This interview focuses on Wilky’s new book, Clarity Speaks of a Crystal Sea.
Anna Elena Eyre: Clarity Speaks of a Crystal Sea is an immersive book. There is no title page, copyright page or other material most often encountered at the beginning of a book. Instead, the reader is dropped into text on the cover, which leads to overlapping text on the inside cover facing a page of text printed on top of photographed pieces of text. This rests on strips of paper, which resist the two-dimensionality of paper, as the strips are folded to reach away from the surface and display shadow.
Several pages in, the reader encounters a photographed page of two strips of text. These strips reveal bits of text that have been cut off or are folded, and as such cannot be fully read. What one can read (“His din ers”; “The ear is one of these bodies. Every hum being”) speaks further to this tension between the edges of dimension when immersed. In these lines, I read every human being as a hum being—as a being who hears (is vibrational), but the din often errs (as a word’s semantic meaning is never static). Words and humans cannot be stripped of vibration (as even sign-language/brail conjure energy) and yet, when we read two-dimensional pages, we might be prone to forget this. Can you speak/write more to how you envision these tensions informing your work?
Afton Wilky: Thank you, Anna, for this wonderful reading and also for doing this interview. This is a really rich question with several avenues of reply. To dive right in, I see language as a space of excess. In other words, there is more significance there than can be processed by a human mind at once. Thus, there’s always a choosing involved, a choosing of focus. The privileged focus is typically semantic and grammatical content, but the focus doesn’t need to remain fixed. This text directs its focus upon some of the other layers of significance: sound, material, space, etc. Material can be read—the degree of nearness and farness can be a sign of relatedness replacing grammatical conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” This ties back into your observation about the dimensionality of the page. When reading takes all these layers of significance into account, then it recognizes the three-dimensionality of language. Three-dimensional language does not just have to say, it can also do and evidence.
I’d like to find a way to connect this idea of three-dimensionality, this casting of shadow and mark as a trace of what has been done at some point in the past. Both language- and book-structures are time-based media/spaces. It seems important to distinguish between being able to cast a shadow by virtue of being present, and the kind of shadow or mark that evidences. Clarity Speaks deals with both types of “shadow.” That these strips of paper (“His din ers”; “The ear is one of these bodies. Every hum being”) have been cut from two printed sheets of text, that they have since been folded or bent, and that they are being documented here photographically allows that evidence to remain present—available to a reader. The particular, material past of these strips effects the sonic and semantic content as well. It produces what is visible and heard.
There’s a dissonance here in that these are now the words but were not the words (particularly “din ers” from “dinners,” or “hum” from “human”). I think this may be a part of what you were referring to when you said “vibration.” All this is right there, yet it slips from grasp. This is more evident in other pieces. Dissonance and auditory shadow are cast when the words are not exact words. They sound like them, but are not fully those words.
So for me, it’s that sound, that sense of shadow, excess, doubt, loss and past that’s being explored in Clarity Speaks. “Clarity” is an illusion, the product of erasure or overlooking. “Clarity” is still out looking for itself.
AEE: A few pages in, a narrative begins to stir in the emergence of “Haada”; “one / H / three / a /s and a / d / five characters read as one” “body.” (I have used quotation marks and semi-colons to indicate line breaks, since slashes are a part of the text.) Here the reader is asked to inquire into the makeup of “Haada” a bit more, and to register that a single word is made of several characters. A body is perhaps a din of hum—a morpheme of phonemes. I associate this with crystals and note that the “crystal sea” of the title plays against our notions of a refractive vast body of water and refractive sight. Are words crystal-like for you?
AW: I love this connection between the transparency of crystals, their refractive faces and words: that it becomes a matter of bending light; that it refracts depending on which way the crystal is turned; that, like language, light can become opaque. Once you start cutting into pages of text and finding entirely different texts within the material, the refractive quality of words does start to dissipate. Instead of words, phrases or sentences seeming fixed, they become material which is mutable. A page of text isn’t there only to be “understood,” but instead can be altered, manipulated, explored.
To me, that a character (roughly corresponding to a person) is the product of a series of characters (letters) that form names and pronouns upon the page was one of the ways I could shift back and forth between two narratives I saw at work. One had to do with figures (Haada, he, an author and me) while the other was a material narrative (one which emerged from what was being done to the text—the folding, cutting, erasure, piling). So much pointing takes place in language and text. Naming someone points. Pronouns hold open a space through which a particular person may be pointed to. Words themselves point.
AEE: Although a narrative begins to come forth in the appearance of “Haada,” the narrative that occurs in your text is one that I find to be nonlinear and of repetition with a difference. For example, a book is often read from front to back and its pages are often read left to right. One encounters Clarity Speaks of a Crystal Sea and reads it in this way, and yet the text pushes against this reading. For example, some text is placed vertically and asks the reader to turn the book or else her head; text is centered in the gutter and can be read vertically or across the page; and text appears as erasure. Phrases and words are repeated throughout your book, yet when they are repeated, the context has shifted and their meanings take on refracted (if you will) meaning(s). This narrative of, as you say, “extension and accrual,” reminds me of musicians who compose pieces that push against our normative notions of beginning, middle, end, climax, resolution, etc. (I’m thinking here of musicians like My Bloody Valentine and Eno and DJ’s continuous sets). I’m struck that the physical body of a book might be a sort of time frame, as with the start and end of a musical piece (which somehow one cannot escape). However, within that time frame, much can be done to heighten our sense of time as circular, as constantly now—somehow different and the same. This leads me to the following questions: what is your relationship to music, and does music inform the composition of your book? Do you look to any musicians, artists, authors as creating or inspiring narratives of “accrual and extension”? What are some of your thoughts on narratives that “accrue and extend”? What attracts you to these narratives?
AW: I may do a pretty bad job answering this question. While I’ve got musical training, I don’t actually listen to much music. I can see what you’re saying, however, about repetition with variation. If I was going to put together a theme for the book it might sound a little bit like this.
To me, the making of this project has been a negotiation between creation and loss, and, by the end, I had realized that those two things are actually terribly close to one another. The approach and slip, the coming and going, is a part of the searching the text and I went through together. Because of this, there’s overlap and recurrence as threads appear and disappear. I think at one point I was thinking of the he/Haada as a perforation. But to return to the question, the stacking and accrual has a lot to do with committing myself to a project for an extended period of time. Materials begin to pile and transform.
AEE: What was your process for this project? You stated that this project took an extended period of time. How does this book project differ from others you’ve created in the past? I wonder if you could speak to the placement of text in stemmed glasses. I am curious as to the impulse behind this experiment.
AW: One of the big questions for me in the project has been: “What would happen if I did this?” The project began out of a series of erasures in which text was cut out of source text (e.g. figure 2). As you can see in one of the photos above (figure 3), Haada, in a very literal way, is the product of cutting and erasure. Erasure as a concept gradually developed and I began to look for alternative modes of it—particularly those that left a trace of what disappearance, alteration and/or detachment had occurred.
Folding was one of those alternatives. It was both a means of editing and part of book-making/book-structures. I think the multi-directionality of text you mentioned in another question (that we read both up and down and across the footer) emerges from this. As does text running across and/or out of the gutter, or margins disappearing and text/image often wrapping around the outside edge of the page.
Once I began looking for it, I saw types of erasure everywhere. My manipulation of text ran parallel to some of the modes of social and human erasure—displacement, loss, forgetting. What’s the difference between Haada and Ha_ada, or _he from she?
To segue back to your question about the text in the stemmed glasses, if I didn’t know the answer to a question, I’d find out. Usually this finding out was through making. At one point, I realized I didn’t know the details of what would happen if I allowed paper to soak in water for a long period of time: would the “ink” bleed? Would some paper deteriorate more rapidly than others? So much of the text deals with water, and more specifically salt water, that I knew I needed to find out. Those glasses were the sites of many experiments and remained on my desk for months. (They’re actually still on my shelf.)
Glass, which allowed and limited my access to the text, is also one ideal of language. A masterful use of language should be transparent—a crystal goblet—so that you forget it’s there. I hope it’s needless to say that my purpose in Clarity Speaks was not to make language disappear, nor to forget the roll of language in our experience.
AEE: I am struck by another character who surfaces for me in the text, and that is myself, but myself as the “one who is not there.” Throughout your book, my awareness of how I create meaning through language is sharpened and reflected back to me. I largely create the meaning of a book because of my relationship to words, and yet there is a writer and the text would not exist without the writer. Clarity Speaks of a Crystal Sea engages an eye that reads two-dimensional words that are, to cite a phrase in the book, “refracting the whiteness of blank pages.” These two-dimensional words are creating multidimensionality within my “I” through my eye, and yet what allows this is the empty space. Your book makes me wonder if what is connecting me to the text and writer is the space-excess-erasure. Does this make sense to you at all? Have I gone too far out there?
AW: I love this reading of “the one who is not here,” and I think we could actually turn that in quite a few directions: one of which would be towards the author; another towards the he/Haada. A struggle and inquiry of Clarity Speaks is that uncertainty about who actually is the author. In many ways, I knew that I, Afton Wilky, was not the “master” of this text (in control of this text). The searching, the he, the I, my dreaming self, the source text and other materials all had a part in the making. But now that the book is out in the world, this presents a new series of relations surrounding the authorship of the text involving readers. In Clarity Speaks, it was not my goal to present answers or even a correct way of seeing/doing things. While I don’t think I formulated this during the writing process, I see the text now as presenting a record of a struggle and a search. Because of this, a reader is presented with material to which there really isn’t an “answer.” What I hope for is that a reader will spend time with the text. There’s a lot there, and for me (one who can come back now as a reader), it continues to unfold. If clarity speaks of a crystal sea, it’s perhaps for want of one.
Afton Wilky is a multi-disciplinary artist—working in writing, sound, digital media and book arts. She is the author of Clarity Speaks of a Crystal Sea.