Tom Trudgeon: I want to start by asking you about the title for your book. Rather than the compound word “Wetland”, which carries with it a kind of mythology and slew of cultural signifiers that often relay notions of “pure” nature, treacherous terrain, land that is manipulated and destroyed, depleted, etc, you chose to call the book “Wet Land.” This for me was significant in that the title you chose seems to literalize that space. It becomes “land that is wet,” which divests or diverts a more conventional way of thinking of those areas of land. So I was wondering what play you had in mind for the book between literalizing things, and having things be symbolic of a mythological epistemology. Where does Myth become something literal?
Lucas de Lima: The title comes from a line in the first poem: “A POEM WE WRITE LIKE A WET LAND.” You’re right, I must’ve kept it for its literal, singular, and dislocated ring. Wet Land is an incarnation in which the wetness signals a conflation of blood and water, our violence against the earth as violence against ourselves. I think mythology has access to a primordial, cosmological language. As symbolic as myth may be, the fact that it’s foundational to a people and culture puts linguistic abstraction into relief. Myth enacts narrative integration in our lives, forbidding the separation of stories and images from whatever else we would cordon off as “reality.” And the book’s subject matter—the death of someone I love by alligator attack—was already unfathomable and beyond everyday language. The event violated all kinds of boundaries to begin with. Although I was never a big reader of mythology, it made sense when the mythification took over. It became a way of making sense.
WL was also shaped by a rejection of certain tendencies in US poetry. One would be the idea of language as always sabotaging itself because it aims to represent the world and is doomed by its failure to do so effectively. For me, poetry blows up consciousness. Its bullet is a baby; it rips into a new world. This capacity for world-making is the argument of WL. The book is a construction—what writers usually point to in a self-reflexive poetics—though I never saw my authorship as a limitation. Instead, my ethical imperative was to make selfhood the occasion for the book to embody a life of its own and cross boundaries—life/death, human/animal, different temporalities.
TT: You mention the idea of self-reflexive poetics, but also how you are interested in subverting traditional conventions of poetry…
LD: … even non-traditional…
TT: Right, and I think a lot of people are saying this work is invocative, but I also think you are playing against this idea of invocation, especially as a Westernized canonical poetic term that has a relatively narrow field of vision as we conceive of it today. In the book you often use to the proverbial “O,…” as a classic invocation. It seems like the speaker in the text is actually engaging with that poetic tradition in the text, while also flipping it over and poking fun at this notion. And so I’m curious about what the book is doing in terms of this dynamic of both employing, but then subverting and undermining tropes of poetic invocation.
LD: What is it to translate something from “your” language and “your” culture? In my case, as an immigrant, it’s more like cross-pollination. But with translation, it’s never about supplanting one thing with another anyway. A wresting out of structures, whether linguistic or cultural, always has to take shape for the writing to feel organic. This makes it possible to experience a narrative arc as it’s being written. I needed that approach to propel the writing—a live map of my thinking across a red sky. It wasn’t too self-conscious aside from having to write against the ways grief is conceived and policed in our culture. WL could not be a traditional elegy—it couldn’t just give an account of Ana Maria’s death through a lyric voice removed from her. Not when she was a full-on mystic. The traditional invocation of the “O” followed by the deceased’s name, in other words, suggests an abyss that the book’s mythic proportions had flooded. It happened before I really had time to consider it and then I needed to find a way in and inhabit what was happening.
My teachers were the writers who have worked out of the Anglo-American or Western canon. Alice Notley’s work from the last couple of decades, for example, is shot through with the voices of the dead. What fleshed out this other kind of invocation was the interspersion of Ana Maria’s e-mails and letters throughout the book. Bhanu Kapil made this suggestion when I sent her excerpts from Ana Maria’s correspondence. WL would’ve been a different beast without Bhanu. Her investment in the book—her recognition of it as an act of channeling rather than a work of polyphony—steered me onto the less charted path.
TT: One of the most interesting parts of the book, was that it was so experiential, and sensorial, rather than just being located in thinking through an intellectualized stasis. It’s great what you say about translation not just being about these binaristic relationships, but even more so about how one word to another in a language offers a different kind of knowledge (or sensation of knowledge) however accessible it may be. But what you say about this intractable ability to recognize grief through convention and mechanized signification isn’t here in the book. Its alluded to critically, but grief here is more so felt, and comes through as an experience rather than an overly intellectualized and therefore reduced idea.
LD: Lack or absence are words we hear all the time to describe the incommensurable of poetry.
But who Ana Maria was and the way she died called for presence, supersaturation, the “bloodstained ecology” mentioned in the preface. Placing myself in the scene meant being open to grief as force rather than loss. The more the swamp pulled me into its gunk, the more my wings slickened.
As much as I love ideas, I’m not so interested in books that address politics from the standpoint of the project or the critique. Often this feels very Anglo to me—cold, hyperrationalist, and still obsessed with being the authority in its assumptions. I’m lucky to have comrades in poetry that do something different. Action Books, for example, defies the equation of politics and innovation with restraint. One of the things that unsettles people about the writers that Joyelle and Johannes publish is their multifaceted tone, tragic and then funny and then spectacularly violent in one breath. This multi-tonality is all over the Baroque and other traditions where syncretism and racial mixture are seen as the norm rather the exception. When you have so many influences at play, there is no linear path. A white avant-garde becomes less viable. Tonal voracity destroys both mainstream and experimental elegance, which in the end is one and the same privileged chokehold: a white impoverishment of affect.
Is the need for separating traditions and streamlining poetry eroding? I wonder. There are fewer signs of a two-camp model. Still, hierarchies always mask themselves, and the binary of high vs. low has stayed intact even as poets embrace kitsch. For a while now quoting Drake or resampling the canon has done the opposite of what people claim—it’s become a sign of mastery, of cultural literacy and savvy know-how, even though the engagement with estrangement is meek in the end. What happens when you write prayers to ancient gods and actually take the otherness of a nonwhite (and popular in a different sense) tradition seriously? What happens when the Other possesses you as a spirit or god? Are gring@ poets willing to go that ‘low’ and become someone else’s trinket?
In many ways, queer theory clued me into the narratives of progress that flatten US poetry and culture into tentacles of Empire. While writing, I sought refuge in the death drive, Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages, and Lee Edelman’s No Future as counternarratives to the “It Gets Better” campaign intended to keep gay kids from committing suicide. Reproductive futurism—the projection of a single future, a better future, that babies and capitalism reiterate—was one of the frames I tried to undo in an experiential rather than intellectualized way. I became a gay earth mother in a plastic butterfly mask.
TT: You also mention in the book the theorist Bataille. And he stands as an interesting counter-weight to Hegelian dialects or Western conventions of epistemology. In so much that production and producing is not to acquire and retain, but to waste and eventually dispose. And I was interested in what his relationship and other theory has to the work.
LD: Actually, Ana Maria mentions Bataille. She made me read Story of the Eye, but it was his “solar anus” that stayed with me (I want to dress as one for Halloween!). I read theory as a kind of literature with its own poetics. And artists and poets as theorists in their own right. Edmund Jabès’ Book of Questions, Book of Margins, Book of Resemblances—his endless meditation on exile, silence, genocide, the sacred text—shook me. WL also owes much to (un)holy art like Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis. Here you have this outrageous, irreverent cartoonist representing the Bible in a fairly straightforward way. Crumb himself said he couldn’t help but honor the sacredness. At the same time, the women he draws are shockingly voluptuous, the sex and violence totally explicit. This collapse of the sacred and profane was the engine for all of the stylistic ones in WL, the high and low, the intellectual and sensational. Our cartoonish crusade—image-moist as it is—says these binaries are false to begin with. You can’t pick and choose when you’re going to be theoretical and when you’re going to be crass. As soon as those sensibilities become cleavable, they lose their potential to fuck shit up. The intellectual is already happening in mass culture, whether it’s in the imagery of pop or religion.
TT: This book seems to be more cacophonous than a lot of contemporary poetry I’ve read. The voices don’t hold hierarchical relationships with one another however, even though some are more authoritative, while others are invocative, or even casual and humorous. But even considering this multiplicity of voice, the book has an enclosed feeling to it, as though it were a kind of “eco-system” for lack of a better word. I was interested in how you balanced these voices, like say that of the alligator who was both vilified and respected somehow simultaneously… And what do you think each voice treats thematically?
LD: Ana Maria’s voice is obviously the most divergent. That inclusion was a relief because I stopped feeling responsible for the book. Her voice immediately took the reigns and converted me into an animist. Because I already had the seed of the narrative in place—my hatching and so on—her letters presented all these uncanny coincidences, like the mention of feathers falling on her skin. Her presence gave an otherworldly dimension. We collaborated across invisible skins. And of course it was inevitable to have to face the killer, who also died. The Florida wildlife agency or whoever exterminated him. And there had to be a way for me to talk to him and for him to talk to me. That’s when I learned of an evolutionary link between our two species, that birds are the animals most related to gators. These astounding coincidences just kept coming up that gave the book its own life after the core of it had already been written. Or what I thought was the core, anyway, turned out to be my small part. Other players broke in, like the murderous patriarchy of Swamp Hunters, a show on the Discovery channel about gator hunters in the south. The show is literally men and their sons killing alligators over and over. I watched a ton of wildlife documentaries. And one day I found out that gator blood is Christlike in its prehistory—gators have been around since the dinosaurs because of their immune systems. They can’t get HIV, which is why scientists have studied their blood for potential treatments. All of these constellations created a spiritualized ecology, the biological manifestation of more than one spirit. Again, the uncleavable: the alligator himself took on power. He found redemption in Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god who is at once deadly and maternal. I tried absorbing every source I could into our cosmology, the sky, water, land where we live and die again and again.
The figuration of the gator happened in real time, poem by poem. This was the most cruel stage for all involved—there had to be a violence against him before I could let him in and grieve for him. I needed a gun and an egg in order to come to terms with Ana Maria’s death and, in the process, uncover an affinity that becomes almost invincible. It transcends the tragic borders Western civilization has carved into this planet. WL tries to be a voracious book in this way, mutating triangularly. The three of us orbiting, fucking, birthing each other.
It’s not just that the book tries to be agile—it has to scramble the optics of power. The transcript of the judges from the Minnesota State Arts Board trashing my grant proposal was a gift because it dramatized this need. I dropped it in like trash where the narrative expired. Again, I wanted to let the tensions surface without much explanation, to let go and make space for a state-sanctioned death that could then be cannibalized.
TT: Yes, that moment in the book seems to show you as the author of the book, but somehow not the writer of the book. It seems like you are taking an almost panoptic view of how this book is being treated, even outside of yourself in some ways. And I think again that speaks to your idea about a cleavage between entities in the book – there is also a cleavage between the author and the book itself – almost a contentious relationship.
LD: Yes, the impossibility of our togetherness is the cut of the book.
TT: Yes. Which again reminds me of this idea of triangulation. Where you have the entities of you yourself the author, the alligator, and Ana Maria. And it so often works on this spiritual plane where the three of you are often related to each other via the celestial constellations and earth and land. But a lot of imagery also gets located within the body and becomes singularized, as basic functions of the body, and the function of language in the book. I was wondering how you think of the spiritual and out-of-body experience of emotion, but in relation to the literalness of the body and the body of the book.
LD: The constellations have to evolve because of their precariousness. The writing was a resurrection and insurrection that could not withstand a rational gaze for very long. The more I situated our trinity, the more I sensed the reader’s gaze as the gaze of a vigilant secularism.
The last section addresses the idea of the counterfeit when it targets the silence around the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The poems try to cannibalize the reader who doesn’t buy into their realness. They’re self-conscious in a more direct way about the precariousness of the word as simultaneously abstract and visceral, visible and invisible. While the first two thirds of WL bled out of me, this last part mobilized resonances between personal and more clearly political denials of grief. I wanted to do justice to Ana Maria’s extreme capacity for love. At that point, the book fleshes out through the interplay of gator blood, my gay wings, and the blood of American artists ravaged by AIDS and discarded by society. This circulation itself is the spiritual plane—Ana Maria’s shedding of her heart. She is the death cry sustaining each body. Our braiding purposefully goes too far and stretches itself thin. Together we stream art, cum, tears, shit. When the book ends, it has exhausted the potential of grief to reverse violent abstraction.
TT: But you seem to work with the book itself as a record, as something that can be subsumed by history to become a historical document. But at the same time your text in a lot of ways channels an alternative epistemology or knowledge of grief that sort of abuts or crashes against a notion of being historicized or consumed by history, which always reduces things. And as a reader I feel like I am able to recognize that station of knowledge, but on another angle I cannot fully access it. This is in part due to my subject-position, but I am interested in that tension between historical record and the book as a manifestation of spirituality that seeks to transcend itself as a mere document.
LD: The scope of WL defused that tension for me. As in my avian drag—a line of flight from the gator’s family tree—history took the form of contagion. While the corpses piled up, they kept holding hands with each other; they tore holes through the pages as each other’s Annunciations. Hence the proliferation of Marias through the vectors of Ana Maria’s body and name. A Marian virality somehow entwines her, my mother, the women of Juarez, and the Marys, an ACT-UP affinity group whose protests were also parades of dead bodies.
Must historical framing be reductive? Shouldn’t we give up on the safe navigation of the well-sealed archive? What if spiritual resonance were also historiography? The fact that secular thought has done so little to sensitize us to planetary catastrophe makes me think we need to start conceptualizing on a scale larger than what Western knowledge permits. Poets especially have the freedom to do this.
The heart of WL’s epistemology lies in its anthropomorphism. Perhaps this is something it shares with Amerindian perspectivism, a concept developed by the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. In perspectivism, the human is a spiritual condition rather than a species, meaning it is the mobility of the human that’s key. Once you give human agency to an animal or a plant, you establish a relation with it. You open yourself up to an exchange of perspectives bodied forth. I want to say WL works through that exchange. It invites a kiss of life in which other beings create the poet, turning each poem into a question: if our soul is already one and the same, what kind of body will you carve out of me?
Perspectivism requires seeing yourself from the other’s point of view. It’s a “transspecific” relation among beings whose shared human background brings out the uniqueness of each body, animating a species’ attributes to the naked eye. We start by believing in the possibility of that relation. Whatever happens to someone else can reverberate here and now.
Transspecifity gets me back to your question: the book is not the workable record of a well-defined historical context but a spiritual document of the transhistorical.
WL is strategic in that way. It’s using loss to confront the reader and make claims about the power of grief to violate what we’re comfortable with and the boundaries we use to police our relations with one another.
TT: and boundaries even to experience certain emotions.
LD: Right, boundaries in every sense.
TT: How do you think of the role of English as a colonizing language and epistemology, working together with this idea of the transspecific?
LD: Phrases in Spanish break up the English of the book here and there. It’s a kitschy usage that mentions, for example, “Mother Lorca.” But Portuguese is actually my first language, so from the get-go the bilingualism was another costume used to place me in some enchanted version of Florida. The usage is partly earnest, drawing potency from the fact that Spanish is very close to my mother tongue and is what most threatens American monoculture. On another level, I was conscious of how Spanish has traveled in US poetry as a wonderland of authenticity, providing Deep Image archetypes and signifiers for multiculturalism. I saw myself exploiting the language’s foreignness and appealing to all of these perspectives at once. Ultimately, I think the Spanish recovers an impenetrability through Ana Maria’s name. She drove my writing into the belly of the beast, feminizing and decolonizing the language of Empire, ordaining a shriek that will forever be undocumented.
Lucas de Lima is the author of Wet Land (Action Books) and the chapbook Terraputa (Birds of Lace). Poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Evening Will Come, boundary2, and The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing. As a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, he works on indigenous cosmopolitics and Latin American literature.
Tom Trudgeon is an editor, curator and poet from Los Angeles. Some work has been featured in Gauss PDF, Out of Nothing, Dusie, The Volta, Open House, Harriet and elsewhere. He is co-editor of Basic Editions, a small artists’ book publication run out of Philadelphia and Brooklyn. He teaches “experimental” writing at Temple University.