Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Pafunda’s book Manhater (Dusie Press, 2012). Recorded May 3, 2012. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with a brief comparison to your preceding book? I never know how to say, Iatrogenic?
Danielle Pafunda: Iatrogenic.
AF: OK. Sections of Manhater seem to invert gender dynamics that played out there. Iatrogenic’s female-identified characters weren’t passive, but manipulated certainly, altered, as the title implies, by exposure to others. Mommy V of Manhater, by contrast, is a stealth stalker with her own harem of “gakking,” sperm-donating drones and victims. Did she emerge full-formed in her gush-sucking badness out of desires and concerns left over from previous projects? Does her predatorial prowess demonstrate you wanting to push Gurlesque tendencies in new directions?
DP: I would say, yes. I think Iatrogenic, and particularly the Mommy V of Manhater, are part of the same larger project for me—exploring various thrusts of feminist thought or theory, various approaches to the fact we live in the culture that produced us. If you’re discontent with the patriarchy but you’re its product, what do you do? So in Iatrogenic I’m sort of playing with Monique Wittig, in particular, her Les Guérillères, and other feminist writers who envision utopias of different sorts. Mine turns dystopic. It goes very badly. And so the question there would be, you quit this world, you build a new one, can you cease to be a product of your culture? How do power dynamics work without male or masculine figures? Iatrogenic explores how I felt those feminist utopian projects don’t ever fully satisfy. In Manhater Mommy V still inhabits our world, and she’s solo. She’s not part of a collective…Hannah Arendt claims where there isn’t power there will be violence (I’m paraphrasing clusmily). Out of that discussion one can ask why doesn’t the women’s movement become violent? Why don’t women turn violent to seize or redistribute power? And it may be because women don’t get seen as a discrete entity or group of any kind. We get projects like Scum Manifesto and they are real anomalies. What happens when that feminine figure coded as monster and mother and reproductive body turns to violence? Manhater explores what happens in this mode. So even though the books present two different agencies, their speakers work out similar problems.
AF: Two quick follow-ups. When you say these books are part of the same project, maybe this is dumb, but can you give a sense what you mean by project? Are they part of an ongoing series? And you describe Mommy V as “solo,” as operating solo, yet she’s a mother at the same time.
DP: [Laughs] Yeah.
AF: She leads a family.
DP: It seemed sort of obvious to me, yeah. Well maybe I’ll answer that one first. She’s not solo. She has a brood. I just was playing with…there’s a couple poems in there I’m really sweet on which felt dedicated to my second kid in some ways. But I really can’t write that down since they seem horrible poems.
AF: Should we clarify for readers your second kid’s the cutest boy within 200 miles?
DP: He’s very cute and so far seems a boy. He seems to identify. He’s my love. And there are moments when poems feel really tender, though I’m not sure that works clearly on the page. Mommy V does love her babies in this strange way. She’s not human. She’s post-human or vampire or something. So her system’s a bit different than ours. And she doesn’t have companions or partners. She has sort of her army, sort of her responsibility, her community, but it’s not—maybe I’m psychologizing my speakers too much. She speaks to no one on an equal level. Also the poems provide experience of disability. They are about experiences of desire when desire fails. It’s often about the isolation of a body in pain, or a body made monstrous by outside forces. That’s how I think about her—pretty solitary. The other question, right, what kind of project. Maybe project’s too solid a term. What drives me to write are various obsessions I have. My constant interest in how vectors of identity inform us, how it’s impossible not to privilege the human, even when you try. What it means to be born into a body marked for a certain type of power or marginalization. I think about these all the time, and struggle with, and try to figure out how to navigate. So no matter what project I work on, I’m always interested—and this probably comes from Plath—what happens when you attract the male gaze, pin it, then horrify or fill it with the abject? That’s one basic thing in a lot of work I do. Investigations of power dynamics and can you break them in the language out of which they’re made?
AF: When you talk about provoking horror, and earlier when you said there’s a relative lack of violence among women, am I right—maybe this is pedantic—but do you mean externalized violence? Or non-domesticated violence? Is that part of what Mommy V represents? Certainly there are violent female characters in literature. Medea comes to mind. But Mommy V seems different. She’s a good mom.
DP: She is a good mom.
AF: The violence gets directed outwards.
DP: Yeah and her violence…I don’t know how personal it is. I don’t know if she’s personally invested in it. When I say there’s a noticeable absence of violence among feminist movements, I mean in a very literal way. There aren’t many bombings or murders or attacks or hostage-takings, for a variety of cultural and political reasons. And I’m not advocating those activities. But I’m saying it’s curious. It’s curious there’s no global coup. That interests me. And I don’t consider this a move away from Gurlesque tendencies. I think one thing the Gurlesque does is say, look, this work isn’t meant to be edifying. It isn’t here to show you an ethically superior way to discuss gender disparity, or moral ways to solve such problems. It’s saying, often, here’s a descriptive project and it might actually cause harm to describe these things. Or it might be violent to make this work, to make these kind of poems, but that’s part of what’s interesting. Of course violence on the page remains incredibly different from violence in real, lived experience. There’s the difference between making a violent poem and committing an act of violence against another body. I think the Gurlesque project—and it gets a lot of flack for this—is not there to be in the right. It’s there to investigate a power dynamic and ways we’re complicit.
AF: Could we return to Mommy V for these reasons? Lorenzo Thomas appropriated the Dracula myth in part to depict the consequences of economic vampirism, and anxieties about miscegenation as these topics play out in tropes of blood or race. Your own Mommy V might, at first glance, seem the hero of a new feminist vampire epic, but she vamps in any number of contradictory ways. The interspecies implications come out clearly. Mommy V seems part black widow giving guys her “sure thing,” a “favorite disease.” She’s part mousey homebody, resting under a cloth for an hour, still keeping her nose up, guarding her brood. She’s part winged supermom whisking home to dish out “straws and spines.” And part Miltonic feminized plague “alive with vermin, venison, pests.” She can even play the histrionic femme fainting from headaches. Is it this shape-shifting that drew you to the vampire myth, or Dracula myth?
DP: I love teaching Dracula, when you get all the students in a room and talk about it, and try to piece together what Dracula is from this wild, contradictory set of characteristics. He becomes a lizard or wolf or man in a straw boater. This shape-shifting draws us into the vampire myth. But something really interesting about vampire mythology is that it’s all about siring. Here we have a body, coded male, that gives birth on its own, right? This male vampire will bite somebody’s neck, feed them blood, and suddenly you’ve got a new vampire. Its body morphs in ways that traditionally female bodies have. It performs tasks coded feminine. If we look at the evolutional of the Byronic vampire, up to the Edward Cullen kind of vampire, these are complicated developments in which he’s simultaneously a grotesque body then a static, granite, beautiful, unaging body. In those mythologies the male body takes on aspects of the female body, appropriating them, while the female gets cut out of the process. I had gotten this grant to do vampire research, and bought all of the Angel series. At one point in Angel a vampire gets knocked up and has a baby and sacrifices herself for the baby to survive. And I was pregnant when watching this, freaky in all sorts of ways. But I became interested in how the sexiness of vampires (particularly the contemporary vampire) cuts out motherhood, which then gets reintroduced by shows like this. Or by Stephanie Meyer creating this really gruesome, out-of-hand book for the Twilight series. Bella’s going to give birth to this monster baby that rips apart her placenta and almost kills her. In very strange ways these mythic, mutable vampire bodies connect with the mother-body, which always had been a site of the monstrous and grotesque. As I worked with Mommy V, I wondered, what if she controls this morphing? What woman will she choose to be? Which body will she wear? We both have some agency over this, as women, and lack a lot of agency in it. When we’re talking about things like, even fashion or makeup, or how much control you have over shape and size of your body, or what happens when another human might grow in there, there are ways in which we exercise agency; there are ways in which we reify a lot of things that harm us. Still sometimes you can use that agency to subvert a bit. And she’s not supposed to be any more consistent than any of us. Sometimes she’ll behave in ways that don’t seem particularly feminist. Other times she’s a badass feminist warrior.
AF: Along those lines, I’m interested in the more general fusion of serialized poem and narrative snags. Does grouping together a sequence of entries, none of which…it’s not as though they’ll speed up the plot, so much as they offer different vantages on Mommy V. Does this prioritize a polyvalent performance of roles and attributes, while stripping away identity-making, character-driven plot or catharsis?
DP: I believe I’d be a crap novelist. I love novels and a juicy story. I love narrative. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week because we’ve got a Marjorie Perloff piece on conceptual poetry versus American hybrid kind of stuff. And Stephen Burt just reviewed all those conceptual anthologies. So I’ll think about what happens when you’re driven by both the conceptual and the lyrical, by narrative and voice and certain abstract, experimental parameters. But I’m not bound by the narrative constraints that often cause a project to go stale for me. I’m not fulfilling the same expectations and arc. Scenes don’t have to be as stable. I don’t have narrative relying on a stable voice, or stable figure. So I get to build the same architecture, a big architecture with a lot going on, but get to write just the parts that interest me. Or parts that contradict each other and might ruin another kind of project—though in this case get to be the substance of my project.
AF: The serial forms you adopt, do they correspond to cinematic or TV representations? Do those forms, movies or TV, fit particularly well for vampiric transformations?
DP: I think so. I do watch a lot of television. I love television. And that form can be really episodic. More than film, TV provides the opportunity to be self-contradictory. A later episode can contradict an early one. Something can shift. And of course since you’ve got multiple writers changing over time, you get that polyvocality there. Here it’s just me making them. But if they contradict something from earlier, that’s OK. Or it’s better that way. That becomes kind of juicy. I also get to be very obsessive about the project, and to think about it from all different angles, and get to be occupied by it for a while, in very literal and figurative ways. I can do it until it’s completely exhausted.
AF: I like this idea of being both episodic and evolving. Do subsequent sections of Manhater deliberately diversify the vampire/interspecies portfolio, as when the poetic subject of “The Desire Spectrum Is Dead To Me Now” gets her wings pinned, butterfly-style, to a car steering column. Are you deliberately echoing the vampire motif? Could you talk about how different sections of the book cohere or deliberately don’t cohere?
DP: I think they deliberately don’t cohere. They are closely enough related and the mode in which the speaker functions is consistent enough, maybe even unrelenting enough, that it does feel all of a piece to me. But there’s shifting. There’s a very physical shift. The speaker of the illness poems and the “Desire Spectrum” poems, I can’t tell. Maybe it’s Mommy V, maybe not quite, maybe from a slightly alternate universe or space/time continuum. But it’s similar enough to allow me to explore the nuances of power derived from abjection. Or dignity can be derived from abjection in one moment, but then in another moment is it more eradicating? Is abjection more shameful in other spaces? Again playing with some of that Plath performativity. Once you’ve got the male gaze fixed, is there some perverse power or perverse satisfaction performing abjection the audience is forced to witness, or doesn’t get to respond to? And then in other pieces is it more shameful or pathetic? Can the speaker recover? Can the speaker continue to speak while getting pinned that way, under a steering column, amid a pretty subjugated situation?
AF: When you refer to the illness poems, I’m guessing that’s the “In This Plate” section. You’d mentioned disabilities studies earlier. I’m curious how disability gets threaded in, especially by the affirmation of—it’s the apparently grotesque body, but that basically just means any body. Just as Mommy V, when feeling good, grows “incautious with her bulk” and decides not to wash, the poetic subject of the “In This Plate” section unwittingly has her “trauma dome come undone.” Her “jolly worms seep out,” as if the real vamping had been committed by the paranoid ego, trying to keep it all wrapped in a mummy cage. Are the plates…first does that idea make sense?
DP: That did make sense.
AF: Are the plates…can you just describe this section? The concept of plate here interests me. Do the plates shift shapes like Mommy V? Do they have multiple existences as kitsch artifacts, imagistic records (like a photographic plate), cloning dishes, cannibalistic feasts? Is that all part of this plate section?
DP: Yes. That’s the easy answer. Yes, that is so. They’re inspired by the daguerreotype, that kind of plate, but in a Blade Runner technology kind of way. This future feels very retro. Plus I like the idea of tableaus that move slightly, or dioramas which feel a bit alive, when I want something more contained for a poem. The plates worked well for me because they brought in that idea of meat as cannibalism—but also image. The images would be on a plate. It could be this kind of silver ceramic plate, depicting a bit of movement, but we’d never get the full scene. And we’ll always be aware that it’s framed. And this was useful because one thing I haven’t quite figured out is as somebody who turns to the grotesque a lot…it’s an aesthetic strategy I really savor, only under the sign of disabilities studies it becomes tricky. I want to use the grotesque, and the feminine grotesque. I want to use them to horrify. Or I want to hurt the reader in certain ways. Or to see what happens when we glorify the abject. Though that doesn’t always serve to humanize people whose bodies have been marked. So we’ve entered tricky terrain. I was having this conversation recently on Montevidayo, where I blog, and somebody asked, well, why do you privilege the human anyway? Why not dehumanize? Why privilege this weird illusion of self? My answer, as someone who works in postmodern modes, is sometimes it seems appropriate to question the human, or dehumanize, or embrace the monstrosity or the multivalent, multi-species situation. And then other times it does seem appropriate to privilege the human. It depends on the investigation and project. In this space where I’m working with both disability and feminist perspectives…I’m not really sure where I am with it. And here is where I like not always trying, or not often trying to edify. Because it’s not my job to be unimpeachably ethical or good. I’m just playing with where the body that isn’t coded “able” comes into contact with the body recognized as “female” or “feminine.”
AF: In either of those cases, if you’re privileging the body, it’s hard to say if that’s privileging the human or not. Again it seems to depend on context.
DP: I guess I’m privileging the feelings, or emotion, or the affect this body carries. If I’m privileging lived experience carried out by a body, I’m probably privileging the human. If I’m privileging the body itself, then we’re talking fungus and protists, bacteria and all the good stuff Donna Haraway reminds us make up the body. My speakers and their bodies often face some form of unproductive friction. Or maybe productive friction. They don’t always get along.
AF: I’d like to talk a bit about “The Desire Spectrum Is Dead to Me Now” section, how new vamping/vampiric possibilities play out. There’s the vampirism of marriage in lines like “my very best friend, / which of these wilted corsages / would you stuff in your mouth // while we wait for the photographer / to unclasp and lead us away / from the pyrotechnic swan?” There’s the vamping of chronic memory, trauma, and/or masturbation amid ruminations on the ex-dogs in your “crank case,” the moments of “hand-built closet,” and trips to a genital shack that houses “cocks I’ve found on men.” Again, what can you tell us about how this section relates to its predecessors? About the post-sex posturing of this “jilt bazaar”?
DP: It’s really helpful the way you’re using the term “vamp.” Because that is what happens: you write a book, it does this very specific, obvious thing, and you yourself don’t come up with a word for it.
AF: Or you do at first but then worry about localized things.
DP: But I think literally saying the word “vamp” aloud, on its own, is helpful. Because that’s the most unifying thread that appears. In the “Desire Spectrum” poems, one question they ask, or maybe one of the questions I was asking when I started writing them, was what do people like about desire? Why write poems about it? What’s interesting or pleasant about it? I think (and maybe this is a little autobiographical because of health issues, because of my anxieties about germs and illness and that sort of thing) I think I respond to images of desire and sex a bit differently than other people. And these thoughts happened around swine-flu time. I got really freaked out because we had a new baby, who couldn’t be immunized, and I just felt I didn’t have a lot of control over our permeability or those pathogens. Then at some point while finding places not to touch doors on campus, and wondering if I could wear latex gloves or would it make me look weird, I saw a couple students in a very public space make out and my first thought was, why take your life in your hands? Why would you put your tongue in another human’s mouth and risk this whole Outbreak monkey epidemic situation? Around this time I realized I’d really reframed my way of receiving and understanding physical affection between humans. At the same time, I’d go to readings and somebody would write about their lover or wanting a lover, and it was striking me so peculiar. And so I thought, what the heck’s going on? And what should I do with desire in my own work? Desire and mortality, usually so closely tied in conventional or traditional poetry—I do have roots in that kind of lyric. Maybe I’ve lost track.
AF: It was how do vamping metaphors play out in many different ways in that section, in terms of marriage, trauma, memory, something like masturbation.
DP: It’s funny because I was going to say, “that’s the rub,” right? There are these structures predefined for us that we’re cultured by and move into, and we make our most intimate decisions based on something not very personal at all. In the sense that everything I write is, to some degree, autobiographical because I’m always informed by lived experience, I pull from experiences in mostly hetero relationships, or being a person who got married (I don’t wear my ring, but did get married in a proper legal way to a person who identifies as a man).
AF: I’ve seen pictures.
DP: So you’ve got this tension between economic arrangements you’ve made and what you experience as love. Or the tension between desire, what you’re told to desire, how your desire gets shaped to some degree by normative rules anyhow.
AF: Yes it’s interesting when you ask why do people write about desire. And in terms of quasi-pornographic elements of Gurlesque writing, too, one other question is why write anything at all? Or read anything at all? That’s where pornography makes sense as an emblematic means of communication, or seems the essential means of communication, suggesting speech is always just desire.
DP: I get that. And to come at it from the culturing and education I come at it from, yeah, it’s about desire but often a particular type of desire. When we look at porn as a medium, it’s there to construct a particular type of hetero, masculine desire in a lot of cases. And of course it’s not a perfect system so it creates all kinds of unintended things, but what it often isn’t there to produce or create or cater to is either queer or hetero feminine desires. So I think one thing the Gurlesque does is say, what happens when we are in this matrix (whatever our sexualities are, we’re in the matrix of hetero desire), what does it mean to be both a tool and a figure in that space? And is there a way to move that discussion or decentralize the traditional desirer? Are there ways to create space for exploring different types of desire, in which the feminine is the agent of desire and other things get objectified—or not objectified? Can desire occur between subjects? All these great questions we ask all the time. Also, what does it mean when you start to get pleasure out of this system set up to oppress you? What does it mean to get your damage and your pleasure from the same place?
AF: Well, sometimes motherhood seems vampiric in this book, as Mommy V muses on a “new treasure brewing in her gutter.” And definitely childhood becomes vampiric, as Mommy V surveys the morning vomit while reflecting that her current little one will soon “have to fend, / have to fell his own hotlings.” In either case, based on a lot you’ve said, this is a family affair. So is the real gross-out narrative simply that of bodies passing into other bodies? This goes back to siring to some extent.
DP: There are a lot of people writing really interesting pregnancy, childbirth, child-getting, and motherhood poems. And these are all different things. Pregnancy and motherhood are not the same, but get mixed up together. The fact that a human grows inside another human, that two bodies are made from the same body, that fetal cells detach from the fetus and lodge themselves in all these different places if you’re a pregnant female body, then last for decades, and attach to other babies you have. There are all those very sci-fi facts that remain for now, very literally, sci. Watch the scientists try to make a narrative of that. They say, well, these cells give you cancer, yet also protect you from cancer. They make you love your baby more. They make rats smarter. But even in their well-trained, we-know-what-our-gender-roles are kind of way, scientists can’t come up with a coherent narrative. And that experience of having a human come out of your body, rely on your body, be partially made of your body can be an amazing high. It can be really beautiful and wonderful. In literal ways it produces all sorts of high-making chemicals. At the same time it can be horrifying. It can feel out of control, in part because we don’t have a lot of discourse that tends to it in really direct ways. We have all these euphemisms that don’t cover it. These ways of writing about it that romanticize it or make it twee or whatever, when really you get weird impulses. When my older kid started losing her baby teeth, I had this weird desire to eat the baby teeth as those fell out. Which I didn’t do because I thought that might poke a hole in my stomach. Though I definitely wanted to eat. And didn’t feel…I don’t want to take her back into my body. She’s a separate person and has her own ecosystem going. But the teeth felt like mine. I made those. So I just put them in a box and try not to eat them. And particularly for nursing, a baby literally cannibalizes your body for its body. And your body will give up everything to make milk for it. So vampirism becomes pretty literal. They’ll bite. You might bleed. They grow teeth. There are these old, maybe medieval myths about colostrum being devil’s milk. That whole narrative of feeding and exchange. When female vampires occasionally do—I think they still call it siring—occasionally do make another vampire, they’ll always feed them off the bosom. Dracula feeds Lucy from his bosom. It’s a screwed up nursing scene.
Danielle Pafunda’s books include Manhater (Dusie Press Books), Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies (Noemi Press), My Zorba (Bloof Books), and the forthcoming Natural History Rape Museum (Bloof Books 2013). She’s an editor at the online journal Coconut (relaunching soon!), and teaches at the University of Wyoming.