David Lazar with Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, jacket cover of the The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation, Ann Snitow
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, jacket cover of the The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation, Ann Snitow

To celebrate The Conversant’s evolving relationship with The Volta website collective over its five year run, Senior Editors Ching-In Chen and Caleb Beckwith have selected pieces from our archives which exemplify that relationship for our October issue. Enjoy!

This is a discussion with Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow on the anthology The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation, which they co-edited. This anthology was first published in 1998 by Three Rivers/ Crown Publishing Group. It was subsequently republished with a new preface by Rutgers University Press in 2007 and remains in print.

David Lazar: To what extent do you think anthologizing is a radical act, or can be, and to what extent might it be conservative, the impulse to preserve? Can you speak to these impulses or tensions?

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: This anthology had several serious goals. The goals were radical and conservatizing (preservation-oriented)—not conservative at all, except perhaps in an old definition (putting up preserves). The goals of The Feminist Memoir Project were historical, political and insistent. We wanted to collect original essays by women who had (often in their 20s and 30s) played serious roles in the burgeoning women’s movement: as instigators, partisans, activists, thinkers and doers. We wanted them to record their activist efforts and convictions, to discuss their activities with other women, and to reflect on their entrance into the women’s movement—including second-thoughts, problems and analyses. This was a movement that our contributors were (in various ways) creating suddenly and compellingly beginning around 1966. We thought some personal-history writing and presentation would help to counteract some of the erasure of this multifarious and serious achievement, an erasure that was already being experienced, and that has become quite extreme over the past decades (since about 2000). We wanted our contributors to reflect on what they had done, and to count some of the costs and the benefits of this enormous upsurge of social struggle. The goal was to document, in people’s own words, their grassroots activism.

Rob Halpern with Andy Fitch

Rob Halpern
Rob Halpern

To celebrate The Conversant’s evolving relationship with The Volta website collective over its five year run, Senior Editors Ching-In Chen and Caleb Beckwith have selected pieces from our archives which exemplify that relationship for our October issue. Enjoy!

Andy Fitch: As I work through these interviews I’ve found myself tracking a resurgent interest in New Narrative—a sense that New Narrative poetics have not received their fair share of critical attention, have not been thought through sufficiently by a broad enough range of contemporary poets. You of course have helped to encourage this interest. Can you place Music for Porn in relation to several exemplary New Narrative poets, texts and/or concepts? Does it make sense to speak of a second-generation self-consciously consolidating inherited insights, experiments, practices? Or do New Narrative’s deft evasions of conventional literary categorization preclude such distinctions in the first place?

Rob Halpern: Where to begin with my relation to New Narrative? I’d been out of school seven years before I found myself in Dodie Bellamy’s writing workshop in 1996. One crucial forum for nourishing young Bay Area writers is this network of writing workshops that take place in writers’ homes. Finding myself in Dodie’s workshop (with Kevin Killian participating) allowed me to realize that my writing actually might be legible. After the death of my first love, James, in 1995, I’d lived in a state of terrible doubt and uncertainty—not only about the readability of my work but whether a writing community existed for me. Yet by then, forces of attraction already had taken over. In the late ’80s, when I arrived in San Francisco, I’d looked up three writers who I knew lived here and with whom I felt a sense of affinity and desire for apprenticeship. I actually looked up, in the phone book, Robert Glück, Aaron Shurin and Kathy Acker, and just by way of a cold call I sent them each a naive fan letter, together with what must have been a crappy piece of writing. I dropped these cold calls into the void of the U.S. postbox. After several months, I received generous, encouraging responses from both Aaron and Bob. Never heard from Kathy. Perhaps she’d already left San Francisco. But the fact that I received positive responses from Bob and Aaron was incredibly important. It offered a departure point of sorts, a permission-giver, though it would take five more years before I’d actually meet Bob through Dodie’s workshop (I met Aaron sooner). Bob also ran a workshop out of his home, and I began to attend that in 1997. He became a crucial mentor, a teacher and now he’s a dear friend, as is Bruce Boone, who makes a cameo early in Music for Porn, in the first sentences of “Envoi,” which serves as a kind of introduction to the book. Bruce’s Century of Clouds and My Walk with Bob remain classic New Narrative works, and my “Envoi” invokes Bruce’s writing, in part because I fear Music for Porn betrays New Narrative values. So “Envoi” rehearses a moment from a walk I took with Bruce, when he asked about my book’s obsessively recurrent figure of the male soldier. For Music for Porn to pass as New Narrative, that soldier would need to be a person in my life with a nameable name. Instead, the soldier feels more like a negative imprint of all my social relations—a feeling I announce by citing this conversation with my friend Bruce. Of course the soldier, sadly, will never become my friend, which helps suggest the stakes in this book, and why friendship remains so crucial to its structure. In “Envoi” I write, “This would be the place in the story where Bruce asks me about the figure of the soldier in my book, and whether it has some bearing on my intimate life, or whether the soldier is merely an abstraction is the flesh real? and I’m struck by his manner of asking.” Bruce’s question contains serious implications for my writing, and I want to foreground this while simultaneously introducing the soldier as a cornerstone in the architecture of a fantasy. This departs from early New Narrative works such as My Walk with Bob or Robert Glück’s Elements of a Coffee Service, both of which were formative for me. I can’t imagine myself as a writer without that work. At the same time, I feel as though I’ve departed from both texts’ writerly values, insofar as Music for Porn privileges a critical fantasy over the narration of living relationships. That said, Music for Porn’s soldier fantasy seems inseparable from my lived social relations. And here I could point to a tension I feel I’ve inherited between New Narrative practice (developed among primarily gay writers in the early ’80s) and a politics of form that one might say characterizes Bay Area Language writing, if not Language writing in general, whose rigorous critique of conventional narrative values also has shaped my poetics. I don’t want to reproduce familiar generalizations, though. New Narrative shares an equal investment in form yet proceeds from a different political stance and probes distinct formal problems. In my own talks and essays such as “The Restoration of [Bob Perelman’s] ‘China,’” I’ve attempted to rethink this relationship between New Narrative and Language, for example, by way of Soup magazine’s second issue, edited by Steve Abbott, who christened the phrase “New Narrative.” That prescient journal issue articulates and illustrates what this “New Narrative” project might look like. Most impressive about that issue of Soup is Steve’s decision to include a wide range of writers representing divergent literary practices—creating conditions for what Jacques Rancière calls “dissensus,” or the perceptible presence of two worlds in one. Steve’s expansive editorial vision provides new possibilities for presenting tensions among various poetic approaches within a complicated early ’80s Bay Area writing ecology. Similarly, in early issues of Poetics Journal, Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian adopt practices of inclusion, again to make legible productive tensions and differences. Only in the afterlife of such projects, amid what often go by the name of the “poetry wars,” do we think of these dynamic, syncretic, symbiotic writing communities as discrete, segregated, sectarian schools. So here I’ve offered a circuitous response to your question. I too find those historical tensions outlined above quite productive. I’d like to think that my work engages and complicates the relationship between both projects—through its movement toward narrative, certainly, but a narrative as indebted to Lyn Hejinian’s and Carla Harryman’s mode of distributive narrative (or non/narrative) as to forms of storytelling that I learned through my apprenticeship to Bruce’s and Bob’s work.

Cassie Mira Nicholson and N.I. Nicholson

N. I. Nicholson and Cassie Mira Nicholson
N. I. Nicholson and Cassie Mira Nicholson

Cassie Mira Nicholson: I hope this message finds you well and in good spirits. I am writing you in order to initiate a dialogue about a project I have been musing about that looks at the development of intentional family. When we first met on Facebook, I initially felt an odd relief to know someone with the same last name as I did was transitioning gender on a close timeline. Discovering that we were both disconnected from our Nicholson bloodline only made me more interested in getting to know you. Over the last few years, I have learned from a distance and the powers of Facebook that there are many similarities in our personal histories. For instance, while you work for the catholic church, I at one time lived in a catholic rectory. We both have fondness for poetry, etc. ….

Caleb Beckwith with Suzanne Stein and Steve Benson

Steve Benson and Suzanne Stein
Steve Benson and Suzanne Stein

Caleb Beckwith: I’m tempted to jump right in with questions regarding the media used in your collaborative chat performances, conducted from 2011–2012 and archived on Suzanne’s blogspot site. But I’m wondering if you could first describe the project, either individually or together, for readers not already familiar. Personally, I didn’t discover your archive until last year, when I very quickly read its entirety without what now seems like the very necessary dimension of duration, both in the individual pieces and across the arc of your extended project. We’ll get to duration later, especially as it informs collaboration, but I’d be remiss if we didn’t properly set the scene for readers at the outset of the drama that is this interview.

Suzanne Stein and Steve Benson: The performances were collaborative improvisations undertaken live, online, without any kind of rehearsal or premeditation as to subject, theme, composition, or execution. The chats, or dialogues, or shows, or plays, or performances, whatever we think we might want call them, were the rehearsal. In our introduction to the book, tentatively titled DO YOUR OWN DAMN LAUNDRY, which collates all thirty-six of the resulting texts, precisely as they unfolded live, we offer this about our regularly scheduled, not-so-planned performing: We realized the resulting works might be understood by turns as confrontational, avoidant, competitive, provocative, philosophical, intimate, meaningless, narcissistically challenged, ethically inquiring, epistemologically conflictual, and ridiculous. They are an exercise in presence, attention, friendship, improvisation, poetry, craft, and speech.

Rusty Morrison with Jennifer S Cheng

Jennifer Cheng
Jennifer S Cheng

Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! This conversation focuses on Jennifer S Cheng’s book, HOUSE A. –Rusty Morrison

Rusty Morrison: It is such a great pleasure for all of the poetry editors at Omnidawn that Claudia Rankine selected HOUSE A as the winner of our 1st/2nd Book Prize. As one of the blind readers who screens work for this and for all of our poetry contests, I recall my delight to see this manuscript in the blind submissions. I immediately recognized that this work had come to us before, in shorter form, through our chapbook contest. It had not won, yet I knew it to be an amazing work in chapbook form. Then reading it for this contest, I was stunned by the power of HOUSE A, and all that is included now in this text as a full book. Would you speak to the ways that the sections cohere, and how you made decisions to bring the text together in this form?

Jennifer S Cheng: Inside the book, there are: migratory birds, (un)tethered boats, water, sleep, the body in dislocation, shadows, mappings, weather systems, echolocation, nests, moons. Which is to say that all of our work as writers and artists are like maps of our obsessions, our preoccupations, our hauntings. I started writing “Letters to Mao” in summer months, and most of the prose poems in that series came quickly (which rarely happens for me; I am usually slow like a snail). I work mostly by intuition, and it made sense to me that other poems I subsequently wrote—those in the sequence “House A; Geometry B” and the series “How to Build an American Home”—were of a similar attunement and investigation. Maybe I can call it the poetics of an immigrant home: how the body is inscribed with a cosmology of home and vice versa. How, for example, are the subtleties of history, displacement, and migration woven into the shelter my parents made for me and my siblings? In all three sections, I am writing into a critical and personal silence, and I hope that by evoking the shadows and subterranean, I complicate the immigrant landscape, conjure the small layers it can carry.

Michael Martin Shea with Darcie Dennigan and Joyelle McSweeney

Darcie Dennigan and Joyelle McSweeney
Darcie Dennigan and Joyelle McSweeney

Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press and includes work by poets and playwrights Joyelle McSweeney and Darcie Dennigan. They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to discuss Coke bottles, multiple hearts, flowers of extermination, and blowing up the Cartesian grid.

Michael Martin Shea: Hi Joyelle! Hi Darcie! Let’s start off with your BAX work. Both of your pieces in BAX 2015 invoke the judicial world, creating or projecting an imaginary courtroom in which the action of the writing takes place, so-to-speak (replete with inscrutable judges and their whims). What does this atmosphere of the legal—its trappings and forms of speech—provide for your writing, in terms of either craft or politics (or both)?

Darcie Dennigan: I think authority is funny, author-ity even funnier. The idea that any piece of writing or any writer could settle an argument . . . I like Dead Youth a lot and especially the excerpt in BAX for this reason. Its set-up enacts the absurdity of authority (political and poetic) and its language does too—its wordplay just keeps enlarging (and diminishing) its arguments.

Hamid Bouaicha with Natalia Treviño

Hamid Bouaicha and Natalia Treviño
Hamid Bouaicha and Natalia Treviño

This interview between Hamid Bouaicha and Natalia Treviño focuses on Treviño’s book of poems, Lavando La Dirty Laundry (Mongrel Empire Press).

Hamid Bouaicha: My first question is probably one you have been asked the most. How did you become a poet? And, what drove you to poetry?

Natalia Treviño: This is such an important question. I became a poet by playing with song lyrics by my favorite bands when I was a teenager. I began to re-write their titles to create sentences. I felt like I was unlocking language by seeing and hearing new word combinations. It was in the act of discovery that I became a poet. I think there are as many poets in the world as there are people who love rain. Taking it to a professional level has taken decades, even a decade of silence in my twenties. When I saw the words created whole internal experiences for me, something inside me woke up, and put me in touch with intangibles that make meaning. I am forever at the service of those intangibles, much the way a quantum physicist is certain that there is more out there than meets the limited scope of reference gauged by our feeble instrument.

Thomas Fink with Sean Singer

Thomas Fink (painting by Maya D. Mason, 30" x 40", oil on canvas, 2015) and Sean Singer
Thomas Fink (painting by Maya D. Mason, 30″ x 40″, oil on canvas, 2015) and Sean Singer

Thomas Fink: Honey and Smoke contains several long poems. In the 40 sections of the prose-poem, “Black Swan,” at least 2/3 of the sections pertain to the political history of Newark, New Jersey. Later, we’ll address how these parts relate to others that seem to be about very different topics, but for now, let’s focus on the interplay of the accumulation of knowledge and questioning (doubt) in these sections. In the fifth section, you point to the cause of the Newark riots of 1967 by saying that “the history of Newark,” though “central to understanding the political narrative of race and Civil Rights,” had been “largely ignored,” and that “Jim Crow… had a red beak and leathery acne-red wattle in the social fabric of Northern cities like Newark” (53). The fourth part consists of 17 questions and one final, highly metaphorical declarative sentence. These are the first five questions:

How to explore the effect of the Newark riots? How do the city police escalate violence? How do the state police escalate violence? How does the National Guard escalate violence? How do female looters strip mannequins? (53).

Lauren DeGaine with a colleague/friend

Lauren DeGaine
Lauren DeGaine

The following interview is part of a series of interviews which were conducted as part of a project that was concerned with the subject of failure in relation to Alice Jardine’s concept of ‘gynesis’ (putting into the discourse of “woman”). I wanted to write about the spaces that failure creates, what happens just after the moment of failure, and how that sensation can be a horizon or a void (a generative space); I was also interested in the relationship between failure and rites of passage. Four specific conceptual inquiries were posed to a diverse group of people, who are anonymous here, and phrases from their answers were spliced together to create part of the rhetorical language in a lyric essay that is forthcoming from the online poetics journal, Something on Paper. – Lauren DeGaine


Lauren DeGaine: Please describe the feeling of stepping down when you think there’s a stair and there isn’t.

colleague/friend: The abruptness of gravity. I broke my foot that way, not looking down. Anticipating a non existent obstacle. Clumsily navigating domestic topography. Sometimes it’s a relief, not having to step down. An unexpected hello from the pavement.

Julie Kantor and Jesse Nathan

Jesse Nathan and Julie Kantor
Jesse Nathan and Julie Kantor

Dikembe Press authors Julie Kantor and Jesse Nathan recently had a conversation. The contents of said conversation are below. Among other things, they discuss types of landscapes, the need to write, Google, and America. This conversation speaks to what drew us to their work, so we are excited to share it.

Jesse Nathan: How do you not get sad every day?

Julie Kantor: Oh, I’m sad every day. Sad is resting position. It’s probably not good to think that anyone who is happy is faking it. And I think that’s what I might think now that we’re getting down to it.

The People: Episode 41 (Asher Hartman and Chelsea Rector)

The People, with Insert Blanc Editor and Publisher Mathew Timmons and Insert Blanc Artist Ben White, features the voices and ideas of The People that make up the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, the west coast, and beyond on KCHUNG 1630AM every 3rd Sunday at 3pm and podcast on iTunes as The People Radio. The People is me, The People is you, The People is we, and You Can Too! … like a Broken Record magically repaired.

Asher Hartman is a Los Angeles based interdisciplinary artist who primarily works in the context of theater.

Chelsea Rector is a Los Angeles based interdisciplinary poet.