Sandra and Ben Doller: why are you doing this

The Dollers in real-time Gmail Chat discuss their recent books, Fauxhawk (Wesleyan) and Leave Your Body Behind (Les Figues), as well as their forthcoming collaborative book from Sidebrow, The Yesterday Project, in which the writers each composed a document recording the previous day, every day, for 32 days, without sharing or discussing their work. The collaboration took place in the shadow of a diagnosis of life-threatening illness: melanoma cancer, stage 3. The resulting work is a declaration of dependence—a relentlessly honest chronicle of shared identity and the risks inherent in deep connection. In archiving this daily struggle, The Yesterday Project projects an imagined future as a radical act.


why are you doing this?

Oct 31, 2:33 PM

what disappoints you the most?

Sun, 11:29 AM

I want to say I disappoint me most, but I think I disappoint me most consistently, a kind of ambient disappointment, something to do with what I do with my time, a sort of anxious leisure that sits there, this acknowledgement of things I haven’t written and will not write, will not read and have not read, ways I haven’t taught and won’t teach, protests I haven’t joined or started and probably won’t. It’s all about potential and privilege wasted, already, and the acknowledgement that this shame may not inspire me to radical shifts in production or citizenship. Each action or inaction is a kind of cry for/record of what it could have been—I think of art, especially my own, in that way. But I think I’m most disappointed in the way tremendously powerful, seemingly impervious corporations have infected every cell of our human bodies (and the social/animal/plant/mineral bodies of the world as well) and the way this is intricately related to my previously detailed disappointment. 

Sun, 12:07 PM

Because I can. Because I can’t. I wonder this a lot. What am I doing. With my time here. With my time. It’s like we’re all insane, inviting people into this or that, repelling here and there. Why do anything. Why have a baby. Why try to spend a day without Monsanto. The baby has a will to live. I hope. The baby is doing this. I passionately don’t give a fuck about most things, every thing. Except a few people and animals. Except large groups of people and justice. This is what I can do. Everybody has one. Am I doing what I’m good at or skipping it. Are you. Is “doing this” still a way to resist the way it is. If it’s not journalism, can we still say anything. Can we say more. What’s so good about saying. Is there any way that my time here can be a challenge to the great forces. Why aren’t poets at the front of anti-racist anti-corporate anti-sexist anti-convention anti-GMO anti-pharmaceutical anti … Well, aren’t they/we. No. Nobody’s perfect. To be perfect to be anti all the things. To be against purity. But to be pissed, truly pissed to the core. But breathing. Why am I doing this. Why do. Why this. Not Why but How.

Sun, 12:25 PM

In Leave Your Body Behind, you quote everyone. You quote Eileen Myles—she doesn’t give a shit about her memories. She feels like a camera, a recording instrument, a technology. When you quote, are you standing by what is said? How do you feel? 

Sun, 1:41 PM

Who is “ye” in your long “Pain” poem in Fauxhawk? Who are you talking to in this book? Who are you talking about? You write through Fanny Howe’s “Robeson Street.” Are you talking to Fanny? The universe/ity? Yourself? Me?

Sun, 2:24 PM

I feel great. I feel fine. I quote Eileen Myles quoting Eileen Myles. It’s true. I quote Steve Paxton and Bill T. Jones and Rae Armantrout and Yvonne Rainer and Fanny Howe and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Terri Gross. I quote myself back to me. The quotes are flags on a cake. They are conversations with my shelves. We are all wearing our archives. No one wants to buy them anymore. All the better, they are not for sale. I stand by the recordings. I remember the quotes better than I remember my own writing. What does it mean to give a shit about one’s own memories. When we write, when we make, we’re giving them away. It’s a fire sale. What does the garage sale look like outside capitalism? We’re giving it all away. That makes some voters nervous. Why? All language is quotation. I’m quoting myself here. What hasn’t been said. I tell this to my students like a challenge. I suppose it’s a depressing way to start a class. Boris Groys in the new Movement Research Performance Journal says that all artists are philosophers because to make art in a place where there is no place for art, one must already be theorizing art. Maybe quotation is my theory of art in this book. It’s not a stealing and it’s not a direct conversation. It’s more of a seepage. It’s—Here, these are some of the things I’m thinking a lot/all the time/now, and here is what this person said/wrote/thought and why not reveal that. In academic writing, we’re taught to cite and support and give thanks to other thinkers. Why not here and why not in juxtaposition. Can you have a conversation that is juxtaposition, a la Chomsky and Foucault and the Chatbot? I’m thinking of Annie Dorsen’s “Hello Hi There.” What if all our references were revealed like slip hems? I’ve wanted to go back to my older books and annotate them for the references to Dylan lyrics, fairy tales, personal experiences alluded to, folk songs, theory, in jokes … But now I’m thinking of John Keene’s Annotations and Jenny Boully’s The Body and the foot

notes in your Fauxhawk … see it never ends … even if the chat box does.

Sun, 3:03 PM

Who am I talking to? What am I talking about? I think about it and it changes. I’m not aware of any audience for my writing, so it’s not that. “Pain” is written around and within and from redacted government documents, studies in non-lethal high-pain weaponry. There is the question of reception: who receives these volleys? Who “gets” the pain. A projected poetry audience sometimes seems like a projected enemy: they are a type of potential. I wanted to write as many forms of address as possible into the poem, and the thee’s and thou’s and ye’s are all in there. They are material: obsolete mouth sounds that once represented ways of speaking to other human beings. I think I was thinking of some of the Cantos, the crazy violent terrifying notion of “history” embedded in the gut of the modern. And then I was thinking a lot of Thomas Paine, of Common Sense, wondering if either of those words were possible, especially in tandem. The State’s first philosopher, right, named Pain. A review of one of my books described the entire form of address as hostile, which confused me, but I get it I get it I get it. I am not in love with my fantasy reader, I’m in love with you—there’s not some interior paramour being addressed in my poems. It’s just a broken mirror, of course. I wrote through Fanny’s poem because I found it in the faculty lounge at my university, and I wanted to become a better human and poet, and no one could provide a better model than she. I had started working for the largest state in the world and I felt like I didn’t know how to write or even read a poem. So how did a saint do it? I have no idea who I am talking to, I’m just making something, some kind of memorial, maybe time capsule, from the talk. 

Sun, 3:05 PM

Is your newest book a continuation from the previous ones? Is it something else? What time would you like to eat dinner?

Sun, 3:22 PM

How is your new book Fauxhawk different from your other books? What amazing thing are you making me for dinner?

Sun, 3:23 PM

Sun, 3:30 PM

Sun, 3:31 PM

It’s the new book. Me now: diluted, deluded. It exhibits quality design and high-level decisions made by professional makers of books. Its back cover bears eloquent words of support from luminaries in the field. I can never tell if the writing deserves the packaging, the commitment of paid and unpaid hardworking people to get it on a shelf somewhere. It’s a lovely object, the cover has two incredible images from the artist Clement Valla: corrupted/glitchy (though Valla says they aren’t glitches, they are as they are; I agree) Google Earth shots of fucked-up roads. Which reminds me: the interior of the book, the writing, was mostly written or begun in California, and many of the poems are all up in California’s business. I made a decision at some point to use more of the material of my life in my work, less imagination, less purely-associative kinetic wordplay and percussive jibber-jabber. It was a business decision. I like writing the word business. Business. I decided to do less research, to feel my way in, and I wrote much of the book on the way to work, or at work, or while detoxing from work. I wondered about the term “work” and how artists like to call what they make work. I think we should call it the opposite of such, something liberating and fantastic: “krow” maybe—“work” backwards, obviously. The book is more serious about perspectival issues, who is speaking and how, the sort of deadly satellite’s-eye view that I’m trying to get at in the title… Fauxhawk as in Fake Hawk as in drone. Why do we call them drones? Isn’t that the word for words you ignore? Why is asking questions like this so reducible, ensconced and blunted in its Seinfeld/Larry David routine? The title is also trying to get at the complex cultural situation embodied in the FH hairstyle: business friendly, socially accepted, scalable, erasable, but built on the ashes of dissent fashion, & on burial mounds. I spin out on words, get dizzy, and I try to transfer the symptoms into my krow. 

And I think the book is the most ambivalent about poetry itself, kind of disgraced by it a little, in fact, doing the poetry while wanting to do the something else. I do not know what. 

Oh, rice and beans, and piles of veggies. I managed to pre-soak for once. Everything’s coming together.

Sun, 4:09 PM

I’m always ready to eat. We just walked with the baby and dog and it’s getting dark in a premature way and you’re already cooking up the goods. I made us a toast course twice today. But I’ve nursed the baby about 15 times, so it’s a contribution to the whole.

Sun, 6:12 PM

My Les Figues book has sentences. I veer between thinking all my work is the same work, the book is all one book, and thinking I actually am working on something new, that there’s a new direction. Nude erection. Leave Your Body Behind is both a sequel and a prequel, I think. It picks up on some things I used to do in my writing when I wrote for performance, like sound-based substitutions and semantic subversions. But it’s also moving in the direction of my next project, which is more fact-based memory work. Or writing through memory that questions the memory, pushes up against what it means to remember, to be a subject who has experiences that can be recalled, shared, spun, distorted, repeated with slight variation. Leave Your Body Behind deals with these things in a way that none of my other work has. Although I do think the new book sustains an interest in writing as a sort of shorthand, the idea of inside and outside in language and consciousness, and the codes we use and accept as meaningful. I feel like I’m always butting up, sometimes violently, against what it means to speak. I’m an intensely private communicator, and these forces are at odds. But rather than become more occluded, as when I write in lines or packets or phrases or fragments, when I write in sentences the work has a bold, commandant, instructional, and confident affect that I find sort of appealing and almost true. And here’s another contradiction that’s hopefully not too abstract—the new work is true even as it plays with persona and fakery. The new work is also not that new, in that I worked on that book for a long time and it took many forms before coming out as a book. And that work changes in performance over time as well. I used to read it incredibly fast. I used to read the quotes more often. I’ve tried improvising with the work and going from memory. And I have a few video pieces I’m working on where I overlay the text on top of minute little daily physical moments, tiny dances. 

There’s something about the new book not being poems—it’s a novel, it’s a memoir, it’s a nomoir—that feels like something I’m going to keep doing for a bit. 

Sun, 6:38 PM

I just remembered. Minerals don’t have cells. You mention

You mention performance. Can you mention it some more, how is performance linked to your written work? Is it it? Is it all a performance, a De Certeau living room. I want to know if you’re acting or if you’re dancing, always always? Where is the writing located, where is the living?

10:11 AM

Can you talk a little bit about the line? Give me a line. Tell me what your thinking is about the line. Is a line a visible thing? A felt thing? A worded thing? A wooded thing? A rhythmic thing? A planned thing? Whose line is it anyway …

10:50 AM

Puh foh mans. Yes. It all is. I perform in the living room and De Certeau happens to be there. Am I performy? Yes, probably but it might just be social anxiety. It might be something else. It might be meta experience. I am always standing somehow outside my own experience and that is where making comes from. But it does make living maybe less live. Or more attended. I have a background in performance, which means that’s what I grew up doing, in the living room, on stage at school. I was Shakespeare’s Snug and Mrs. Potiphar’s wife and Anne Frank’s sister Margot. I would get lost in the roles. I would forget me. In “college,” I did dance and wrote plays and wrote text that I “performed” i.e. memorized and danced to or moved to. It all seemed quite “natural” to me. I never noticed it. Edward Albee picked one of my plays for something and it was produced in Boston and New York and I hated it—seeing someone else’s imagination of what had been so clear to me, it was embarrassing. A word I can never spell. And then I was stalked by some creepy freak and got a terrible case of the nerves and didn’t want to perform for a long long time, 10 years or so. This is like a biopic or something. Which is all to say I have a codependent erratic relationship with performance. And yes, it all is. In that Boris Groys interview, he also says there is no more spectator because everyone is a creator now, making their posts and uploading their vids. And what is the spectator for, I wonder. A musician friend, Nicolee Kuester, is into introverted performances, the ones no one can hear or see or are at the edges of experience-able. I’ve always thought “creative writing” should be taught in the art department, and performance too. And I’m curious to know how one theorizes writing as not a performance. You’re doing something with your fingers and putting it out to a “spectator” or “audient,” as Charles Bernstein would have it. And then there’s the reading of the work aloud. How can we as writers tr

trouble that line between inside & outside and is there a line there and maybe this is my vision of the line. I think I’m concerned with all this yes, and it does hit identity and existence and who are we and how. See now I can’t go back and edit anything up there since I already hit return and so oh well, there it is, an improvisation, settled.

11:09 AM

Thanks for dropping a line. I remember that from what I was typing before. I can’t believe it: I had an answer almost done, but I did something else and then my answer was gone. This seems to keep happening to me in this modern age. Apparently “hangouts” have an expiration date? Or maybe I hit the red “close” button instead of the two arrows that get me off full screen. I have been writing prose on paper and now this missing answer. I lost both, one in the world and one in the larger elsewhere. I wish I had written it in lines. I never lose lines. I’m going to try to remember something of what I said but it will lack the energy of the morning in which it was written, because now we have been through a few things, rocking the baby, a hundred diapers, worries about food … and it’s sad for me, I think I was saying things a few decent things.

Something about 

1:30 PM

the thing I used to give my students, the etymology of line, way way back to the Fibre of Flax, how our concept of line, even geometrically, not just poetically, stems from this flexible, flaxible (I did that in the old answer too–but I added the “stems” pun just now) stringy thing. As if the language, the human, doesn’t contain the shortest distance between two points. I just love thinking that, that we are inherently an inefficiency. I would just give the students this, ask them to think about it, so that I would remember to think about it. Like stealing from your job. And I thought, I think about line all the time… to me, it is the meeting point of the body and the text, the pause, the stop that makes the go go. The linebreak, I mean, that which makes the line a line. How about that, cutting something makes it what it is? And, to me, it shifts the entire planar field or dimensionality of the text, text not in lines is horizontal, should be read on a table or on your back, whereas text in lines is vertical, it’s a ladder, it should be read standing up and moving, out loud. It’s the break that interests me, the way it literally scores the text, perforates it with what?—breath, hesitance, multiplicity, doubt, shame, leaping and landing… it’s a different thing for different poets, poems, a psychophysical signature. I’d love to define poetry as broken text, I’d love to simply celebrate the line as something that gives text a body and brings the body back to language, and to leave out of this note the inverse creeping notion of line as a place to showcase a little fascism, a sick little goosestep, an exalted and celebrated space that separates street speech from the literary high and mighty. But I don’t know, making space, empty space, is not something I can give up, I like the line, if one isn’t trying to turn perfect cartwheels with it, but is trying to ask what the line is, what it does while doing it, that is it, right, maybe an open commons, infinitely translatable for anyone who

can see where you stopped and how you started picking it back up again.

1:59 PM

Sandra isn’t on Hangouts right now. She’ll see your messages later

We’ve collaborated on two books—Sonneteers (Editions Eclipse, 2014) and The Yesterday Project (Sidebrow Books, 2015). You know this, I suppose. How would you describe each collaboration to our 12-week old baby, Wild Alphabet Doller? Or maybe when she’s a little older, maybe even person-sized …

42 mins

We wrote The Yesterday Project together last year. It was a scary time for u both, right? Each day we wrote separately about what happened the day before. I’ve been wondering for a while, now that it’s been a while, if you feel writing a book of memory has made those memories more palpable, more conjurable, sharper for you. I think for me it has, but I’ve read the book a bit more than you have since, and the memories have become these strange mythic everydays. Et toi?

27 mins

I’ve been thinking about some of that. Sonneteers is easy to explain to the grown baby, Wild, it’s your (what do we call ourselves to her?) parents typing rhymes together, switching off, locked in time by the typewriter technology, locked into the object they typed it on. It’s instantaneous and it’s setting you up, because it’s how we got to know each other. It’s ahead of its time, and behind, took ten years to get out there, and now how old are you? Look, a portrait of Sandra I drew with my foot. Fun with four forms of form, fearless as in not written in any shadows at all, younger love’s clear bright gibberish. I don’t know if she’ll understand any of this, but the pictures are sometimes pretty. 

I wonder if she’ll find these books, especially The Yesterday Project. It’s heavy. It seems we might have decided we needed her in that book. How to describe that part?

7 mins

I think writing a book of memory has made all remembering more palpable. I remember the writing of the remembering better than the experiences. I remember sitting down and writing it, and where, and the thinking. And now I remember even more vividly reading the memories aloud together at readings. In San Diego twice and LA once and soon in Portland and Seattle and LA again and who knows where else. These readings have become part of the yesterday project, lowercase. And I still haven’t read the book or read your parts maybe because it’s too difficult or because I’d rather hear you read them than read them to myself. The whole book is predicated on the idea of you existing and the fear of you not existing, or maybe that’s not exactly it. The book is about your body, near to my body, being alive at the same time and trying to continue. So I want you to read me your parts, I want to hear your parts unfold over time, in the time-based experiment we’ve undertaken, in life/writing. But yes the memories themselves are mythic if that means huge or salient. But I think I remember plenty of things that mythically that aren’t in that book. Like the way we composed our first collaboration, Sonneteers—line by line instead of piece by piece in mostly Granville Ohio at a table on typewriters with cigarettes and white russians. Or walking Ronald Johnson the dog in San Francisco up a hill when he was a puppy. Or the first time I heard you sing. Or singing together with Steve Willard or Ronaldo Wilson or in the basement. It’s a mythic thing we’re living, to hear anyone tell it, which is why I hope we’re not jinxed or doomed. I’m happy to not mythify. But I am driven to record lately, with my book for Wild Alphabet I can’t find the time to write in, or the one for dead Ronald Johnson the dog, or the other one I’m supposed to be working on … Captain Beefheart is singing “time is running out … laughter and smoke” or is it “clapping in smoke”… ? 

7 mins

Wild, one day a long time ago, your papa found out that he was very sick. He and your mama were very worried. Blabber n’ Smoke. He had to get an operation and they found out it was worse. He felt fine. He still feels fine. It was a long time ago. The doctors weren’t really helping. He had cancer. No, he’s fine now, we’re all fine. We found a better doctor. Your mama said maybe they should write each day out, both of them, just as they remembered it, and so they did, for a while. And so you get some time from both of them. Nothing much happens, they drive around a lot, watch a bunch of Westerns, read some books, hang out in the desert. You don’t have to read it, maybe you shouldn’t but I’m saving a copy for you. 


Now here we are in a race typing next to each other on the brown couch that has followed us from San Diego to Denver to storage units to Mount Rainier to Takoma Park back to San Diego again. But I think you just beat me to it, you may have just hit return.


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dollerspicBen Doller’s most recent book is Fauxhawk from Wesleyan; Sandra Doller’s most recent book is Leave Your Body Behind from Les Figues; together their collaborative book The Yesterday Project is soon to be recent from Sidebrow. She/He/They live in San Diego and Joshua Tree with a baby and a pit bull named Wild Alphabet and Kiki Smith. They teach for California.

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