After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. Nightboat will publish this interview collection late next year. This interview focuses on Josey Foo and Leah Stein’s book, A Lily Lilies and was recorded March 10, 2015 and transcribed by Nicole Monforton.– Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: Could you recount your book with Leah evolving from or alongside Imprint, a dance performance of movement poems which premiered in 2002? Could we discuss Leah’s site-specific compositions, your own life in the Southwest, the fact that A Lily Lilies presents this clear demarcation (poems by Josey Foo, notes on dance by Leah Stein), though collaborative roles often blend together? And could we address these topics under the sign of this book’s last line: “all movements become one imprint”?
Josey Foo: Leah and I are pretty close in age. We’re one year and one day apart in birthdays—Cancer. When I came out to the Southwest, it was to get away from enclosed spaces. I had been working on a paper about Robert Smithson when I was at the University of Pennsylvania’s folklore program. I thought of a child, in a city like Philadelphia, mapping out traffic signs and mapping out corners and buildings and … just a sense of people having never left the city because they have no choices. I had a friend whose family were immigrants from Hong Kong. They lived in Philadelphia’s Chinatown because her father was a short-order cook there. After 11 years, her mother was driven outside Philadelphia for the first time, and when she was in the car she said, “Wow, America has trees.” That made an impression.
Smithson seems to be talking about mapping the spaces he knows using the language of spaces he dreams of. I was given his book years ago by my husband. At the time, my husband knew I would like it for some reason. Smithson actually wrote an essay about mapping abandoned industrial places in New Jersey—just mapping them as if they were precious-metal heaps. So this topic of mapping, for as long as I can remember now, has been very interesting to me. I think each of us desires to map things positively. A child can be living among garbage and map that garbage in a way that must help his or her growth.
Leah does a lot of mapping with her dances. She stages performances in alleyways and loading docks and supermarkets. One season she staged in a penitentiary in North Philly, which was quite an experience: to put some sort of growth in places that are tombs, just to examine humanness by making collages of that kind. Friendships are collages. We make or we are collage upon collage—words and dance, one movement after another. It can be a shocking sensation to feel your body moving forward even an inch. There’s so much to think of, even just to do that. A lot of thought must go into collages, since collagists have so many choices. You’re thinking and you’re pausing over everything. Ultimately you make life-changing choices just to finish it.
AF: So had you danced with Leah by this point, in some of those Philly pieces? Or did you remain an observer, a friend, an audience member?
JF: I was an audience member. I’m not a dancer. Philadelphia can be a very segregated city. There is always a wonderful soul to events Leah is a part of. The other people who were part of those dance events were very diverse, very intent on having no boundaries—even the places that they picked to execute things, the dances that they picked and the content they used. Often Leah would rely on books, because she hadn’t found writers she wanted to collaborate with yet. So she would make short dances to words from books she would find. Then I watched her perform and it resonated. I wasn’t doing so much in those days. I was in law school when I met her, actually. It was a misery.
AF: You worked with Kazim on this book?
JF: Yes, Kazim.
AF: When did Kazim come into the project? Did you and Leah first decide you wanted to make a book? Did Kazim see some performances?
JF: No. I had written a bunch of short poems, so short that you wouldn’t really think of them as amounting to anything. But they were the basis of a National Endowment for the Arts award in 2000. Leah was interested in seeing the poems. She wanted me to work with her on making a dance. But I was out West living in the middle of what is now the Navajo-Hopi partitioned lands, working in Native American legal services for an outfit called DNA People’s Legal Services. My husband and I lived off-grid in what used to be a ranch, then a police station. During the tribal-land dispute, the partitioned lands were cut off from the grid. It was at the skirt of a mesa, a few miles from paved roads.
There was very limited communication with Leah or anyone, no free long-distance calling from my office. I would write in the desert. We began raising some dogs and cats and we just hiked a lot. Imprint grew out of the writings of that period. It was just bursts of thought, coming to terms with new spaces. I sent some to Leah and she took them. So anyway, Imprint got staged. Afterwards I was basically involved for the next however many years … just steeped in the desert and providing legal services to people on and off the reservation. Every chance I could, I revisited Imprint. I was on my own, struggling to make something that would be more suitable for Leah, addressing her directly, her sensibility. It felt like a bit of a disservice how that first piece was done.
AF: But Leah liked it from the start?
JF: I think she liked it simply because she has a soft spot for me, and maybe looked past the words to the person. I would have these different drafts. I didn’t know anybody at Nightboat but I just loved the stuff they put out. So I would just be all alone out here with no one, basically, and I would submit work to Nightboat during their contests, using them as a sounding board to see just how awful the writing was going and if I should stop. I figured any feedback at all from them, especially with the sensibility that they have, would be so valuable. For two years, Kazim wrote back and said “Gosh, you were in the finals—please apply again next year.” After the third year, he emailed me and told me to give him a call. He said, “It’s really unusual to be a finalist all three years with three different panels.” Then he said, “Fuck it, we’re going to publish you regardless.”
AF: Good move, Kazim.
JF: So I said “Kazim, I was just using you guys for feedback. I’m not ready to publish this in the shape it’s in.” I told him I was re-writing Imprint basically. I had no editor around and nobody to read my stuff. But now that there was a definite possibility it would become a book, I needed to get together with Leah. That was what I envisioned anyway, because I wouldn’t have written anything otherwise. I talked to Leah and asked her to finish the book with me and she said “But I perform things. I don’t write.” I said “The form of the book is a stage, and it is a medium that can take a lot of mixtures. It would be great if you could respond in the book as a portable site.” Anyway, you get the drift of how that went.
AF: Well, the book’s introduction mentions mapping spaces through language and mapping language through movement. Could we consider some of the acknowledged inspirations that you and Leah list in this introduction? Desert landscapes come first from what I remember, followed by Rosmarie Waldrop, Pauline Oliveros, Deborah Hay, Lucy Lippard, Robert Smithson, René Char. So could we first focus on intuitive connections you make between landscape and poetic rhythm or movement? Gerard Manley Hopkins and his conception of poetic “inscape” certainly come to mind, especially when poems like “Rain” present topography or climate as language-scape. Or in “Heat,” landscape and horizon line and perception blur. Or in “Sunset,” with its concrete-poem formatting, words themselves become constellations or designs or fields to inhabit. Could you discuss distinctions or similarities between topographical landscapes (perhaps specific to the Southwest) and poetic landscapes (or Smithsonian non-sites)?
JF: I liked that Smithson smashed glass and bottles, piled up the shards and called all of this a continent. Well of course it’s a continent. There’s no question it’s a continent. Of course living things are going to find it and live on it. Soon there will be colonies. There will be a continent for sure. He took some mirrors out to the Yucatan, arranged them on a beach, and they caught the clouds and the blue sky. He photographed them and that was it. He took down the mirrors. So you try to map that. You go back to the Yucatan with the map and can’t find anything.
People make sand paintings on the reservation here, like the Tibetans make their mandalas. The mind is supposed to capture a feeling about these long after they are destroyed. The mind is the ultimate receptacle. You might think that, when making all those intricate designs in the sand paintings and the mandalas, your brain is supposed to retain them. I guess there was a time when, as a matter of survival, the brain would remember everything. We don’t do that anymore.
When someone maps something, they’re simplifying and making infinite what is actually tough and limited.
“Poetry” is a tough word for me, because what we do may not be poetry so much as collage. When I look at my pieces now, they’re just collages of words chosen to be exactly where they’re put. That’s the impression of the landscape on the words. It’s not any strict formal method.
I was part of an art show in South Philly once. A group of artists were given spaces, without being able to negotiate with the gallery or discuss with each other where our pieces might best fit. We were supposed to put our pieces up in the designated spaces, which might be a cramped corner space when the work was designed for a long wall, or out in the lobby when the work was intended for a more secluded space. The woman who was putting on the show simply told the artists to deal with the spaces we were given.
Apparently, she had gone to the Whitney the previous summer, and the Whitney had done something like that, had required their artists to evolve their work to suit the spaces, as a kind of political experiment. So she came back to Philly and wanted to do the same thing, but without telling anyone. In retrospect, it was a wonderful idea. But it is difficult for artists who have already made an installation to be told they aren’t going to have the lighting they think they need for it. This creates a different space and a different experience. It’s more democratic actually, and less in your control—more of a dialogue with things you cannot change, more of a sense that you’re not colonizing that space. You’re just traveling through and you’re setting it up. Then you’ll travel and set it up some other place. The world isn’t a perfect place. Yet you will see, no matter how hard you try, that this side of the street corner isn’t any better than the other side.
I played off Leah, then we played off each other. Kazim would be the first to tell you that the book is probably nothing at all like any of the first three versions he saw. It just moves and moves and moves. Not that it’s a perfect book, but it’s a perfect collage. I think everything in it is honest. Now I pick it up after I haven’t seen it in a while and I like it.
AF: Me too.
JF: I don’t like too many things that I do. I tear everything apart the moment I do anything. There’s always a way to say something differently or put something differently. I don’t understand people who can’t see that there are many ways to do one thing. I don’t want to be around people like that, but, on the other hand, it’s also very pleasant to be around people like that sometimes. So in terms of your question about mapping: everything has its space, even the little bits of dance, the bits of landscape, the bits of words. Even the space on the page, even the cover is a collage. I really love collages. I know Leah also does.
AF: Should we mention the photos? I picture two different photo sets. Nature stills get clustered together at one point, and dance photos cycle through from the start. And do you and Leah appear on the front cover? Do you two, later, run naked through the desert? Do we see your shadows? What gets performed, impersonated, staged?
JF: None of the pictures are of me. The landscape pictures are mostly mine. The dance pictures are from Leah’s company. Leah took one very beautiful landscape picture of a piece of driftwood. When I first saw it, I thought it may be too beautiful.
AF: Turning back to the Southwestern landscape, to artists who can’t choose their spaces, what has taken you to the Southwest? I remember a line early in the introduction: “Travelers driving through the flat desert sometimes ask when they will see something, while those who live in the desert see landmarks in austere rocks and sand.” That got me thinking of “The Impossible,” John Ashbery’s article on Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation. Ashbery describes minimal-event horizons in Stein’s work. He takes this idea from modernist music—that amid long patches of austerity, one suddenly encounters surprisingly lush or tactile flourishes. I thought often of that concept while reading through this book. I wondered what draws you (geographically, compositionally, perhaps psychologically) to neutral-seeming processes—but with something extravagant, just a little detail, a little burst, too.
JF: That’s true. I don’t know that essay. I do live out in the Southwest and I’m involved in other types of work, and there’s very little community out here to talk with about the writing process. Due to my work and where I live on the edge of the reservation, people I come into contact with have more immediate concerns.
AF: Do you like that part?
JF: On one level, you think you’re missing everything. You’re missing people prodding you to try harder—to do something different or add something to what you’re doing. On the other hand, lacking that element, you find that you keep prodding yourself and you’re never satisfied with yourself at all. So you try to fill the gap yourself sometimes. Then you start looking around for things. Then you actually meet people who happen to have been involved in the conversation for a long time. I went to Rosmarie Waldrop’s house in Providence. Of course she and Keith were very warm and wanting to engage and talk about things. And I just felt in a really foreign place. So much of the conversation that I had been having didn’t involve anybody. Then I would wonder why they even wanted to have a conversation. What exactly was the payoff? The place that they wanted to be a part of—would it include all the things that I wanted to embrace?
AF: I have a related question. When I first approached this book, a book prioritizing dance, with extensive notes on dance, I expected it would contain almost entirely active verbs and conjugations—a language of movement. I thought of Richard Serra’s lists of verbs. But from the first poem and first note onward, I found a lot of “is,” “am,” “are”: passive voice. So I wondered how dance relates to passive voice, or what it meant here to prioritize being, essence, identity (not becoming, not event, not transformation in the way I would have expected). Could you discuss those inversions of active and passive, being and becoming, in relation to dance or in relation to this whole project?
JF: Definitely. That’s the heart of it all. I’m so happy you saw it. I think a reviewer from The Kenyon Review was upset that the book didn’t describe action. Obviously he was writing from the point of view of audience members who would be saying “Gee I don’t see any movement here.” But this book is for the dancer. The dancer needs a reason to move. The dancer won’t move until she feels a true sensation of a reason to move. When you are a dancer, you close your eyes and do all kinds of exercises. You become a creature or a rock. You become something. You have the feelings and sensations of that thing. So try to sway like a rock—but don’t sway until you feel it. Well, you know what I mean: rocks don’t sway, but a dancer can certainly move like a rock. You will convey a rock if you completely comprehend the essence of the rock. Then the audience will see the rock as you’re moving, believe it or not.
AF: Yeah, questions of inside and outside get blurred here. I keep trying to avoid the Yeats “How can we know the dancer from the dance” line, because that seems like poetry’s biggest cliché about dance. But in one of Leah’s descriptions, when a dancer’s body gets illuminated, when a body gets staged, I can conceive of that body as almost just a skin, an object. Though then Leah will say something like, “The map of the body is infinite.” Then your own poems will explore an expansive internal vista. So I can see this book asking questions like: what is the external world of a dancer? What is the internal life of a landscape?
JF: I think that’s exactly what this book is after—the internal pre-movements, the internal reasons to stop moving, the internal character of the landscape more than what it appears to be (internal to thought, even). And the book makes collages of sound also.
AF: With sound and with collages, A Lily Lilies often intermingles bodies, perception and landscape. Again the poem “Heat” opens with “The canyon of the valley / runs to the man’s ear.” Ears come up a lot in this book. I pictured at first Blue Velvet—the ear lying in the grass at that film’s beginning. But also Smithson’s Spiral Jetty seems ear-like. Georgia O’Keeffe landscapes come to mind because … did you ever read collagist Joe Brainard’s book I Remember? As a little boy, Brainard puts his ear up to a girl’s vagina. This seems to him the appropriate response.
JF: I can see that. I do remember, and I’m not sure how big it was in this book, but I remember owning a book by a poet I really liked. I can’t remember his name anymore. The cover shows his head lying down on the beach. His ear takes up most of the jacket. Of course I only use him as an example because I adored him. It seems to me that artists don’t write or even make art at any level for more than a period of time. At some point, they lose it. They forget what they’re doing or who they’re talking to. People should remember that. We have strong periods and then artists go off on something else. You should love them anyway, instead of getting angry at them like people do, for not continuing.
AF: That makes perfect sense.
JF: I could tell you one thing before you ask more questions. In the poem “Grey Slopes,” we say “The sun shines but the sun is the shine.” When I was working for the Navajo Nation, part of my training was visiting the houses of tribal elders. My peacemaker guide would say “I don’t know why they say the sun rises, because it’s not doing anything. It’s just the sun.” How to translate things in English—for them, it’s very frustrating. I was being taught that the tribal fundamental law is all about the passing of the sun. But it isn’t really about the passing of the sun. It’s not the sun itself. It’s something to do with the sun, but the words just can’t quite describe it. So that’s how this language evolved.
AF: And a lily just lilies, right? And I liked how “Lily” combines your names Leah and Josey (not fully, but kind of close). And Gertrude Stein probably would agree that a lily lilies. Then in terms of collaboration and movement, your poem “Wishes” wishes for many things, but among them “a complete marriage, a walking marriage.” Do you want to describe a “walking marriage?”
JF: That’s a phrase from Naxi culture, where men returned to their own homes in the morning after spending the night with their wives. But here it’s used as a marriage movement-collage. It just seems that we all want that, you know, a marriage that keeps moving. A movement … it’s a wonderful thought to have: marriage is not so much a status as it is a dance movement, maybe.
AF: Finally, one perhaps random-seeming question. I came very close to getting a JD at Penn myself. I went through the admitted-students process and everything. I’ve always wanted to interview poet-lawyers for this reason. Anything you want to say about that dual existence?
JF: I’ve been working for a tribe for almost 10 years. People are getting used to owning their laws and questioning laws imposed on them, from the outside, with no understanding of their realities. It’s an important time to be involved in tribal laws. Maybe I can just leave you with this idea: when you make collages, piecing different realities together, you might find that you stop imposing any “right” way on anyone.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Talks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. Ugly Duckling soon will release his ebook Sixty Morning Wlaks. With Cristiana Baik, he is currently assembling the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.
Josey Foo is the author of three books of mixed prose, poetry and pictures, Endou, Tomie’s Chair, and A Lily Lilies. Her work is included in several anthologies, among them the Best American Essays 1995. At one time an undocumented alien, she has an M.F.A. in Creating Writing from Brown University, a B.A. from Vassar College, and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. She lives in Farmington, New Mexico and was, until recently, a lawyer for the Navajo Nation Administrative Offices of the Courts, Office of the Chief Justice.