Here Declan Gould interviews Amber DiPietra and Denise Leto about documentary poetry and the poetics of disability.
Amber DiPietra and Denise Leto’s collaboratively-written chapbook, Waveform, was published by Kenning Editions in 2011, and was released as an ebook in October 2013. An excerpt was translated into Italian in 2012 for Sagarana. DiPietra has an autonomic form of childhood arthritis, and Leto has laryngeal dystonia, a neurological disorder that affects speech. The constraints that these conditions create are intimately tied to both the forms and the themes of Waveform, a profoundly evocative long poem whose implications for experimental and documentary poetry, disability and somatics, accumulate with each line. Waveform is a layered work of varying modes that synthesizes multiple discourses and raises productive questions about these modes’ ethics and complexities.
Note: I interviewed DiPietra via phone and Leto via e-mail, because this was best for each of their bodies. I have integrated their answers here for greater ease of reading. –Declan Gould
Declan Gould: Can you give me an idea of how the collaboration worked? How interwoven or separate is your authorship? Are there certain sections that each of you wrote, or have the two voices become indistinguishable? How did you collaboratively assemble the various pieces?
Amber DiPietra: We were connected via a poet who knew Denise from meeting her at a residency—Patrick Durgin, a publisher for Kenning Editions who didn’t know me at all, but had read some poems I had written about disability and poetics in the Bay Area. He just had this idea that she and I should collaborate, and that he would put that work in an anthology that was going to come out. So, it was interesting how we were connected. He just totally said: “Hey, why don’t you guys meet and work on a collaboration,” and we didn’t know each other at all, and then we just sort of chatted. Denise and I are both Sicilian. We have a lot of family/cultural similarities. We laughed and chatted a lot and we sort of talked about the nature of chronic illness and disability, and decided on certain pivot words, like this idea of suspension—how things take so much more time, and really this sort of mental gearing up you have to do to get out of bed in the morning. So this sense of things being suspended, and also the luxury of suspension—how it feels to not have to contend with gravity; how it feels to be suspended without the crush of time and gravity upon you in relation to chronic illness. And so taking that as a pivot word, we just started exchanging chunks of poems back and forth over email.
For a while it was very uneven. Denise would send short, sort of very economical lines, and I would send these long prose chunks that were more confessional. So, for a while, it felt really awkward and uneven. Then we started amassing more and more of it, and there would be big gaps—like she would send me something and I wouldn’t reply for a month and vice versa. And then began the process of really braiding things together, where we did sit down for many, many sessions over the course of several months. And then, at some point, Denise found these four quotes: “The field of subjectivity, the field of reality, the field of representation, and the fields converge.” And we decided to use those as a structural thematic, and then break Waveform into four parts for each of the fields, and then started making decisions from all the material we had of what would go into those four fields. So that became the organizing principle, and then we decided how to weave them together. In a lot of cases we would have written entirely separate poems. So then we would break those up, take them apart and sort of explode it all and weave it together into this larger whole. So it’s very uneven, very interwoven.
That was the actual mechanics of the writing process, but there were also actual personal, physical, medical reasons that I think go into a lot of it as documentary poetics. For example, Denise has had her disability for a couple decades but didn’t really identify as disabled. I do identify as disabled, and I work in the disability advocacy field as a social worker and advocate, so Denise was sort of interested. She had done collaborations in the past, but I had never done that. I found this idea of collaborating really appealing, because it was very hard for me to get work done otherwise. I was really focused on my career as a disability advocate and that was draining enough, so it was hard for me to push myself to get writing done. But I know how I am: I’m a people person, and so if the poetry was tied to someone else, I would get it done. I kind of collaborate as a social worker and as a counselor in the professional work, so I thought maybe this would be a way for me to really find a new way into my poetry—by collaborating. The idea behind the Disability Rights Movement (it’s also called the Independent Living Movement) is this idea of interdependence, of how we’re interdependent as people with disabilities. So, what if the work was interdependently made? What if the constraint was that we had to make it together in this way? I was interested in that.
Denise Leto: There were many levels. We started by conversing over email for practical communication, discovering each other as poets, getting to know each other. But it was also generative, and eventually became part of the poetic body of Waveform. Our starting point was to explore ideas of suspension, fluidity, rigidity, movement, non-movement, poetics, disability, etc. The process looked something like this (but we also let it develop organically): one of us would write a piece (of whatever length, in whatever form) and send it to the other, who would then respond (not in a literal sense, but with resonance) and send that responsive piece.
We did this for months, and as the deadline approached we began to synthesize the work to create a single long poem. Early in the process, we had decided not to form the poem as a chronological dialogue (with one part Amber, one part Denise and so on) but to blend the material so that the end poem was an interwoven, hybridized piece with its own breath and space and form. Having said that, during the blending, which of course was an editing, there were sections that we kept whole: “my” lines and sections that were “Amber’s” lines. This may have consisted of many lines, or one or two. And we would do this when it made sense to keep some parts whole, which we then composed and combined with the other material. When it made sense to the collaboration to cut and paste and collage, then we took that approach. We had no hard and fast rule that we used. It was a poiesis of chance and formal device. Our intention was not, in my mind, to ameliorate the sense of two voices nor to heighten a singular authorial voice, but to create room for each as a modality, a sentient movement—not a duality, but somehow the same force from different sources. It was a dialogic form within a two-authored poem that then became its own kind of single “voice.” There was the collaboration, and then the work that emerged from that—and the question: When do you call a thing done?
The voice, to my ear, can be distinguishable—because I know who wrote what. But I have heard readers, even friends say both: that they could not distinguish two separate voices or that they could, but that either way, Waveform had taken on its own voice.
At some point we realized that our emails were not just part of the collaboration but had become part of the poem we were building. We began to work with them in that way. For assemblage, Amber would take a section on her own and then make suggestions as to order, placement, what we could let go of, what should be included, and then I would do the same. Then, we would take that material and come together to review what we generated. Or, we would do it sitting together at the table eating delicious pizza with maybe a glass of wine or coffee and chocolate, and cut and paste with a nice yellow highlighter, and we would laugh a lot. The seriousness and gravity with which we approached the project was also infused with a playfulness and lightness. It was not so much balance that we were after or reconciliation of poetic voice, but an amalgam, an acoustic landscape, a waterway. The process was the poem, and vice versa.
DG: I understand that you have done other collaborative projects in the past. What about this idea of collaboration interests you?
DL: In the past, collaboration was probably largely an aesthetic and community-minded choice. I feel like the last few years I have been searching for a way to manifest my spoken voice and written voice in the world in a different way—as an intellectual and artistic exercise, but also because I had a voice “at risk,” as one that vocalized differently. I wanted to work with that in the context of other media. I was trying to find a form of engaged poetics that upends the verticality and singularity of the pure podium-bound reading, one that interacts with the other, unbounded (writing practice as embodiment, a vulnerable structure, enjambment as a way of syntactically distancing and connecting one line from/to another).
I think that because my voice became more vulnerable, or more subject to the vagaries of ambient noise and the environment, it also (over time) became more connected to what was outside of it, to an ambient intimacy of interacting with the listener or reader. The interpersonal, engagement with the reader or the spectator, poetry as performative and the myth of the insular artist, became much more interesting. And meeting Amber and working together on Waveform came at a time when all of this was emerging in my writing, and it was a fortuitous moment to be able to work so closely with such an amazingly gifted poet.
DG: What was the motive for, or theory behind, collaborating on Waveform?
DL: As Amber said, we were introduced to each other through Patrick Durgin, whom I was introduced to by Jen Hofer. The collaboration started as a part of a larger project. We weren’t so much interested in expounding a theory, as we were interested in a mutual exploration of disability, poetry, embodiment, movement, genre-blending, uncertainty, language, subverting the seduction of perfection, notions of the broken line and silence (not so much as pause, as the absence of sound, or as a stand-in for what isn’t there—but as the presence of quiet, with sound as the thing defined by its own absence). Even though feminist, postmodern, multicultural, post-colonial and trans-disciplinary theories hovered in my consciousness, they sort of worked in the background, rather than acting as a foregrounded conversation that Amber and I were having.
DG: To me, Bhanu Kapil’s idea of a “sloppy hybrid”—which you mention in Waveform—seems essential to your project. Do you agree? Can you talk a little more about this?
AD: Bhanu’s a big mentor figure for me. I really have modeled so much of my work after her. Like her, I also am a body worker. I do energy work, and her other practices are really intertwined in the way that I do most things. I’m not the kind of poet or writer who edits and edits and edits slavishly. I sort of know that I can’t do it that way. I have, like, limited eyesight. My eyes get tired. Orthopedically, it’s hard for me to sit at a computer (and I already do that too much at my day job, or to do my other freelance work and my writing). So, I like this idea that I’m not going to be this master—that poetry is going to have to exist for me more as social-process art. It’s not always going to be perfect, and it’s going to look more like process work for me, so I think working with Denise allowed me to start accepting that; that doesn’t just mean I’m lazy or sloppy. That’s part of who I am, probably more so as social-process artist than page poet, although I do write poems that get published on the page. A lot of Waveform felt like it was coming out sloppily because I had a bunch of eye surgery; a major eye crises around the time when we were trying to write it, and a lot of physical pain around that, as well as depression, and anxiety about what was happening with my eye. Denise also had health issues that kept cropping up, and so, just being in our bodies was a lot of work during that time period. At first I felt like it took away from the writing, but then I realized that that was an essential part of the experimental form. And while I tend to feel a lot of guilt for lapses I have in writing (blank periods), I was always, of course, understanding of times when Denise would go weeks without responding to our collaborative back and forth. That helped me become less rigid with myself, feel less guilty about my own big lapses, and really look at the chronic pauses in my own process with interest and understanding.
DL: Yes. I understand some of Kapil’s ideas of language as shifting, as a kind of limitless variation, nonlinear transformation, inter-connectedness, desire, bodies that are not fixed, not dual. From my reading of Humanimal and other works of hers, I do think Waveform was deeply influenced by her idea of the hybrid poem (by both Amber and I).
DG: Do you see Waveform as a work of documentary and/or disability poetry?
AD: I see it as both, and a third, or fourth or fifth thing. I mean, I’m really in love with the idea of documentary poetics, and it’s something I’m trying to get closer and closer to. I also see it as experimental poetry, and collaborative poetics (there’s a certain amount of Confessional poetry in there, and lyrical poetry and Language poetry). I don’t believe in breaking it all down, but those are useful elements that you could say are in there. We got to know each other so well. Sometimes the way we would talk to each other would be so hilarious (like the kind of elliptical, rambling way that we would talk in person over wine and pizza); so there’s also an epistolary level in there.
I mean, all poetry seems like documentary. To me, it’s kind of a document of a moment, of trying to see outside of yourself. But then there’s also documentary poetry more like Mark Nowak’s work, where he actually uses found text and interviews. I’m really interested in doing that, and a lot of my poetry lately is doing more and more of that, and I am working on a longer documentary poetics work about sex and disability (related to women and sexuality and disability). Of course, a lot of it has to do with me and my own personal research into that area. But documentary poetry is a way of going beyond myself, and I really like integrating things. For example, if I can integrate the efforts I make as a social worker, and advocate to others’ work about disability and sexuality, and use them as part of the poetics, then I feel like I’m integrating poetry with the other work I do in the world. That makes me really happy.
DL: This kind of relates to your question about the goal of documentary poetry, so I’ll try to speak to that at the same time. I see Waveform as part of a conversation in disability and somatic poetries—a voice that has hopefully entered into the fora in some way. If it is a kind of documentary poetry (which, similar to Mark, I see as a dynamic process rather than a static group/parameter), then it is so because Amber and I were interested in casting a net into our lives (the social, political, economic, personal), and rendering an exchange about those concrete realities via acts of the imagination and experimental poetry. There are lists and discursive prosaic parts that speak to what a body, our bodies, contend with, and this shows or documents a social somatic in a way. But we did not have documentary poetry explicitly in mind as we worked. Disability poetics was there as we worked, and I think that, while we were engaged with and responsive to some of the ideas emanating from that field, we were also contending with Patrick’s notion of post-ableism.
The idea of the political and the literary is such a historically complex question. It has been both divisive and unifying in different poetry communities. I don’t see the political and the literary as dichotomous or mutually exclusive or contradictory. I see them as complements or components of and with each other. I ascribe to the idea that the body is a text and, since that body moves through the world, it is always part of the work, and it is always informed by real time and therefore by the polis, the political realm—that the poem is not “just” an artifact, but a dynamic interaction consisting of poetic elements from the author’s mind and material realities of the world around us.
DG: In Waveform, are all of the quotes from the emails between the two of you marked by the greater-than symbol (“<“), or only some of them?
AD: You know how emails will do that. Especially if there’s a long thread, those characters get inserted in email formats. So I just had this idea: I’m sort of obsessed with (and this is something I’ve written about for years in my realtime poems) real time. My blog is called “falling in real time.” I’m obsessed with those markers that kind of indicate the errata of real time, and so I was trying to use those to indicate the erratic, elliptical ways in which the work got formed; also, to bring in the idea of email and the way that some of the poem was made.
DL: There were places where the carat (as a direct indicator that the words that followed were taken from an email) was pointed toward the text, rather than away. I saw these marks as a kind of font anomaly, and as a way to call attention to the email conversation. The inversion of the marks sometimes corresponded to an emphasis on the words that followed, or a de-emphasis on what directs or mis-directs a conversation. To me, it was a way to heighten omission, formation, (de)formation and the uncertain panoply of perception.
DG: In “Poetry as Social Practice in the First Person Plural: A Dialogue on Documentary Poetics,” Mark Nowak explains that, ultimately, the goal of his documentary poetry is political rather than literary. Where do you think Waveform falls in this dichotomy?
AD: I think my politics are really small (“small” meaning nuanced and personal, like me sitting in my office at the disability advocacy agency, where I work in a one-on-one peer counseling session with someone, teaching them how to be a self-advocate). Those are my politics. There are, of course, bigger issues that I believe in. But for myself, personally, I always have to be careful with how I use energy, because I have limited energy due to chronic pain and orthopedic limitations; I tend to think of my poetry as the way I assert beliefs in the world. But I wouldn’t say I’m more interested in the political—I’m more interested in the personal, which to me is a combination of the political and the literary.
DG: According to Patricia Aufderheide’s book, Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction, documentaries tend to have an ideological framework. Do you agree with this premise? If so, would disability studies be the ideological framework of Waveform?
AD: I don’t think so. It was funny—like we did it in spite of what the ideological framework was. And then it didn’t end up getting published in the anthology. Patrick ended up, instead, creating the chapbook, which is lovely and wonderful and more than we’d expected. But even in terms of disability studies, I think Waveform is a lot more personal and about documenting personal experience—but not just for the sake of the personal. I mean, there were many deaths among Denise’s friends and family around the time we were writing this. I was trying to write about the mechanics of being in a kind of body, but I was also trying to really make connection with another body, so that Waveform was about more than just me. It was about a certain kind of embodiment that hopefully will speak to other people, and I guess disability studies. I don’t know how to answer the question, because it’s all so intertwined, but it’s not like we were reading disability studies texts and trying to make it fit in that way.
DL: Though documentaries frequently have an ideological framework, that framework may or may not be its driving aesthetic or “message.” I don’t see an intended ideological statement as a diminishment of artistic contribution, but rather as an expansion of it.
And I guess this goes back to the question about theory. Though disability studies was part of our world, we didn’t consciously frame Waveform through an ideological or academic lens. But, for me, there was a politicized aspect to it as a woman who is a lesbian with a disability, and who is interested in issues of class and race and gender.
DG: Are there any texts that you were particularly influenced by when writing Waveform?
AD: I had never read a collaboration, so I really had no idea what I was doing. I’d seen collaborations between artists and poets. There are texts that influenced me personally as a writer, like Woolf’s and Bhanu’s writing, in terms of being elliptical—but being dense, but being narrative, but stopping just short of that and turning into lyric. Those are sort of my influences.
DL: So many… at the time I was reading books/authors like Prismatic Poetics, Deleuze and Guattari, Harryette Mullen, Susan Howe, Audre Lorde, Barbara Guest, Jennifer Scappettone, Rachel Carson, Eugenio Montale, Noulipo, graphic novels, Feminaissance…
DG: What is the significance of the mix of prose poetry and poetry with line breaks in Waveform?
AD: Denise tended to be writing more in line breaks at the time, and I was writing more in prose. But some of the line breaks end up being mine, because I went back and did a lot of erasures and ended up creating line breaks—and vice versa. Both Denise and I have struggled with our experiences in grad school. We went to very different grad schools, but we were both told that we were not abstract enough, or not enough of a Language poet, or too lyrical, or “you’re too much of a prose poet.” So we already had this baggage about how we didn’t fit into forms. That was something that we bonded over. We just went with that.
DL: To my mind, this was part of Waveform as a conversation, as a delineation and a re-recombinant; that the line is the unit of consciousness in poetry, and the sentence functions the same for prose, and that both together were capacious enough to hold what is there and what is always out of reach when writing. I thought of this quote by Barbara Guest a lot while working on Waveform:
Do you ever notice as you write that no matter what there is on the written page, something appears to be in back of everything that is said, a little ghost? I judged that this ghost is there to remind us there is always more, an elsewhere, a hiddenness, a secondary form of speech, an eye blink…there is something more I do not say. Leave this little echo to haunt the poem. Do not give it form, but let it assume its own ghostlike shape.
Amber DiPietra works as a poet, disability advocate, performance artist, erotic entertainer and body worker. You can visit her blog here, and visit the blog for her somatic writing workshops here. She recently relocated from San Francisco, California to her native St. Petersburg, Florida.
Denise Leto is a poet and editor experimenting in multimedia. She has worked with authors on academic and creative texts, primarily as a Senior Editor at the University of California, Berkeley. She wrote the libretto for the cross-genre production and collaborative performance piece, Your Body is Not a Shark, published by North Beach Press.