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 Gracie Leavitt’s book Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star and was recorded August 10, 2015 and transcribed by Nicole Monforton.– Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: I’m wondering if we could start with the Jean-Luc Godard quote that opens but also closes your book. Here Godard refers to tomorrow’s shoot, “filming a scene in the subway, where it goes above ground.” He describes that as a scene still to write—tomorrow perhaps. And Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star seems to present setting or the still life (which I would associate, in cinematic terms, with the set piece, the B-roll, stock footage) as source and site of spontaneity, not as backgrounded scene to take for granted. So could you discuss the importance in this book of that desire, as the opening poem puts it, “to make the going predicate”? We could tie in “Ode of the stirrer-up of” here, which closes on your box of paints. We could discuss various forms of stirring up that this book provides. But what does it mean for you to start with something seemingly static or subdued, and to have that provide the source of animation?
Gracie Leavitt: I found the Godard quote after so much of the book had been written already (in a used bookstore in L.A. and as a relief, release). I felt a freedom in this idea of the subway finally going up above ground—sort of like a surfacing for me. To be trying to come up for some air. Then to let the book finish in a way that hopefully continues on past that initial reading, certainly past the initial writing of it, with Godard going on “It isn’t written yet. I’ll write it tomorrow.” The book as a form is something I feel connected to, but that involves some tight wrestling with how compact and cut off it is sometimes, sealed off from other books, other ways of thinking, other people, while I tend to fly off on expansive impulses, propulsions. So there are lots of people in my book, lots of quotes and references. That helps me to feel a little bit more justified in writing something that ends up folding itself between pages, a little shut away from the rest of the world. So this idea of being stirred up or doing the stirring up is something that feels like another release to me.
I personally struggle with presentness. Something that probably helps me get away from my struggle to be present is going back and forth between what has just happened and what will happen—trying to come up with an idea of presentness that is really a combination of past and future. I do think that’s probably a failure of mine. I would like to be more present in some ways. I would like my writing life to be more present, but that isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I think I defer to my sense of past and my sense of future to find a placement there.
AF: Well, with “Ode of the stirrer-up of,” I sense this overlapping of landscape, mood, identity—all as elements that get enlivened by your energetic form of still-life composition. I recall Joe Brainard’s Ten Imaginary Still Lifes, where he enacts the process of closing one’s eyes and then painting or transcribing the still life one sees. And likewise, I’d love to hear more about how language pushes you into what you described as isolated, isolating, or at least highly personal landscapes. Whereas Brainard, for instance, offers this very simplistic idiom, your poem “Recombinant plasma of the pre-dawn star at neap tide” presents obscure or invented terms (“terebinth,” “drupes,” “clingstones,” “bobwhite”), and similarly idiosyncratic usages (“Maidhood,”
“chasmal”) and phrases (“rank with crop milk”). And then again, as with “Ode of the stirrer-up of” concluding by reference to the box of paints, “Recombinant plasma” closes on an “I” still gripping spider mums: clutching, clasping, threading together. So again I think of imaginary still lifes, an imagined vision, but also of classic Language poetics conceptions, such as Steve McCaffery foregrounding a discourse that represents a window as the pane it is, so you can see the glass that structures a perceived poetic transparency. Could you put your own forms of description, of representation, somewhere along this continuum between imaginary still lifes and hyper-realism?
GL: That phrasing “imaginary still life” is very helpful to me. But I think to describe the way that is helpful to me, I will take a step back and say that if something I might be creating were to be called an imaginary still life, the objects could not possibly end up on the table until I had the words for them. As I come to write a piece, it is because certain words have sort of clung to me from various readings and various hearings or mishearings or missightings. And those words tangle upon each other until they stack up to something that wants to be revised into what might be organized later as an imaginary still life.
So while I very much enjoy getting to that stage where I have a setting, I have a backdrop, I have the right flowers on the table or in a person’s hand, they can’t possibly end up there until I’ve had the vocabulary (often obscure) to get me to that place. After a while, I’ll have a handful of words that have become important to me for any variety of reasons—some of them sentimental. Some of those words are important to me because of their aurality, because of certain vocalizations that they produce. Then they manage to stack up on each other of their own accord. They grab onto each other perhaps like some set of logs flowing down a river. Something will inevitably get lodged on the side there and start to clump up. Eventually there is movement produced by that function. Somehow that brings me to something like a still life. I think that leads me to feel entitled to set a scene and then also to manage to tweak it into a kind of motion. Perhaps a finery of motor skills is enacting itself in those smaller poems especially, but one that is produced by the friction of slower-moving objects.
AF: On a related subject, it interests me here how character or poetic subjecthood comes about. I offered Brainard and McCaffery, but of course, we don’t need to restrict ourselves to male points of reference. When characters or at least names start to surface, for example, on a sudden “Amanda says,” I think of Stein. I think of Lyn Hejinian writing about Steinian landscape. I think of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Do any of these writers (or others you wish to cite) provide you with charismatic models of fluid literary identity? And do any particular forms of painterly landscape appeal for analogous reasons?
GL: Absolutely. Stein is a foundational text for me. All of Stein is something that … well, I was about to say I come back to it frequently. I no longer come back to it an awful lot, but it’s something I feel lives within me and gives me lots of permission—permission that might modulate over time. So an initial permission might change later on. The naming of people that comes about in these poems arrives for a few different reasons. I do feel that there is an impulse to create something like an early-period novel in my wanting to reference especially those first names—so much so that while I prefer the texture of first names on a page, there’s a way in which they become simply letters to me, as you might see in some very old handwritten correspondence, how folks become simply the first letter of their name and similarly kind of float along the surface. Friends and colleagues and imaginary characters float along the surface of my mind.
But also I want to give credit to all of the folks who have contributed to my vocabulary, to my ways of thinking. So sometimes a character will show up because I’m missing that person badly. “Amanda” is my cousin and really had said this or something similar. I was missing her and wanted to honor that tug while crediting her language. So in that way, it’s easier for me to embed citation within the writing while hopefully keeping it lively. I mean it too to be some sort of thank you. A citation that is also an offer of gratitude. And it’s that kind of thanksgiving that is doubling back to do a great service to me, because I end up with another word on the page, a step forward.
AF: Do any particular visual-art idioms or styles stand out, which might help introduce readers to the palette or tone of this book? Since you brought up early-twentieth-century aesthetics, I think of the Nabis movement: Bonnard, Vuillard, dense patternings out of which emerges the representational or the figurative. And when your book refers to Sassetta, I think of Wendy Steiner’s Pictures of Romance, where Steiner writes about Sassetta’s temptations of St. Anthony triptych, in which you see the same character three different times, in three different scenes—so still preceding the emergence of single-point perspective, showing us a mode of representation that doesn’t have to present the historical scene as instantaneous snapshot, that blends past and future, as you had said.
GL: There’s a wide range of reference in here, the amassment of which probably doesn’t point toward any clear coherence. But I have lots of visual obsessions, some pre-Raphaelite. I’m really drawn toward assemblage, so anything collaged is inspiring. I have a bit of an addiction there. Also the self-portraiture of women, regardless of what medium that might be happening in, is really important to me. In some ways, the kind of collage that I might be most attracted to is this whole history of self-portraiture by women. So even though a discrete lineage might not necessarily emerge amid so many different styles and techniques, each individual image promotes for me the idea of interacting with the whole history of that sort of self-representation, a chaos unto itself.
I’m also very drawn to the handmade—the observably handmade. Also very, very small things. I love anything extremely small. Miniature portraiture, miniature landscape, anything that might be able to be painted on a matchstick box or something like that. For a while, I was obsessed with making my own collages, moving bits of glitter around on pieces of glass with pins, trying to make something that still ended up being very compact in itself but made up of even tinier components. I love all fine points, small parts.
AF: On the topic of women’s self-portraiture, it interests me, in a poem like “Deballasted,” that the casting off of one’s skirts seems to conjure its own new language—here of “ards” and such. And your book’s blurbs consistently point towards both an expansive vocabulary and an embodied erotic presence. Amid the verbal exuberance, do you find yourself tapping a language of the body, of your body, of a feminine body? Or again, in terms of art-historical points of reference, the Rococo-esque style of how sex seems to get patterned into the background, even to become an allover pattern in the foreground (“unmitigated, actions in / the shade we’ll never— / our arms, our legs stuck out / from blossoms tossed from / trees in tongues and clots / and threes, pink-tipped”), stood out.
GL: There’s an interactivity for me between the body and anything earthly (by “earthly” I mean environmental). So I have a very straightforward association between the human body and then also the body of the earth. In taking an ecological perspective on any number of topics, what seems to be most crucial is being curious about how things fit together. There’s quite a lot of friction that comes from things fitting together. That seems to direct itself back to a writing of the erotic as well, which is important to me on the page insofar as it has to do with the grammatical possibilities and multistabilities of attempting to sustain an extended syntax across a lot of lines, and challenging yourself to stretch that out as far as possible.
I’m woken up to the possibilities of how a sentence might sound depending on the vowels, consonants, syllables given to me through a certain vocabulary. I try to manage those materials in a way that ends up feeling for me like a pleasurable, propulsive read. In that way I’ll talk myself back to maybe answering another part of the question having to do with my body, which is that I feel very much in touch with the reading aloud of these pages. For me a poem can’t be put in a book, can’t be finished until it works very well as it is performed out loud.
I still feel close to the singing of madrigals from when I was a teenager—and madrigals traditionally don’t rely on accompaniment. They’re meant to be produced by several voices together alone in a room somewhere. In that way, a body will end up making a lot of its own percussions at the same time as it’s generating a melody. For me to be ready to leave a poem alone and step away and imagine that it might be finished, it has to be able to achieve something like that. So experiencing how a finished poem is going through my body and feels like it might rock on the balls of my feet brings me back to my musico-muscular experience of it, which confirms that I’m finished, that it’s done, that I’m done with that part right now.
AF: Returning to the syntactical elasticity, or the elaborate syntactical duration, of some movements within this book, as well as to the appeal of collage-like arrangements: the “Paradox of heap” poems cycling throughout help to give the overall text an ekphrastic quality—with these heaps again often seeming at least somewhat sexual. So first I started to think of ekphrasis as perhaps always allegorizing the erotic or eroticized body. But gradually it also stood out how many of these poems end precisely one-page long. Even amid the durational extremities you’ve described, poems still will end on that page. It began to feel as if I stood before a scene, which I ought to take in all at once, subject to an immediacy typically not present amid the durational experience of reading. It felt more like standing before a painting. What haven’t we yet addressed in terms of tendencies towards ekphrasis, towards exhibitionism, towards voyeurism, towards scopophilia and how these all get conflated and stirred up perhaps for you or for the reader?
GL: Voyeurism strikes a chord with me, and probably the poems provide a place for me to store those impulses. Even imagined ones. So all around the poems you can inevitably find an archive of my enthusiasms. And I have a tendency to try to control the sentence in order to control perhaps the sight of the reader. So in extending a syntax over a very long period and making a sentence last maybe forever, I feel like I’m sort of in command of navigating the attention of the reader—the breath, the sight of the reader if we’re thinking about this as something that has a visual element as well.
A longer sentence is also a good place for me to leave a trail of breadcrumbs, then track back my thinking.
There is lots of looking in the book. Perspective is important to me. I think the idea of parallax, at least as a vocabulary word, comes up a couple of times. That kind of perspective, the quick switch that gives you a whole new set of information, through something that might be a very small move, is a great tool.
But then also the other side of voyeurism, and a way to take back some power from the sight that we might all be subject to in this world (people of color and women’s bodies and nonconforming bodies in particular), might be to try to harness that gaze.
AF: Here I also hope to connect back to what you had said about the body of the earth being important to you. We haven’t gotten to gardens yet, but the Gerry Gilbert quote (“If we don’t garden the tongue, / they’ll blacktop it over”) seems a good place to start. To garden the tongue could mean to master and control the tongue. Or it could mean to let the tongue grow in rich profusion. We could be talking about French or English gardens. And since one of your poems specifically claims to “outcrop booleanly,” I’d throw in to this consideration of gardeners, of arrangers, logicians and certainly librarians. And amid this book’s Shakespearean echoes, I love how Anna Moschovakis’s blurb presents your linguistic acuities as always pointing both outwards and inwards. I love, as I’ve already said, how your book sometimes seems to set aside this epic impulse to master any number of idiolects, of external languages, and instead invents its own language. So we could move in many different directions from here. But, perhaps under the sign of Ophelia and her own garden songs, could you trace some potential threats or maybe goals of narcissism, of madness, that give your highly personal poetics of landscape, of still life, of garden, their rhetorical charge?
GL: That’s a big ledge to step off. Something I’d like to say about gardens is how much they are a problem for me, particularly with the couple of possibilities you’ve already brought up: what sort of garden are we talking about when we’re talking about gardening the tongue? As for my taste, that would be a profuse garden overrun with greenery and lots of floral trifles and vegetation. I love that wildness. So when I imagine gardening the tongue to prevent it from being obscured, I think of keeping surfaces too alive to be dominated. In line with that, I really hate to recycle the same word too many times unless there’s a very deep purpose there. I strive to keep the surface of the page alive with multistability but also diversity of diction, pulling words from all sorts of places.
Another problem I have with gardens and the green perspective in general (and this came up a lot in writing the book) is that, whereas I’m aesthetically pulled to the beauty of the vegetal and its wildness, I want to have a wider view upon the world, a gesture outside of myself, my tastes, toward social justice. It’s very easy to bring the prettiness of a flower to bear on matters of ecological crisis. And that’s a keen tool, but also tricky. Environmental justice is certainly a progressive priority globally, but (with its petals, grasses, tributaries) it’s an easily romanticized subject. So I wonder about the trouble in that, for sure. I worry about being yet another person of privilege contributing to the sentimentalization of that project, the garden party and the wider movement.
So I’m curious if I garden up my poems not only because I feel artfully compelled to do so, but also because perhaps it’s easier to confront those problems in the world that have to do with environmental failure as opposed to the many other systemic issues we need to be dissecting—the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy for starters. In my wish to reckon with disaster, I need to be honest about the possibility of my seeking out softer catastrophes—not facile exactly, not straightforward, but to some extent more accessible, less controversial. The environmental devastation that we will always be facing up until the very end is not an anodyne matter by any means, but sometimes it does feel like one all too readily bumper-stickered, one around which hovers an amnesia smudging out its connection to all other mechanisms of oppression. Still I seem to want to plunge into these gardens all of the time. And I quote Adrienne Rich in the book, saying “because in times like these / to have you listen at all, it’s necessary / to talk about trees.” So it’s something I feel is a source of anxiety in the book, which I keep vibrating around, shaking off, to see what else will come loose.
AF: I also don’t want to track gardening along strict gendered lines, and have it serve as some ghettoizing trope. I think of Eric Baus’s work, of how spores and clones pop up in his syntax, reminding me in some ways of your own. I think of Paul Celan when I encounter compounded lamentations, such as in your phrase “kisscurl love.”
GL: Right, we don’t need to talk about gardening along gendered lines. But whereas lots of flowery details are easily attributed to patented ideas of femininity, we also could talk about gardens as being in some ways historically quite male, because they’re coming at some point from an impulse to control the environment—though plenty of women seek that same control. You and I have already talked about my desire to wrangle a sentence and also a gaze. There’s a way in which that power hunger might be even more male, and that’s something I’m interested in exploring too.
Lots of the tropes we’ve strung together to form a costume for femininity have lived first lives as cishet-male priorities. Certainly there’s a lot of interesting crossover there, and I think we get into enormous trouble when we try to sort things into just two categories, since nature simply does not exist binarily.
AF: Similarly, Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star seems to resist a constrictive sense of the embodied or the erotic. The erotic picks up any number of registers. Your book presents itself as “with” others in a variety of ways: through collaborations, dedications, elegies. Do you find it important for many of your poems to declare themselves as for somebody or with somebody?
GL: Very much: the “for” and the “with” probably collapsing upon themselves a little bit there. I enjoy not being alone in a process in which I’m often very much alone. So while I’m bringing my full subjective self to a room or a screen or a scrap of paper, I really do enjoy flooding the work with my people—some of whom are imagined. I think there’s something of a survivalist impulse in that, gathering together my people who bring in turn their tools and skills. With at least one trajectory of this era coming to some sort of end, how wonderful it would be to have our familiars here, there. And each of our loved ones brings a gift—this sword, this water jug. As in the myths, often all we can manage to do, it seems, is move “forward,” if that, carefully collecting charms magpie-like for whatever eventual purpose, however unknown, later to share.
And just because you brought up the word “elegy,” I’m thinking about that trajectory of world. There are at least two clear-cut elegies in the book, but elegiac writing is pretty omnipresent, speaking clearly to this anthroposcenic moment. The anthropocene is a popular talking point right now, but here I want to neologize and angle at the “scene” sound—since there’s been a good deal of wanting to look out at our inevitable end. Always what we’re looking at is something we’re going to be seeing for the very last time. And that is another species of voyeurism that appears in the book and in this time. There is an awful lot of gazing going on.
AF: Sticking to the topic of elegy: I don’t know your relation to Emma Bee Bernstein, but her place on this book’s front cover stands out. I consider your book’s cover as kind of an apotheosis of Nightboat covers, because Nightboat’s visual idiom often includes this slanted, weird, off-cue investment in the figural, in the personal—but without it being the author’s autobiographical person. Nightboat covers often seem to present a self-portrait, but often do not.
GL: This particular Emma Bee Bernstein photo (Self-portrait in red rose dress in green garden) lived with me for a while before the book began: printouts on my desk at first, later a postcard, framed, from her show in Greenpoint. The image ended up in my MFA thesis, from which the bulk of this manuscript was derived. I think red rose ended up tucked into the sheaf, as the manuscript’s most central oasis, but Stephen brought up the idea to bring it out, to use it as the cover, front and back. I felt really sheepish about asking Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee for their permission, so sheepish, but of course Stephen had picked up on my deepest wish that this vernal pool pour out from the middle.
And I am humbled to have the book in this way participate in the Nightboat tradition of women’s portraiture making it onto covers. I’m thinking of Ban and The Devastation. It’s a point of pride for me to be able to see the book looking cousin-like with these volumes, but it’s also further evidence that the book found the right place, with these editors and fellow authors too.
AF: Well, to close, and to come back to a few topics set aside, could we address the poem-opening, self-elegizing line “Things I loved were having a body”? Do you or have you loved having a body? Could you describe how this love has shaped your poetics? And, though I hear your concern about also addressing other social-justice issues, could you combine loving a body or having loved your body with the eco-minded urgency that this particular book does evoke?
GL: I love having my own body, or I’m learning too. I love having other bodies. I love having my body love other bodies. That’s part of the grammar that I like to try to live. Having my own physical body is something that … it’s not so very special to say I have struggled with being bound by it, its inadequacies, and its inability to stack up with other bodies in a way that is pleasing to me. But I certainly appreciate how much in time my body puts me. My body changing over the course of my life is something that places me in this moment. All of the chemicals that end up residing in all of these parts of my body time-stamp me, and I admire that inescapability, even while I rail against it. I love to discover secret routes out, and first recognizing how trapped we are and then reckoning with that produces fresh labyrinthic information.
I feel similar about the environment that I end up inhabiting. I grew up in a woodsy, lush spot, and since then I haven’t lived in many green spaces. I’ve lived in a number of cities (Philadelphia, Brooklyn, St. Louis), and projecting myself back to the backyard forests, the acreages of my childhood, is enjoyable for its nostalgia, its breed of escapism, but also critical. Urban planning and development (real and figurative) rely on understanding in which patterns (habits and decorations) we’ve trapped ourselves—rely on starting from there.
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.
Gracie Leavitt is the author of the full-length book of poems Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star (Nightboat Books) as well as the chapbooks CATENA (Double Cross Press) and Gap Gardening (These Signals Press). Her collaborative projects include debuting her original play PITCH at La Mama E.T.C. An East Coast transplant, she currently calls St. Louis home.