For the past several years, Stacy Szymaszek has been at work on a number of poetic journals that are now being published. The first, hart island (Nightboat Books), arrived in May 2015, followed by the chapbook Journal Started in August (Projective Industries). Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals (Fence Books) is forthcoming in January 2016, and A Year from Today (Nightboat Books) in 2017. All different in scope and attention, this remarkable series is underpinned by Szymaszek’s seemingly boundless wit and attunement—she is that writer on whom nothing is lost. We corresponded via email while texting enough asides to make a whole other interview.
Matt Longabucco: Lately a few sources pointed me towards the lecture series by Roland Barthes published as The Neutral, and it’s been fitting to read it alongside your journals. This concept of “the neutral” has many resonances for Barthes, one of which, as I understand it, is that pleasure is often to be found neither in the site nor the form where we’ve been led to believe we should seek it. For Barthes, rather, pleasure is nuance, the small but thrilling variation, an unexpected ripple in the text of the world—“blue appetite and smoky/quartz the combo who knows/is just pleasing to clack/in my fist.” And true pleasure is the thing that by its nature defies the categories we’ve erected in order to capture and tame it. I’m mesmerized by this idea, and think my sense of what’s worthwhile as a reader and as a writer involves leaping again and again into this gap between the ostensibly recognized pleasure and the actual, almost always unarticulated one. If I said I thought a similar investigation was part of the project of your journals, would that claim give you pleasure?
Stacy Szymaszek: We have never talked about Barthes but he is an influence, and yes, your claim gives me pleasure. The first poem that appears in Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals, which is organized chronologically, is “austerity measures.” I read Barthes’ Mourning Diary in 2011 (written on notecards after the death of his mother). My dog had just died and I was traumatized by the circumstances. If people are too quick to forget the impact of mourning the loss of loved humans, that denial is certainly more extreme around the loss of animal companions. (I use the word “denial” to elude to Ernest Becker’s must-read The Denial of Death.) “austerity measures” is the documentation of the slowness of my mourning. I was being a little tongue in cheek at the end by saying it took 7 months and 1 day to be able to move the ashes, thereby concluding the elegy and the mourning period, but the form implies that grief is an infinite spiral. Which brings me more pointedly to your question about “the neutral”—Barthes says the neutral is “everything that baffles the paradigm.” A major challenge in my life, which manifests as a major concern in my work, is how to have pleasure when I am so unable to keep the knowledge and fear of (my own) mortality sufficiently unconscious. I felt endangered as a queer kid, and with no sense of having any options. When I read Pasolini’s last interview before he was murdered, where he says “we are all in danger,” I shook my head in agreement. I live anxiously in the ripple between life and death. I feel a lot of capacity as a poet in this space. I don’t derive pleasure from maintaining this hyper-awareness of death, in fact, in extremis is not a sustainable state. However, fluency about and around death is not encouraged, because then we as citizens would be much less easy to control through consumerism, religion, and other things predicated on the sublimation of death-terror. What I am saying is that it feels like a risk and there can be pleasure in risk, of course, especially when there is victory. My poems are victories. Barthes also said that the neutral is uncommodifiable. If you represent time as anything other than linear and source pleasure from where you are told not to seek it, you are rebelling against a paradigm (as these things decrease the potential for commodifying). I remember being a young kid and my mom saying things like “you’re so pretty” and I’d yell “NO I’M UGLY!” Do you remember that product “No More Tangles”? I wanted a spray called “Tangles.” When I was a little older I took a scissors to the alligators on all my Izod shirts. In the absence of dialogue, I was constantly having to find ways to alert others that I saw things differently, that I couldn’t participate on their terms. When some of my extended family members posed for a photograph, they were prompted to “do the Stacy” and everyone dramatically frowned. I was in a lot of pain, but my pain had its own value. I liked “the Stacy” then (it pleased me) and remembering it now pleases me. The journal poems are the best form I’ve found so far for reiterating that all that exists between me and death is time. Therefore there’s a lot of elegy in those pages. One of the first times I read from A Year From Today was in the auditorium at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program—afterward, someone who has heard me read many times said “I didn’t know you were funny.” I love that. There’s a lot of humor in there, too.
ML: You are funny! There’s so much slapstick in your work, like that judo move you do on the unsuspecting girl when you’re a kid, or all the times you’re singing out loud in your apartment and K shoots you a look. And, “how do you work/next to all those donuts (me flirting with the donut guy).” The humor—broad and subtle, both—signals many things: a New Yorker’s alertness and attitude, rue over poetry and aging and coupledom, and also indomitability: “I won’t be recalled/for who I am/but I am part/of something/at least/do I need anything else/just my wits.” “The Stacy” says it all: a frown that is somehow able to be both dour and delighted-in for being a choice. It’s a signature. Speaking of that pose, I’m always thinking that your relationship to photography seems continuous with your journalistic impulse in writing. On Instagram, you have a few themes—the dog, the office, the therapist’s foyer, etc—and you have the patience to let accretion work its magic. How does that slow build work for you, in the journals? And how does it reach beyond them, in the future life of the text that you often explicitly imagine? What will the journals become? How do the journals from a few years ago look to you, now? What’s become of the time that’s stashed or crystallized or pickled within them?
SS: Slapstick! That’s a great observation. As a style of humor: “exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of common sense.” Significantly, it comes from the Italian word batacchio—a club-like object composed of two wooden slats used in commedia dell’arte. When struck, it makes a loud smacking noise, but there’s no force transferred, so actors can hit one another repeatedly “with great audible effect while causing very little actual physical damage.” (Thanks, Wikipedia). My matrilineal line is Sicilian, and this is a very strong sensibility on that side. My mom recently told me that she went to pick up my nephews from golf lessons and only one of them was waiting. She asked, “where’s your brother?” He was at a picnic table armwrestling the other boys and girls and winning each time. When he got into the car he said that next time he was bringing his ukelele. Golf is irrelevant. He gets where he needs to be, how he needs to be in the world. If I were writing A Year From Today now, I would put that in it. It’s really vital territory for me. My great grandmother, who was apparently very saintly in my grandmother’s characterization of her, would occasionally pick up a knife and throw it at the wall, where it would stick, when she was pissed. Was this slapstick? Apparently she was very skilled, i.e. no one feared for their lives. I’m just now connecting this to my judo move and thinking about humor in relation to aggression. I’m not going to hurt you but I’m going to enact a scene whereby you could be hurt, under entirely different circumstances, but here there is absence of malice, it will be funny. I would have loved to be a witness in my great grandmother’s kitchen. I also heard she washed up at the kitchen sink, heaving one breast at a time over each shoulder and really scrubbing down. She also cooked of course—I get the sense that the kitchen was more than her domain, more like her studio, her stage, but the idea of blood lineage, and obviously poetry lineage, is very important to me so I may be making too much of it.
My life as an amateur photographer began only in 2005 when I moved to NYC (bought a Canon Rebel, but the ease of the iPhone took over 3 years ago, and Instagram) so it’s very connected to a need to be differently alert and also the realization that I was leaving my hometown, probably for the last time, and beginning a…beyond my wildest dreams…new era. My favorite photographic subject was “the poet” and especially poets in groups socializing. That’s still a strong theme. As you know, if you go out with me, I will most likely ask (or not ask) to take a photograph of you. It’s obsessive but it’s a good-enough way for me to use that energy. Deleuze said that repetition creates distance from laws and norms even while re-enacting them. This is the best explanation I can think of for another favorite subject, my self.
I’m leaving a record. Who knows what’s there. I’ve always been interested in history and keeping a record. I was a journal-keeper as a kid. I just watched Our Nixon, and dip into The Nixon Tapes book every now and then. You know he had secret voice-activated tape recorders in every room of the White House that captured about 3,700 hours of conversation. I’m fascinated with his documentary impulse—taken to the level of insanity and paranoia—but also, what an astounding thing to know how someone operates in real time. I read a lot of history books. I like to try to understand what goes wrong. The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein is a good one for comprehending just how utterly catastrophic Reagan’s presidency was. He got adults en masse to join him in thinking like a child, but that’s not even fair to children—we adopted his “lunatic semiology” to use a phrase from Richard Slotkin. I think I’ve answered your questions…except to add that the journals from years back are especially elegiac now. My first attempt at a poetic journal was hart island, which is the last deeply coded text I have written, and really only has journalistic tendencies, such as the embedding and archiving of quotes from Poetry Project readings. The book just came out in May, yet I wrote it between 2008 and 2010. I recently read a section with a Jayne Cortez line, and then a section that referred to the B&H—it felt poignant because Jayne has since passed away and the B&H, as of today, hasn’t been able to reopen after the gas explosion in March. The B&H is in all three books. The sushi restaurant that was the main site of the explosion used to be the store Love Saves the Day, which was in Desperately Seeking Susan—I write about that in “Journal of Ugly Sites”—that corner was obliterated and two people were killed. It happened at the very end of the time I allotted myself for A Year From Today (April to April) so there it ends. It’s no surprise that in recording what one sees, we can later see that unintended meaning is always in a process of layering itself. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the city has settled a lawsuit and will allow relatives to visit grave sites on Hart Island, in a very limited way, yet still a significant step forward.
This “dates” the poem. That’s what happens when you stash time. I hope, in that work in particular, that the many other troubling aspects of the Hart Island story become dated: that someday it will not be run by the Department of Corrections, that incarcerated men will not be exploited for grave-digging labor, and that even fewer and fewer bodies will go unclaimed each year in NYC.
ML: I love the stories of the Sicilian side. My Italian ancestors were Calabrese, as you know. I’m intrigued by seemingly obsolete yet persistent elements of that cultural inheritance: the vendetta, for example, which seems to work almost like poetry: a long timescale, a lot of patience, a conviction that memory, held close, will tell us at what moment we should give the present a push in the direction of a moral outcome. I love Susie’s version of your job description: “must embrace and honor resentments of great antiquity.”
Can you say something about your multiple lineages? You write often about the poets and artists you care about, in the journals, but I’m wondering how you’re thinking lately about what you’re carrying forward, and what compels you to do so. Part of that might be to say something about your own evolution, even in the past few years. I’d imagine another part could be to say something about the aesthetic mission of the Poetry Project (we’ve commiserated over this question, I know). I suspect your own choices and the terrain you survey from your position at the Project are woven together, for you, as is your explicit sense of yourself as “poet’s poet”/late bloomer/flirter-with-failure (a failure the realization of all this amazing work of course belies). I was so stunned by that incredibly poignant passage about your friend, the poet who committed suicide and who has a poem online that “mourns/that everyone he knew had been lost/to professionalism.” Tradition is no guarantee, either.
SS: My birthday is coming up so I’ve been reading my horoscope. One said of Cancers, “A sign that forgets nothing and forgives seldom.” I’m not a vengeful person, but I do think about this James Baldwin quote often: “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” The moral outcome, that I don’t even have to coax, may be no greater than that. I hold myself accountable to Baldwin’s thinking on this matter of “paying for it” as well, and it shows in the work—fear of what I am becoming/of habitual, unquestioned thought patterns/of how much I am implicated in my own suffering—like the woman who plants herself in front of the door on the train but is then pissy when people have to shove past her to get on. Everyone is that woman sometimes.
I have always been captivated by people’s life stories. When I’m feeling down my partner says, “Do you need to watch a documentary?” I read from A Year From Today, when it was in progress, and told the audience that I had forever been driven to understand how artists live. Now that I am one, I want to be pretty explicit about this, by way of a long poem, with a lot of details. I’ve evolved into a person more invested in transparency. I struggle and I have joy, all in a day, most days. I’m less interested in abstraction or “the atmospheric” to borrow a word that Rachel Levitsky just used. To paraphrase, if you want to tell a story, tell a story, don’t write an atmospheric poem. I’m particularly drawn to self-aware work, paranoid work, obsessive work, work that tries to get at the ethos of a city, activist work, identity work, work about working, work about yourself in the world, work that includes the less desirable aspects of yourself. To quote Baldwin again, “We live in a country in which words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not to wake him…“ The poems I love wake the sleeper and there is an abundance of young poets doing this work now, especially writers of color. It’s a great time to be a listener—especially for us white people.
My job at The Poetry Project is a big deal, which also compels me to leave a record within a poem, or to keep inventing poetic forms that address the variousness of the job and its impacts on my material life. I visited our archive at the Library of Congress in January and there was a folder that was labeled “Great Letters of Past and Present” and dozens of other internal correspondences that were useful to me in terms of understanding the past, threading it to the present and understanding what’s important for me to transmit. I want my experience to be known now, and not only be papers someone finds in a box in 40 years. My sense of participating in the lineage around the Project is, of course, very strong. Not only the poetic lineages but also feeling camaraderie with many of the poets who worked there before me and those who work with me now. At my most ill at ease with all the complexities of sustaining poetry community, this is one of the few places I can land and feel fervorous about making sure the Project continues as a space. Essentially, because there is nothing else like it. I love Anne Waldman’s construction of the “infrastructure poet.” Her putting those two words together changed my life in that it has empowered me to step away from artistic direction, which might seem the more desirable position, and focus on improving the way the Project is run, making sure it has the necessary resources, human and otherwise, to continue.
I think about and worry about the future of poets in NYC and other big cities. What does a cultural center become when the only poets who can afford to live there are those who are well off, or have to work the day job so often in excess of 40 hours a week. What happens when poets don’t have time or energy to sustain a writing practice. What type of work gets produced when time as a resource is severely limited. How, as artists, do we keep on creating moments of anarchy, multiplying them, in this murderous and surveilled land. I’m also aware that this was a process set in motion long ago and we are inventive, resourceful people. I love my job, even though it torments me sometimes, but my rightful vocation is to write books. I know people who love their vocations so much they don’t ever want to retire. I want to retire so I can do my job better, to live up to my potential which I’ve only grazed. Poetry is full of opportunities to feel like a failure. Because poets can rarely sustain ourselves through our vocation, we have to pick another one. On the other hand, what if poetry was commodifiable. It wouldn’t be poetry as we know it, yet I have seen how not getting paid for your work can be damaging to the poet psyche. Basically, capitalism renders the poet unable to do her job at full capacity. And I go to Rexroth for why: “…a class which owes its power to the exploitation of others has always had very little use for the poet.” He also defines poetry as a disruptive force that is dangerous to ideas and systems that have outlived their usefulness.
As documented in A Year From Today, when I taught at Naropa last summer most of my students initially reacted against “lineage” as something that should be broken free from (the past, or blood family), which was really surprising to me. I presented lineage as a current that fuels our exploration of the character of the present moment. If the Project was just about its lineage it wouldn’t be vital or might not even exist anymore. One must be aware of the times and be a participant in them to stay relevant. The mission never changes, but it has to be broad enough to be iterated in multiple ways, across decades. I just paged through Anne’s Outrider and came upon this: “A stance is required that sets apart, yet co-exists with the notion of a poetry of risk (sanity) and surprise (language)” and “…maintaining a stance of “negative capability,” but also does not give up that projective drive, or its original identity that demands that it intervene on the culture.” These are high-level iterations. In a more basic sense, The Poetry Project is a home for those who are writing with great urgency, with great social awareness, with innovative form and great attention to language…whoever and wherever you are, we want to be an incubator and a venue for you, and your audience.
ML: I appreciate everything you’re saying about making and holding a space that makes “risk and surprise” possible, a place alive to its history and at the same time open to a necessarily unpredictable but urgent need. You really do have your “hands full/like Kali,” don’t you? The presence of the Project in the journals is striking—your willingness to take your labor as matter, to be an “infrastructure poet.” I came across a passage on this idea in a Joan Retallack essay on John Cage: this is John Dewey, talking about “recovering the continuity of esthetic experience with normal processes of living.” He writes, “Even a crude experience, if authentically an experience, is more fit to give a clue to the intrinsic nature of esthetic experience than is an object already set apart from any other mode of experience. Following this clue we can discover how the work of art develops and accentuates what is characteristically valuable in things of everyday enjoyment” and transform “common human activities into matters of artistic value.” When you embrace that possibility, you wind up with art that works in powerful ways on readers who are desperate to recoup the experiences that they, poor modern subjects, are duped, by ideology, into compartmentalizing. I recently saw Ben Lerner interview Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Lerner was asking him lots of questions about process, form, genre (novel vs. memoir, etc.), and while that was fascinating, I couldn’t help but feel the growing frustration of a crowd who’d come clutching K.O.K.’s books because they were hoping he’d talk about being a dad, or cooking, or grief—all those elements of life he’s worked so hard to make visible, to claim, to win back. We were all like, come on Ben, let us gush! Which is to say, of course we are interested in form, but why deny ourselves the chance to find out what submitting to the discipline of form has revealed? I’m saying all this to gear up to ask all the things I’m dying to ask, as your avid reader: Can marriage be queered? Must friendship fade and falter? Do dogs live inside time the way we do? What is the secret of the train? When you speak to your therapist, which you is speaking? Of illness or aging, which is the darker? Will the other—friend, lover, critic, stranger—ever recognize herself in the poem we’ve offered up as a means of relation, however strange?
SS: “Normal processes of living” and “labor as matter” at first seemed like a compromise for me upon moving to NYC, and becoming the director of The Poetry Project. When I lived in Milwaukee, owned a house, and worked a few minutes away, I had time and space. I started Hyperglossia in Milwaukee and finished it in New York, so by the time I started a new book here I was already director and realized time would always be a crisis. With hart island I started using labor as matter and it has felt vital to continue doing so. I don’t know what will be next. I’m editing both manuscripts this summer (Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals and A Year From Today). I have all of this Pasolini-based writing I want to pursue but it requires a very different kind of time commitment. PPP might have to be my post-PP book.
Early in Art and Experience, Dewey talks about restoring continuity between “the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” The first time I taught at Naropa, I used parts of this book, and in retrospect, it was this teaching that was nurturing the places I wanted to go in my own writing. To return for a moment to my love of “the life story,” what I didn’t say is that I often felt disappointed by the lack of detail and the neatness of the story. The first time I got a palpable sense of the suffering of a poet was through reading about Hart Crane. What I wanted so badly then, as a refusing young butch lesbian poet, was access—to people’s experiences of their bodies, their relationships, anything you can’t see from the outside/breaking social codes around those things.The information from the Mariani, Fisher and Unterecker biographies are merged in my mind at this point, but not infrequently, when going over the Brooklyn Bridge I think of Crane pissing off of it. I’m making something that early Stacy was desperate for. I have a couple of quotes coming to mind that could serve as epigraphs for the bulk of my poetic journalism:
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/ The world would split open.”
“Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made of flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystalize our actualities… .”
I’m also thinking a lot about David Wojnarowicz’s idea of the preinvented world, which the government goes to great lengths to maintain. In this context, making private things public can be very disruptive to the enforcement of national illusions. This connects back to “the neutral” as “everything that baffles the paradigm.” But when we baffle the paradigm, we have to be prepared for their violence.
I relate to your last series of questions as a fellow questioner. My poems ask those very questions and allow fear and uncertainty to hang in the air. I know you really want me to answer those questions though! Can marriage be queered? Yes and no, maybe. Must friendship fade and falter? Probably, at least the faltering part. My parents are still friends with their childhood friends. Part of me is envious and part of me thinks, well, it’s because they don’t “get into it,” how intimate are they? Comfort is nice, but I’m messier. Faltering is real. Do dogs live inside time the way we do? No way. What is the secret of the train? Pretend it’s study hall. When you speak to your therapist, which you is speaking? He needs to hear from everyone. He likes that early Stacy is always in the room, available. Of illness or aging, which is the darker? Neither of these things are dark to me, but I fear illness more than aging. What’s evil is the devaluing of human life, and part of the fear is been subjected to an evil system. Will the other—friend, lover, critic, stranger—ever recognize herself in the poem we’ve offered up as a means of relation, however strange? I do use a lot of names, but if I’m being discreet I don’t name names. And if I’m being discreet, it’s because I’m trying to say something that is diplomatic while also voicing my complaint, my anger, my hurt, whatever is going on—while holding up as writing. “The complaint” is a big part of the work, especially in “Journal of Ugly Sites.” Will the man who badgered me for a reading for years recognize himself? There are dozens of those men, and some women too. I think we don’t have enough consciousness around how our actions impact each other. For a period in my early adulthood, I didn’t think I mattered to anyone—like I could flit in and out as I pleased and who would notice or have any investment in my presence. It’s part self-effacing and part irresponsible. One of the moral stances of the work is that it is essential to be aware of your position, your motives, your interconnectivity, your impact on your community. Writing books where family makes appearances is a new challenge for me because it’s, then, not only my privacy, but it is my, as you say, means of relation and my experience. To use a phrase from Etel Adnan, some recognition from “the other” could serve as a “beneficial trauma.” “Oh, that’s me.” I hope everyone can bear it. I can.
Matt Longabucco is the author of the chapbook Everybody Suffers: The Selected Poems of Juan García Madero (O’Clock Press 2014). Other work has appeared recently in Capricious, The Brooklyn Rail, and Parkett. He is a co-founder of Wendy’s Subway, a 24-hour library, workspace, and meeting space for writers, artists, and readers in Williamsburg. He teaches at New York University and lives in Brooklyn.
Stacy Szymaszek is a poet, editor and arts administrator. She is the author of the books Emptied of All Ships (2005), Hyperglossia (2009), and hart island (2015). Her book, Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals, won the Ottoline Prize from Fence Books and will be published in early 2016, with A Year From Today following in 2017 from Nightboat Books. She’s the recipient of a 2014 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. She is a regular teacher for Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, and mentor for Queer Art Mentorship. Szymaszek has been Director of The Poetry Project since 2007.