QA, a collaborative project by Elizabeth Schmuhl and Sarah Xerta, is a (chap)book of questions and answers. Whether to read it as poetry or prose is up to you. The authors invite readers to write their own responses to the questions posed in QA, in the space provided. Each book is assembled by hand and zigzag stitched down the spine. And the cover—made of paper pulp infused with wildflower seeds—offers yet another invitation: to plant the book and see what grows. In the dialogue in QA, Schmuhl and Xerta explore questions like “What is the center of a poem?” and “When do you feel most alive?” This work invites a discussion of “the mystery that keeps us clinging to life,” among so many other vital things. After reading QA, I made a list of questions to send to the authors, then ceremoniously planted my reading copy. What follows is our edited Q and A. —Heidi Reszies
Heidi Reszies: I’ve heard writers say that in a collaborative project a third voice develops, so that you don’t know who “I” is. In this work, who is Q and who is A?
Elizabeth Schmuhl & Sarah Xerta: I think we both already felt like ‘one,’ so the third voice was both of us. I never felt or thought about a third thing, only OPEN, the space we’ve created between the two of us. It’s a space where we feel safe, where we feel comfortable revealing ourselves, opening, because we have no ulterior motives. We love each other unconditionally and we don’t experience this kind of love in other spaces/places often. I would say that not knowing is the point. It is my favorite kind of love.
HR: Has this collaboration influenced/expanded your solo creative work?
SX: I don’t know if it’s directly influenced my solo work but it has directly influenced me, so I guess the answer would lie in the question of how much drinking water every day influences your writing. This is nourishment.
ES: Like Sarah, I feel the nourishment and I drink a lot of water.
HR: I feel like collaboration (especially with regard to poetry) is #TheNextBigThing, that projects like this are keeping poetry/art alive. And I love that you’ve chosen paper for your book cover that has flower seeds embedded in the pulp (you should include planting instructions in your packaging!) The seeds/sowing are a sort of metaphor for growing beautiful things, but have you actually tried propagating this book? How much light and water does it need?
ES: Yes! It is best if you dig a hole with your hands and think about something sacred or important to you. Open the book to your favorite page, or if you’ve written an answer to one of the questions that you like, place that into the Earth as a sort of offering. The light and water must be natural. Let the sky open and provide you with both. Flowers will grow.
SX: I think we also liked the idea of encouraging people to let go of the physical object that is the book. It’s not the book itself that matters but your experience of it, which will now always be a part of you.
HR: How much light and water do you need?
ES & SX: We are always searching for light and water and yet, we know we’re filled with both, that we are made up of both. Though it can be painful to do so, we let it out of us and share it (I think it’s ultimately more painful not to). Sometimes we keep it to ourselves. We reflect each other.
HR: The opening question in QA, “When do you go to the water?” is followed by this response:
Not often enough. I don’t go to anything often enough. Too often I’m a prisoner in my mind and the day goes on without me.
I would like to go to the water more.
I would like to go to the water more, too. What is your favorite body of water?
ES & SX: Our favorite body of water is on a planet we have seen only in dreams. Each one of us has molecules of this water in our own bodies, and we feel its presence daily. We’re so sensitive. Another answer: you.
HR: Do you remember how you responded to each question? Would your answers be the same now?
ES: I’m not sure if they’d be the same now. probably not, because everything is movement.
SX: I don’t remember and for the most part can’t tell whose voice is whose when I read QA. I’d hope my answers wouldn’t be the same. I hope I have moved since then, though maybe sometimes stillness is a good thing, too. I forget that not all bodies of water are roaring oceans.
HR: When do you feel the most alive?
ES: When I’m irrationally in love. On third dates. On the dance floor. Drunk.
SX: ^^^okay so I do remember that it was me who answered that particular question, haha. And I have moved! Today I would say I feel most alive when I’m reading about and understanding psychology and also when I am writing. My understanding of ‘alive’ (and ‘dead’) has shifted/is probably right now shifting.
HR: Q asked, “What is the point of something happening?” If the “initial collision of things” keeps happening again and again and is never not happening, THIS collision, THIS second will be long passed by the time you read this—what is the point of something that happened in the past?
ES: We believe that everything is movement. What happened in the past is the flower engine that is blooming and buzzing with bees right now.
SX: There is no point, which might be all the more reason to make one up—we’ve got to distract ourselves from death somehow, and so we move.
HR: What do you cling to: history or present moment?
ES: All of it, which is exhausting.
SX: I’m a sucker for the future.
HR: You ask the question, “What would happen if there were no mirrors or cameras?” and answer: “We’d love each other more.” What would happen if we loved each other more?
ES: All the mirrors would be smashed and transformed into stars. We’d go night swimming and sleep underneath the sky.
SX: She is so right. If we knew more of love we wouldn’t have to objectify each other so much, we wouldn’t have to project our unloved inner selves onto each other—that is where hate comes from, after all. If we loved each other more it’d be a product of loving ourselves more. Life would be less chaotic but we’d be okay with it because the calmness would match our insides.
HR: What would happen if there were no cell phones or social media?
ES: I know I’d still feel S and her energy, but there would be a delay. I like being able to reach out; cellphones/social media make it more immediate.
HR: In response to the question, “Are you tired yet?” there is a passage that reads, “Some days I want to cry because of how much I love life. Some days I do cry. At the farmers market I saw a shiro plum and teared up.” Seeing a plum at the farmers market might make me cry, too. A display of crimson beets is so striking, it makes me question my existence and why I make poems/art when there is already so much blood/beauty in the world without me. Why art? Why this persistence?
ES: Because we have to; it’s in our blood. The impulse to make is something we just can’t help. Look! We’re doing it again; right now.
SX: But there wouldn’t be blood/beauty in the world if we were not here to experience it! The color of the plum, for example, is not an inherent property of the plum but a reflection of various light waves you’ve sensed and perceived. Plums don’t have the ability to perceive each other. Theoretically they could exist without you but they wouldn’t be beautiful.
HR: Do you give yourself enough credit?
ES & SX: Never. And extra credit is never allowed (this is why we need each other).
HR: Will there be translations of QA? Will you translate this into dance?
ES & SX: We are open to any and all translations. Already it is a sort of dance. One day it may be made physical, too, though in so many ways it already feels like it is. We feel it, this light/ water, sustaining us.
HR: The book’s layout, with questions on the right-hand page and answers on the verso, reminds me of quiz/flashcards. Will there be a quiz? Are there ever any wrong answers?
ES & SX: The quiz is happening when you read it! All answers are valid; we believe in you.
HR: The final question/equation in QA reads, “If X = the ocean and Y = me, solve for poetry.” Have you solved for poetry?
ES: No. I like the idea of questions being unanswered. I think it goes against a very natural, human impulse: the impulse to know. That doesn’t mean we don’t try. QA, I think, is an attempt.
SX: My first instinct is to say, “of course not!” I don’t think we’ve solved anything. I’d be sad if we did but only because that calmness would not yet match my insides. Maybe some day. I suppose the fact that we’re solving for it every day is why we haven’t solved for it. (See how it becomes exhausting? Give me water, give me light!)
Heidi Reszies is a poet and visual artist. She holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Design Director of H_NGM_N Books. Her recent poetry and poetics have appeared or are forthcoming in Forklift Ohio, FORTH Magazine, Jacket2, and The Volta. She lives in Richmond, VA.
Elizabeth Schmuhl is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. Find her online at elizabethschmuhl.com
Sarah Xerta is a poet. Find more online at sarahxerta.com