This conversation focuses on Marthe Reed’s book, (em)bodied bliss, and Megan Burns’s book, Sound and Basin.
Megan Burns: As a starting point, I think of several things while sitting down with (em)bodied bliss this morning outside the coffee shop on what’s shaping up to be a hot New Orleans day: one, how we seem to have been at war or going to war all my children’s lives and, two, how over the weekend a one-year-old and an eleven-year-old died in shootings on the streets of New Orleans. I think a lot about how violence infects us, how its presence shapes our everyday even when we believe we escape it; and I wonder about our complicity and what it means. I think about how violence kills imagination.
The first poem in your book is titled “this doesn’t exist” and I think maybe we can start there. What is invisible? What do we know and not know or believe to know? And how does this reflect in our everyday lives and how is this part of our politics as a nation, as a society? “Resistance amid the rough chatter of definition.” How does the clear boundary of the poem shape our ability to define terror: “our tongues are tied”? And how do we reconcile two worlds, one where there is torture and unspeakable acts and one where we wake in the morning amid the blues and yellows of the day? “language translates into silence/babel (gate of god)/enters by means of/a language of flowers.” I see these motions in these poems. Can you talk a bit about how you got there? And how you feel these opening poems in the book begin to create a landscape for talking about these ideas?
Marthe Reed: When Julia Kristeva writes, “what is abject…the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses,” she describes the conditions for which such violence is not merely likely but inescapable. In the abjection of abandonment and erasure, the functional results of poverty and racism, life has no meaning. The deaths you describe are the ad absurdum consequence of a hyper-capitalist ethos where product and profit are sources of value. Ignoring suffering while actively ensuring the means of violence, our culture has implicitly asserted that individual lives are meaningless, tokens in the massive production, sales, and consumption of weapons ensuring the wealth of their manufacturers and the semblance of liberty (read: power) for those wielding guns. The deaths in New Orleans—or Chicago or Philadelphia or Detroit—are as culturally meaningless (valueless) as the bodies of the tortured in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, the victims of “targeted” drone assassinations, or the lives of U.S. service men and women once released from their military service. Invisible and abject.
The composition of (em)bodied bliss became for me a means of grappling with my own ignorance and unacknowledged complicity in such systems, in particular the Bush administration’s use of torture, black sites, and extraordinary rendition to address terrorism targeting the U.S. after 9/11, and the sustained detention of said captives, even now five years into Obama’s administration. Still people are kept out-of-country, out of sight, buried alive, force-fed when they protest their conditions: in effect, tortured. Torture coupled with indefinite detention has resulted in profound despair—suicides and attempted suicides by prisoners who, outside of the protections of both law and compassion, have been rendered invisible, their lives meaningless.
When the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz cabal were having their way, where was I? What was I doing? Angry about the endless wars, the perverse “prosecution” of revenge against Saddam Hussein as a means of procuring and securing access to Iraq’s oil reserves and fattening the corporate interests of American companies such as Halliburton, and blind-sided by the revelations of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere by proxy. I had stubbornly held to some notion of honor, of “founding principles” (written by wealthy, white, slave-procuring and -owning men—what can “principles” possibly mean in such a case? Good intentions? It hardly seems possible).
In those years, like most people, I was caught up in my own life: an international move from Australia to the Deep South, a new job teaching nine courses a year, mostly composition, writing a dissertation, a child dropping out of school at 13, another child nearly as miserable at all the transitions. I largely tuned the wider world out, listened inward to family dynamics, personal ambitions, the day-to-day getting through. What we all do, how we fail to attend, to listen. To question.
I also delighted in the new environs I found myself in. I traveled, wrote, read poetry. Gave myself over to wonder when I could. In the aftermath of revelation, I could not reconcile such delight, such self-seeking pleasure with the unfathomable traumas of torture, the explicit policy of my country: its lawyers writing briefs justifying rendition, waterboarding, humiliation, starvation, “stress positions,” isolation, loud noise 24 hours a day for days on end—systematic violence applied in the name of “security.” Then the official reactions to revelation, reasons, justifications, assertions, innuendo. The slow pulling back of the curtain. Politicians, policy wonks, media coverage: amplifying the noise to signal ratio. The canceling power of white-noise.
Like nearly everyone, I was horrified. And complicit. I had not paid attention, I had not questioned. I had tied my tongue. My ignorance was, of course, thoroughly intended by the white-noise generators, a means of facilitating violence. But I did not suspect either. As I grappled with these revelations and my feelings, I turned to language to untie the knot of violence and complicity, of silence. Peeling away the layers of deception and lies to address the way language itself was a tool in such violence.
In the poems, I juxtapose two parallel realities, known and unknown, delight and horror, mundane and monstrous, in reconstructing the unfathomable perversion, via “national security” and “national interest,” of what we call with pride our “founding principles.” Justice, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Because if “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” then these rights must fundamentally belong to ALL people, not just those who have not yet had the eye of the powerful turned upon them in malevolence. (Now my government is spying on anyone, everyone, me. Listening in. What do we value?)
“the rough chatter of definition” is the work of reconstructing a past that has been carefully hidden, secured, justified. An archeological excavation of language, of words whose meanings have been reconfigured to perverse inanities. Torture became “exceptional techniques” and extraordinary means: “harsh interrogation practices” is infinitely more palatable than “inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.” As these techniques were applied to “terror suspects”—absolutely other, radically excluded—how expedient that they remain nameless and faceless, in no way akin to me or mine.
I read the memos of Jay Bybee and John Yoo, the investigative reports of prisoner abuse by the New York Times and Amnesty International, official reports on deaths while in custody, the history of the tortures employed, reports on the physical and psychological consequences of torture. I directly integrated the language I found in these “texts” into the poems, refusing to look away. I juxtaposed Bybee’s language with that of the tortured. I stitched this language and these poems into a patchwork “quilt,” alternating the new poems with poems I had written during the period in which torture was being actively pursued by our government, while I blithely “kept faith.” Poems of place(s), notions of the sacred, a “book of my days” plays out against the language of a new Inquisition: blood gushed out of his nose and mouth as if from a faucet. The poems for me became a way to hold both realities at once, to return their contemporaneity to them. What I knew, or thought I knew. What I did not begin to suspect.
MB: I get that sense exactly from the poems. Elaine Scarry in “The Body in Pain” opens up her chapter on torture by saying: “Nowhere is the sadistic potential of a language built on agency so visible as in torture.” She then goes on to talk about the “illusion” of torture’s purpose, to extract knowledge again via language. And how, “intense pain is world-destroying” and how all “made possible by language ceases to exist.” I wonder how poetry can carry these ideas. How did you decide what to give your reader as far as knowledge/ images in the poems when describing these events? And what are your thoughts on how language can be used in these two settings: “poetry” and “torture”? Is there a way that poetry does more than just bear witness?
MR: The compassion of human-to-human connection, afforded by language, is obliterated by torture, by the infliction of extreme suffering. Without compassion, without empathy we become isolated from one another, lose integrity and coherence, are reduced to an idea: “terrorist” and “torturer,” “suspect” and “infidel.” A gut reaction whose expression is language but the content of which is reductive, world-obliterating, violently utilitarian. One kind of “thing” does “something” to another kind of “thing” because that first “thing” “deserves” it. What language, what art must do in the face of such erasure is to return compassion to language. Torture can only be carried out in secrecy, or via propagandist manipulation: “bad guys” are causing “us” to suffer; “they” should suffer because “we” have. But there can be no meaningful distinction between “we” and “they”: stuck in the torture chamber together, only chance settling which role one occupies. Torture seals us in isolation, destroying the possibility of (self-)recognition.
When the President’s lawyers write, “The President enjoys complete discretion…,” the perversion of syntax separates us, isolates each of us into discrete cells of our own. “Anyone” could be a “threat.” What does it mean to say the President “enjoys” “complete discretion,” an inadvertent and insidious suggestion of the pleasure implicit in torture and absolute power (any action then taken is, by nature, justified). By inserting this language into the poem, the implicit is made explicit. “appropriate and consistent with military necessity”? Necessity asserts a totalizing authority: as organisms need energy for life, the military needs…what? Information? Does it matter how that information is obtained and that the means of acquisition contaminate the information? Torture does not work because it destroys the possibility of trust: if pain is inevitable, then the only recourse is to refuse and die or say what is expected. Employing a fatally flawed practice reconfigures its purpose: “military necessity” is then understood to be a euphemism for “hurting those who hurt us.” Juxtaposing the bland, authoritative language of policy against the testimony of the tortured and/or the pleasure of being—which torture strips away—challenges the simple binary of “us” versus “them,” “good guys” versus “bad guys,” makes immediate the suffering of others: while I was enjoying a coffee on a terrace overlooking Lago Maggiore, “A thick plastic collar [was] placed around my neck so that it could then be held at two ends by a guard who would use it to slam me repeatedly against a wall.” I/me, my coffee/my neck.
MB: Thinking about this connection with language, I would like to turn to the poets who appear throughout the book, their words and their connections to your writing. Looking at “Three: auto(auto)biography” which is “for Lyn Heijinian and Leslie Scalapino,” I was reminded of your work with Proust. Could you talk about their influence in your writing, especially in regards to self and memory? Following that poem are three poems entitled “Lilith,” which all have quotes from Mina Loy, one of my favorite poets; do you recall the first time you read her? And then Keith Waldrop provides a quote for the poem following these titled “Lost Things” and he also provides a quote to the final poem in the book, (em)bodied bliss. There are more quotes and poets appearing throughout, but could you talk about the use of others’ language in your own shaping of these pieces?
MR: I do turn to other poets as points of entry into writing, particularly when a piece of writing is frustrating or resisting me, or when my reading of others’ work calls out to the writing I am working on. Sight, among other things, is about relationship and it was a particular problem of relationship to place with which I was grappling, my dis-location from place: remembering Australia, where I had lived for seven years, from the distance of both my otherness with respect to it and from the vantage of a new place (south Louisiana). Similarly, Proust’s memoir and my reworking of it, like this particular poem from (em)bodied bliss, actively constructs, refashions, memory and self. Performs a distillation and a permutation. Displacement and dislocation, whether in time or place or within one’s shifting sense of identity, seems a constant in my life, and writing functions as a primary means of inhabiting and working through it. The longest time I have spent in a place as an adult has been in Lafayette, eleven years. Always on the move and often outsider to the local culture, I have had to engage in an active practice of building relationship to place—nesting in by means of learning about the geology, landscape, history, politics, and culture of these places. Wanting to understand how it is this place has come to be what it is, and then writing my way into/through/across those histories as a means of forging a relationship that is not merely a job and a house in the suburbs.
Loy is also an important poet for me, her virtuosic play with language and unrelenting resistance to tyranny. A foremother, much as Keith is something of a forefather: he was my MFA advisor at Brown. He enters the work because at the time of the composition of the torture poems, I was simultaneously immersed in reading his work and finding resonances between it and my project, another form of suffering and loss. The use of citations in the book is an artifact of my reading and an intentional effort to bring a wider frame of reference into the writing, so that it becomes not only my response but, in effect, a kind of choral/communal articulation of resistance. Perhaps it is for me a practice akin to a gathering of the ancestors at the onset of a rite.
I have been reading Sound and Basin and find a correspondence not only in your language of place—”a tableau in golds: yellowed newspaper clippings, the sunflowers of St. Bernard, dear Eros of no land, in the antecedent of the day, agony of remembered winds”—but as well in the need to make the unseen seen, to bring into the light the abandoned/hidden/ignored, in your case the devolution of New Orleans, beloved city, orphan of innumerable catastrophes. Composed in four sections, Sound and Basin begins with an excavation of the aftermath of Katrina, the need to “unhook your tongue” and speak when all around you, “Everyone is tying on their shrouds”—dancing at the end times—while the city “burns.” Finding a way to write against weariness, collapse, the seemingly unending catalog of griefs, to resist silence or inchoate anger. Another hurricane, another oil “spill,” another epidemic of gun violence, another war, another turning away.
a city talks and talks to no one
a list of complaints]
stationed at equal intervals
a bit/ bite/ bitter tongue
Could you start by addressing living and writing in New Orleans, how the city comes into the writing, how the writing takes form from the city? How writing the political/communal is carried into the poetry and how the language holds against the weight of history and loss?
MB: I’ve been avoiding answering this. It’s always a double edged sword when I start talking about New Orleans. I love this city so intensely and feel my very self is defined by my relation to it. And in the same breadth, I have so many issues with the neglect of its people and the ongoing gun violence and racial/class separations that go hand in hand with that violence. I can’t talk about writing about New Orleans without talking about Katrina, and that’s another subject that still overwhelms me. I think I’ll say this about the city: the people who went through Katrina had the unique experience of wholly losing not only their homes and possessions and in terrible instances, family members and friends, but they also suffered this complete loss of place. They lost their past and their memories that are rooted in landmarks and buildings. They experienced, for a time, an almost complete loss of an entire region and way of life that was in many cases all they ever knew.
I think that marks us, that knowledge that everything you hold as a part of your days and waking hours could be wiped clean. And for me, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was like reliving Katrina but no longer confined to a city, but now contaminating the waters that we depend on to survive. I felt like it was possible that all could be wiped clean. My third child was born in early 2010, and I remember breastfeeding her and watching the oil gush into our oceans. I wrote to the poet Akilah Oliver telling her that when I read my four year old a book about pelicans, he responded, “covered in oil,” and I felt helpless in the face of that reality. I felt like language was not enough.
Akilah said: “I don’t know about how we will tell of the fracturing to ourselves, to our children, but I do think there must be another narrative in the cracks that is worth telling. I know that sounds so theoretical, and I am trying out in my own life, relationships, both micro and macro, how to make those gaps whole places that can hold both the lamentation of these times (of my heart) and the possibility of becoming (as the philosophers like to say). BP has so much slipped out of the news here in the States (still central news in Europe, or parts of it, curiously enough). I hate politics, the politics of silence and fear, but for me, so much of my own despair (when it rears its ugly head), is around what seems to be a split between the political and the heart. & what about Obama? I’m so disappointed in this administration—they are cowards, business as usual. I think we are our hope, the artists and writers, the brave ones and fools, the mothers and awake ones.
“Hold your children tight, and for now, yes, I think we have to keep trying to describe this, the New Orleans, the BP’s, the holes in the world.”
So, I am doing what she told me to do. I am writing about the holes in the world. For me, that starts here in the city, here in the landscape that we are threatening with extinction and here in the home where we hold our children. They are all intertwined for me. I don’t know if the language holds, but we hold against the silence of not saying it, of not simply allowing things to pass without our knowledge. I’m particularly interested in specifics, in naming because I believe we cannot be blind to what we know in particulars, to what we recognize in detail. So, it is not a body of water or a bird or a way of life, it is a very specific name and detail applied to each instance. We must be aware and make note of it before we lose it forever.
MR: In the poem “Hewn,” the first in the section “Bone,” you write: “a city complacent in its loom,” “this is the starving cradle,” “there is no natural fall/its been rehearsed/stalled and gaining momentum” and later, in the final poem of the section:
flesh to bone to morning wake
bury this tender plot
bone on bone circle a rite:
little calcified artifact: (writ hope)
This section reads as a dark elegy for a lost city, a “reading of the bones” of the already dead. Is this New Orleans now for you? Or the inevitable end of a city that enters the national consciousness only in the midst of ecstasy (Mardi Gras) or catastrophe? Could you talk about the figure of the bone that structures this section of the book?
MB: Shortly after returning to New Orleans after Katrina, I became interested in the infrastructure and the metaphorical anatomy of the city. It’s an interesting situation to be able to quite literally see the breakdown of a city and its struggle to pull back together; I became obsessed with ideas of what makes a city as far as the collective memory of its people combined with the realistic needs of being able to support the modern conveniences afforded cities such as roads, police protection, hospitals, sewage & garbage as well as mail systems. All of these conveniences that we take for granted are part of what makes a city and yet, and maybe especially, in a city like New Orleans, there is an idea of what the city is: its music, its food, its celebrations, its culture and history that live in the locals. I began to correspond poetry to this idea of words providing a type of infrastructure to language, so they, in a sense, are the anatomy. And a fleshing out of these bones occurs in the ordering of the poem and a collective sense and consciousness emerges in the communion of language. “Hewn” is a type of elegy that recognizes in this millennium an emergence of disasters that results from long periods of neglect and destruction wrought on this planet. I end the section “Bone” with the poem “Scapula” that does recognize the circular nature of life and death, destruction and renewal, and within the bone, finds the “calcified artifact: (writ hope).” Bones are like our world; we forget to care for them until disease or damage occurs then we realize the whole system depends on this internal structure. Anatomy is intriguing to me because within endless variety there is this somewhat consistent structure that binds us, and I think language provides this same infrastructure, so that meaning emerges from endless variety but the internal system of sound and syllabics remains contained. I’ve heard these limits of language called “failures” but we wouldn’t call the human skeleton system a failure because it can’t fly; we simply recognize what it is intended to do. In the same way, language does not fail, it does what it is intended to do. It remains up to us to close the gap between the structure and our desires.
MR: In the third section of Sound and Basin, a distinct formal pattern manifests, a pattern of frequent gaps in the lines, most prominently in the five “Anniversary” poems. Interruptions, pauses. A struggling for breath or words? The difficulty of speaking about what happened. These are poems written in the aftermath of the BP blowout in the Gulf. “Anniversary 1:3” takes me back to your earlier mention of the birth of your third child at this time and reading to your four year old son.
source to species: song
a little soul worth new day
for baby eyes discovery world slips
open a chink luminous
to be a people of water not a choice a stain
boot heels of modern sinner weightless
These lines are not only punctuated with gaps, they are also double-spaced, heightening the openness of the page, creating a ragged texture on the page much like the coastal wetlands where they are criss-crossed with oil-field channels and [how] the encroaching salt destroys the roots of the anchoring grasses. Could you talk about the ways you have opened up the line and the page in these poems and their relation to this section of the book?
MB: I like how you compare the space of the poem to the coastal wetlands; it reminds me of your work with images and words in regards to the geography here as well. I don’t think I was mimicking the landscape as much as allowing for more pause in the line and a contemplative breath in between the words. The “Anniversary” poems, of which there are several, were all written on the one year anniversary of the spill, and in a way they too are an elegy to the lives lost and the destruction that occurred. I think that sometimes the sentence holds too much together, and in the face of some things, it is only words or even syllables that emerge to really capture the trauma. I’m thinking of mourning and the rituals of sound regarding loss, sounds that begin to take on a physical presence in our world if we consider the “Wailing Wall.” And so, too, the poem is a physical presence that attempts to capture the stunned realization of what has happened. And narrative and cohesiveness become less important while rhythm and syllabics shore up our sense of what is happening in the space of the poem. I actually always find it hard to read these poems out loud because the spacing is unnatural and requires too much pause, and so the actual voicing of these poems becomes a space of discomfort not only in subject but in how the poem is asked to be read; it forces the speaker or reader out of a normal rhythm of reading.
MR: We both grapple with psychic and social dislocations that result in paralyzing alienation of the felt/embodied/desired and the enacted/imposed/affected: Kristeva’s “radically excluded” “jettisoned object,” whether a city and its people, or the prisoners of Guantanamo, or the material ground of our being, the environmental imperatives that make life possible. Seeking through poetry and poetic language, asserting again and again, the inescapable obligation of compassion. “out of the normal rhythm” of reading—and thinking. Language (poetry) can afford modes of re-encounter and reconciliation, if we, writers and readers alike, let it.
Marthe Reed is the author of four books: Pleth, a collaboration with j hastain (Unlikely Books, 2013), (em)bodied bliss (Moria Books 2013), Gaze (Black Radish Books 2010) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer (Lavender Ink 2007). A fifth book of poems will be published by Lavender Ink (2014). She has also published four chapbooks as part of the Dusie Kollektiv; a fifth is published by above / ground press. An essay on Claudia Rankine’s The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue appears in American Letters and Commentary. She is Co-Publisher of Black Radish Books.
Megan Burns is the publisher at Trembling Pillow Press and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter. She has been most recently published in Jacket Magazine, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, Trickhouse, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. Her poetry and prose reviews have been published in Tarpaulin Sky, Gently Read Lit, Big Bridge, and Rain Taxi. She has two books Memorial + Sight Lines (2008) and Sound and Basin (2013) published by Lavender Ink. She has two recent chapbooks: irrational knowledge (Fell Swoop press, 2012) and a city/ bottle boned (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Her chapbook Dollbaby was just released from Horseless Press.