The poems in Gina Abelkop’s second collection I Eat Cannibals are spectral, femme, and glittering with anachronism. Stretched across time, they assert their own kind of critical feminist manifest destiny via the temporal wormhole. Here, the present leaks into the past and vice versa: a dinosaur lives; an 1880s dance hall girl remembers song lyrics a century too early. This is poetry of affinity through time travel—affinity with the magnificent cassowary, with the old west, with the land that bears witness to all. From “Wagons West”: “I made that long journey I// executed it entirely in my language// I came/ west// I mean to survive.”
MM: Many of your poems seem vintage, if not ghostly, possessing a multilayered temporality that arrives via voice and diction as well as scenario and character. How would you describe your own relationship to history, and/or to time more generally?
GA: I have so many dreams about time travel, usually traveling back in time and finding myself shopping and being boggled by how everything I’d usually (in my waking life) identify as “old” is now just a regular brand new thing, marveling at the fact that I get to see/buy all these things cheaply, and they’re everywhere, they’re the norm, they’re not decaying and torn, just new & probably boring to everyone else; these are day-clothes, not glamour gowns. Fashion as a representation of availability/consuming matter. It’s gonna say something, maybe several somethings, about me and my relationship to ideas of ownership and desire for all the Things of the World. But it’s incredible, an incredible feeling, even though it’s just a dream—to find myself moving through space and time in this effortless way. My dreams never take into account of the very non-romantic things that would accompany any real time travel: racism/segregation, misogyny, limited opportunities, wars or homophobia. Fear. Loneliness.
In one of the dreams I had, which I wrote about in this book, I was trying to pay for my goods with a credit card sometime in the 1940s. I knew this shouldn’t be allowed to happen but in dream world it was fine, they took my credit card. On very basic levels, a lot of the pieces don’t fit due to these very complicated systems around money that have been created in the last century; but still, on some reel in my mind, I am right there, living proof of its possibility. And that feeling is coupled with this kind of awe that I can’t assign to anything else in my life: the feeling of having actually traveled time is one I’ve only felt in a dream and very likely will never experience in my waking life.
I love to visit articulated historical sites—one with a story we have some physical outline of—a structure (home, building) anchors the experience of imagining history but I suppose every space is a space that’s been occupied before, by something. Old dresses are not just beautiful to look at but also have a life and history of their own that you’ll most likely never have access to. (If these dresses could talk …) They have lived full lives before you, maybe several, they probably have sweat and skin cells permanently pressed into their DNA. Who knows what interactions they’ve been a part of, kindnesses and violences … in this way, I think I’m such a romantic, obsessed with the idea of being able to touch up against long-gone, ephemeral things like: what did the sky look like in 1935, what the air smell like in 1724, whatever, anything. I want to feel like there are ways to connect with the entire history of the world somehow.
MM: The opening poem, “I’m a Cassowary You’re a Cassowary Too” introduces this fascination with history and temporal fissures, through the figure of the cassowary—who is “pre-historic,” “barely extant.” What other forms of temporal bending occur in the collection?
GA: I Eat Cannibals is a three-part deal. The first section is a long poem in which I lament/acknowledge what it means to be human and/or unhuman, inspired by a living dinosaur called Cassowary. The second part is very much about history and how we live inside of it, the eeriness of living in a universe which is already older than we can imagine and an ever-mutating accumulation of billions of years of human and unhuman happenings. The third part is about an 1880s old-west dance hall girl (Dora Sharlock) who begins to have auditory hallucinations while dancing: the songs of such lauded 1980s new wave women as Siouxsie Sioux, Annabella Lwin, and Stevie Nicks; her interpretations of sounds/words that are literally unimaginable to her due to the nature of them belonging to a history that hasn’t happened yet. This third part is also about Dora’s relationship with her beloved, Annabella, and their community of ramshackle dance hall girls, the women of the town, their dead children, the wide open, super-quiet land. It is also an ode to Willa Cather, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and Joanna Newsom, in that they all engage intensely, psychically and bodily, with the land they live on and write about.
Time is this thing that seemed very fixed, easily accepted and understood from a young age, but the older I get the more loose and confusing it becomes. You can’t remember if something happened five years or two years ago, or you can’t remember where or who it happened with. I have dreams that move through time fluidly and confuse me about where and who I am as I’m waking up. And the way I imagine the future has changed as well: what I imagine will be possible changes vastly every few years, depending on what my life looks like but also on what happens in the larger world. Self-driving cars are being developed, the internet exists: twelve-year-old me couldn’t have predicted those things.
Sometimes I’m in my bedroom and only one small light is on and I feel just like I’m in a different era, something pre-electricity. Even though I have my computer sitting next to me! This comes in part from Lorna Simpson’s photographs and this quality of light that she captures. Someone else’s project, which is a product of a certain time and place, becomes further mutated as I reference it as a now-permanent part of how I interpret light … I love the little mystery train of associations that poems can be, and I love that the reader doesn’t always know they’re there.
MM: You mention land above—let’s talk more about place and how it manifests in these poems, particularly in the “Ladies of the 80s” section. Poems like “Wagons West,” “This Land, My Land,” and “Riding Song” seem to burst with the fullness of open space, as well as the promise of ownership. Can you say more about these women and their relationship to the land? How is land connected to writing for you?
GA: My relationship to “the land” really began in earnest when I discovered the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in northern California, specifically the Yuba River. A friend and I who both worked the same job ended up quitting quite suddenly—the job was actually hawking antique clothing from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century—and with no job to go to, we took the opportunity to drive three hours north of the Bay Area to swim in the Yuba, which we’d been told by a friend was a dreamy spot to sun your body.
I didn’t grow up going to forests or spending time in nature apart from the beach. I grew up in San Diego and took the ocean for granted, completely, and my parents were not the types to go camping with us. I didn’t know it was possible to live like that: right in the midst of a forest, next to this feral river, amongst wild animals. It blew my mind. The Yuba is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, this clear turquoise water, big rocks to sun yourself on, wisteria everywhere, the clean heat and rustling quiet. When, a few months later, my roommate moved out and I had to find a new place to live, it occurred to me that I could actually just pick up, leave the Bay Area and move to the foothills, and I did. And for the first time in my life, I felt this visceral love for the place I lived: the way the air smelled like pines, picking lilac from trees when I walked my dog, even the fear in the night became different in that I was scared of being attacked by a bear, not a man.
That land doesn’t belong to me. The land in this country is blood-soaked and stolen and fraught. But I love Grass Valley, that spot in California, the sweetness of it, the water offering such total solace. I had this awful anxiety for months, stemming from things happening in my family, and going to the river was the one thing that let my mind relax. I’d go nearly every day with my dog, set up on a big flat rock and read until I got too hot, then jump into the water. I’d just watch everything happening around me: the fish swimming, the dragonflies, the movement of the water. Nothing I’ve ever put my body through has felt as good as it felt to be completely submerged in that water.
It was the Yuba that made me love place for the very first time, not the galleries or shops or restaurants or even people in a place but the very place itself. I live in Athens, Georgia now and I ache for that river; when I see photos of it, my whole body hurts with missing, the kind of missing you feel for a beloved when you’re far apart. Tied up in all that is thinking about the way we abuse and use land, force people to leave the places they call home, lock people up and deny them access to the feeling of home. It’s melancholy and complicated and brutal and deeply sad. Despite all this, I long for the one place that has ever felt like a safe home for my body to be in.
In “Dora Sharlock,” I made Dora this kind of ambient force in her town. Grappling with the idea of coming west to the unknown, setting up in the middle of nowhere on what you’re told can be “your land,” but becoming aware of the fact that a place can’t really belong to you. Still, wanting it for the safety, for some sense of ownership and control. All these dance hall women setting up house together, like an 1880s lesbian feminist commune, but sitting on the fact that westward expansion in the U.S. was devastating the Native people. Dora has these transmissions from the 1980s coming to her head, audio hallucinations, and it’s like history is meeting her with one of its billions of strange products: what does that very specific discomfort look like?
MM: Many of your poems are quite violent, especially in your earlier collection Darling Beastlettes. Even as they describe/enact violence, their texture and language is persistently, sumptuously elegant. How do you see language working in relation to violence?
GA: I’ve always loved violence presented in an ornate decadence. Everything romantic in a sort-of gaudy but sincere way. Of course, violence is not romantic at all but just violent and terrible and painful and sometimes pleasurable. What to make of it? It’s certainly TOO MUCH (in action, in feeling, in memory) and in that way sumptuous. Overkill. That’s the way the elegance and violence meet as I see it in these poems: as excessively lush, over-ripe cousins, they understand each other. They wear the same ugly-ass, thick fur coat. Rachel Feinstein talks about how the complete over-the-topness of the classical rococo and baroque makes her think about death—there is always the possibility of too-much which pushes whatever the object or idea is into the next stratosphere of meaning.
I don’t think of my poems as having violent language but maybe more reacting to violence, opening the seams up a little to let the violence in (like that Kate Bush song: “We let the weirdness in”). What’s really violent to me is when I’m harassed on the street, when other women and queers are harassed on the street, language being used to fuck up someone’s heart and soul. That makes me wince.
MM: An early poem in I Eat Cannibals, “That Outfit Is Smart Because It References Pamela Des Barres,” describes one of the time travel dreams you mention above: “the dream/ where I paid// in credit// at the 1940s store// left with three big hats baby/ blue leather shoes.” This poem I think encapsulates a number of the central concerns in I Eat Cannibals: not only this obsession with time and history, but also with fashion, mortality, these ghostly women of the past. I was struck by the arrival of Pamela Des Barres, who was arguably the first to revalue female groupie/fan status as positive and participatory, in this poem’s title. In your online presence, you are so much a fan—both of your peers and of the artists you devote Tumblrs to (Joanna Newsom, right? Who else?). How do you view the role of the fan, and how do you see it at work in your poetry?
GA: Pamela! A big reason that I loved I’m with the Band so much was because she really loved her cohorts—she adored the women who made up this groupie community, and reveled in their company as much as that of the rock stars she pursued and admired. Her books have this voracious, squealing, super sweet tone in regards to the women in her life, it just makes me melt. Her descriptions of their outfits are as reverential, or more, than descriptions of the rock stars she lusted after. The title of that poem actually comes from this lovely moment when I wore my Flying Burrito Bros. shirt in front of my love for the first time. I’d told her about des Barres, and des Barres love for FBB, and when she saw me in that shirt she said, “That’s such a smart outfit because it’s actually referencing Pamela des Barres!” And it made me feel so seen, to know that she got the true nature of my outfit, the reference.
I am such a fan. I drive hours to concerts, I pour over interviews with the artists I adore, I join fanclubs, I tumblr, I gush. Some of my fangirl preoccupations include Joanna Newsom, Erykah Badu, James Baldwin, Paul Reubens/Pee-Wee Herman, Tori Amos, Emily Dickinson, Marina Diamandis, Rachel Feinstein (the artist, not the comedian), Mindy Kaling, Anna Joy Springer, Cookie Mueller, John Waters, Toni Morrison … I could go on forever. I do not love lightly.
Much of my poetry pays homage to those who I fangirl for. There are secret references all over the place and it gives me real pleasure to hide those sly references in my work, little talismans of affection. In a very real way, my life is affected by those I admire on a day-to-day basis, in that I derive so much pleasure and insight from the art I interact with, which drives me to create and I hope also enlarges my own capacity for engaging with the world in every way, opens my heart up in a world that is much of the time horrifyingly brutal and unkind.
Much of being a fan also betrays the fan as an “uncool” person, right? You can’t stay “cool,” you are too excited, you are overcome! I really love that feeling, that overwhelming freak-out-joy feeling. I want to be right there in it, not pushing it back for the sake of keeping face.
I also love that I get to be a fan of so many of my peers, and in that way being a fan is this very accessible part of my life in poetry. I get to be alive at the same time as so many geniuses, and they are friends or acquaintances! They are completely human, not idols, and that is an important and exciting reminder that being a fan is a very human way of being, one human admiring the work of another, the collective pursuit of survival.
I had a VERY fangirl moment when, in a typical fan move, I went to Los Angeles with my mom to the premiere of Pamela des Barres’s VH1 documentary on her favorite groupie pals. Afterwards, Pamela and a few other women did a Q & A, and there was wine and shit in the courtyard afterwards. A whole gaggle of other women and I were gathered around Pamela and I was just shyly standing back behind all these people, such a dork, just wanting to give my thanks for her books. My mom pushes me forward, like I’m a little kid, to introduce me to Pamela herself, as if they knew each other, and I just mumbled something about loving her books and her writing. I love to get twitterpated over people.
MM: I love your YOU MAKE ME FEEL interview series over at Entropy, where you invite queer writers to fan out about their peers. Your turn, and I’ll even borrow your language: Tell me about one particular song/film/book/poem/piece of art (made by a peer in the last 5 years-ish) that has recently undone/inspired you. What about it was so striking to you? What in your life made you so open and receptive to this particular piece of art at that time?
GA: Niina Pollari’s new book Dead Horse (Birds, LLC) is blowing my mind right now. Niina has, for a long time, written poems that are so astute on the subject of alienation and embodiment, on the back-and-forth of trying to make a life on this earth, and like many of the very best things in life, this book is also really funny. Dark, weird humor that inflates the poems and makes them horrifyingly human.
Trying to figure out how to live—in both the most basic of ways as well as the most complicated—seems to take up much of my brain space. Niina’s book is right in there poking at that question too, and so it feels really comforting to read her poems while also finding that they help turn the corner on a lot of unanswered wonderings, too. The poem “Manifesto,” I go back to it all the time, and it gives me big shivers. “I was good once/But never again.”
Megan Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories (Emergency Press, 2014) and the chapbook Twins (Birds of Lace, 2012). Her fiction has been published in three volumes of innovative writing as well as many journals; her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hyperallergic, The New Inquiry, American Book Review, and other venues. She is editor of The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing, 2011-2013 and teaches creative writing and literature at Beloit College.
Author of I Eat Cannibals (co.im.press,2014), Darling Beastlettes (Apostrophe Books, 2012) and Trollops in Love (Dancing Girl Press, 2011). Editor/founder of Birds of Lace Press (birdsoflace.org) and co-editor of Prayers for Children. Obsessions include time travel, new wave women, Emily Dickinson, flowers, Joanna Newsom, Kylie Minogue, and Bow Wow Wow, all of which are chronicled at newwavewomen.tumblr.com.