, because this was a conceptual device I enlisted when I wrote the radically non/narrative play There Is Nothing Better Than a Theory (1982) that has continued to worm its way through much of my work. Creating lines that responded at an angle, or as connected to the previous line (yet in motion away from it), opened up a space of polyvocality and potential for the play to be performed by any number of performers in any given instance. In “Look Again,” a work of prose narrations,indeterminate, multiple performers of poem/play have been replaced with symbolized figures such as those whose names begin variously with W (Will, Wanda, Willow, etc.). The link, in addition to the hinge, enters in the way the text moves and shifts focus. While the composition of “Look Again” draws from the linking we identify with digital technology, the work was conceived during the period of emergent commercialization of the Internet. I thought of the process, in part, as a kind of “site sampling.” But I was transposing virtual sites to mental and actual sites. This also relates to a strong sense I had at the time that experimental literature was performing something internal to itself that was somewhat analogous to some of the systems instructured within the virtual world of the Internet.
CM: It goes to show how out of the loop I am if the contemporary climate is “inclined to divorce the two,” because I honestly can’t comprehend how one (content) can exist without the other (process).
In most instances I write blind. I rarely go into a poem saying, I will now discuss this this and this, or my feelings about that. As much as I have wanted to be that poet, particularly in the face of cataclysmic world events, sadly I am not. I write blind and after I’ve amassed a good number of pages I’ll step away for a few weeks or months and then return and try to figure out what my subconscious was trying to get at. (I’d love to hear more about Carla’s experience re-engaging with a body of work after an eleven-year hiatus.)
Often there will be obvious themes or repeated images that I will then try to build on/exhume in the editorial process. First drafts come fast, but it is in the editing where I “discover” my own content/intent. More recently, within a first draft I’ll find a number of contradictions, and the majority of the editorial process is me basically debating myself, trying to figure out in retrospect what it is I was trying to say.
I love Carla’s comment about wanting to “create a content-rich text.” For me that means one that IS full of contradiction and rich in the way that life is rich while also being maddeningly confusing. Content for me is always an attempt to recreate some of what it feels like to be human—with attention to the act of perception by way of autopsying “the image,” as if I am writing for a robot.
Also of relevance in the content/process conversation is reading. Reading WAS process in regards to Solar Eclipse (the same can probably be said about my prior collection Tonight’s the Night). I was thick into This Compost, in which Jed Rasula makes an argument for all poetry being an amalgamation of all the poetry written and read prior—so the act of reading becomes a part of the writing, or as Rasula calls it “wreading”:
For the condition of the poetry is not enclosed in a book, but knitted into your skin; it folds your wrinkles into its holography; it makes reading a compact with writing, becoming wreading. It is the juncture of two worlds, the simultaneous identification of yourself and your text as a language so immediately present to consciousness as to be unconscious, as close and intimate as the tactility of your inner arm or thigh.
I became quite intoxicated by this idea and came to think of the poem (originally the Solar Eclipse manuscript was one LONG poem) almost as a living entity. It was sprawling and unruly but had a topography that would reveal itself through the writing. During that year I was experiencing lucid dreaming for the first time in my life. I was struck by how similar the dream-state felt to the writing state—there is a distinct sensation (for me at least!) of almost leaving the body. I thought a lot about how the mind/body connection is also referred to as the mind/body problem. And now as I write this I’m thinking maybe there is an analogy to the relationship between content/process. Is it a connection or a problem?
For myself, process informs content by way of defining the space the writing will fill, and content informs process by pushing back or trying to escape. I feel like that’s when it gets interesting…when the poem attempts to escape its own confines by directly addressing them. I was also reading Armantrout’s essays during this time, and I think her line, “can space open up and also be framed?” gets at the idea that I am bumbling around here.
KK & AM: The Rae Armantrout question, “Can space open up and also be framed?” resonates so roundly with both of your responses and projects. We see this in Carla’s description of process in “Look Again”:“The content of the work is developed using links. The link between one segment and another might be obvious or subtle. These links, or hinges, are instruments for movement across time and space.” And in Catherine’s notion, “For myself process informs content by way of defining the space the writing will fill, and content informs process by pushing back or trying to escape. I feel like that’s when it gets interesting…when the poem attempts to escape its own confines by directly addressing them.”
This next question is rather open-ended, but we wonder if you two could expand a bit on the idea of “defining limits and creating links?” This might ebb into any number of territories such as writing while mothering (or attending to what is other-than-writing), or the long dash that is an eleven-year break from a text, or the relation of reading to writing, and/or examples of concrete, formal/informal processes that you have used to define limits and create links.
CH: While we are on the topic of the hinge, I should point toward Nathaniel Mackey’s “Paracritical Hinge,” an essay originally given as a talk in 1999 at the Guelph Jazz Festival and later published in a volume of the same title. It theorizes the concept of the hinge in the context of his serial novel, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. His talk is itself a demonstration of the critical and theoretical dimension of his prose, blending critical presentation with readings from the novel. The talk/essay and the novel produce a movement of language animating thought in such a way that genre doesn’t disappear but ceases to be constrained by conventions and is thus transferred to a third space challenging to classify and which verges on form impossible to name. This unnameable I relate to Mackey’s interest in what words can’t perform.
In both my use of it and Mackey’s, the hinge or link facilitates movement within, about, between, around genre, such that genre categories are opened to modalities that exceed the limit of category. Of his novel, Mackey writes:
It’s a type of fiction that wants to be a door or to support a door or to open a door permitting flow between disparate orders of articulation. It wants to be what I call a paracritical hinge, permitting flow between statement and metastatement, analysis and expressivity, criticism and performance, music and literature, and so forth.
This door is not unlike the “door left ajar” in André Breton’s Nadja, a novel central to the necessary critique of genre; yet the properties of the hinge in Mackey are more connected to sound, and this in itself initiates a significant difference. Breton’s door is visual and psychological, symbolizing or signifying a critique of Marxist materialism and Freudian epistemology of the psyche and complicating “the word’s” (quoting Mackey) relationship to category. The interior and the exterior meet at and flow through the threshold. What then is space, the space of the mind, the material condition?
W—/M— is a work of unspecific genre, drawing poetry into both storytelling and nonfictional prose, whose movement produces rhythms of flow between what might be thought of as the interior and exterior. This movement occurs within each book of the diptych and between the two books. The books also subtly read each other, backward and forward, while avoiding mimesis as a response to this reflexive boundary crossing. The mind’s eye of the writing subject or text is analogous to that of the artist making a visual diptych, insofar as the two texts together require thinking and perceiving through the gap of their separateness. Yet, even in diptychs in which the two pieces put together just happen to fall together or are placed together without deliberate navigation, this act of juxtaposition potentially activates a reading of the two works together. Nadja is not a diptych, but how I am thinking about the qualities of “diptych” recalls to mind Nadja‘s recordings of meetings, actual and virtual, that bring chance and purpose together. Because I am oriented both to the flat page/screen of words on white and to physical, three-dimensional space, I read the environments across the two texts with the intent of acknowledging the properties and qualities of the space. Where are the lights on or the space dead? Is the lighting local, natural, artificial? Which type of illumination shall I deploy and foreground? And why is it dark or very bright in that corner? Do I leave it be or…
And thus the research of prose, or poetry, continues along multiple routes, resisting routinized directions. I am interested in the role that improvisation plays in facilitating this kind of conceptualization. And this returns me to Catherine’s statement about “writing blind,” which I sense as something akin to improvisational writing. Yet, the writing blind is conditioned by a relationship to time, which she has so eloquently codified in her response to the first question. Thus there is an outside to this blindness that sets the limits of the possible. Yet the reading of what is written through this blind unknown becomes the stage for the illumination, interpretation and reading of the text as undergoing a process of making. I would be interested in knowing more about how the time of day in which the work was composed “blind” might now seem to have a bearing on it as a finished work.
Catherine also has asked about process in regards to the time lapse in beginning and completing the diptych. The changes in “Look Again”were a matter of adding segments into different areas of the text, so that what was written in the more recent present worked with what had come before (without my having to occupy some kind of fictional relationship to the “before,” as if I were composing “then” instead of “now”). In “Look Again,”the past and the present bleed into one another. Time moves in more than one direction and at different speeds. What was most compelling about this time lapse was its resonance with the stretch of time I had lived in Detroit. When I began the book, I had just moved to Detroit. Residue, imprint, entropy undergo great elaboration as time passes in the city in which I arrived as a stranger and in which I remain a stranger, though differently now. The city underwent quite noticeable changes in those years, and so had I—not so much in respect to my familiarity with the city, as in respect to what had transpired in the interim, from friends dying and leaving, to jobs changing, to the effects of the financial crisis, which are only partly visible to any one person along the tragic spectrum of poverty/wealth. This partial visibility was troubling to me, and the experience of this had a subtle impact on the writing as I completed this part of the book.
“Portrait of M”involved a completely different process. The process of breaking apart the work allowed me to better understand and follow the rhetorical motives that appeared as a result of the wild initial blast of writing that it was. In other words, the activity of breaking it into sequential parts gave me a reading of the writing that offered me a more complex view of the work and showed me what decisions there were to be made.
Through the process of breaking up the first draft of “Portrait of M,” I was able to look at, read and reflect upon its rhetoric, as well as upon the questions the work posed to me in respect to the impossibility of its subjects and objects. I like when a work tests my thinking and raises doubts while yet insisting on itself—as in good conversation.
Once I established a certain kind of “page,” I saw the length of the new segments of the series as necessary: the gestural was transformed to something more concrete and committed. This allowed me to think more about the broken and mismatched qualities of the figure (the construction of the narrator, M) and narration. Reading and rereading the work encouraged readings and re-readings of other things: the physical world, local environments, art works and the “other side” of the diptych.
This process took a long time. I spent parts of two years breaking “M”down, sensing that this is what had to happen, but it took eight or so years after that before I arrived at decisions that would allow me to complete the work. In part, the work was waiting for the content of a later moment, one that involves my own development as well as outside events or influences. But it also simply needed to rest. Also, it took me a long time to understand why and how I was thinking of the work as a diptych.
And now to return to Karla’s questions about defining limits: limits can be defined, but they also are given. In addition to my question about the impact of the time of day in her work, I am also curious about how Catherine would view the dynamics between external and internal limits, as she imagines these following the publication of The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century—since I can imagine the nature of external and internal limits might be undergoing a change for her just now.
Vice (1986) was written in a year, the first year of parenting. The invitation to write a book came during the second week following childbirth. I hesitated but took up this invitation and then had to figure out how to write a book-length work in this new situation, which included a full-time job. I decided that the work would be shaped by the slivers of time I had to myself or that I stole for myself. I used anything at hand, in the most immediate sense, to generate writing: books (mostly poetry, fiction, philosophy and art theory) that happened to catch my attention on a shelf, newspeak and political discourse, The Socialist Review, wall material in museums, ads, live music, visual art, photographs in Christies’ catalogs at work, instructions from my boss, disturbing phone conversations, shared experiences with the baby or friends. Writing sessions would find a form related to the content I was selecting from my sources. This was not a diary, but rather a kind of aesthetic and critical event produced under pressure. The connotative riches of the word “vice” helped to direct my thought and attention: I experienced vice as moving like a libidinous current of connotation under the text. Each writing session would be attentive to, and a departure from, the last. I was thinking about durational forms that formal dissonance could produce. I was at the time thinking about this as a gendered politics of form. These politics were partly codified by the fact that about half my paycheck went to childcare, a fortunate circumstance compared to the $3.50/hr I was left after childcare in some subsequent years. But I am not interested in focusing on the economic condition at the moment, since I have discussed it elsewhere, and also I believe that things are so different now—and, to put it mildly, for many families and most artists,not easier. Consider the rising costs of childcare (which was outrageously costly even in the 80’s), the time demands put on labor and the culture of fear (about everything from school-related murders to the fear of survival propagated by standardized testing and normative achievement insanity).
I am interested rather in what time and economic pressure could test and make happen: making art under this state of affairs changed the quality of my experience of the new circumstance. Thinking back to our conversation on time—being able to shape time while being so palpably shaped by it (the immediacy of the child presence, combined with the clock-time of everyday life) gave me a new relationship to writing and changed my writing forever. Thus, having a child was revolutionary for me as an artist, and I love the paradox this suggests.
In literature, limit is often equated with “constraint.” My article “Rules and Restraints in Women’s Experimental Writing” discusses the restraint, which I compare to the constraint. Unlike the constraint (an external application that provides productive limits for the operations of the imagination and language), the restraint is a conceptual limit underlying the deployment of constraint in experimental texts. This paragraph is from the opening gambit of the article:
In Writing Is an Aid to Memory, Lyn Hejinian employs a numeric constraint based on alphabetization to spatially organize her poem, but Hejinian’s interrogation of memory is less dependent on the device than on its thematic concept. In her essay, “Bodies of Work,” Kathy Acker discusses the device of repetition in bodybuilding as a metaphor for confrontation with failure, but Acker’s use of repetition is contingent on her a priori critique of western attitudes toward death. In my play There is Nothing Better Than a Theory, I used a constraint by which each line of the play had to act as either a grammatical, semantic, or rhetorical hinge for the next line, but without its reliance on the a priori concept that language itself is the site of performance, the text would not offer itself as a challenge to the way that plays get made. I would argue then that, in the case of these texts, there are concepts or questions related to pre-existing concepts that motivate the text and create the need for constraint, “a commodious way of passing from language to writing.”
Thus limit is not a simple concept. It can refer to the finitude of life, the base from which one thinks or acts, the indispensible thing or idea, the rule one follows to stay clear of trouble or to trick one’s mind out of its habits. It is a concept that can show us the dynamic relationship between constructedness and the values for, and meaning of, what is under construction.
CM: Breton’s Nadja! Yes! While writing Eclipse, I spent a lot of time thinking about genre, and about how to write a poem that could feel like prose but have moments where it would bloom out/balloon in/shift from past to present. I was fixated on the idea of wormholes, and I was trying to actually write them into the poems—the bookcase that lo and behold is actually a door that leads to a secret passage. Is there a way to actually move through space in a poem?
I have not read Mackey’s essay but enjoyed the quote Carla supplied, although for me Breton’s stance seems much closer to how I understand the idea of links within my work. I was interested in the moment when the poem becomes a double surface of sorts, when there is a slippage in the words so you end up, without noticing the transition/transmutation, on the other side of the glass. I was interested in this happening to the reader of the poem and the writer of the poem at the same time. Is there a way to live-tweet the slippage? To write about the making of the poem while you are making the poem? To clarify my “blind” statement: many of the links that happen are a surprise to me; the secret passage way reveals itself, and you write into it and hopefully end up somewhere more interesting, but sometimes you end up exactly where you started. I think I say something about “round and round we do this without ever starting or ending the poem.” I sometimes get very dramatic about the futility of it all (an “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” type of thing), especially when I get involved in concept projects like this. There were days when I was just bloody sick of writing and sick of my own writing, but slog slog slog, you just keep writing in hopes that one of the bookcases will be false.
One of my favorite parts and most vivid memories of Nadja are the photographs of objects, and how the narrator tries to “discover” what they “mean.” I loved the idea that there was a secret meaning of sorts that had to be “figured out,” that chance was in fact not chance at all. In my own work and process I internally refer to these as synchronicities. There will be images or ideas, wormholes as I mentioned before, or Rilke’s rings, or webs, nests, etc. that keep turning up in the poems and then in real life. I get very superstitious about it (this is probably some kind of psychosis), but anyway, they become obsessions of a sort and fuel the poems, until they seem to be everywhere. I guess that is what ultimately I am interested in and writing about—the obsessions one’s own mind fixates on and worries over until it practically conjures them into being (a poem golem!). That worrying of a subject/object for me is the poem.
Back to Carla’s lines: “In part, the work was waiting for the content of a later moment, one that involves my own development as well as outside events or influences. But it also simply needed to rest.” Maybe waiting is a limitation of sorts? A chosen limitation.
There are subjects/images (the snapping turtle we found in the middle of the road when I was six) I’ve always wanted to write poems about, but when I try with intention I fail miserably, so I just wait…and usually once it has percolated sufficiently in my subconscious (20 years) it will appear in a poem, as the snapping turtle did toward the end of Solar Eclipse. So I really like this idea of waiting—and rest. I spent a lot of time in my last book, Tonight’s the Night, thinking about the “rest” in a musical phrase. How the rest is not silence exactly, it is a beat that is filling the space without sound.
I am in complete awe, Carla, that you wrote a whole BOOK during the first year of your child’s life. Six months in, and I have still not figured out how to eat regularly, let alone do anything other than work/baby/sleep. There is no poetry for me at present (other than this wonderful exchange, which I find myself huddling up to like a warm fire in the dark woods), and I see no poetry in my future for some time. But I am glad to speak about this, because it is important to note that at the time of writing Solar Eclipse (between 2009 and 2010) I had grown very disillusioned with poetry in general, and my own writing had become increasingly difficult. I was struggling to learn how to write without drinking—and what became apparent was that I was drinking to numb out my internal editor/left brain. Writing poetry, which had always been marked by feelings of liberation and exploration, now, without the buffer of alcohol, was riddled with self-doubt and harsh self-criticism. It took me a long time to admit that I no longer looked forward to writing but did it more out of obligation to my self-identification as a poet. Perhaps this was one of the early inkling of deciding to become a parent? Maybe I have a Madonna-artist complex?
During the writing of this book I acutely felt that it might very well be my last poetry book—if not forever, than for a good while. And I was actually relieved by that decision. Now that I write this, I’m thinking maybe I had a kid so I could get out of writing! I am being silly here, but there is probably some truth to it. At the time, my partner and I were talking a lot about starting a family, but we were both still unable to fully commit to the idea. At the same time, poetry felt uncomfortably close, like it was suffocating. I tried to write myself out of that feeling. In many of the poems there is a desire for expanse, and yet I felt continuously hemmed in by the actual page/poem. I couldn’t tell if I felt stifled by the genre or the identity. Thematically, that desire to destroy the confines is clearly illustrated by the poem, “The Century Plant,” a sestina that appears mid-way through the book and is about self-destruction and re-generation, among other things. At the time I think the writing-I was ready to cast off a skin but unsure of what it was molting into.
In regards to limitations, I think that current technologies are putting a renewed pressure on poetry to “do more.” I found myself wanting to create hyper-links (wormholes!) in my own poems, but at the same time, I felt disgusted by my own desire for such a thing. My old-school-letter-press-support-your-local-bookstore self could not co-exist with my eight-windows-on-my-computer-screen-open-at-the-same-time-Twitter-YouTube-texting-Facebook self. I wanted the book I was writing to be all the poems at once, not page after page. I’m sure this is a common complaint, but that desire and the limits of a traditional format I believe did push me to write into areas I would not have otherwise.
I decided that the work would be shaped by the slivers of time I had to myself or that I stole for myself. I used anything at hand, in the most immediate sense, to generate writing: books (mostly poetry, fiction, philosophy and art theory) that happened to catch my attention on a shelf, newspeak and political discourse, The Socialist Review, wall material in museums, ads, live music, visual art, photographs in Christies’ catalogs at work, instructions from my boss, disturbing phone conversations, shared experiences with the baby or friends.
That sounds like a poem I wrote, where I folded in lines from an email, a news headline, my boss talking in the office next door, my partner texting me, a breaking verdict being reported on the radio, a picture on Tumblr—all without even getting up from my desk. I got scared of the fact that perhaps the book I was writing was just a catalogue of my Google cache! The one blessing in disguise was when my car got totaled in December, and I was forced to walk to and from work every day. For me, that external reality juxtaposed so nicely with the online reality of my day-to-day life. Often I would complain about coming up with good lines while walking and then forgetting them by the time I got to a computer. There were days walking to work where I would think of a good line, and I would just repeat it to myself the whole way, so I wouldn’t forget it. I thought about getting a dictaphone app on my phone, but I actually liked this limitation. It served as a reminder of those former limitations—before there were cell phones, when I never left the house without a pen and my notebook.
And that dovetails into my last rambling point and answer to Carla’s inquiry in regards to time of day. For the most part I wrote in the early morning (between 6 a.m.—9 a.m.), and I wrote in long-hand, which was definitely a limitation. I’d read something about how writing in longhand versus typing accesses different parts of the brain, and I wanted to access the longhand-part. Also I was trying to get away from the tendency to be in the middle of a poem and think of an idea or word and then Google search it and find myself 20 minutes later watching a video of grizzly bears fishing for salmon. If I had a good line come to me during the day, I would usually email it to myself and then try to incorporate it into the writing the next morning. Over the weekend I would transcribe that week’s writing to a computer document. By the end of the year it was over 348 pages long.
KK & AM: For the next question, which, in service of time, will be the last question, we would love it if you were to pose a question to each other…
CM: (Question for Carla Harryman) To further the conversation on genre…I got the distinct sense of an omniscient presence in “Look Again.” There is often an “I,” but there is another voice that shows up and seems to have the ability to direct the action almost. There are instances of straight dialogue but then there are disembodied voices, set-off in quotes that show up and seem to me to be coming from “outside” the structure of the poems—which I began to think of as each a one-act play of sorts.
In comparison, “Portrait of M” feels more cinematic to me. The frames move quicker, but again there are distinct voices, and a dialogue that seems to extend over the course of the book: “Note there is a dispute about whether or not the voice’s colors ought to be pleasing.”
When you mentioned writing the play There Is Nothing Better Than a Theory and the use of polyvocality, it made me curious to hear more about how you thought about voice but also dialogue in this book. I’d also be curious to hear how your experience of playwriting has influenced your poetry and vice versa.
CH: Catherine, I wish there were time to reflect more on our answers, since between them there is quite a bit of interest in destruction, and it would be fun to pursue this. In spirit, I am still working on my answer to your question, but it’s time to turn in the work, so here it is, as is. Also you talk about time, labor and money in this and an earlier answer, and that’s something I had thought to bring up in respect to how these are worked into W—/M— , but I didn’t want to move too far from your question, though I fear I have veered.
For the next part:
“I’ve said before that in Olson’s corpus women are mythic, whereas men are historical and mythic. Women receive no such historical credibility.”
—Rachel Blau DuPlessis (in The Conversant with Andy Fitch)
“M is laughing as she types placeholders under a heaven of cross-dressed equipment rusting in a pristine landscape, documented in a program dedicated to the recuperation of historical affects.”
—“Portrait of M”
“Portrait of M” might appropriate to itself much of Dimitri Anastasopoulos’ discussion of Blanchot and Lautréamont’s Maldoror, in his article “Present without Memory,” including the following:
The narrator’s predicament—a lost sense of identity after a series of transformations into monstrous beings—mirrors the problem with narrative voice in the story. Lautréamont’s novel does not hold to the idea that an author of fiction is a skilled verbal puppeteer, a mast of marionettes; instead, it obstructs such a reading by making it difficult for the reader to draw precise distinctions between author, narrator, and reader.
Although from the perspective of “Portrait of M,” identity is not so much lost as fabricated, manufactured (in respect to its history, mythology, images, deployments and redeployments) as nonidentity: “Divine and common sense M. Contradictory M. Subject, object and instrument…” Or identity is fabrication producing material undergoing some kind of radical change that retains or carries with it features from the past.
The dialogue Catherine makes note of might be an effect of the tension between myth and history, as processed through apparent subjectivities that simultaneously navigate and oppose the gender system. These subjectivities are really linguistic events, packed with clichés of the feminine, then torqued. Thus the female historical credibility that Rachel identifies as entirely wanting in patriarchal poetry (via Olson) will take forms and move in directions that cannot be merely codified within, or compared to, what comes from before. For example, there is the possibility, in any given moment or instance, that there may be no accord, match, fit.
But that sounds too reasonable. This side of the diptych or mirror of books is nonrational and exploitive of representable things in the actual world—drawing these into its unreal design. This not fitting is also apparent in the different technologies indicated and commented upon in the text: drawing, painting, writing, film/screen technologies.
Financial capital is ally and enemy to the unreal design. It plays its part in what drives the discord. “M” as a person may be thought of as a monster or criminal who wastes time and money, or whose plans are to opt for the devaluation of money. But what about time? “M” exists in the privileged space of fantasy, where appetites can be abstract and exaggerated. This is where economics meet the fantasies (myth) of gender in negative space.
There is running dialogue in this work, unmarked, and there are events of citation. When “M” is identified as having said something, the dialogue is unmarked. And when the speaker is not identified, the dialogue has quotes. “M” puts words in the writing subject’s mouth and the writing subject gives “M’s” her lines. There is an obscene aspect to this, which is played out in a carnal scene near the end of the portrait. The relationship between writing subject, narration or narrator and “M” is eventful, thus performative.
Or, the portrait is not static. (“Imagine her as a sequence of appearances on a sizable screen.”) And the making of the portrait entails more than one dynamic between subject and object. The dynamics themselves might be thought of as dialogic or even polyvocal. The non/narrative of the writing bears the tension between not only history and flimsy myth (and there are direct references to mythology and history present, such as, “others are not aware of our secret friendship with the goddesses” and “her mirror is an historical object but you can’t see history in it”) but between new form and old image, and destruction and construction. Something is being made that is yet incomplete. The secret friendship is not simply regressive: it pulls the so-called goddesses into the present as if they were costumes animating and illustrating the fear of and desire for domination of the feminine: now.
The incomplete figure or construct suggests a becoming in the present toward an uncertain future that is not focused on mythology. This future is not fixed or foreclosed. The environments of “M’s”linguistic habitat are signs of an out-of-control more powerful than the attempted linguistic wildness of “M’s”declarations. Or that is how I am thinking just now…
In terms of performance and writing, I enjoy the thought of Catherine’s reading of “Look Again” as a sequence of little plays, especially when I think of each segment as entering and exiting the body of words that comprise the text. I suppose that the rhythms of live performance offer me ways of thinking about beginnings and endings (or entrances and exists) and rhythms in writing. This performative perspective gives space to a cooperation between prose and poetry in the writing. In fact, several segments from “Look Again” were integrated into my 2001-2003 play, Performing Objects Stationed in the Sub World. So yes, there are ways in which both of these works (as written for the page) have qualities of performance that one can hear as a reader or use in actual performance. The polyvocality of the writing suggests the possibility of interpretation through the physical voices and bodies of performers. This dynamic is present in much of my writing. There is an abundance of commentary on this on The Volta in my “Notes on Poets Theater.” The physical space of performance, and the physical dynamics and motion of performance, impact the writing and vice versa.
CH (Question for Catherine Meng): You mentioned the dynamic between subject and object in your last response, and you do animate this dynamic persistently in your poetry. Just now I am on a page of “Zeitgebers” on which “ The clouds cut chapters from their original text”; “The moon releases a 4.5 billion year anniversary collector’s edition”; and “Squirrels are still correcting…galleys.” Here the anthropomorphic is a game of language and technology of writing. Words of nature animate conventions assigned to the written word. This is like a cartoon trick (I am a fan of cartoons). In “The Century Plant,” which you discuss as work related to destructive desire (or fascination with destruction?) the writing subject is synchronous with the plant. Or this positioning of plant and speaker, in which each occupies subject and object positions is that which conjures something, a poem, into being. But the conjuration, as you appear to be writing about it, also seems unsettled, in excess of the poem.
This takes me in two directions: one toward your interest in science and technology (not only your multi-tasking use of technology, which is interestingly placed in a relationship with having written the first draft of The Longest Solar Eclipes long-hand), and the other is toward the destruction of limits—for instance those of the common categorical distinctions between bodies, things and ideas. Does your apparent interest in science and technology direct this fascination with destruction? And/or in what other ways do science and technology affect your poetics? Do these interests have anything to do with what seems to be an impulse to transform writing into something else? (My sense is that you don’t see yourself so much abandoning writing, but rather in some circumstance of change, in which the energy or desire of writing is morphing into something else…?)
CM: Thanks for this great question, Carla. I’m not sure I would say I have an “interest” in technology. I would say it’s more of an affliction/necessary evil. My day job is of the online-marketing bent, so I basically run social media accounts and write web content for two businesses. But I think your impulse to question the relationship between the subjects of technology and destruction, in relation to writing, makes sense.
At the time I was writing the poems in Eclipse, I was trying to come to terms with the realization that, without paying much attention over the span of four years, I had gone from working a relatively lax, part-time schedule, to working a full-time schedule that also included monitoring social media sites 24-hours a day and working overtime frequently, all without ever getting a raise. My requests for fair compensation were repeatedly re-buffed, and I was dismayed by the situation. The aftershocks of the economic downturn of 2008 were still being felt and a growing awareness around economic disparity (what went on to start movements like Occupy) was germinating in the minds of many. Here in the Bay Area, there was a new attention being paid to labor and “jobs,” and the conversation among poets was particularly robust (this culminated in the launch of the excellent Labor Day Project —which had it’s first conference in the fall of 2010.
So yes, I think there is an undercurrent of wanting to destroy those things that I saw as confining: my employment, the Internet, the desk job, etc. And I think that, symbolically, the clouds and the squirrels of the world represented a freedom that almost taunted me. In “Zeitgebers,” at least, I was playing with the idea that these entities that know nothing of commutes, paying rent, work-life-balance, etc. can spend all day writing. This was also a tongue-in-cheek rib at the tendency in contemporary poetry to use the natural world to illustrate some internal struggle of the self. Later on in the book, this idea gets stretched further, with a number of references to eagles and their unfortunate association with America and also a sidewinding conversation with Rilke’s “The Panther.”
But to answer your question more directly, at heart I am terrified of both science and technology, and that is probably what interests me the most about them (I’m also scared of math, and I spend a lot of time writing about that too).
I think Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to revolutions in Egypt. But for deconstructing Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance, it is an incredibly powerful tool in wasting time and energy. These poems hang out in the crosshatch of such disparate information. And while failing to arrive at any overarching conclusions, I see them more as historical documents or core samples. The Internet is a seemingly constant display of juxtaposition, which I am endlessly intrigued by, so I think that is part of my fascination/revulsion.
I’m not really sure what to say about science. In regards to these poems, science seems to operate as another topic that gets thrown into the churning daily amalgamation of online “news” (be it apocalyptical global warming forecasts, foods that are killing us or studies on how cell phones are driving us crazy). The sensationalism of how nature is represented online is juxtaposed in these poems with the actual natural world. I think I’m trying to get at our disconnection with the world we live in, while trying fervently to connect through a virtual reality.
As for the destruction of limits (“for instance those of the common categorical distinctions between bodies, things and ideas”): I am all for the destruction of limits! Of any kind! I despise rules, mandates, norms, regulations and laws. When it comes to categorical distinctions it becomes more of a philosophical quandary for me. The poems in this collection attempt to illustrate man’s desire to chart, map and define the world at the expense of the world. It is feeble at best, but I am attempting not to give a voice back to the world per se but to create a space to consider what that voice might be. Maybe it’s not a voice at all. Maybe it’s a color or a weather pattern. The point is to question assumptions especially around language, which is the trickiest medium of all.
Carla Harryman has authored 17 books including W— /M— , Adorno’s Noise, Gardener of Stars and the multi-authored work The Grand Piano, an Experiment in Autobiography: San Francisco, 1975-1980 and Open Box (with Jon Raskin), a CD of music and text performances was released on the Tzadik label in 2012. Her interdisciplinary Poets Theater and bi-lingual performances have been presented nationally and internationally. She serves on the faculty of Eastern Michigan University and is currently a Senior Artist-in-Residence in the University of Washington at Bothell’s MFA in Poetics Program.
Catherine Meng is the author of Tonight’s the Night and The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century. Her chapbooks include: 15 Poems in Set of Five (Anchorite Press), Dokument (Petrichord Books), Lost Notebook w/ Letters to Deer (Dusie3) and I’m not writing PURE WAR this is a grocery list (Dusie5). Along with Lauren Levin and Jared Stanley, she co-edits the poetry journal Mrs. Maybe. She lives in Berkeley, California with her family.