Laynie Browne: You write: “To see into something that can’t be seen, to name something that has no name, to speak to someone who cannot respond (to, in Lyotard’s terms, “bear witness” to “unpresentability”)—this seems to me to be the other work of confession, the work that can never be finished, that keeps confession alive.”
This notion is so compelling. The unseen. In linking this seeing to confession the question that I keep arriving at is: to who is one confessing? How then not to begin to see everything as confession? Even withholding, turning away from the confessional feels like a form of confession. Once begun it permeates everything. Is confession a mode of address, a method of thinking and being in relation, or one way to look at all conversation? On the surface, even dialogue which appears to resist confession becomes another form of confession. The weight of the unsaid, pregnant.
Julie Carr: I was thinking of confession in two, or maybe three, distinct ways. First, there is the confession one does with a therapist, a priest, or a judge: admitting to one’s faults or sins or crimes. Then there is the confession one does with a lover or friend: confessing to one’s love, one’s needs, fears, desires and pleasures. Then, it seemed to me, there is a third kind of confession that is perhaps implicit in all other confessions, and that is confessing to one’s relationship with a “presence” that seems both within and outside of one’s self. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t call this God, or give it any other name, but I was trying to think about the urge to “tell someone something” that never feels satisfied and that, perhaps, motivates us (or me) to keep writing and writing. What is that “something”? Maybe it’s just the fact of being alive? Or maybe it’s a particular feeling of aliveness, which comes and goes, a feeling that there is more to being alive than biology.
I was also thinking that this third kind of confession is laced with grief, because as soon as we can say, “I am alive,” we recognize the brevity of the state, and, if we have lost people, we think of those who no longer are.
It’s interesting to me that you begin your Deciduous Letters also in the mode of confession, also confessing to something or someone who cannot be named: “Pick a name, any name,” you begin. And then, a bit later, “What I’m trying to confess is that gladly I have come to see that I can only reign in obstacles self-created.” Here, I hear you confessing to the act of writing, to constructing difficult kingdoms (or queendoms) to reign within. That is anyway what I thought of – that in a way we have to ask forgiveness for this urge to keep making language do things for us, not because it is wrong or foolish, but because it pulls us from “the world,” from others who need our attention, whether these be family members or more broadly the people in our communities. Then, it turns out that this fantastical letter is addressed to a daughter you don’t have, but who nonetheless seems to exist. In the next letter, you say, “This is my secret, so please keep it constant. It’s called love.” And I wanted to ask you about this love! Can we love someone who doesn’t exist? Can we love someone who might exist but who we never see? Someone we can’t talk to? Objects from a Borrowed Confession (forthcoming from Ahsahata) begins with an epistolary novella of sorts, a series of obsessive letters from one woman to another with whom the first woman shares some history, but no present-time relationship. Driving these letters is the desire to confess to and examine an imagined love, a love for someone the letter writer has no real knowledge of. Is that imagined? Is there anything really there?
Think Tank was, among other things, an attempt to write a love poem with no object. I wanted to see if I could write into the space of love and desire that isn’t focused on some particular relationship. Can we talk about that?
LB: Yes! I love the idea of love with no “object” my reason being that this leaves love more expansive and limitless. In many ways isn’t it easier to love someone who doesn’t exist, who we might not see? I like to conceive of love, at least in an ideal form, as a concept or as an aspiration more complex and multidirectional than one bound by convention. In your essay “By Beauty and by Fear,” you ask “Like language, is it just something people walk into? Row out into? Is love, then, a condition, rather than a feeling? Like language, a condition, not of the person, but of the world?” (41). Really interesting question. I think you could argue either side and be right. But if love is a condition of the world, then we, its inhabitants, under its sphere or spell, will be engulfed. The opposite is also true- love exists within persons. The two are inseparable- world and person- being one creation. Love is a condition but it exists always both outside the person and also inside. My question, given this assumption, is what ignites or activates love from within or without? What pivotal moments, actions or persons make it possible to note, from either vantage?
On confession, yes I’m very interested in the third type you describe, a relationship with a “presence” both within and without. That one is never finished being in relation or conversation or confession, for me, is another way to talk about the limitless, or what I call devotional, a frame for that which is beyond words and that which is simultaneously a reason to write— as a mode of inquiry.
You say Think Tank is a love poem with no object. Would you also say it is a love poem with many objects, or a shifting recipient? Is it also a love poem to language, and to the reader? When you say “it isn’t focused on some particular relationship” I immediately think of a multiple subject, not a non-existent subject. Would you agree?
JC: Yes, I’d agree, and say more. The love poem has multiple objects: the kids, Tim, certain friends, other poets—Cesar Vallejo most of all, but also, necessarily his translator, Clayton Eshleman—and all the people in my reading group with whom I read Vallejo’s Trilce for a full year (there’s a list of names at the end of the book). Then, there were poets whose voices were just in my ears when I was writing: Peter Gizzi, Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson – the voices of poets I’ve read in a kind of trance, transfixed.
But Think Tank is also a love poem with no object, and that is because I was trying to locate or more simply feel that energy of love (or pleasure, or desire) as it existed in me with no particular person or even thing in mind; it’s just there, like a color on the inside of the eye.
This is why one poem begins “Who’s breathing whom here?” thinking concretely of the strange situation of breathing for another that we do when we are pregnant and that seems to continue when the babies are born, but also thinking that this “she” is a not a baby or a child, but more a kind of spirit I breathe into being and also am breathed by. The poem ends “That little vibration of her desire, you know it in your nails, but you can’t call her /She’s beyond all invention and all name.”
I like your question “What pivotal moments, actions or persons make love possible to note?” It makes me want to know if your new book P R A C T I C E is at least in part about the practice of cultivating love? Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this – the idea that one could and should cultivate a state of love in a world so full of violence. And then I get swept up in anger, all the anger that is legitimate and necessary as a response to violence and suffering, and I don’t know which is right. Anger/grief/love: it’s not like we always have a choice between these states, but we sometimes do. I wonder whether P R A C T I C E addresses the desire to put oneself in a particular relationship to suffering, either one’s own or another person’s?
“When we turn from anger we turn from insight,” said Audre Lorde. I wonder what you think of that?
Do the various practices you engage: writing, meditating, walking, yoga, Judaism, do these steady you for anger, help re-direct anger, shift you away from anger?
Or maybe a more general question is, if much of what we do is a kind of practice, what are we practicing for?
LB: I love the distinction you make about love which is reading entranced, the voices, the influences and real persons, and then the love which we can cultivate: “it’s just there— the color inside the eye.” What I find so useful about this distinction is that it unchains love without detaching it from one’s particular situation and circumstance. Here, in your poem, love is liberated. I was hoping for that too in my Deciduous Letters—because I want access to that state whether or not it is in my immediate moment and surroundings. I can say that I am always attempting (and often failing) to exist in that state of love regardless of circumstances. That is a traditional practice in the mystic aspects of all sacred traditions. Most closely I associate with that path- in Judaism- of joy, which does not suggest one ignore or obliterate anger or any negative mind state, but channel it, elevate it, create a sacred container. In other words, not to deny the difficult but to figure out how to use it. In the Bhakti tradition love intoxication also does not negate anger or suffering, but attempts to exist inside a devotional frame. For example, Hassidic Jews singing on their way to the gas chambers. Mirabai, singing ecstatically through the forest, after abandoning her high birth. Such paths are not strictly pacifist, but are warrior paths. Resistance and action are key, and considered, at least in Judaism, more important than “thought.” So I’d say these practices (writing, meditating, prayer, divination, yoga) don’t shift one away from anger, or even necessarily make one steady. What they do provide is a way to reframe and recontextualize experience, so that one may avoid replicating violence with violent communication. Penetrate darkness with darkness? Impossible. This is cliché, but I find it endlessly useful. You can light an endless number of lights with one small flame. When it is not possible to embody light then hopefully one is proximate to others who can.
The main question I had with P R A C T I C E is, what are we practicing all the time, every minute, without being aware of it, because we become whatever we practice. If we are angry we become very good at anger. I agree with Lorde, and do not turn from anger, but go further into anger and see where it leads. Repeating the refrain, or incantation of practice, I hoped to heighten awareness of my own mental habits— while in mourning and inhabiting that liminal space.
Coming back to Think Tank, I am struck by these lines:
Let me be my own fool, sitting on the newspaper
perhaps in love with an embryonic heart
prepared to beat 2.5 billion times, and that’s all
I love how these lines in themselves function as an embryonic pause within a book of light constant movement. You’ve planted gestation right here in the poem. What texts are in gestation for you right now? These lines evoke the unlimited within the limited. Embryonic possibility, hope, and an endpoint to what is possible.
JC: So, first, your answer above makes me feel very grateful for your thinking. That push towards greater depth is always there in your work (do not turn from anger but go further into it). I often sense this commitment in your work – a commitment to the poem first and foremost, but also to the exploratory path that poems mark or describe.
About those lines – The figure of the fool runs throughout Think Tank. I was thinking about The Fool in Lear and about Cordelia too (Lear’s term of endearment for Cordelia is “fool”) as figures for pure love, non-utilitarian love, love that isn’t in service of anything but itself. It’s like Kant’s pure aesthetic: purposiveness without purpose. Of course Lear himself seems the fool, fool enough to think that love could have a price and that the heart inside his daughter would beat forever. But it’s only when he becomes demented that he becomes a true fool, a fool in that other sense, which begins when he begins to un-recognize himself “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he asks early on. Later, self-identity is really in question as kings become mad men and princes, beggars. The Fool, in the end, is the one who recognizes loss as it’s happening – and so to be a true fool is to be naked, un-propertied, and vulnerable.
To be a fool is to be in love with something that one knows one can lose at any minute and to recognize the foolishness of wishing that were not so, of trying to protect against such truths with promises of wealth. As The Fool says, “truth’s a dog…must be whipped out.”
2.5 billion beats: that’s what we get, on average, in one lifetime.
To answer the question of what texts are in gestation – right now I’m working on what I’ll say at my mother’s memorial. Ten minutes of talking, delivered only to close friends and family, and I’m finding it incredibly hard to write. I’ve been putting it off for weeks, and now I only have a couple of days. But I know I will write about how she taught me how to write, and how she introduced me to poetry, and how one of the last things we did together when she still had language was to read a Hopkins poem. She asked me to explain it to her – and so we read it word by word.
Other things too: Objects from a Borrowed Confession, and Real Life: An Installation, which is a big project taking a really long time. But the speech about my mother is what I’m really thinking about now.
Which brings me to a moment in Deciduous Letters, and also to its title. I love the title so much since it imagines the letters falling away each year, turning to dust, but then – new letters in their place. It makes me think, then, of writing as practice, as a thing we are in, rather than a thing we make. I remember once when I complained to you that I wasn’t writing and you said, almost chastising me, “You’re always writing.” I’ve thought about that ever since, and it both allows moments of silence to be part of the writing and also encourages me to always be writing. Effort and release at the same time.
But now I’m thinking of “Dear Driving in Los(t) Angel(us),” a letter to your father or about your father. You write:
He looks at me and even though he might not know my name, even though he might later say he was ruffled to see me, it was a terrible day, someone was trying to push him off a building, he doesn’t understand the rules, even despite all of this interference, caused by the slow but persistent derangement of his once brilliant mind, he looks at me with an unmistakable longing. And as I walk urgently toward him, but before I reach him and put my arms around him, a sob escapes him. He is crying in happiness to see me.
This scene is incredibly moving, and it reminds me of a moment nine years ago. I was actually in a job interview (!) and someone asked me something about language, who knows what. And I said that I had learned, through my mother’s dementia, that we are not only our language. The idea that we become a self through language is entirely false. For even with no language at all, even when she can’t communicate in any way, she is still so much herself. (I pretty much started to cry in the job interview, which was not a great idea, but I got the job anyway, thank God, the job I still have.)
Later in this letter, at the end of your litany of questions you ask, “Why is it that I’ve made so many wishes? All of them have come true yet I am vanishing, unbearably incorrect and lacking. Is it only the inadequacy of witnessing suffering?”
I wonder if you could speak to that – to the sense of being inadequate to suffering? This is, I think, such a real issue for writers. It seems so necessary to bear witness in the writing to suffering that is not necessarily our own (as well as to our own). There are so many ways this can go wrong. But to not try is worse. How do you, in your writing, handle that inadequacy?
LB: Wonderful notes on the fool! The fool is my soul card in tarot and so I meditate on the fool often as that innocence which helps one into necessary perceptual inversions. So paradoxical that the same “unrecognizing oneself” can both liberate and dement. As you say being “naked, un-propertied and vulnerable” is a necessary condition in gaining valuable insights. You say, “to be a fool is to be in love with something that one knows one can lose any minute,” and of course there is nothing that one may not lose without warning. And so, to love one must succumb to defenselessness. Which is of course the state of writing a memorial for a loved one. I often think about why it is people turn to poetry in loss. I’m sorry that we are both learning about elegy in this way, though perhaps there is no other way.
Yes, I agree with what you say about not becoming a self through language. We employ language to articulate that process, but there is something more essential, presence, when nothing else is left. Persons with dementia, even when not able to process language, are still reading body language and facial expressions, and responding to them as a kind of language that may even negate what is being said to them. So one question I have is how to write those other layers of non-verbal language. How to represent all of the various levels of human communication in language where language fails. I’ve also noticed that when language disappears sometimes song emerges. Received music- a language buried and retrieved. My grandmother at 101 was singing songs from the year she was born, and often anti-Semitic rhymes that she must have heard as a child.
As for your question about being inadequate to suffering, how could one feel otherwise? Although I can keep myself busy with the tasks of making a loved one comfortable in an illness with no remedy, a form of helplessness persists. How can I allow this to happen to my father? The answer of course is that there is no choice. Staying present through such a process is extremely challenging. Yet that is my main goal, to be present for my father through his decline. To accompany, to stay close. How does one handle inadequacy in writing? Again, there is no choice. Being human is to confront inadequacy along with every other human quality. Poetry often seems like the place which was made exactly for such vulnerability. The poet Brandon Shimoda wrote to me recently that he was collecting “corpses” in poems for a current project. I wrote back to say that, sadly, I did have some corpses in recent poems I could offer. He replied that poetry is one of the few safe places for a corpse. Recently I was conversing with poet and Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer. He said, in sympathy with what I have gone through with recently losing a parent and the other in serious decline, that my life would be “nontrivial” for a while. I like that take on being close to mortality as a not at all subtle prompt to wakefulness.
In The Silence that Fills the Future I love the way that narrative becomes a balm and a reminder that the stories we construct of our experience are like self-guided walks through misadventure, grieving and the necessary process of constructing meaning from whatever is thrown into our paths. Your story about the Renoir, which you saw with your mother as a girl and again alone as an adult, and your connection of those points in time through writing brought me to tears.
“I have little to say about my little Renoir, but more to say about the way presence breaks in on you. You can’t go looking for it even less go shopping for it. In fact, you’re in the way of it.” This being in the way is a certain aspect of consciousness which the fool can at least temporarily negate.
I also really appreciate your story about the job interview which moved you to speak about your mother’s dementia. Here is another interview story, which is not mine but belongs to the friend of a family member. She was a woman in her early twenties on an interview for a job as a waitress. At a certain point the interviewer asked: what do you really want to be? The young woman, taking this to heart in a wildly fantastical manner paused and answered: I have always wanted to be a mermaid. What I like about this story is that it illustrates how the truth does not always correspond to the true. In an interview with Alice Notley on the poet’s novel, I asked in an oblique manner if she believed it was the poet’s job to be truthful. She answered that she had absolutely no interest in telling the truth. And yet in her poetry I find potently truthful portraits of suffering, and of the necessity of speaking for the dead. Can you speak to that complicated relationship between confession, truth telling, and representations of reality? When you set out, amid the sea of confession, who is responsible for whom? We are in a time of painfully heightened awareness regarding authenticity, and the problematic nature of speaking for anyone but oneself. Yet writers attempting to be awake and aware want to speak on behalf of others, in solidarity. I wonder if you confronted any of these questions in writing 100 Notes on Violence, or in general, in your writing?
JC: Today, this week, your question resonates more than ever. This is five days after the Charleston SC massacre. Once again we’re faced with the brutal reality of racial violence and of gun violence in our country. It’s been a year (it’s been a century, four centuries) of such violence. We say we can hardly stand it, but we have to – the necessity of standing it and then doing more, resisting it, however we can. “It,” though, what I call in my head and sometimes in my writing “my enemy,” is elusive. Is it ignorance? Hatred? Guns? Poverty? Patriarchy? White supremacy? It’s all of these things and so we can attack this enemy, and must, in a myriad of ways at once – and different people will be called to different kinds of action.
But how do we write? One thing that has been important for me, and was crucial in writing 100 Notes on Violence, is that we admit our own complicity in violence and suffering. For this reason, I had to be present in the book, myself as myself. There was a moment when I was writing it that Tim teased me a little – he said “Oh yeah, violence, all those bodies dying in the street.” His point was that my life was relatively safe, free of violence, free of suffering, and so I was somehow false in writing about it, possibly even ethically circumspect; perhaps I was just aestheticizing others’ pain. But in fact violence was and is everywhere – in my life too, and has been since the beginning, even if I’ve not been the victim of gun violence, even if none of my kids have been shot at. I do believe and do feel that suffering that happens to others happens to all of us. I know it’s not “the same” (I’m thinking now of Claudia Rankine’s recent article in the New York Times where she asks whether white mothers can ever really understand the fear that a black mother feels for her teenaged son), but I also know I am not really separate from the victim of a shooting or a beating in any pure way. I am not separate from the mother who mourns, even if I have not yet suffered what she suffers. Nonetheless, because I understood Tim’s point and felt there was some truth in it, I put it in the book. And then, just a few days after he says that, a group of people stops by our house asking questions. They are looking for the murdered body of a four-year-old girl, stashed in a garbage bag somewhere in the neighborhood. So, yes, violence is everywhere, in all of our lives.
Another moment stands out. I read a newspaper article about a man whose son had been killed in gang violence. The article describes the father opening the trunk of his car and seeing a bottle of juice that his son had only finished half of. In the article, the man sees this juice and starts to sob. That story was so moving to me, but it was in no way my story. And so, to honor the man’s particular experience, I just quoted the article directly and did not embellish it in any way. This was pure appropriation, driven by the recognition that in that moment I had to leave his pain alone. I had to look at it and acknowledge it and feel it, but I could not alter it or even directly comment on it. And so I suppose I had to be present in the book sometimes as an actor and sometimes simply as a witness. I had to have both.
So really we are asking questions here about empathy. I have read arguments “against empathy.” There was a Boston Review issue a year or so ago dedicated to the idea that empathy was both false and not useful – false because it allows us to feel as if we are morally good (“I feel for you”) while we continue to do nothing to affect change, and not useful because as an argument for social change, it’s unconvincing. More convincing, then, would be to appeal to people’s reason – to show people that, rationally speaking, it doesn’t make good sense to allow others to be impoverished or imprisoned in disproportionate numbers.
I found this argument to be maddening. First of all, I don’t think empathy is optional. To not feel with others is simply to not feel – it is to live a life of not feeling – and that is not really a life. Empathy is there if one is awake – and if one is not awake, no amount of reasoned argument is going to convince one to act.
However, one has to check oneself. If, in feeling sad, bad, hurt, scared, vulnerable, or angry, one is, at the same time, feeling rather proud of oneself and disdainful of others who don’t feel things as deeply, then pride is probably going to be in the way. As soon as we start congratulating ourselves, we’re not really listening anymore.
But, back to writing and truth: I do think of writing “truth,” but that truth is not simple; there is never just one truth. There are many truths and often they conflict with one another. I used to dislike the concept of “truth” – thinking that there was no such thing, or that to assume one knows what truth is would be the worst kind of pompousness. But now I have come to feel differently about it. Now I think I do know when, in writing, I’m full of shit and when I might be saying something that is in some way true. At least I think I sometimes know when I’m avoiding something in order to protect myself or to present a better version of myself. And so I try to look clearly.
But writing is also artifice. It’s always a kind of lying (as Oscar Wilde said), because of the simple fact that we are making something out of this “real life.” This is what I’ve come to: that all of living is making something out of the raw materials of life. Everything is ritual, is writing, is art – we are always constructing forms that hold meaning. And so there is no pure “life,” there is only this making.
We invent our relationships, we invent our homes, we invent our days, our cities. But all of this is collective – we do nothing alone. We can make these friendships, raise these kids, have a party – but then we also have to see that we have made this prison system, we have made this justice system, we have made Dylann Roof and his gun. In order to know the truth about what we are inventing, every day, we have to really see what is happening to others and to ourselves. And so writing is no different: it’s this seeing, this responding and this inventing all at once.
I felt that most keenly at my mother’s memorial service, now a few days ago. We were collectively inventing our memories of her with what we said, with how we chose to represent her. Was it “truth”? Yes. Everything we said about her was true – she really was this activist, this lover of flowers and mountains, this person who sang, and danced, and laughed, this reader, this warrior for justice. And yet, we were also inventing her, together, inventing the mother we needed to have. We could have told different stories – but those other stories would not be useful to us collectively, they would not strengthen us or help us to be who we needed to be for each other, at least not on that day.
Certain lines in PRACTICE resonate with me especially: “Practice stepping inside an increment of time that has not yet been described”; “Practice leaving home often”; “Practice the date born wet and unctuous.”
I read these as incitements to the new, to the unknown, to the future. Of course we can’t practice future tense, but we can practice the present as a place of possibility. And writing, as it hovers between description and invention, is that place, or can be.
I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship lately – ours first of all – but friendships with others too. I’ve been thinking that what has to be present for me in writing is love, and friendship is the kind of love I want to explore the most right now. That’s because it’s both private and public. It’s like the skin – extremely intimate and particular, but also exposed, in the air. Or it’s like the breath: what connects the inner self to the outer world – and it makes us who we are.
During all the controversy in the poetry world around conceptual poetry and race these past couple of months, my “practice” was to keep my real relationships strong, or to strengthen them. For this reason I reached out to people who felt many ways about these issues and I tried to keep all these communications open and honest. The public arena of the Internet was the wrong place for me to think through these hard questions, but the one-on-one intimacy of friendship was the right place. It was, for me, the place of listening and learning and considering. I’ve always believed in the intimacy that writing is: the way that it’s really a communication from one to one. And so, for me, and I suspect for you, it is a place for social change on that level – that intimate level.
Can you talk about the ways that social activism and writing come together in your life? I’m thinking about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project you’re involved in, and the writing in the schools you lead. What have you learned about writing, or about activism, from these projects?
LB: I’m struck by your statement: “Everything is ritual, is writing, is art – we are always constructing forms that hold meaning.”
And I would add, thinking about your description of reading the newspaper, we inherit and interpret and reframe forms that hold meaning. We select and concentrate our attention on particulars. I don’t see that there is any other way to activism, as in active empathy, and then action, except through particular persons, communities, circumstances. We can’t do everything but we must begin somewhere, anywhere, just begin.
You write: “In order to know the truth about what we are inventing, every day, we have to really see what is happening to others and to ourselves. And so writing is no different: it’s this seeing and this responding and this inventing all at once. “
I have a new project that began with this question of inventing what we see and read. It started with reading the newspaper. At first it was an attempt to engage with the news and to find something to be grateful for amidst the constant devastation. I began lifting sentences that I found beautiful or curious, and compiling them, mostly thinking about juxtaposition. After a while I saw that my initial impulse was problematic and even Pollyannaish. Search for a beautiful or comedic sentence in the midst of continual violence? Why? But I continued noting what caught my attention. It wasn’t all “beautiful” or all anything. What I was doing was constructing a global body of text, a cultural commentary that sounded like one voice and many voices, personal and not, entirely appropriated. Every time I add a sentence to the interior the entire balance shifts. What happens when we try to understand things out of context? We are all inside a global body of text. How will we respond? Remaining responsive seems key. What I found thus far is that I often focus on women’s rights, how women are perceived, and expectations made upon women. It seems to me that there has never been so much attention focused upon women’s appearances and performance in the realm of work, sexuality and family, and yet there remains a dearth of awareness as to issues of gender equity. A quiet and false understanding pervades— that everyone is liberated from such concerns. But much work remains to be done.
I’m struck by how you speak about the public Internet space as unsafe and then about strengthening “real” relationships. One article that caught my attention recently was about a teenage girl who was publicly shamed on the Internet by her parents (who cut off all of her hair, as a punishment, and uploaded a video of them doing so). Soon after the girl committed suicide. The article suggested that such public shaming was popular in the middle ages and then vanished when lives became more private. Now with the Internet, the world is small again, except people don’t know each other- and yet have access to each other online. How does empathy happen in the ether? It seems to me that more often than not “real” relationships suffer in the ether and that is one of the many downsides to new “connectivity.” In recent poetry wars I’d be willing to bet that much less verbal violence would happen face to face. We have so much information, yet we often lack the information of each other’s humanity. Physical proximity can create a more alive understanding. What I witness, sadly, is writers erupting in response to devastation and often creating more violence, replicating violence in their words. My response was similar to yours- returning to those enduring conversations. Lots of listening, otherwise, to many voices, and lots of reading. And wishing for more awareness, more sensitivity, and for healing, and new vision ahead.
I love the discussion of naming in your EP chap, the power of naming. I’ve been meditating on names in another project, a prose book called The Unfounded. One of my epigraphs is from Oscar Wilde. This also seems connected to your discussion of truth and artifice: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” In this work I meditate on pseudonyms and attempt to take many names. Often these names are the names of women who have been victims of violence. In particular I was doing research on jihadi brides. It is true I cannot speak for another but I can empathize with activists and poets. For instance, I can say, today my name is Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Today my name is not safe. I can speak for the dead. After immersing myself in this research and writing for days I created a ritual of return to the living. I began research on angels and wrote an angel abecedarian. We make what we must in order to continue. As you say “we invent our relationships” and “all of this is collective.” Just as it is an illusion to say I could speak for someone else it is also an illusion to think or act only for, or of oneself.
Claudia’s call, in the recent NYT article you mention for “recognition” and “National mourning” resonate strongly. I feel hopeful when I read Claudia’s words, and when I bring her book Citizen to my students and find discussion opening. I try to feel hopeful inside a wide-awake devastation. I felt hopeful, in working with a public elementary school in Chester, Pennsylvania to see pictures of these children visiting the White House garden with Michelle Obama. I felt hopeful working with these same children who had been visiting historical sites related to Fredrick Douglass, when they read their poetry. In a class collaboration, sixth graders wrote: “Freedom is color with people inside of it.” I feel hopeful when my students at Swarthmore College, reading the words of Geoffrey Canada, begin to ask questions about the future of public education in this country. I realize that education is only one of many facets that must be reinvented, but it seems to me a crucial aspect in terms of the future. As for poets in the schools, I teach an outreach course for Swarthmore College in which I mentor students to become teaching artists. I am particularly interested in helping students who identify as artists and writers to consider how they may contribute to their communities. You asked about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. I’d encourage anyone interested to take a look at the women’s’ stories here. Comments are always appreciated. As a mentor I run an online writing workshop for one month each year. I am amazed at the courage and strength of these writers. It is an honor to encourage their words. The mission of AWWP is to support women’s voices and the human right to tell one’s stories.
I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about friendship, collaboration and activism. I remember you were doing work in protest to gun violence. Can you talk about how that work has influenced your writing?
Though we could go on and on, I’m grateful for this space we’ve written through friendship and writing. Speaking of the future, can you say something about the title, The Silence that Fills the Future?
JC: Your project with the newspaper reminds me of the work of dance artist Simone Forti. For a long time – and maybe still – she was making improvised dances with the newspaper. She’d spread the paper out on the floor and dance among the pages, sometimes on the pages. While she danced, she’d read various headlines and portions of articles, or just say the words as they passed through her vision. That way the day’s news, which was often and is often awful, would run through her body and voice. But then there were also sometimes very funny things, or beautiful things, and always there was her funny and beautiful dancing. I think back on those dances as a way to both embody the news, which is to say – recognize our own complicity in what is happening in the world – and a way to transform it – through dancing to make something of value out of suffering.
In recent years I got involved in trying to change gun legislation here in Colorado. We were quite successful in 2013, though the specific law I was most passionate about, the one that allows concealed carry on college campuses, never came up for debate. The democrats thought they should let that one go, so as not to rock the boat too much. As it turned out, the gun laws that were passed (universal back-ground checks and limits to ammunition) were enough to get two senators recalled the following fall. Because of these gun laws, in 2014 Democrats only narrowly held control of the house and lost control of the senate. We were lucky that it was a divided state house and that Hickenlooper kept hold of the Governorship; otherwise the Republicans would have certainly reversed all the work we did.
During that process I spent quite a lot of time at the state house, waiting to testify and listening to others. I tried to understand the mind of the person who argued passionately against any restrictions on the second amendment. What I heard time and again was fear – a sense that we are always at risk, always in need of whatever self-defense we can possibly get hold of. One senator told me that he assumes everyone he meets is armed. Imagine living like that? It occurred to me that this desire to live in fear, to focus always on some threat, bears some relation to my desire to keep vulnerability alive – to stay attuned to suffering and loss and desire so as to stay as alive as I can, as awake. These competing political positions might share an affective core.
That experience lead me to a brief love affair with the legislative process. I had never testified at a hearing on a bill before, or watched one I’d fought for pass. It was exhilarating. But since then, I’ve felt more interested in the actions that happen in the streets because of the sense of community and connection that these experiences can foster. During the fall of Black Lives Matter events here and everywhere, I was most moved by an event outside a mall. There were only about 30 of us. It was a weekend morning, and so people brought their kids. Something about being so few – that intimacy – and the range of ages, races, and experiences in the group was moving to me – more so that some of the larger events I took part in.
That brings me back to writing. There have been times when I’ve wished my writing could be more overtly political, that I could write something – not poetry, but prose – that could be truly persuasive, that could change how people think. But more often, I think about the writing that I do as a way to speak intimately and imaginatively to one listener at a time. The work in the state house showed up in the writing I did that year, but so did some picnics in the park, some new and old friendships, as always, the kids, and, for some reason I still don’t fully understand, a series of imagined art installations that get more and more brutal as they go on.
Collaboration—it’s everything. I’ve noticed how I gravitate toward people who hold something I need to learn – who seem to offer a way into a manner of thinking or being in the world that I am growing towards. For this reason, some new friendships have been important to me in recent years. For example, a new friend named Sarah Tyson, a philosophy professor and prison abolitionist, she and I are co-organizing a conference on feminism, poetry, and philosophy for next spring that I’m really excited about. Another newish friend, Chad Kautzer, also a philosophy professor and activist, has been an important interlocutor, helping me to think through political issues, especially in our local community. I’ve been collaborating with another Denver friend, Jennifer Pap, on translating Apollinaire and now Leslie Kaplan’s amazing book L’excès-l’usine about her experience occupying the factories before and after the general strike in France ’68. I want to collaborate now with more visual artists. This series of imagined art installations should be, in one way or another, realized. I need artists to make them with me. I have a long-term collaborative relationship with dance artist K.J. Holmes. I’ve never lost my interest in bodies moving in space and want always to return to performance, even if not with my body directly. And then there is the ongoing collaboration with Tim (Roberts) that is Counterpath. We are preparing to move Counterpath (our art gallery, performance space, bookstore) to a new location. With this move we’ll be expanding what we do and reimagining the purpose of that work. And, there’s a big garden and a small orchard on the property! I’m hoping to get some collaborative help with that!
More generally, I’m more and more aware of how much I rely on others, and how much I need to learn from them. I wish there was more time for this, for everything. And I thank you, in particular, for our ongoing friendship and for this collaboration. I learn from you all the time.
The Silence that Fills the Future—that title comes from Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses—and so it’s not mine. But I absolutely loved it for how it made me realize how present-time listening is. The future, however much we strain for it, is only silence. It is in the now that we need to listen and speak. I’ll close, then, by quoting Lisa Robertson, whose work is always in my mind. This is from an interview I did with her a few years ago (available here: http://www.thevolta.org/ewc25-jcarr-p1.html): “I have the feeling that political transformation has to be situated in what we are already in the midst of experiencing. The repudiation of the present, of sensing and of relationship, which is the present, is uninteresting and flattened out. There’s a plenitude of unrepresented agency already existent. The present is materially infinite.”
Laynie Browne is the author of 12 collections of poetry and two novels. Her most recent collection of poems are
P R A C T I C E (SplitLevel Texts), Scorpyn Odes (Kore), and an electoronic chap from Essay Press, Deciduous Letter to Invisible Beloveds can be read here. Other recent books include Lost Parkour Ps(alms) in two editions, one in English, and another in French, from Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havré (2014). She is a 2014 Pew Fellow. She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College.
Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence, RAG and the forthcoming Think Tank (Solid Objects, 2015). She is also the author of Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry, and co-editor of Active Romanticism: The Radical Impulse in Nineteenth-Century and Contemporary Poetic Practice, forthcoming from University of Alabama Press (2015). Carr was a 2011-2012 NEA fellow and is an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program and the Intermedia Arts Writing and Performance PhD program. She lives in Denver and helps run Counterpath Press and Counterpath Gallery.