Category: October 2014

Female Aesthetic(s) Symposium (Part 1): Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee with Metta Sáma

(clockwise from the top-left ) Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee
(clockwise from the top-left) Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee

In 2009, the poet Monica A. Hand asked for definitions of “female aesthetics.” While there are no actual definitions of female aesthetics or woman aesthetics, there are working definitions of feminist aesthetics. I was intrigued by this notion of the female (vs the woman, aka l’écriture féminine and Hélène Cixous’s writing from the body) and what an aesthetics of female would like and who could who would claim this aesthetics. A bit later, I put together a panel on Twitter to discuss this concept, and I invited some of the participants from that panel as well as some additional people I thought would have something interesting to say, to have an informal symposium discussion via email. What followed was a series of questions, speculations, ponderings, and anecdotes with Racquel Goodison, Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee from August 13 to 20, 2009. The Conversant has agreed to publish that conversation in  two parts. – Metta Sáma

Dearests:

Thank you all for agreeing to participate in this on-line symposium. As you know, Monica A. Hand posted a status update: Is there a female aesthetic, which drew my attention. Is there possibly, in some artistic forms, something called female aesthetics? Are they more transparent in some art modes than in others? Could a male work within a female aesthetic? (But this is jumping the gun.) Here are bell hooks’ thoughts on the black woman’s body in the classroom:

One of the things I was saying is that, as a black woman, I have always been acutely aware of the presence of my body in those settings that, in fact, invite us to invest so deeply in a mind/body split so that, in a sense, you’re almost always at odds with the existing structure, whether you are a black woman student or professor. But if you want to remain, you’ve got, in a sense, to remember yourself – because to remember yourself is to see yourself always as a body in a system that has not become accustomed to your presence or your physicality.

This quote is pulled from “Building a Teaching Community,” in Teaching to Transgress. We can certainly launch from here or from Monica’s expanded ponderings about her initial Facebook query:

I have been in a discussion with myself on the contemporary sonnet – the ruptured sonnet – one that breaks free in either meter, line (number of lines and length of line), voice (language and diction), and Volta, from the traditional sonnet as defined by Italian or Elizabethan conventions. (In many ways, I believe the sonnet has never been a fixed form. From its inception, it has evolved and taken different shapes according to the time within which it was written, cultural influences and the creativity of the poet.)

As I was studying several examples of ruptured sonnets – those written outside the tradition – I found myself drawn to those written by women.

After I posed the question on Facebook asking if there is a female aesthetic and how one would define it, I started researching the idea online. I came across some interesting material, in particular that of and about the Poststructuralist Feminist writers, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Cixous talks about feminine writing that is connected to femaleness, to female bodies. There is a very interesting article online written by Dr. Mary Klages, titled “ Hélène Cixous: The Laugh of the Medusa,” in which she discusses Cixous’s ideas.

I approach this discussion not in opposition to anything. I’m not sure whether to call it female aesthetic, feminine aesthetic or feminist aesthetic. I do imagine that there is something about writing from the body (as in writing from the depths of the earth) and drawing upon female sexuality and libido that appeal to me both as a writer and as a reader.

Is there a relationship between gender and language? Do female experiences and the magic of our bodies, our sexuality, and our desires inform the choices we make in how we approach language and form?

Pick up on any of these elaborations or begin somewhere new. You need not limit your thoughts to literature.

Summer rains & drains

~ Metta

Ruth Ellen Kocher: The “awareness” of which DeLana speaks is of some importance to everyone who understands the implications of subject position. I will say, also as full disclosure, that Mary Klages is a colleague of mine here at University of Colorado Boulder, although I used her work in my doctoral dissertation, Janus Faced Women: Multiplicity and Autogenesis in Modern Women Writers Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, and H.D., 10 years ago. In that work, I posit that white women writers such as Gertrude Stein and H.D. take a cue from the “recreated self” of the passing novels from the subject position of women, creating characters in their narratives who recreate their identities as “multiple” in order to adhere to the pressures of societal gender roles while attempting to stay true to a personal subject position.

This way of “multiplicity” and “autogenesis” is, in and of itself, a female aesthetic in writing and is necessitated by the myriad of roles expected of women, and that women expect of themselves. H.D.’s interpretation of Helen of Troy, for example, shows us a Helen who is not only the “face that launched a thousand ships” but a witch, a lover, an innocent … all created by splitting the literary figure in two, placing the ghost-facade of Helen (as we know her) on the ramparts of Troy while the “real” Helen is removed to a beach in the mystical Egyptian underworld where she might reunite with her “true” lover, Achilles. I love (love love love) how H.D. chooses to rewrite Helen’s story to impart personal want and desire and shows us a very vulnerable and human character we cannot know through Homer’s narrative. H.D. does this also in her poem “Eurydice” where she re-tells the tale of Orpheus through Eurydice’s eyes. For the first time, we see her not as the lost object of desire of Orpheus, but a being with wants and disappointments all her own, a character who curses Orpheus for his selfishness, for attempting to “rescue” her from a place she had grown to love in some ways, whose own self-centeredness and hubris emerges in his need to look back at her. H.D.’s Eurydice charges Orpheus with narcissistic impulse, and says he turned to see her only to see his own reflection in her eyes. This, for me, is a female aesthetic: that writing that reclaims the popular or historical notion of what is female and what appropriate female aesthetic might be conveyed within a narrative tradition.

The act of writing a “multiple” female character has been central to me and to my work. I feel that if there is any personal aesthetic of mine that can be called a female aesthetic, it is that impulse to find freedom in restriction … the experimental forms I use and create often are a means to find the greatest possible freedom under the circumstances of the greatest possible restriction … I’ve talked to Monica a bit about this idea of the “cage” within which I work, whether it is formal or free verse, so that I can somehow present a voice that seems limitless and embraces the “possible” despite the limitations imposed. I think this is how women, especially black women, have survived for eons … finding a way to create an entire universe within the “cage” so that the limitation becomes mute, and so, powerless of the female voice …

Tracy Chiles McGhee: I do believe there is a relationship between gender and language. As a matter of fact, everything that we are informs our choices, every layer, every aspect, every experience, even social constructs, at times, our subconscious and our genetic make-up, our origins, etc. We embrace who or what we are, we reject it, we love it, we hate it, we seek understanding of it, we write it down and we work it out. So gender plays a part as well, I would imagine. GENERALLY, I think the fact that women have vaginas makes us inherently have feelings of emptiness, which produces a longing. So we are always seeking to be filled and for fullness (full vaginas, breasts, bellies, hearts, spirits). What if you have a woman that represents the fullness that all women seek? Might other women who lack that fullness try to change the aesthetic altogether, hate or be jealous of that woman who has it, or try to emulate it?  At the same time, our vaginas are also vehicles for creativity, so we have the inclination to push outward, to pour out, to give birth. So we are in a constant cycle of taking in to be full and pushing/pouring out to create.  Whenever I write, it is always like giving birth, labor pains included. I can’t imagine that a man would have this reference in the same way but I don’t know because I am not a man.

REK: I appreciate your idea of longing and need and fulfillment … at its best, the idea says a lot about women as progenitors and creators … but I cringe just a little because that idea re-inscribes the notion of female identity as one centered on lack. Freud used this against us. Lacan used this against us … the idea that a woman wants and needs to be filled (by a penis or a baby) means that she is thus incomplete unless she is someone’s lover or someone’s mother  … that’s hard for me. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is a great article to read in light of that theory, especially in the way it incorporates Luce Irigaray and her idea that women are not without, but instead, overwhelmingly fulfilled … if I remember this rightly, she talks about how a woman’s WHOLE body is sexually full and complete without a man, that every part of the body is sexual and sexually stimulated, and that the lips of the vagina themselves form a completeness in the way they open and close and stimulate themselves  … I always got the image of the vagina as mouth here  … and I think it’s in that Medusa article where Klages talks about a figure like red riding hood as being a walking clitoris (hilarious, huh?) and the “attack” on her as being part of the conventional need to limit and own female power  …

It makes me think, too, of a writer like Anne Sexton who was charged (by that old stodgy guy, John Frederick Nims) of inappropriate subject matter when she published “In Celebration of My Uterus,” while, in his opinion, Sylvia Plath was able to write the same conflicts in a much more ladylike fashion. Well, that’s partly because Anne said “fuck you” to the white male establishment, and her husband, and her lover, while Sylvia became so engulfed in the need for (white) male approval that when she didn’t get it, she had a little run in with an oven. Anne’s suicide came very much as an inability to find her place in a world, in my opinion, while Sylvia’s came from not finding a place in a man’s world … So, some of the conflict I see inherent to female writers has a lot to do with the roles, or subject positions, from which we’re expected to speak. And expectations built on a perceived identity (all you black folks can dance, right?) seem to be the root of much evil …

TCM: Thanks Ruth Ellen for sharing with me the danger if I take that idea too far. Nothing like a cringe to get the conversation going LOL. I didn’t mean to suggest that the female identity is centered on lack. But if we were always fulfilled, wouldn’t we be content always? Isn’t life based on cycles?  Our moods change and our desires change. Sometimes we do feel empty and seek fullness.  But I don’t want to define fullness as merely penis and baby, but those are aspects for some women sometimes. There are many things that I need to feel full. The longing usually is what makes us do things, seek things, and fight for things. I guess I am speaking from my experience, and I can tell you that even though I am equipped with everything that I need to be powerful, there is still something that makes me continue searching, and writing is one way I work this out. I don’t know if this is a gender thing, a human thing, or a Tracy thing. I do appreciate why you would cringe though. I know that men have always tried to suppress women by any means, and so defining that longing as a woman thing and as a perpetual state of being would benefit them and not us.

Monica A. Hand: bell hooks in her essay, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” writes that those coming from the “underclass” who enter a “privileged cultural setting” must create spaces within that dominant culture to survive. Without such spaces, she says, we would not survive. “Our living,” she writes, “depends on our ability to conceptualize alternatives.” She calls this a space of radical openness – a margin, and proposes that it is not a place of deprivation but rather a place of radical possibility, a space of resistance. I haven’t found the actual reference yet but I read somewhere that Gertrude Stein called the sonnet a patriarchal form.

Taking into account hooks’s comments on creating a place of radical openness and Stein’s position that the sonnet is a patriarchal form, then maybe the sonnet (and other fixed forms) is where women are both literally and metaphorically resisting “tradition.” In addition to Ruth’s sonnets, I have been studying sonnets written by Gwendolyn Brooks, Wanda Coleman, Kimiko Hahn, Olena Kalytiak Davis and Karen Volkman. Each of these poets resist the form, break outside of the tradition. But even poets like Marilyn Nelson, Marilyn Hacker, Rita Dove (and even Edna St. Vincent Millay) who write within the tradition speak outside of it.

Of course, men have, are, also experimenting with sonnet and other forms. Is there anything different between what women are doing and what men are doing? Is fluid, associative, playful language female? I have read, for instance, sonnets by Henri Cole and D.A. Powell, who are also writing from the body, but their poems don’t feel female.

I have more questions than answers.

Patricia Spears Jones: I thought Monica’s questions were interesting, especially the language she used in her questions, particularly the phrase “the magic of our bodies.” That, I thought, was an interesting way to describe our physical selves.

I certainly think there is a strong female aesthetic in American poetry from the suspects: Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, Phyllis Wheatley, each struggling to share a voice in a language not her own; H.D., Stein, Brooks, Millay, Louise Bogan (way underrated), Amy Lowell, Denise Levertov, Diane DiPrima, Audre Lorde, Plath, Adrienne Rich, Jayne Cortez, Lucille Clifton, etc. I would also add Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, just to keep this list as North American as possible.

I know there are, in many circles, an ongoing argument about form, but one of the fascinating and energizing things about American poetics is its breadth and variety and that is certainly true of women writers—those who are comfortable in their gender and those who are not. The focus on the body is important but limited. We are as much our minds as we are our breath, sweat, limbs, tears. There is more of a continuum-ing from mind to skin in women’s writing, whereas male writers seem to spin in the cerebral or muddle about in the murk of sensuality — one or the other.

I am not sure that a vagina makes women feel like they must fill something up — I don’t like the vessel version of the female body (in that we are essentially a womb to bear the next generation), but I certainly think that issues of maternity, child-rearing, THE DOMESTIC are important and certainly impinge upon bodies in ways that women poets and authors have begun to explore in language and form.

While I have written non-traditional sonnets, I never thought of it as a male or female form. What informs my work and the work of writers I enjoy reading, listening to and arguing with is a level of sensuality and unconventional topics. One of my favorite poets, and a mentor, is Maureen Owen. I’ve always loved her poems in response to women artists’ work, especially the poems in response to Mary Kelly’s famous piece where she used her infant’s diapers as an artwork. Don’t think a man would do that. Another good friend and poet is Angela Jackson who explores the blues within the tradition but snaps poems into shapes that reflect Mississippi to Chicago, motions very unlike her male Chicago poet counterpoints. Both of these women use different strategies to examine their personal lives, their aesthetic interests, history, religion, the human condition.

Each poet finds the form that tests her or his mettle the most — whether it’s the sonnet form or ballads or lyrics. But it is exciting to me to see how poets like Tonya Foster, Erica Hunt, Julie Patton, Harryette Mullen, Giovanni Singleton, et al. use either a variety of forms to explore the multiplicity of roles that we Black women play or an austere, intensely focused kind of word play in their poetry and/or texts. That Monica and Ruth Ellen are exploring the sonnet, indeed stretching the form’s boundaries, seems to be what many poets are free enough to do in this new century.

I keep returning to Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic,” which has been in my personal library since the early 1980s. I think that is what Monica was alluding to in the use of the word “magic.” Near the end of Lorde’s essay, she says:

When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying, rather than make connections with our similarities and our differences.

It may well be that the female aesthetic starts with figuring out the difference between exploiting power and using it differently; taking the magic of our bodies, our sensuality and not only seeking the pleasures there in, but finding new ways to share those pleasures in ways that allows our bodies to breath and stretch and bend, but not break beneath the weight of rage, need, stupidity; taking the language of oppression, suppression and dominance and re-shaping it, working a new language. Of course, I want that sense of shared joy; the desire for a community of equals working towards transcendence, but hey, I wanted to go to Woodstock.

REK: The irony to this discussion for me is that I took a grad seminar 12 years ago that focused on this exact question. We never really arose at an answer. After noting Patricia’s notion of the DOMESTIC as an aspect of female aesthetic, I immediately conjured up an image of the Rosie the Riveter poster … That started me thinking about the notion of “versatility” as an aspect of what each one of us has said. Is the matter of a female aesthetic grounded in a “versatility” of voice and form that male writers would not “seek” in their attempts to continually “adhere” to “maleness” … of course, I am speaking through a culturally heterosexual gaze of “male” … but one of the things that we might all agree on is the compulsion for men to be protective of that which is supposedly male and masculine. Women, on the other hand, are perpetually “adding” to that which we define as “feminine” … we added Rosie, we added Julia Childs, we added Camille Paglia, Oprah . . . the feminine seems to have a continual outward expansion like that of a growing star. . . whereas, from my perspective, the “male” seems to be choosing stasis. There has been no “men’s” movement and men who wish to live outside of expected gender roles face much more societal nay-saying than women who do … There are a lot more female firefighters than there are male nannies …

PSJ: I focused on the domestic because I am fascinated by June Jordan’s wonderful phrase about not seeing a sign for “women working.” Since women’s labor is often interior—the domestic, the office, the hospital—we have a unique way of looking at experience within these structures or our resistance to them (Joan Larkin’s Housework; Sapphire’s incest narratives). Maureen Owen’s and Lucille Clifton ‘s poems discuss child rearing, family history, trauma and celebration in radically different forms. Also, my own work is focused on movement within and without those structures as a single woman trying to stand her ground in this world. Like Oprah, I am childless and unmarried. Much of [my second collection of poems] Femme du Monde was informed by my status in this society and my embrace of it as a form of wholeness.

In my home, there is an amazing drawing by José Bedia, the Cuban artist, in which the body moves from the ground towards some place in the spirit world.  I know it is not fashionable to deal with spirituality in some circles, but there is also the spirit working in much of women’s writing — you really see it in the Irish women poets. I do think we conjure as much as we critique. Lynda Hull’s poems about scarcity, sensuality, loss and survival in Star Ledger are as lush as Brenda Hillman’s enthralled poems in Bright Existence.

When Ntozake, Jessica Hagedorn and Thulani Davis were doing “When the Mississippi Meets the Amazon” at the earlier version of Joe’s Pub, they explored the connection between language and music working with jazz musicians. Jessica later took that exploration into rock and roll. This continuous desire to expand the tongue — to move the language around and up — to explode the performative is something men and women poets do. But given the position of the woman singer — as vessel often, as object of desire — it is always a wonder to watch the performers hold onto their autonomy and use sexuality in whatever way they want to. It also helps to not be progeny as many male poets think of themselves: school of Baraka or Auden or Whitman, etc etc. Women poets can make that case if they want to, but I like that we are our provisional.

You are all so brilliant. It’s interesting to be the Woodstock generation rep amongst you. And hey, I wasn’t there, but I did see Jimi Hendrix a few months later and he was no nanny.


Monica A. Hand, author of me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012) is a 60-year old Queer writer who is committed to being self-determinant and free to make mistakes; otherwise, how will she ever learn anything. She has an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and currently is in the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Patricia Spears Jones is author of three collections, most recently Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press) and four chapbooks including Living in the Love Economy (Overpass Books, 2014) and two plays commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines, the acclaimed experimental theater company.  A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems is due out from White Pine Press, fall 2015. Poems are anthologized in Angles of AscentA Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (W.W. Norton); broken land: Poems of Brooklyn (NYU Press) and Best American Poetry: 2000 (Scribners) and the bilingual anthology, Mujeres a los remos/Women rowing: An Anthology of Contemporary US Women Poets (El Collegio de Puebla, Mexico). She is editor of and contributor to Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women and is a contributing editor to Bomb Magazine.

Ruth Ellen Kocher is the author of Ending in Planes (Noemi Press, 2014), Goodbye Lyric: The Gigans and Lovely Gun (Sheep Meadow Press, 2014), domina Un/blued (Tupelo Press, 2013), One Girl Babylon (New Issues Press, 2003), When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering (New Issues Press, 2002), and Desdemona’s Fire (Lotus Press 1999).

Tracy Chiles McGhee is a Writer/Activist. Her writings have appeared in several anthologies and publications. She received the distinction of “Honorable Mention” for the Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Award in the 2014 International Literary Awards presented by Salem College.  Tracy is also the co-founder of the Literacy, Empowerment, & Action Project. She attended Catholic University Law School and Georgetown University. She resides in Washington, DC.

H.L. Hix with Naomi Ward

H.L. Hix and Naomi Ward
H.L. Hix and Naomi Ward

Concerns traditionally central to poetics (pity and fear; to delight and to teach; truth, beauty; etc.) also matter in other domains of inquiry. This is the first installment of a series of interviews that pursue such “poetic” concerns with practitioners of other domains of inquiry, such as science and philosophy. When they were paired in a recent collaborative project involving scientists and artists, hosted by the Ucross Foundation, H. L. Hix took the opportunity to interview microbiologist Naomi Ward about her recent work, with particular focus on her recent paper disclosing a discovery about the bacterium Gemmata obscuriglobus, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A.

H. L. Hix: By way of introduction, how would you clarify or amplify (or simply correct!) this amateur understanding of your article?  The most widely-held view about the cellular processes of transcription and translation is that, in bacteria, they are always coupled: that is, they always take place close to one another within the bacterium.  But you and your colleagues have shown that in the bacterium Gemmata obscuriglobus, the processes do not always occur in proximity.

Naomi L. Ward: You’ve really captured it.  There are a few things I could say for clarification and background, that add some complexity to the story (like you needed more complexity, right?).  I should mention that the coupling is not just about location.  In bacteria, transcription and translation can be almost simultaneous, so that as the transcript is being copied from the DNA, the ribosome (the cell’s protein factory) is already jumping onto that transcript and starting to make proteins from it. It’s not just that transcription and translation occur together in space; they’re together in time as well.  In the more complex cells of eukaryotes (plants, animals, humans), that transcript is made in the nucleus, but then exported out of the nucleus.  There’s a journey there, a gap in space and time.

The background, and what makes the story more complex, is that when we started the project, we thought we had a rule and an exception.  So the rule, as you’ve mentioned, is that bacterial transcription and translation are always coupled.  We proposed that we had, in the cells of Gemmata, an exception to the rule.  Because of the way the cell was structured with lots of internal membranes, we thought there was a membrane barrier between transcription and translation.  So we started down that track.  Technical complications caused the work to take a very long time (four years from beginning the project to submitting the paper).  During that time, some papers were published that provided other exceptions to the rule, in model organisms from which we have learned nearly everything we know about the way bacteria work (E. coli and Bacillus subtilis).  So there we were, getting ready to submit our paper, having spent four years on what we thought was our unique exception, to then see these other papers coming out, saying that even in simple cells translation was sometimes occurring spatially segregated from transcription.  What we maintained, though, is that in Gemmata we still had a layer of complexity that wasn’t there in the simpler cells of these model organisms.  We made the argument that it was a unique cellular context.  Although it was no longer a unique phenomenon among bacteria, there were challenges and aspects to coupling of transcription and translation in Gemmata that didn’t exist in these other organisms.

HLH: Continuing this thought about introducing this conversation to an audience that hasn’t yet read your paper, let me jump forward to something you touched on in that response, which has to do with the relationship between the bacterium that you’re studying and processes in eukaryotic cells, the cells of plants and animals.  Most of us aren’t microbiologists, and when we think about the processes of reproduction, we think of things that are at our scale.  We think of the birds and the bees, animals and plants.  But bacteria are different in structure from the cells of animals and plants, so could you speak a little more to the distinction between the processes in bacteria and those in eukaryotic cells?

NLW: We’ve tried to be very careful not to extrapolate too far from our findings.  Our findings are simply that the two processes, at least some of the time, occur in different places in the Gemmata cell.  From there, you can take all kinds of roads that lead you to comparison with the eukaryotic cell, and in fact those roads have been explored before our paper, based on other evidence, other data from Gemmata.  One road has been to argue that the eukaryote-like features of Gemmata are homologous with those of eukaryotic cells.  In other words, they shared a common ancestor at some point.  On that view, the resemblance we see between the Gemmata cell and a eukaryotic cell is not superficial, it actually has an evolutionary origin that includes a common ancestry.  That has been countered by the argument that it is just a superficial resemblance, that Gemmata has independently come up with the same solution to a given problem as have eukaryotic cells.  In that case, we would call the features that Gemmata shares with eukaryotic cells not homologous but analogous.  The other phrase that is used is convergent evolution.  I think that either of those explanations is very interesting; I don’t particularly favor one over the other.  Our data could actually be used to support either argument.

But one thing that is novel about our work is that, although the decoupling of transcription and translation in Gemmata had been previously proposed — someone had already thought of this before we did — it hadn’t been experimentally tested.  That’s where we did something that was different.

HLH: I’m latching onto elements of your response.  Your answer is very carefully formulated.  Part of the reason for conducting this interview is our shared interest in questions of process, how we ask questions and check answers and so on, so I’m interested in the particular form that your caution takes.  In another context, from a person engaged in something other than science, I would expect less reticence about making a sweeping claim.  If this were a conversation about political matters and you were a senator, say, I’d expect a readiness to jump to those large sweeping claims.  If we were talking about a poem instead of a research paper, I would expect you as author of the poem to be entitled to say what you want about the poem, to infer whatever you want.  So what is it about science that creates the kind of caution you have just displayed, and why is that caution valuable?  How does it help us learn stuff?

NLW: My response to that would be nested: a general response about scientists in general — I’m now going to make sweeping statements! — and then within that a response that’s particular to the research I do and the research community that I work within.  As scientists, we are trained from an early age to not speculate too much from our findings.  Of course, it’s natural, when you find an answer to a question, to ask the next question, and sometimes the next question takes the form of a speculation.  From any set of results we have, you can think of the questions as runaway horses, and part of the fun of the process is that you see all these horses go off in different directions.  But as I said we’re trained to corral them, because they are not yet supported by data.

At one point in our paper (and other people do this too, of course) we say “Here’s an idea, but we have no experimental support for this speculation.”  It’s part of our training, especially in a paper that is a primary research article, as this one is, to clearly distinguish between what we do and what we don’t have experimental support for.  In a different kind of scientific article, such a review paper or (especially) an opinion piece, those are where you can let the horses go.  These kinds of papers may be peer-reviewed, but the tolerances are going to be increased, depending on the format of the article.

That’s the general sweeping statement.  Nested within that, the community of people who work with Gemmata and its relatives is, right now, very small, a fraction of the size of the community that would work with a medically important, disease-causing organism such as the E. coli that causes food poisoning or a drug-resistant, flesh-eating StaphylococcusGemmata does no harm to man, beast, or plant, or any other thing, as far as we know, and none of its relatives do.  Which is good, on one side, but it means that our funding sources to do this are different, smaller than what would be available to work on an organism with biomedical relevance.  And that’s probably as it should be.

Gemmata and its relatives are not terribly difficult to work with (to grow, to study, to apply standard methods to), but they are more difficult to work with than the aforementioned E. coli and Staphylococcus.  That’s another reason why the community is relatively small.  We just had our very first conference on this group of bacteria last year in Heidelberg, Germany, which was wonderful because this small community came together.  This is leading to the observation that, when you have a small research community, everyone knows everyone, either through personal contact or through the literature.  In order to keep a good scientific discussion going, which is really the whole point, it helps to be not dogmatic, and to take your speculations only as far as your data will support.

The process of writing and revising this paper was interesting because the question I mentioned earlier, about whether Gemmata is a homologue or analogue of the eukaryotic cell, meant that the revision of this paper required an extra level of thought.  Not just for the purely pragmatic perspective of getting it published, but to really feel like we were making the right statement for the data that we have.  Maybe ten years from now we’ll have more data, different kinds of data that will let us make a stronger statement in support of one or the other of those opposing views, but it seems like the right degree of caution for where we are right now.

HLH: I’m becoming self-conscious now about being incoherent in my questions!  I’m supposed to be creating a through-line to the conversation…

NLW: … it’s alright, you have grasshopper mind!

HLH: Yes!  You mentioned that Gemmata doesn’t harm humans, that it doesn’t have “biomedical relevance.”  OK, but then why might a person be interested in it?  If it doesn’t pose an immediate danger to humans, it seems possible for a human being to ignore it.  I could go through my whole life, if I’d never met you and read your article, and never even hear the name Gemmata obscuriglobus.  Why might a person be interested in this?  Why did you choose this bacterium to study?

NLW: I’ll start with the second part, why I chose it for study.  That story is a combination of life history and serendipity.  I did my undergraduate study in microbiology at the University of Queensland, in Australia, and Gemmata obscuriglobus was isolated and studied by a researcher in the same department.  His name is John Fuerst, and he’s really the father of Gemmata biology.  He was also one of my lecturers.  I was generally aware, as an undergraduate, of this organism and that it was unusual, but then serendipity kicks in.  I wanted to get into undergraduate research, and I was very interested in immunology, so I went toward the end of the semester and knocked on the door of the immunology professor.  No answer.  Somebody stuck their head out of the lab and said, “Oh, Bill’s on sabbatical, so we can’t take anybody into the lab right now,” and then they said, “but the new head of the department, who has just moved here from Germany, is setting up his lab, maybe you should go ask and see whether they want any help.”  The new head of the department was Erko Stackebrandt, who was later my doctoral advisor.  He had previously worked with Gemmata and its relatives, and he was a leader in using the molecular methods that I’ve talked to you about for identifying and classifying bacteria and studying their ecology.  Those things came together: my exposure to Gemmata through John’s work, and then reinforced through my experience as an undergraduate.  So this organism has been with me from the age of 19: we go back!

I did my graduate work on this organism and its relatives, took a break from it for a few years, and then came back in the era of whole genome sequencing.  People know now that you can sequence the human genome, but of course you can also sequence microbial genomes, and in fact, it was done with microbial genomes first, because they’re smaller and less expensive.  I worked in an institute where we did that kind of work (The Institute for Genomic Research, TIGR for short), and Gemmata was one of the organisms that I got funding to work with.  My Gemmata research continued after I went to Wyoming, and in fact, it was a cornerstone of my new research program.  In hindsight, it was maybe not an entirely wise choice for a new tenure-track faculty member, because as I mentioned these organisms are not quick and straightforward to work with, and the community is small, so there aren’t a lot of resources and shared expertise yet.  I made things a little difficult for myself!

That’s how I came to the organism.  In terms of broader interest, you’re right.  Gemmata doesn’t make us sick, or do anything useful for us.  It doesn’t produce ethanol from corn, or help us make bread, or carry out some useful process in the environment — as far as we know.  But we haven’t looked enough yet.  It has a very, very large genome for a bacterium, so there’s a repertoire in there for lots of different kinds of activities.  We just don’t know what they are.  So maybe it does do something useful.  Maybe it does make somebody sick — but we’re not allowed to do those kinds of experiments!

So the interest and relevance is much more of a basic-science question: it’s a question of the relationship between structure and function, with a connection to the framework of evolutionary biology.  How did animals get to be as complex as they did, in comparison to bacteria, and why?  And while Gemmata may not (in fact probably doesn’t) have direct answers to those questions, even if it is only a superficial resemblance, it may tell us something about a more complex state and how that might have come to be.  Tangentially we might get some ideas: “Well, if that’s how it happened in Gemmata, can we test whether that’s also how it happened in eukaryotes as well?” This has been proposed, mainly by John Fuerst, as being the value of working in Gemmata – the ability to test hypotheses.

I’m not sure if that’s what you’re getting at…

HLH: Absolutely.  We share a preoccupation with ways of knowing, and I’m interested in a difference between poetry and science in this way.  It seems from the way you use “basic science” that there is an important sense in which a paper in science is a part of a large, dynamic, very multiple inquiry that’s going on.  You’re able to assume that a reader of your paper is seeing it in light of lots of other stuff that’s happening, and that seems slightly different from poetry, or at least a difference of emphasis.  We typically think of a poem, or the experience of reading a poem, as a more or less self-enclosed thing.  Although there are actually a lot of connections being made, to other poems that one has read, to historical questions, contemporary social-political questions, and so on, a lot of that stuff recedes.  It’s more or less invisible in the experience of reading.  It might seem as if, or feel as if, I’m just looking at this one self-enclosed thing.  Everything is more or less self-contained, and this thing can be isolated from the rest of the world.  I’m isolated from everything else in the world when I read this thing.  But that appears to contrast with a scientific paper, where it’s part of this huge community operating — parallel doesn’t quite catch the sense, but happening all at once — and all the different questions relate to one another, and they temper one another and condition one another and inform one another.

I don’t even know where I’m going with this!

NLW: But you’re right, a scientific paper cannot stand by itself.  In a standard research paper format, there’s always an introduction, which provides context and background for the question that’s being asked.  There’s a process whereby you say what is known about a particular topic, what we don’t know, and then why the not knowing is a problem that prevents our moving forward.  With that you establish that our goal is to find this out.  It’s impossible to write a standard research paper without that kind of context. Often then (but not always) the paper will come to a hypothesis: a proposed answer to the question, one that will be rigorous and testable and falsifiable. But there are also papers that are not hypothesis-driven, they are exploratory; a report of a genome sequencing project would be a good example. There are two places in the paper where you can make connections to other people’s work: in the introduction, where you’re setting the stage, and in the discussion and conclusion section, where you take what you’ve found and say this is how our findings support something someone else did or contradict it.  That process of extrapolation and speculation — the wild horses — is part of that as well, and there sometimes you can give your wild horses some more credibility if you say, “As so-and-so has suggested (reference x), this may be a mechanism for y.”  Even there in the process of extending what we know or think we know, we draw on the community.

I mentioned the other day the idea of lineages.  Particularly in European science, it’s common to refer to your scientific father or grandfather (or, increasingly often, your scientific mother or grandmother): it’s a pedigree.  People actually use the word “pedigree” when they’re reviewing candidates for a faculty job, for example!  “This person has a good pedigree,” they’ll say, like they’re talking about a race horse.  So not only are there lateral connections to other scientists that occur through the research questions; there are vertical connections, too, that can affect the way you structure the questions you’re going to ask, and when you’re going to ask them.  Pedigree, in a professional sense, also affects your credibility.  So in a number of ways your work doesn’t stand by itself.  I assume that in poetry there are mentors, but maybe it’s not the same kind of relationship.

Another example in science of the strength of that pedigree is that, as a professor, when you train graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and they’re ready to go on to the next position, you write them a letter of recommendation — hopefully a strong one! — and that obligation is lifelong.  So you write the first letter for the graduate student applying for the postdoctoral fellowship, and you will be called on again to write the next letter, for a faculty position or a job in industry.  These letters evolve over time, because you start to incorporate what the person has done since they left your lab.  There’s almost a family connection there that is very strong.  And the more I think about it, value judgments are made about people, sometimes not just on the content of the letters of recommendation and who they came from, but the speed with which they are received.  If a super-famous, respected scientist — very busy, very important — is asked to provide a letter of recommendation for their former student, and it’s there the next day, then — Wow! — not only was this candidate trained by this top person, but this person, this mentor, cares enough about the candidate, values them highly enough, to get right on that letter.  That’s where it’s like family, because you do more for a family member than you would for those outside of the circle.  So there are lots of connections in science…

HLH: … which also seems related to another difference between science and many other enterprises.  Of course, because of the context of our discussion, I’m thinking particularly of poetry.  Science seems to be a team or group activity, whereas poetry seems most typically to be a very solitary activity.  That’s a bit misleading in relation to poetry, because a lot happens communally: sending one’s poems to friends or colleagues for critique, workshop settings, and so on.  But still, in poetry — however you prepare, however you engage in dialogue about it — the core activity of sitting down and writing a poem usually happens when you’re by yourself, and usually as solitary as you can get.  If you can seclude yourself in your garret, away from all other people and all other noise, the more solitary the better.  But in science we talk about a lab, meaning a place in which many people are working on the same thing, working together as an organized team.

Again I’m not sure of my question!  Why might this matter?  How does this help in relation to the acquisition of knowledge?

NLW: Science used to be like your description of poetry, but over time that has gone away in most of the experimental sciences.  In some of the theoretical sciences, which may be more akin to poetry, people do have papers with only their own name on the author line.  But in the experimental sciences, the team nature of it reflects a number of things.  One is that, as we have specialized, many of us lack all the tools we need to produce the data that we need to make a convincing story.  So if you look back to scientists of the nineteenth century, it was intimidatingly diverse, the range of things they could do: natural history, chemistry, geology.  They were Renaissance people, and could do a little of everything.  There was less to know, then, in terms of training and background.  But now we’re all highly specialized, so there is more interdependence, not just of expertise but of resources, big expensive pieces of equipment, access to field sites for ecologists.  If the question you want to ask is in Ecuador, it helps to have a collaborator in Ecuador who can help you with that access and help you work there.

Another part is what I was just describing, our training activities.  But what I’ve observed is that the ties between student and advisor seem to be tighter in microbiology and molecular biology than in some other types of research.  In my field, when a student writes a paper, in general, we write together.  It’s a symbiosis.  There are specializations within that symbiosis.  The student is usually the one who has done the hands-on work, and is often more familiar with the techniques and their intricacies; the advisor has the bigger picture, maybe more of the history, maybe more flexibility in interpreting results.  So part of the collaboration comes from the training that we do, and that may be why there is this family structure in science: you “grow up” with these people as a scientist, and in fact, scientists who trained in the same labs — siblings — stay in touch.  When they get older, they invite each other for seminars, because there’s a strong connection that’s forged when you’re a student working alongside other students.  Your experiments are failing, it’s the middle of the night — there are strong bonds there!  I think that’s part of it, too.

There are also ways in which the roles of a collaborative team in science are encoded in the author line of a paper, and the quite enormous importance, career-wise, of how your code is being read, what it’s telling the reader about your contributions — hopefully accurately!  We actually have a codified structure in that author line that represents the nature of the collaboration.

HLH: You mentioned that collaboration might take various forms, one of them access to equipment.  This relates to another question we’ve hit on a little bit in prior conversation, about the role of imaging in verifying your hypothesis.  You mentioned one of your colleagues and the equipment and process for imaging.  Could you speak a little about that?  How does this imaging work?  Why is it important to verifying your hypothesis?  What does it allow to be seen that needed to be seen in order to check out what you thought was happening?  What does it show?

NLW: There are a couple of different ways of answering that.  One is that our question is essentially a spatial question.  We’re asking about spatial relationships.  Imaging is not the only way to capture that from a cell.  You can, for example, take a cell, break it apart, separate the different parts of the cell, and then take each of those fractions and interrogate them with your question.  But it’s more common to answer a spatial question with an image.  The other reason is more pragmatic: we relied heavily on imaging in our analysis because we were constrained technically.  We cannot yet successfully fractionate the Gemmata cell, so we couldn’t use the approach I just mentioned.  Or couldn’t in a convincing way.  We were also constrained to certain types of imaging and processing of samples for imaging by the fact that we also cannot use what is now a central tool for asking questions about the bacterial cell, and that is genetic manipulation.  A much quicker and more standard way of asking where a protein exists in a cell is to take the gene for that protein and tag it with a label of some kind, then put it back into the cell and see where it is.  When the gene gets made into a protein, the protein will have the tag.  We can’t do that with Gemmata.  Or at least in our hands.  There may be others who can, but we can’t.

So we had a relatively narrow range of experimental techniques that we could use.  One of the reasons the project took so long to come to fruition is because of reliance on those techniques, because they take longer.  Even preparing the tools that we needed to ask the question took a long time.

The other aspect of using imaging data is that seeing an image and the distribution of something within that image is the most intuitive way for us as humans to answer a “where” question.  We can very easily look and say, “Oh, yeah, there’s more of that over there than there is over here.”  But usually that’s not enough to convince another scientist that such a distribution represents the true distribution in all individuals, all cells that you might possibly look at.  It’s a sampling problem.  We may have five cells in an image, and those five cells may all support our conclusion, but it’s very easy for someone to look at that and say, “Well, you just found the five cells that supported your story.”

HLH: Right!  These are the only five cells in the world that do!

NLW: And they might be, so that’s why it’s important to add a more quantitative approach, to look at a larger sample of cells, and ask how often this distribution occurs, as opposed to some other distribution.  That’s a fairly standardized thing across many sciences that use images: the imposition of a more quantitative analysis of that imaging data, on top of the image.

HLH: What you saw by means of this equipment was … what?  For a person who hasn’t read your article, what was it that you saw?

NLW: Do you mean literally, looking down a microscope?

HLH: Yes.  It’s a spatial question that you’re asking, so you used microscopy in a way that generated images.  What were those images images of?  What spatial relationship was revealed by them?

NLW: We saw markers — flags, if you will — for transcription and translation often occurring separated from each other in the cell.  Not always.  Sometimes we saw those flags overlapping (evidence of co-localization), but when we did the quantification that I was just mentioning, we found evidence that there was more separation than there was togetherness.  When we looked at those images, we were also able to orient those flags with respect to other features of the cell, particularly the internal membranes that make the Gemmata cell so distinctive.  So we were able to say not only do these processes seem to be separate spatially, but here is their relationship to the surrounding landscape.  When for example we looked at that merged image with all the colors in there, that allowed us to say, “Oh, here is the red signal and here is the blue signal, and in between there’s a green line and it’s a membrane.”  It’s a form of mapping.  We’re mapping the processes that we tagged, with respect to other features.  Which we can then make wild speculations about!

HLH: That mapping is what I was getting at.  You had just used the word “flags,” that you were seeing flags.  So I was thinking, by way of a metaphor or analogy, of something like tracking.  What the hunter or tracker sees is evidence of thing that he or she is looking for.  I’m trying to find the mountain lion that I’m told is living around Ucross, but that is very secretive.  I haven’t actually seen the mountain lion yet, but I’ve observed fresh mountain lion droppings, and I observe a freshly-killed deer that was not killed by bullets but by fangs, and I observe mountain lion tracks in the mud, and so on.  So I know the mountain lion is there even though I haven’t seen the mountain lion.  I’m curious then: is that in any way analogous to what you’ve done with imaging?  What you’ve seen are flags that are evidence of these processes, transcription and translation.  You haven’t seen these processes occurring separately, but you’ve seen the tracks.

NLW: It’s a good analogy.  If you want to take the wild animal metaphor a little further, we could see it as two different animals.  Do their ranges overlap?  We have these signs that they do or they don’t, or that they sometimes do but not always, or that mostly they do.  It’s a good analogy because the imaging is an indirect observation.  The other method that I mentioned, in which you would separate the cell and look for a particular protein in a particular part of the cell, that’s much more direct because you can take that fraction and chemically determine exactly what proteins are there, with a high degree of confidence.  So that’s a more direct approach.  You can also see the relative abundance of one protein in relation to others, and so on.  But as I said we can’t do that in our lab.

There are other approaches to biology, where we also look for tracks.  So when I mentioned features of the Gemmata cell that make it look somewhat like a eukaryotic cell, there is a particular class of proteins in eukaryotic cells that are responsible for curvature of membranes, which is biologically important.  They have a characteristic structure, and one group of researchers found Gemmata proteins that were predicted to have a similar structure to these membrane curvature proteins of eukaryotes, and while that was not completely unique to Gemmata, it was fairly rare.  That’s an indirect piece of information that suggests a relationship without actually taking that protein out of a Gemmata cell and putting it in a membrane and making it bend, which would be the direct way of testing that.  Often we move from these flags or signposts towards a more direct approach.  This often moves science from an exploratory phase to a more hypothesis-driven phase, because a hypothesis needs some kind of background information.  Nobody makes a hypothesis in a vacuum.  You’ve read something, or you’ve seen something that made you think, “Oh, maybe this is how that works.”

Sometimes getting the direction for a hypothesis requires that exploratory phase.  So in the example I just gave about the predicted protein structure, that came from when someone determined the whole genome sequence.  (Actually, it was me!  Or at least I did part of it.  It wasn’t completed, so I can’t honestly say I did it.)  Sequencing a genome is about as exploratory as it gets in science.  It’s like the natural history of the organism captured in its DNA.  You’re going to get a long list of genes and the best estimate of what they do for the organism when they are translated to proteins.  Then these researchers ran software on the genome sequence that was looking for this particular structure, and they found it in several predicted proteins.  This gave them a short list of Gemmata proteins that may have this membrane curvature function.  Even though I said that it hadn’t been directly tested, they took one of those short-listed proteins, tagged it, and found it in parts of the membrane system that are curved.  So there is more than just theoretical evidence to support that idea.  That’s an example of starting with a very large pool of information that’s generated in an exploratory way with no particular direction in mind, and then you interrogate that: what’s interesting about this very large pool of information?  That leads you then to a hypothesis that you can test.

This is one of the challenges of science: which approach is more appropriate at any given time?  Often, hypothesis-driven science is prioritized.  It’s more focused, and more likely to yield a definitive answer.  But it is dependent on the exploratory work that came before, as well as a lot of other hypothesis-driven science.  All the connections you were mentioning are drawn together in formulating a new hypothesis.  When a researcher submits a proposal for funding, a frequent reviewer comment might be “Too exploratory.  This is a fishing expedition.”  The phrase “fishing expedition” is used a lot in the review of grant proposals!  In many disciplines, it’s seen as a bad thing, a thing you should already have done without being given money for it.

HLH: You’ve led me to another observation that I think is a question.  You responses make me think about the interpretive nature of what you’re doing, but I want to be careful not to associate this with the connotation of “interpretation” that makes it loosey-goosey and speculative, guesswork, highly subjective, and so on.  I’m thinking about St. Augustine, who in his On Christian Doctrine talks about different kinds of signs.  His interest is specifically in biblical interpretation, but he distinguishes kinds of signs, and one of the kinds is what he calls “natural signs,” his example for which is smoke as a natural sign of fire.  The thing being interpreted is not a dubious matter, not just a subjective thing: it’s a very strict natural connection that’s being observed.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  But that’s a very familiar natural sign: we all of us have had perceptual experience of this connection, and there’s broad social consensus about this connection, and so on.  We already have all the equipment and the context that we need in order to interpret that natural sign.

But now tell me if this is any way a fair characterization of what you do.  Is there any sense in which what you’re doing is creating that context where it hasn’t existed before, or where we haven’t had it before, to interpret a natural sign?  We all know how to interpret the natural sign smoke.  What you have done with your various experimental techniques is create the context in which we are now able to interpret this natural sign which was there before.  Now I can get to the fire, which is the fact that transcription and translation sometimes occur separately.  I’ve only actually seen the smoke, but I now have the context that lets me determine what it is a sign of.  I’ve never seen transcription and translation occurring in Gemmata obscuriglobus (as I have seen fire), but I now have enough context that the thing I have seen tells me that it occurs separately.

NLW: I never thought about it in that way, but yes I think so.  Building that context occurs in a number of ways.  One is just the use of multiple approaches: different types of microscopy, different labels, other approaches if you’re able to use them.  That’s one way in which we build a context that makes the link believable.  Another way we do so is through replication.  In other words, imagine that ten times you have seen smoke, but only three times has someone shown you that there is a fire; other times you walk over there and there’s no fire.  When you make an observation that supports a link repeatedly, that strengthens the connection.  Another way is by having as part of the context experimental methods that have been used to show a similar kind of link but for a parallel question.  In our case, we were interested in transcription and translation; somebody else might be interested in where is the activity of an enzyme that is needed to break down sugar?  The questions are very different, other than sharing an interest in location, but they likely use fluorescent tags to detect the protein, as we did.  So the fact that we were using an established approach (or at least some of our approaches are established) was in our favor.  It strengthened the connection.

In our case, where we were technically very constrained, we also (out of desperation!) tried something that hadn’t been done before.  Most of the detection that we did was using antibodies.  This is familiar to us from the biology of our own bodies: you get sick, your body develops an antibody that recognizes that agent the next time it invades, and protects you.  So antibodies are also a very standard tool for locating proteins, and actually capturing proteins and seeing if they are active.  We did that, but in our desperate search for a different way to support that antibody work, we also thought about an antibiotic called gentamicin.  Gentamicin kills bacteria by binding to the ribosome, the protein factory of the cell.  If a cell can’t make proteins, it dies.  However, it can also be a flag for us.  So if we want to know where protein is being actively made, then we send this antibiotic in, like a guided missile.  Yes, it’s going to kill the cell, but because we’ve put a flag on it, we’re going to know exactly where it was when it killed the cell.  We didn’t invent the technique of putting the flag on the antibiotic; it had been used before, to look where within the human body the antibiotic goes when it helps make us better.  My student Ekaterina found a paper where this flagged antibiotic had been shown to be located in certain cells of the ear, connected to ear infections.  But her thought was, well if it can work in an ear, it can probably work for what we want to do.  It was not a completely novel approach, but it was a novel application of something that already existed.  However, we found out that because it was novel, after we got our reviews back on the first version of the paper, the reviewers wanted some more substantial evidence that this was a valid way to get data to answer this question.  We ended up doing more experiments that increased reviewer confidence in the appropriateness of using this tool.  So sometimes you have to create new context, and if you do that you have to justify it.  If we had had other tools at our disposal, I’m sure we never would have come up with that, because we wouldn’t have needed to.  Those are the ways that we strengthen our arguments through providing context.

HLH: I’m conscious of time, so let me pledge that this will be the last question.  Keeping in mind our potential reader who will not already be familiar with your work, what in lay terminology are translation and transcription?  For me as a poet arriving at your work those terms are very compelling.  They’re loaded in terms of language and poetry, but what are they as cellular processes?

NLW: The processes are two different stages of the expression of a gene.  (There’s another word, “expression,” taken from nonscientific English.)  The bacterium has all of its genes, but at any given time not all of them are being expressed.  The same way not every thought in your head gets verbalized.

HLH: Fortunately!

NLW: A cell can express different genes at different times, depending on its needs and its environment.  There’s a whole regulatory framework that determines when the gene is expressed.  There are two stages of expression.  Transcription comes first.  Transcription takes the gene — a unit of information in the DNA, the genome of the organism — and makes a copy.  It unwinds the double helix of the DNA so it can get access to the information, and it makes a copy.  All of these verbs — transcribe, copy — make a lot of sense because we’re essentially dealing with letters, or chemicals that we represent as letters.  The variation in DNA comes from the order of four chemicals that we abbreviate as A, C, G, and T.  From a transcription point of view, DNA is just strings of As and Cs and Gs and Ts.  In transcription a copy is made, and its purpose is to be a message, so it’s called messenger RNA.  RNA is chemically very similar to DNA; they’re both nucleic acids.  It differs from DNA in that one of the four letters is substituted by a different letter: Ts become Us, and also differs in the structure of the sugar (ribose) that is a component of both DNA and RNA.  As a message, it’s also only one strand, rather than the double helix of the DNA.  There are organisms that have double RNAs, but they’re unusual.

That’s transcription: making a message, a transcript from the instructions.  Translation takes that message and converts it into a protein.  The word translation is used because there you see really a switch in language.  In the transcript you have pretty much the same language but with just one letter substituted for another.  Translation takes a code that’s embedded in the message; it’s a triplet code, so every three letters means something.  The something is a particular amino acid, which are the building blocks of protein.  Translation, which occurs in a specialized “factory” in the cell (the ribosome), is the process of decoding the transcript and translating it into a completely different language.  I guess another way you could look at it is, whereas a gene and its transcript are maybe dialects of one language, the transcript to the protein is like English to Basque, or Aramaic, or something that looks completely different, and which maybe, way back in evolutionary time, the same way that there are relationships between the romance languages and languages from other places, there’s a tie there.  There are linkages: there have to be, or you couldn’t translate.  But it looks completely different.  So that’s translation, and it ends with the production of a protein.

That’s not the end of the story.  A lot more has to happen, in most cases, to that protein before it can do something useful for the cell.  It often has to be modified, folded, activated, transported to a particular place in the cell, or even out of the cell.  Sometimes the cell has to send the protein out to do a job.  There’s also turnover, so proteins have a life and they get degraded, and recycled.  But that’s post-translational …


H.L. Hix, author of As Much As, If Not More Than, loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. A collection of his interviews on The Conversant can be read here.

Naomi Ward is an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Wyoming.  A graduate of the University of Queensland (Australia), she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Warwick (U.K.).  Her research interests include microbial community structure and function, interactions between microbes and their environment, and evolution of new function in microbial genomes. The scientific research described in this interview was supported by an award from the U.S. National Science Foundation MCB-0920667.

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Jason Koo

Jason Koo
Jason Koo

This interview, focusing on Jason Koo’s new book, America’s Favorite Poem, is part of Intersecting Lineages, a new Conversant series focusing on cross-community conversations with poets of color. Ben-Oni and Koo conducted this interview during the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs in May, before the Heat lost to the Spurs in the Finals and LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland.

Rosebud Ben-Oni: I’m transfixed by how you play with space: the way the lines sprawl and spill over in many of the poems such as in “America’s Favorite Poem,” and the racial and social tensions in “Model Minority” between personal and public space: “…while enjoying your extra space // People move on me like a magnet.” Can you talk about movement in your work, as a poet on the page and in the world?

Jason Koo: I’m always looking for movement; I think, in some ways, I go to poetry for movement. So often I feel dead, cramped, like I’m just sitting there—mostly, because my work requires me just to sit there. A typical workday involves me sitting in front of my laptop for 9-12 hours; and when I’m not writing, those hours are taken up by grading and doing work online for Brooklyn Poets. Those hours don’t feel like flying. But when I’m working on a poem, sitting there can feel like flying, or at least fluttering the wings. I think this is why when things start to go well in a poem I’m hopping out of my chair every few minutes to pace around the room, fiddle with stuff in my kitchen, try some handstands against a wall.

Anyway, here I am, moving away from the question. For me, poetry is movement; a jazz musician might call this “swing.” Hart Crane might call this “swing”—you see him use this word over and over again in his poetry. The Brooklyn Bridge has swing. A great metaphor has swing: a little loop from one thing to another. If I can start moving in a poem, if my mind starts to rev itself up, I can start making connections between the disparate things of the world and perhaps start feeling those connections myself. You are trying to bring things into a motion, a suasian, as A. R. Ammons would say. When you don’t have motion, the imagination can’t get started; the natural inertia of things takes over. The reader just sits there. If you can bring a motion to the page, that motion starts in the reader’s mind and then all kinds of good things happen. I like the word moved as it applies to our experience of art. We’re moved by a poem—we feel it emotionally. But this is physical as well: something shifts inside you. Hopefully if we can bring a motion to the page, if we can move people, they will themselves bring that movement to their own worlds, move other people—start a “movement”—and then the racial and social tensions you speak of in “Model Minority” might be alleviated.

RB: America’s Favorite Poem seems to me to a raw, candid examination of the performance self of the poet—particularly in “Empty Orchestra” and “For Every Atom Belonging to Me” and all the discomfort that follows thereafter in looking back—more revelation than confession. What prompted this?

JK: It all started the morning after the book party for Man on Extremely Small Island, which was at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, back when it was in Koreatown. After the party, some of my friends and I went to a karaoke bar nearby called Wow! And, um, wow. I’d never done karaoke before, because I’m a terrible singer and was embarrassed about singing; but in K-town the no reh bang have private rooms for just you and your friends, so I was up for the idea of embarrassing myself in front of my friends with my Axl Bon Jovi falsetto. And I had a great time—a little too great. I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d made a complete ass of myself, remembering the looks on my best friends’ faces at the end of the night, how tired of me they looked—like they’d gone from being happy for me to completely sick of me. Some of this was probably projection and self-loathing, but the feeling was strong; instead of waking up the morning after my first book party feeling like a king, I woke up feeling like I was the worst friend on earth. So the seeds of “Empty Orchestra” were planted there. I Googled “karaoke” at some point and saw that the literal translation of the word from Japanese was “empty orchestra,” which I loved—that seemed like the perfect description of my “performance self,” as you call it, on the night of my book party.

One of the things America’s Favorite Poem explores is the problem of imperial drive in the American imagination. Usually, you hear poets take a default position on things like imperialism and power, assuming they’re bad; but everyone seems to be forgetting that when you read a great poem, you are, in some sense, under its power, i.e. it’s colonized your imagination, at least temporarily. The poet has extended his or her imaginative “empire” into your mind. And when you yourself write a poem, you are extending your own empire into your readers’ minds—despite what you may think about “writing for yourself” or how much negative capability you have. When you publish a poem, when you share that poem on Facebook, when you give a reading, when you publish a book, you are extending your empire. It’s time for poets to own up to this and understand that they are not exempt from the prevailing cultural critique of imperialism. Just because you’re not making money doesn’t mean you don’t have the same imperialist drives within you. And I think what’s interesting is that these drives, in many ways, are healthy—they lead to great works of art, like, say, the Brooklyn Bridge. I would rather see poets today own up to these drives and go after “power” in their poems—not monetary power, but imaginative power. Power is not necessarily a bad thing. Authority is not necessarily a bad thing. There are good and bad versions of these things. Look at the way we talk about great athletes; when LeBron James dunks a ball with “authority,” that is a good thing. When we talk about a book having real “power,” that’s a separator; it means not merely “good” or “fun” or “charming,” etc, but capable of saving nations, as Milosz might say. That ideally is the kind of book I’m interested in writing, but of course that comes with pitfalls. You can start developing an inflated idea of yourself, pissing off your friends, your significant other; you can start sounding like an “empty” orchestra instead of a real orchestra. Whitman in the first edition of Leaves of Grass writes with real power; in many subsequent editions, with all their terrible additions and revisions, he starts sounding empty—the lines start reading like rhetoric instead of poetry. But there’s no easy either/or between ego and non-ego, which is what a lot of poets seem to misunderstand about Keats’s negative capability. You can’t just get rid of your ego and start writing from that place. Seems more true that you have to write through your ego, more deeply into it, to emerge into a bigger, non-ego driven space of consciousness where you’re aware of the whole world within you.

RB: Rather than question authenticity, poems like “Struck from the Float Forever Held in Solution” seem to reconfigure art and legacy. Here we find literary icons—and their shifting, superseding selves—fueling both the city and the speaker. “Whitman, Kang, Crane move through” the speaker, can you talk about any conflicts that arise in imbibing these influences together?

JK: I’ve never thought about the conflicts of influences. I’ve always been open to influence of all kinds, whether they be white American poets like Whitman and Hart Crane or Korean American writers like Younghill Kang. My favorite writers have never seemed to me to be particularly aligned with any one school or set of influences, poets like Whitman and Crane and Ashbery, who were very important to me my first two years in college when I began writing poetry seriously. What I loved about Crane was that he seemed to be trying to fuse the influences of Whitman and Dickinson into one style, writing expansively but also with tremendous intensity and compression. I think this is why he loved the Brooklyn Bridge so much: utmost expansiveness and flight within the tension of the cables. What Crane called “power in repose.” I’ve always wanted my own work to be as open and inclusive as possible, after these writers that I liked. I wanted to write free verse but also poems in meter. I wanted to write in high, Romantic modes but also in colloquial, pop diction—this is something that Ashbery does effortlessly, shifting between these modes. The history of my reading has been a history of breaking down my aversion to styles so I could learn from writers I thought were very “different” from me. And these writers have ended up helping me evolve. For instance, I used to hate Frank Bidart. I saw him read when I was just out of college and just couldn’t stand how dramatic he was. Actually, I think I saw him read with Louise Glück and I couldn’t stand her either; she seemed so self-consciously vatic. They seemed pretentious and inauthentic; they didn’t have the genial, open, inclusive style and voice that I liked. But other people you respect read these poets and tell you to read them and, after a while, you listen, if you tell yourself you’re interested in openness, and eventually you open up the right acoustic in yourself to hear them. Or perhaps your living conditions change and that opens up the acoustic. So when I moved to Missouri for my PhD, Glück and Bidart became very important to me because I began to feel incredibly isolated and surrounded by silence and started writing a lot of poems out of that alienated silence, as they do. Bidart, in particular, I became interested in because of his dramatic monologues; for about a year, I seemed to be writing nothing but dramatic monologues. And he taught me to intensify my poetry, make it dramatic—this very thing I had an aversion to in his work before. I realized that was everything, that there had to be something dramatic in your voice, even if you were writing about the mundane, as I often was when I was younger. One of my teachers at the University of Houston, Adam Zagajewski, once asked me when we were discussing my poems, Where is the drama? And I thought that was kind of a stupid and borderline offensive question, as if there was nothing going on in my poems, but now I know what he means.

I seem to be completely off topic again, but somehow this is all related. I think possibly your question is getting at the possible political pitfalls of imbibing the wrong influences, or not aligning yourself politically, which I do think is important. But I’ll always believe in the mongrel American mode as a way to creativity; politically, I support Asian American poets and poetry, of course, and I now have very real ways to implement my support through Brooklyn Poets, but imaginatively those are not the only poets I’m going to read. And I think as long as you are constantly keeping yourself open to influences and trying to break down your aversion to styles and your own blind spots about reading, more and more you are putting yourself in a place that is not prejudiced. I used to be in a place where I didn’t read Asian American poets—I thought they weren’t as “good” as poets like Whitman, Crane, Ashbery, etc. When the truth was I wasn’t even reading them. (Of course I wasn’t being taught them either, but that’s another story.) I was kidding myself that only aesthetics were important, that I didn’t want to be seen as “just” an Asian American poet, that I wanted to be seen as an “American” poet. Whereas many poets of color probably naturally gravitate to writing by other writers of color, as I do now, when I was younger I had to force myself to sit down with these writers. I knew I had to break down that aversion in myself, which was instilled culturally from who knows where. Finally I read Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life in a course at the University of Missouri and was blown away—I thought it was one of the greatest novels I’d ever read. I still think this. I have hope for Asian American male writers because of Chang-Rae—we’re only all but invisible because of people like him. And the closeness I feel to Chang-Rae is of a different kind than to writers like Whitman and Crane; he’s inside my experience of the world in a way they could never be (of course, they’re inside that experience in ways he could never be as well). When I read Younghill Kang for the first time a few years ago, I had a similar revelatory experience; but what was interesting this time was that Kang sounded so much to me like Hart Crane, his ways of writing about the city had the same kind of ecstatic revelation. And they were living in the city and writing at the same time. I thought if Crane had ever discovered Kang, he would’ve loved his work. The melding of these two guys in my mind was exciting to me, not only because of their work but because I now felt a real openness in my mind that hadn’t been there before. Too often we read writers like Kang against their own “tradition”; we don’t see he might have more in common with a writer like Hart Crane than he does with Korean writers before him. We teach writers like Kang in courses on Asian American literature rather than in courses, say, on Modernism. That’s a problem. But it’s only going to change if people start actually being open when they read, rather than just paying lip service to the idea of openness. You have to be willing to sit down and try and try again to read writers you think you don’t like. When I was a freshman in college, I thought I hated Wordsworth and Pope, mainly because one of my older friends told me he hated them. I wrote “I am not a poet” on Pope’s forehead on the cover of his book. A few years later, I read these poets again and loved them. If you’ve never had the experience of loving a writer you used to hate, not just “respecting” or “admiring” the work in spite of not “liking” it, you are not really reading and probably much more prejudiced than you think.

RB: Let’s talk about “To LeBron’s Elbow.” I’m a big basketball fan myself, and I have to admit that when “The Decision” aired, I refused to watch it for a number of reasons. However, I will also admit that I’ve carefully followed LeBron’s career—and his personal narrative—since he was first drafted. So while “the war is still on / for LeBron’s James narrative” post-Cleveland, the speaker too flees “certain judgments I now call ‘small town.’” How important is it to own one’s narrative? Is it even possible? And what does it really mean “to quit the entire city”?

JK: It’s very important for us to own, or feel like we own, our own narrative, and it’s become easier than ever in the age of Facebook, where you can repeat images of yourself online in ways that are flattering to you and receive affirmation via Friends, Followers and Likes. At the same time, if you happen to screw up in the digital public, then you’re screwed in ways people have never been screwed before, as those same screw-up images are repeated ad infinitum (or nauseum). LeBron James’s “Decision” was an epochal moment in American culture, showing how an individual could be so puffed up by the media narrative he and his “team” were devising that he could fall completely out of touch with reasonable reality, and just how quickly that individual could be destroyed by the same powers he hoped to manipulate for the further puffing up of that narrative. The image of LeBron on “The Decision” seems to epitomize the masturbatory self-imperialism we all fall prey to consciously or unconsciously in this culture—just not to the extent that King James did in that moment. As I watched this event, of course, I was horrified, but not exactly surprised, as watching Cleveland sports your whole life teaches you to be prepared for catastrophic disappointment. But this event, I realized, was not about emotional loss for me, as every other Cleveland disappointment had been throughout my life; we’ve lost other great free agents before, and I’d always just been sad and/or angry about it. LeBron’s decision to leave made me angry in a way that turned back on myself—I felt I was complicit in it somehow. When I really considered my anger toward him, how pissed I was that he was abandoning Cleveland after the “LeBacle” of his tank job in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Celtics that year, I realized that if I judged him, I’d also have to judge myself. He was leaving Cleveland and the burden of total responsibility and past disappointment and family and friends to go to a bigger market, a sexier lifestyle, shared responsibility, a team that gave him the best chance to win a championship. Did I want to stay in Cleveland after graduating from high school? No, I went to Yale. Did I want to live there as an adult? No, I moved to New York. During my years in Missouri in grad school, all I could think about was getting back to New York, where I felt I could be really me. And so much more was at stake, of course, for LeBron James, in that moment of his career, than there was perhaps for any of us at any moment of our own lives and careers. If you’re LeBron James, are you going to choose to stay with a team that might win a championship simply for the “loyal hometown hero” narrative over a team that most likely will win a championship, perhaps several? He could choose the hometown hero narrative and never win a championship and then, when all was said and done, people would read him as a failure, even in Cleveland. He sacrificed that narrative for the better bet at the “champion” narrative, the “possibly the greatest player of all time” narrative. Obviously he would’ve liked for those two narratives to coincide, but at that moment of his career, it didn’t seem likely to him.

So he chose Miami and guess what? The fucker was right. The Heat have been to the Finals three straight years and won two championships in a row. If not for his choke job in the first Finals, they would’ve won three. And now they’re up 2-0 on the Nets in the second round and looked primed for another championship. The Cavs, meanwhile, are a mess, even with two first picks in the draft over the last three years. No one can say LeBron made a bad decision anymore. People might talk about “The Decision” as silly and embarrassing, but they forgive it because he’s gone on to fulfill his narrative of Greatness. And you know what? Good for him. He’s got that imperial drive in him, conquering the narrative of failure that everyone was trying to write for him after “The Decision,” including me. This was in the court of public opinion, not in a legal court, and as Camus notices in The Fall, the “keenest of human torments is to be judged without a law.” I have known these torments myself. I’ve had enemies in previous places—shit, in Brooklyn, too—who have mocked me and wanted me to fail. And they did everything they could, or everything they could not do (i.e. help me), to write me into that narrative. What are you gonna do, be Prufrock “pinned and wriggling on the wall” by the conquest of other people’s narratives? Or you gonna break out of those narratives and reclaim your own? You either play or you get played, as Omar says in The Wire. You don’t have a choice. So if I, or you, or we are going to do what’s best for us and be damned if anybody’s going to shame us into slaving ourselves to their own narratives, then of course, King James is going to do what’s best for him. This is our greatness as a culture and our failure.

RB: Gentrification and all its complexities pop up in the collection in both implicit and explicit ways; how do you see these powers transforming the Brooklyn you call home?

JK: Well, again, our greatness and our failure. We can’t seem to have one without the other. There is always something conquering in the creative, to quote my new book in a typical conquering move. Gentrification is obviously bad in a lot of ways, but then it also creates a lot of good. Gentrification saves neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights by making them “historic.” I can walk around the corner and see Auden’s old apartment with a little plaque on it that says it’s Auden’s old apartment. You could be cynical about that, but imagine the BQE there instead. Gentrification puts a yoga studio in a neighborhood like Sunset Park, where I met my girlfriend of three years. Is yoga bad? Is love bad? Gentrification, let’s face it, writes poems. Are poems bad? Gentrification creates organizations like Brooklyn Poets. Is Brooklyn Poets bad? Well, I’m sure there are people who think so. But I try my damnedest to use Brooklyn Poets to create a space for people who have not been included in the poetry “community” in Brooklyn. Again, other people are conquering, you have to conquer back. You have to fight for you and your people. It’s too easy to blame “gentrification” for all the problems; you yourself are likely part of the problem. So the only thing you can do is make sure you create; you’re going to be doing some conquering, believe me, you can’t avoid that, but at least use whatever powers you have to create something that does good for other people who are conquered. Right now we don’t have a poetry “community” in Brooklyn; we have communities. Maybe the multiplicity is good, but I see very little mixing going on between these communities, almost nil. And the main reason why is just laziness, not racism or classism or anything like that. People are simply not trying to include others, to think about others. Just look at the reading series scene in Brooklyn. Virtually every reading I see posted on Facebook is all white. When there are poets of color, they are usually reading with other poets of color. Women are being represented—in fact, I usually see more women than men—but not poets of color. And nobody seems to care. VIDA may have a count for women vs men in journals, but where is the count for poets of color in reading series? I get it, you care about aesthetics, you want to invite the poets you like to read, hell, you want to invite your friends, so do I, but if you call yourself a “curator,” do that—curate. You have a responsibility. You need to try. If I just invited the poets I wanted to read for Brooklyn Poets, our reading series would look very different than it does now, where I make sure we have a gender and color balance of readers throughout the year. That shit is not easy. But the difficulty is like the productive constraint of poetic form. You have to mix and match and push yourself to read a lot of new work you haven’t read before. How do you know what you really want, what you really like? You like and want what you like and want at that time. But if you’re only reading white poets, well guess what, you’re not going to “like” and “want” to invite poets of color to read. Duh. You have to try to read those poets. And hmm you will probably end up liking some of them. I want to live in a Brooklyn that celebrates both Walt Whitman and Biggie Smalls and their representative communities equally. I feel and see this in my imagination, but I don’t see it play out in reality. I’ve been to readings in Brooklyn where I was the only person of color. I thought that would never happen when I left Missouri. But this place is more segregated than Missouri. And that segregation is more pernicious because the prevailing sense is that this is a liberal place, a racially conscious place. People let that shit slide. You might, of course, hear Biggie Smalls played at a dance party after one of those readings. He shows up there, as consumption. But the people he represents are not at that party.

RB: What are you working on next?

JK: Poems. At the end of last summer, I started working on a sequence. Wrote about 17 pages. Then I didn’t write another poem from September to April, what with the obligations of the school year and the insanity of Brooklyn Poets’s Indiegogo campaign last fall. Now that all that’s over, I’ve written three new poems, all very sad love poems. I feel I’ve got another 80 of these poems in me. It’s a sad time. But I’m trying to inhabit that space as patiently as possible. You know how Rilke says we squander our hours of pain? Because we can’t write when we’re in pain? More and more, I feel I am able to write out of that pain, and poetry feels like real good because of that. When I was younger, I couldn’t do this; I was just obliterated by pain. But now I can enter that pain and write my way out of it, to some extent. Hopefully, that means I’m maturing. I’d also like to write some essays about Asian American masculinity, which not a lot of people have written about. I’ve been planning to do this for a while, but prose takes such a huge commitment—it takes a lot out of me. Maybe when I’ve written those 80 poems first.


Jason Koo is the author of two collections of poetry, America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. An assistant professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Koo is also the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets, a nonprofit organization celebrating and cultivating the poets, poetry and literary heritage of Brooklyn, where he lives.

Cathy Wagner with Laura Sims

Cathy Wagner and Laura Sims
Cathy Wagner and Laura Sims


On the afternoon of June 12, Cathy Wagner and I sat down together (remotely) to watch The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 1. Im a fan of the show, but Cathy had never seen this rendition of the aftermath of zombie apocalypse. To prepare, wed both watched Night of the Living Dead and read parts of Zora Neale Hurstons Tell My Horse (about Haitian zombies), as well as Matt Mogks Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Zombies. We g-chatted during and after the show, mulling over zombies and gender roles and the paleolithic diet and zombies and new motherhood and personal hygiene and race relations and the wars of the future and murderers and books and anarchist thinkers and zombies.*

Cathy Wagner: OK, ready. Do you have any Framing Questions? Car passing overturned car. Police officer-looking-guy at the wheel. Are you where I am?

Laura Sims: Yes! Normalcy of the moving automobile, so comforting. Until you reach the sea of broken cars. Discarded baby dolls. And now…a zombie child.

CW: Uh-oh.

LS: He’s in for a nasty shock when she turns around.

CW: Down goes the first blonde.

LS: Probably a shout-out to Night of the Living Dead, right? First human-turns-zombie is a girl. Little Karen. All right, GUNFIGHT!!

CW: How do the cops know these people are zombies?

LS: Those are not zombies, dear. This is a flashback to pre-apocalypse times. The sheriff gets wounded and ends up in the hospital. It’s like 28 Days Later—Rick, the sheriff, misses the start of the apocalypse because he’s locked in a hospital room. And now he’s waking up to a whole new world…dead flowers + dead clock = oh shit!

CW: Ah. I am going to require your guidance throughout, OK? Zombie neophyte. Oh, gross—hello, Miss Havisham. Boobs!

LS: Were there boobs?

CW: Raw meat boobs. Nicely shaped as if bra on.

LS: Wow! “You can keep your shape even after death” would be a great advertising tagline. Is he at the barred door now? DON’T OPEN / DEAD INSIDE. It would be so fun to be one of the dead. Never thought I’d say that. Oh Jesus, Rick, don’t go into the dark stairwell for fuck’s sake. You’d think he would have watched some zombie movies…I love how lush and green everything is in contrast to the dead guts. Lovely home Rick has.

CW: Perfect suburban. Did you see the flag picture in the hall, sort of part Jasper Johns part Hobby Lobby? Do you think it’s another Night of the Living Dead nod?

LS: Huh?

CW: Remember the flag on the grave in the opening scene of Night of the Living Dead? A reminder of Vietnam soldiers’ deaths. Lots of burning imagery later, too, in Night of the Living Dead.

LS: Did you finish watching it today?

CW: Yep.

LS: Oh no, Rick, don’t talk to THAT guy…so what did you think of the ending? Rick, behind you!

CW: Goodbye family ties, goodbye social order, daughter kills mom, brother kills sister.

LS: RICK, BEHIND YOU! Yes, brother EATS sister.

CW: And when the social order is supposed to be reestablishing itself, they shoot the main guy (Duane Jones) without checking to see if he’s human or zombie. Brutal.

LS: Right! All those white guys…

CW: Yes.

LS: They assume he’s a zombie because he has to be, right? He’s black. Why bother to ask? Reminiscent of so much racist police action. I wonder if George Romero intended the racial implications of that scene…but intended or not, they’re there.

CW: Romero says he just hired the best actor among their friends. He’d written the role as white, but yeah, the casting makes it richer and politically scarier. Did you see Dawn of the Dead? In the mall?

LS: No. It takes place in a mall?

CW: Romero’s follow-up—it sounds amazing. In Dawn the zombies all come to the mall because that’s what they’re used to. The humans barricade themselves in there. Culture critique via the undead consumer, like in Night.

LS: So where/what was the consumer-culture critique in Night?

CW: Did you catch the thing at the beginning when Johnny speculates that the floral cross they buy every year to put on the grave is probably the same one, refitted and resold over and over again by the flower shop?

LS: Oh right, I remember now…and the sister kind of shushes him right? “Oh, Johnny.”

CW: Yes. The coming-back-to-life of zombies might be an ironic maxing-out of nonsensical buy-buy-buy. Zombies can’t stop consuming. I don’t think the metaphor’s worked out in Night—it’s a sort of kernel form of what happens in Dawn, where humans are consumed by their own consumption. Hey, another nice house they’re in now too…

LS: Or it could be an early hint of ecological ways to read the zombie apocalypse. Yes, another lovely Atlanta house. Where Rick is in how-to-kill-zombies training with his new friends, Morgan and son. Aim for the head. Always aim straight for the head, Cathy.

CW: I will!

LS: And here’s an insightful “men and women are different” conversation! In a zombie apocalypse, men pack survival gear; women pack photo albums. The show tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, annoyingly.

CW: Oh lord, women are so dumb with their photo albums. Why did Rick put on his deputy uniform?! What was he thinking?

LS: I know; I love it—he clings to civilization. He still doesn’t totally get that the zombies have destroyed all of it. Rick, let it go! But a part of me is really comforted by that uniform, I must admit.

CW: But what if the zombies are right? What if, when we root for the humans (not to mention the ones in uniform), we’re on the wrong side? The zombies are telling us: stop using all these fossil fuels. Live on what’s available raw. Destroy your consumerist kin. Zombies gone paleo—Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has a witty article in Prismatic Ecology, the eco-criticism book he edited, that talks about zombies on the paleo diet.

LS: Yea, I mean, I think that’s implicit in the zombie narrative. Here they come like a walking plague to clean things out. Our species deserves it. Look at this world! It’s so alive and lush! It doesn’t matter that we’re getting eaten—it goes on without us. I’m remembering that disturbing but very good book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, did you read it?

CW: No, what’s he say? Hey, why is Morgan making noise? Aren’t they supposed to stay quiet to be safe?

LS: He’s trying to draw the zombies to the house so he can finally shoot his (dead) wife. He needs to put her out of her zombie misery but…he can’t. Weisman says that only the rats and cockroaches would miss us if humans were suddenly to disappear. The rest of the earth would flourish and quickly break down all evidence that we were ever here.

CW: The earth does seem to thrive without people around—those fecund wild spaces around Chernobyl and in the demilitarized zone between the Koreas. I feel warm thinking at least we’ll be missed by rats and roaches, sweet. Why did Rick waste a bullet on the legless one? Sentimental.

LS: You’ve nailed his tragic flaw in the first twenty minutes!

CW: It’s everyone’s fatal flaw in this show apparently (photos, attachment).

LS: Well, some of the characters do turn themselves into cold zombie-killing machines, but Rick can’t.

CW: What is that mouth-opening thing the zombies do? They look like fish.

LS: Chew chew chew must chew…

CW: Re: chewing, I’ve been thinking about how the “paleolithic diet” aligns with libertarianism. It’s anti-grain, and cereal agriculture is the reason why people got together and built infrastructure, got “civilized.” Without grain, you don’t need other people as much. Or at least you don’t need to organize them hierarchically to harvest, build silos, etc. Hey, is that Rick’s partner, from the flashbacks? Shane?

LS: Yep, that’s Officer Shane. He’s alive. He survived the apocalypse. So far. So potentially people could live alone, but…not if there are zombies.

CW: Yeah, even paleo dieters will have to band together if there’s a zombie apocalypse. Or join the zombies, who are already paleo. I am SO bad with faces…was that Rick’s wife with Shane??

LS: YES.

CW: Ooh.

LS: !!!

CW: How long has it been since the apocalypse?

LS: It’s hard to figure that out. Maybe six months? Long enough for Rick’s wife to get with Shane. But to give her credit, she does think he’s dead…Rick, I mean.

CW: Oh, no, what is Rick thinking? He’s going to ride a horse into zombie-filled Atlanta??

LS: Rick thinks he’s in a Western. He’s the sheriff, of course.

CW: Is he THE sheriff?

LS: He’s The Law.

CW: Right, the kind arm of the law.

LS: This is awesome, this shot of Rick riding into the city. Anti-iconic. I mean it looks iconic: man on a horse riding into a deserted town, could be a modern-day ghost town…but it’s about to be anti-iconic. The iconic is about to be devoured. Not to ruin it for you, but.

CW: Why is paper drifting around everywhere instead of cell phones? Where did everybody drop their phones?

LS: Paper looks better. Drifting around, all poetic and shit. A symbol of a bygone civilization. UH. OH. ZOMBIES.

CW: Don’t get scratched, Rick!

LS: See, wouldn’t it be fun to be one of the walkers? Close call, genius. Get back in the tank! And now…saved by the bell. “Hey you, dumbass!” Someone is out there.

CW: Chopper overhead. And the radio works!

LS: And now the zombies converge on the poor horse. See? The iconic is devoured. There is always at least one serious gross-out moment in each episode—like this, with the entrails, etc. But it’s such a beautiful shot, and the music is perfect, too. By the end of this scene, I was hooked. I knew I’d keep watching the show.

CW: Wait, that’s it? You’re right, the walkers do get to do some fun entrail smearage.

LS: That’s it! Are you hooked?

CW: Oh, really lovely downward panorama shot. Hmm. How many have you watched?

LS: I’ve watched through the end of Season 3. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

CW: So why, Laura Sims, are you attracted to this kind of thing?

LS: Well, I love survival stories—doesn’t everyone? I love the idea of being in that situation, where everything but getting by day-to-day is stripped away. We’re so far from that now, we’ve complicated everything—the zombies could give us a “clean slate.” It doesn’t have to be zombies, though, of course. I also just like being scared, fictionally scared. It’s comforting.

CW: I suppose you know what your job is even if there are doubts about how to do it. You stay alive, you try to keep others alive: simple. Like being a new parent, except way less boring.

LS: Yes! I have to go catch fish. I have to shoot this zombie through the head. Or alternately: I have to nurse this baby to make him grow. I have to change his diaper. Wait—boring? You’re one of those people who didn’t like the newborn phase, I guess.

CW: Haha, I did NOT enjoy those days much, despite many pleasures. No sleep! Colic! Hard work! I love the 5+ years, the verbal years.

LS: I just remember feeling alive. And filled with purpose. In ways we so rarely do in everyday life. Extreme living! The zombies provide that, too.

CW: Right, we are zombies (protecting ourselves from really feeling and attending) until the zombie apocalypse, and then we feel our aliveness.

LS: Yes! ! ! Though the problem with the extreme living of a post-apocalyptic nature is that there would be no hot showers or delicious food.

CW: You know I guess I would miss them but I think I am already stripped down, in a way. Showers bore me so I only take them a couple times a week. And my son and I eat like cavepeople who shop at Kroger, despite my suspicions about paleo. I do very little cooking.

LS: Oh, I wouldn’t miss cooking…though I guess I’d do a hell of a lot more of it, and over a campfire. Ugh. I would miss restaurants. Takeout. Cathy, you should really shower more.

CW: I really should. But it dries out my hair. I do have a washcloth. By the way, campfire food is way better than Oxford, Ohio takeout. Except for Skyline Chili. So is there a relationship between serial killers, etc., and zombies for you?

LS: Well first of all it’s not just serial killers! There are other kinds of murderers in My god is this a man, too.

CW: Is it to do with the joy of feeling scared in a predictable context? Seeking control, fort-da style? I mean your mom—I don’t know—if you would want to talk about that—and OK if not—

LS: Yea, I think it’s definitely related to losing my mom to cancer when I was 19. Zombies and murderers are both death-bringers in human form, which is potentially comforting—only from a reader’s or viewer’s standpoint, of course. Since they’re physical beings, you can imagine responding to them—or even defeating them—in physical ways. My mom’s death was amorphous and beyond our control—an invisible disease attacking and destroying her body. If I could have, I would have liked to pick up a gun and shoot cancer in the head, but…

CW: Yes.

LS: Yes. And just to be clear: that was not meant to be a metaphorical endorsement of the death penalty.

CW: Hah.

LS: But I’m also interested in the psychological and sociological dimensions of murder—what makes someone capable of stepping over the line that separates socially acceptable behavior from the most anti-social behavior imaginable?

CW: It’s anti-social, yes, but killers have social reasons for killing people. Elliot Rodgers had complexly social, socially supported reasons for killing people…women, ethnic others…

LS: Yes, and the less dramatic “everyday murders” (which are the majority) are inseparable from their social contexts, too. My response, like everyone’s, I imagine, is complicated. I feel fear, disgust and outrage, but sympathy, too. Sympathy for the victims, of course, but…sympathy for “the devil,” too. Sympathy for that fucked-up kid and his parents. He was clearly troubled, from early childhood.

CW: Yes, I feel sorry for him, too…

LS: And then there’s empathy. I can empathize with someone who wants to hurt or kill someone else—it’s a deeply human urge. But we often call murderers “monsters.”

CW: Unless those murderers have been sanctioned by the government to kill—in which case violent acts and their perpetrators are celebrated.

LS: Right, exactly. They become heroes, which is equally problematic.

CW: The “monster” label’s easy—it psychologizes and individualizes the killer and leads us away from looking for structural solutions.

LS: Yes! Even calling zombies “monsters” oversimplifies things. Whether they’re “our” zombies or Haitian ones…

CW: Haitian zombies are slaves, right, and endlessly productive, while our undead are violent. Why would that be?

LS: Well, if you think about how they’re made…

CW: In Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston explains that you make a zombie by stealing its soul and then as soon as it’s buried, you take the soul into the tomb in a bag and let the corpse smell the soul and then quickly close up the bag, keep the soul, and the zombie is yours and will work for you forever.

LS: Very poetic. From what I remember in Serpent and the Rainbow, he learns that zombies are made by blowing poison into a person’s face, and then regularly dosing them with another poison to keep them docile. So they stay mentally paralyzed…but their bodies work. But our zombies, raised from the dead by a virus (or radiation, as in Romero) that attacks the brain…the brain is controlling them. But only the animal part of the brain. And it’s angry, hungry, etc. Wade Davis poses that the Haitian zombies act like a kind of societal check—that people who step out of line are punished in that way.

CW: If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, we’ll take your soul and make you a slave. Get your soul in line or else.

LS: And “our” zombies also act as a societal check…but on a species-wide scale. The virus runs its course, cleans things out and then we start with a blank slate! Very tidy.

CW: So our zombies are part of the way people fetishize and adore climate change as the Big Correction (I confess I do that myself).

LS: Yea, totally, me too. And we can DO something about zombies. I mean, at least we can shoot zombies in the head! And have some sense of control that way…

CW: They’re more personal, and it’s “us” against “them”—we know what to do in a good-us/bad-them situation, we can just start shooting. It’s comforting.

LS: Yes! We’ve been doing that forever!

CW: But if “they” scratch or bite you, you become bad, too. What are the implications about purity there?

LS: Yes! It gets complicated in Season 3, when the hero and his group hole up in a prison. It enacts a tidy little reversal, or seems to, though the “bad guys,” the zombies, are outside and inside. And there are prisoners who’ve survived the apocalypse as well—the group has a really hard time figuring out what to do with them. Where do prisoners fit in this new societal order? They’re human, so they’re “good,” but they were in prison in the old world, so…it throws some kinks into the new social order. Also: there are no showers in this prison.

CW: Hahaha. I would be all set. But is there food?

LS: Yes! There’s a seemingly endless supply, and it’s interesting to me that water is never a serious worry, which is not the way it really would be. And the way it WILL be, in our world, very shortly, for more and more humans. Already is, some places. That’s the real apocalypse…wars over water (and food).

CW: Did you ever read Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert? A lot of that seems to be coming to pass!

LS: No…must look it up. Tropic of Chaos, by Christian Parenti, recently scared the crap out of me.

CW: Cadillac Desert is about water wars and the future of “civilization” in the Western US—very bleak, but exciting. I’m thinking the Midwest is the place to be. What was Tropic of Chaos about?

LS: About the wars of the future—over food and water. And about the Western response, which could be productive and pre-emptive at this point, but is ultimately going to be (and already is) the “armed lifeboat” response…we’re in the lifeboat, and you ain’t! More security, more gated communities, more division between rich and poor—countries and people.

CW: The Snowpiercer story. But I wonder how long that kind of system can last. I’ve been reading this anarchist named Raul Zibechi who is excitingly idealistic about the social movements happening, especially in Latin America.

LS: I don’t read enough excitingly idealistic thinkers…tell me more.

CW: There are various areas in Latin America—on the outskirts of large cities like La Paz, or the Zapatista-controlled regions of Mexico—that are really not under the control of local governments or the state, and are building ways of being that derive from indigenous social traditions—also from anarchist and Marxist movements and from radical Latin American Catholic traditions. His big thing is that these people move between roles, they’re not specialized, everyone does the labor necessary. For him that’s key to a revolution that’s already underway and expanding—ways of being social, of taking care of ourselves, that are not market-driven. I love this. And then again, I want to sit and read and work all day and not make porridge for the others; I crave my specialization.

LS: I hear you…and don’t we all? Or don’t many of us, anyway? I wonder if that’s as un-promising, ultimately, as the armed lifeboat. Sigh. Though the importance of doing one’s specialization would fall by the wayside if you didn’t have anything to EAT or DRINK.

CW: Well, come the revolution, everyone is a poet no one is a poet, right? Post-apocalypse too, no doubt.

LS: Cathy, you said you weren’t into watching scary stuff—you had some reluctance about watching this kind of show. Why are you afraid of scary viewing like this? Can you imagine yourself becoming a fan now?

CW: Oh Laura, you did your best, but no!

LS: Damn it! I feel like a failure.

CW: One big reason—I guess you don’t know this—I don’t watch TV at all, not since high school. No cable or a converter box or a Roku or anything. TV’s narrative temporality makes me feel tied to a chair and not in a fun way—I can’t speed up, stretch, pause the way I can reading. When I’m at my dad’s house and the TV is on and everyone’s watching and talking, apparently not feeling as if they are in a torture chamber—how do they do that? I do love enslaving myself to some alien narrative temporality when I’m sensorily overwhelmed, like at the movie theater. But TV, no.

LS: But but but…that all sounds fascinating—your crazy brain, I mean—but: no Wire? No Breaking Bad? No Mad Men no Sopranos no How I Met Your Mother??? In your TV-lessness you may not recognize TV-related humor, so: that last one was a joke.

CW: No, I’m totally idiotically missing out on the current golden era of TV.

LS: But how do you relax? I mean besides reading. How do you turn off your brain for a while and just coast?

CW: I like to read creepy messageboards on Reddit or amateur freerotica. Scarier than the undead! Plus the images don’t snag on my brainscreen and I can still sleep (that’s the second reason I won’t be converted). I am going to be imagining gray-pancake-makeupped shamblers whenever I hit the pillow for about a week. It’s not violence or gore that bothers me—I love extreme balletic movie violence, martial arts movies. Most recently the ax scene in Snowpiercer.

LS: So then, what is it?

CW: Well, I have a pretty strong experience of the world as stretchy and porous already—time-blips, optical and sonic morphings, faces in trees, etc.—I love that porosity and have a narcissistic affection for my version of it, and it’s irritating to have it colonized by somebody else’s nightmare even if the nightmare is a genius allegory. So I’d rather talk about the allegories of genre horror than watch them. Watching with you was great, though. Thank you for holding my hand and warning me about the nasty bits! Could you just always do that, in my life?

LS: I’d be happy to!

CW: Laura’s voice comes in on voiceover… “Here it comes!” But then what would I do Maybe I should just stay blindfolded.

LS: Yeah, sometimes it’s better not to know. But if I were to say BEHIND YOU, for instance…that could be helpful, right?

CW: Please don’t, I am already scared to look behind me.


Laura Sims is the author of three books of poetry: My god is this a man, Stranger, and Practice, Restraint (Fence Books); her fourth collection, Staying Alive, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2016. She edited Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, a book of her correspondence with the celebrated experimental novelist (powerHouse Books), and has also published five chapbooks of poetry. Sims has been a featured writer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and has been a co-editor of Instance Press since 2009. She teaches literature and creative writing at NYU-SCPS.

Catherine Wagner’s collections of poetry include Nervous Device (City Lights, 2012), My New Job (Fence, 2009), Macular Hole (Fence, 2004), and Miss America (Fence, 2001). Her work has appeared in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, Gurlesque, Poets on Teaching, The Volta Book of Poets, Best American Erotic Poems and other anthologies and her performances and songs are archived on PennSound. She is professor in the creative writing program at Miami University in Oxford, OH, where she lives with her son.

Tony Trigilio with R. Erica Doyle

R. Erica Doyle
R. Erica Doyle

In his monthly poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, Tony Trigilio interviews poets about their recently released or forthcoming books. Always informal, each interview is a conversation—two poets talking about the work and play of the creative process and showcasing some of the most innovative new work in contemporary poetry.

 


r. erica doyle was born in Brooklyn to Trinidadian immigrant parents, and has lived in Washington, DC, Farmington, CT, and La Marsa, Tunisia.  Her first book, proxy, was published by belladonna* in 2013 and was a recipient of the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and a Lambda Literary Awards Finalist.  Her work appears in various journals and anthologies including Best American Poetry, Our Caribbean, Bum Rush the Page, Ploughshares, Callaloo, and Sinister Wisdom.  Erica received her MFA in Poetry from The New School and lives in New York City, where she is an administrator in the NYC public schools and facilitates Tongues Afire: A Free Creative Writing Workshop for queer women and trans and gender non-conforming people of color.

Philip Metres with Ivan Zhdanov

Philip Metres and Ivan Zhdanov
Philip Metres and Ivan Zhdanov


This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993), and has been revived, 20 years later, compiling new interviews with Russian and Russian-American poets. The complete archive will be published in book-form.

I met with Zhdanov in Moscow in 1996 and interviewed him about his life and poetry. In the text that follows, I have interpolated my translations of selected Zhdanov poems. Special thanks to Anna Kurt for her transcription of the original recording. —Philip Metres

Philip Metres: I just met with Dimitri Prigov, and we talked a lot about postmodernism. Do you consider yourself a postmodernist?

Ivan Zhdanov: Why is there a certain degree of suspicion in my attitude to postmodernism? I can’t imagine the diversity and scope of modern American literature.  I suspect that postmodernism has become a very good catch for graphomaniacs. Their mode of thinking goes like this: a text is just a text, and personality has nothing to do with it. Actually, the problem of talent is removed. Why should we discuss talent? We have a text, and you can pick around in it. But when Gogol wrote a text, it was one thing, and it is quite a different thing when a text was written by some unremembered author of that time.

*

Möbius strip by Ivan Zhdanov (translation by Philip Metres)

You need me to need you.

*

PM: What your aims in your own poetry?

IZ: I don’t have any specific aim. It simply seems to me that modern theory of literature has surpassed itself, that it has started to play with texts too much. Indeed, you may take a text and do anything you want with it. There is no piety toward the text and the author. There is a certain familiarity regarding the text. As if a table-talk about it is going on. Is Gogol an authority to us? Is Dostoyevsky so important? We understand everything not less than they did. But they created all this. They were authors. That is the difference. Literary critics started to dictate how literature should exist and whether it should exist at all.

At a recent conference, someone said several times that a time will come when there will be neither a reader nor a writer—just a single person comprising both of them. How can it be? I cannot even imagine it. They can only force it, drag it in by the head and shoulders. It is the same as saying that we witness the revival of the time when there were no authors. The text existed by itself and was completed, and reproduced, and endlessly interpreted for the sake of collective creative abilities. It was so-called collective art. We call it folklore. This genre comprised historic songs, bylinas [traditional Russian folk epic poems], epics, and so on. The author was really anonymous. Literature didn’t have a personal element to it. In the Middle Ages something similar happened when monks wrote treatises and did not sign their works.

PM: Some say there is a certain affinity. That our postmodern age is somewhat like the medieval period.

IZ: I don’t agree. At that time impersonal literature was the product of high spiritual intensity, strong religious conscience and spiritual quest. In our time a person is confused: he cannot clearly imagine what kind of religion he needs and what he can do in the framework of this religion.

How can religion answer the questions he is anxious about, like any man throughout history?  I cannot answer this question. He hesitates between complete nihilism—not believing that religion can serve him as simple instruction, asking “What is God? What is the world?”—and, on the other hand, he is eager to find the ultimate Truth, the ultimate Word about the Truth.

Recently I read an article in “Literaturnaya Gazeta” written by Grigorii Pomerants, a distinguished historian of culture. He argues that he would like to see an ecumenical convergence, not only of all Christian churches, but of all the world religions. It would be fine to unite them, to bring them together. In my opinion, this is a sign that in our time people mistrust a particular religious denomination. We doubt that it can answer all our questions. A clergyman objected to him, but he said that there was nothing wrong about it. Imagine a flowerbed with different flowers growing there in harmony. We should completely understand religious conscience.

Or, for instance, some postmodernists operate with such a notion as “metaphysics.” Metaphysics in Greek means “something that comes after Nature.” “Meta” can be translated as “after.” There is a certain play with a prefix, because “meta” can be translated as “after,” “above,” and “beyond.” But they don’t mean nature. What super-nature can we speak about? Any nature is reduced to a text that should be read. But there are things that cannot be read, and therefore they are called metaphysical. They are perceived by the same area of conscience which once perceived religious revelations. People doubt not only the truth of these religions but their own ability to understand them.

Yet, I don’t want to go too much into philosophy. Mainly, what I don’t appreciate in this literary movement is nihilism. That is first and foremost. It turns out that if a person breaks out of generalization which postmodernism claims, he is outside the common law, even if he is a very gifted person. The drawback of modern literary critics and cultural studies is that a theory exaggerates its role and allows too much to itself.

PM: Given where you came from, did the so-called peasant tradition influence your work?

IZ: Not at all. I was born at the time when there was no peasantry in Russia in its traditional meaning, one that existed a thousand years ago. Actually peasants who existed in my childhood were simply agricultural workers.

PM: Did they influence your worldview?

IZ: Actually, the surroundings influenced my worldview. I was born in the mountains. Nature was particularly lovely. I think that childhood spent in nature seems better than childhood spent in an urban environment. Yet, everything seems extraordinary and beautiful in your childhood, wherever it takes place. For instance, if a person grew up in a steppe, he can say that he had marvelous childhood and that steppe is remarkable. And if an adult person visits it, he will say: “It is awful, a flatland, there is nothing interesting to see.” Childhood is a special gift. A person develops optimism and a kind of support for his whole future life. Every person has something to remember that could make his dull existence brighter.

The world of peasantry is nothing special. I spent only my early childhood there and we lived in a settlement not for from a town.  Well, there is a village dweller and a peasant in any person, in his ancestors, if you look behind the veil. Because this transformation took place not long ago—the transformation from the peasant way of life into the world of industrial cities.

But my life had nothing in common with the way of life typical for peasant poets of the beginning of the twentieth century. First of all, our way of life was very simple. At that time people could not have many domestic animals. The law forbade it. You could have only a garden and small domestic animals: fowl, sheep. And there were many pigs, of course.

*

Untitled by Ivan Zhdanov (translation by Philip Metres)

When a bird dies,

a tired bullet cries inside it,

which wanted only to fly

like the bird.

*

IZ: I knew little about my family history. It was forgotten. The so-called “kulaki” [landowning peasants] were deprived of their belongings and exiled to Siberia and other remote places. It was forbidden to speak about it. Later on, in the epoch of Khrushchev, they gradually started to speak about it. I used to hear some interesting stories. Every person is interested in his family history. Who were his grandfather and his great grand-father? In our country it was forbidden to speak about those people. Collective history and family history were forbidden.

Every person treated his own personal history the same way. He kept certain periods of his life clandestine. And since the person is not the author of history – he only possesses it – it exists and develops apart from his will. Therefore it causes a conflict between this self-censorship and the further sense of his life. I think that this conflict strongly affects the conscience of a modern Russian person exactly for this reason. I would not like to generalize, but maybe for this reason our youth so easily take after the tendencies that are not very natural to Russian culture.

It seems to me that this process is taking place all over the world. We may witness the eclectic approach everywhere. In France or in the US, eclecticism manifests differently than in Russia. In the West there existed particular reasons for it, not related with any interdiction of this kind. It implies some subtle things as well.

Maybe mass propaganda affects people the same way as this censorship or self-censorship. Who knows? I would not like to elaborate on sociological issues. One should be very careful, very attentive in order to make any conclusions. I mention all this because on this basis one can make some assumptions about why my poetic contemplation developed this way and not another way.

My parents’ life—during the War and after—was very hard. They did their best to give their children an education and a good background so that they didn’t perish in this soil. They didn’t want us to dig and be buried in this native soil. There was no development, no future, no perspective.

My father would break a neck in order to send his children to study in the city. There were different possibilities. At that time certain officials came to the villages in order to select young men who wanted to get vocational training. They also needed young workers. They needed to look for young men and to teach them, to train them. So they travelled around the villages.

But life in the towns was very poor. Here in the native village, parents could provide us with a minimum.  We didn’t starve at least. Our life was not very comfortable at that time. We even didn’t know the word “comfort.”  One of my brothers entered High Navy and Military School and went to Vladivostok. He served as an officer in the Navy and retired in the rank of captain. He influenced me. I wanted to see the world too.  Imagination carries you far away in your childhood, up to Mars. You dream to travel around the world as a child. At the same time I felt the negative attitude of my family to all this.

Well, I didn’t like the peasant way of life. It wasn’t harmonious, natural, like in the poetry and prose of the nineteenth century. And yet, when I was under five or six years old, I loved that life. Any person remembers his childhood as the most blessed time in his life, even if he spent it near some terrible plant or factory.

PM: Why did you start writing poetry?

IZ: Who can say why? It was God’s will. I made attempts to write several times. Once upon a time I wrote some verse based on the tune of a “criminal” song. At that time there were plenty of such songs. When they were forbidden they naturally spread very fast because they were criminal. The third part of the country was kept in camps and prisons.  These songs and tunes were popular everywhere. So I took a melody and wrote a ballad which I shared with my friends who lived in a settlement. It was humorous, of course. And I wrote it very easily. I was very surprised. I didn’t make any effort. Then I didn’t write anything up to high school. And in high school you had to compose something like rhymed greetings. So I tried to make rhymes and to add some fantasy and so on.

Yet I didn’t think that I would compose poetry in the future. I was very impressed when I entered Moscow State University. We started to study Spanish and had ten hours of Spanish a week. They taught languages very intensively, so I could read texts easily from the beginning. And I started to read a Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who impressed me tremendously. And in our group every third person composed verse. We read our poems to each other.  It was a tradition, a custom. It was not a literary institute; it was just a Department of Journalism. Now it is not so common, but at that time that’s how it was. Naturally it can influence anyone. There was a spirit of competition, and everything happened fast.

Well, so I started to compose poetry.  My fellow learners appreciated what I wrote. When a person is encouraged, he continues to do it. So it has continued. These were the external circumstances. It may manifest differently in different people. If I were enrolled in the Army, it would be quite a different thing. I could have been enrolled in the Army, but they gave me a deferment, and I entered the Moscow State University. If I were taken by the Army, I might not have written anything.

PM: The literary critic Mikhail Epstein has written that your style is metarealistic. I think that it is metametaphorical. What do you think about it?

IZ: Well, it is difficult to signify, to give names. I did not and still don’t take these terms seriously. How can you take it seriously? I’m glad that I don’t take seriously the term “conceptualism”. All these terms are too serious. Only time will show what they imply, what they mean in fact. Why did we accept this term? There was quite a different situation at that time. You had to fight your way if you wanted to do and to achieve something. Of course, you could do nothing, only write and read your poetry to each other. You could just meet, and talk in the kitchen, and drink tea.

We recited poetry in different clubs and other institutions like the Central House of Art, or the House of Architects. If the officials wanted, they invited us and we did not refuse and recited poetry. Actually at that time it was as good as publishing your verse in a magazine. These were public recitals.

PM: Did they take place in the seventies?

IZ: They took place at the very beginning of the eighties. In the seventies it was impossible. We met at the kitchens, at homes.

PM: Did you meet in poets’ clubs?

IZ: The poets’ clubs were organized during perestroika, around 1986. It existed just a few years. When the situation changed, it became senseless, first of all economically. Since all these recitals have been held long ago, I want to remember the studio of Kirill Kovaldji. He is a brilliant organizer, a person with a good literary taste and love for poetry and literature. If he met a worthy, a talented person, he would not suppress anyone. All of us developed as we wished. He did his best in order to support this wave of poetry. Famous writers and poets did not suggest anything worthy in order to support this movement so that it could take a certain shape.

So we developed and grew in this studio headed by Kirill Kovaldji. At the beginning of its existence our famous poet Dmitrii Prigov came there. All kinds of people visited it. It was at the beginning of the eighties. Kovaldji was working in the magazine “Yunost’” (“Youth”). He headed the critics’ department in the offices of this magazine. There is still a conference hall in this magazine, a small hall comprising just a hundred seats. Poets recited their poems there, discussed them and argued.  Not only Moscovites recited there, but people from other towns also came and recited their poetry rather often. The term you’ve mentioned was coined to distinguish a new group that had said something new that was different from what had existed before.

PM: Who else belonged to this group?

IZ: Parshchikov, Eremenko, Kutik, Shatunovsky, Arabov, Vladimir Aristov, Alexander Chernov, etc. There were many people there. And he called this movement “metametaphorism.”  But can we apply it as a serious scientific term? No. Olga Sedakova came there too. Yet, all these people are very different. And all of them had different experiences and developed in their own way.

Actually it was a working term. We all gathered and made up a group. Circumstances were such that we had somehow to enter the literary process and if to do it without detriment to our names or personalities. There were different ways to please the public or the state, to comply with political situation, but we have managed to avoid them.

PM: Do you feel nostalgic about that time?

IZ: No, I don’t feel any nostalgia for that time, perhaps only for my childhood and early youth. But it’s natural. That time was very hard. I would not like to speak about politics. I don’t see the spirit of some particular reforms at the moment as I understand them.  I don’t see them. I only see the destruction of the former Soviet state. This I clearly see. But there are no reforms that could make for the formation of a new state.  Well, the country exists. As for state power, I don’t understand anything about it. So, what kind of nostalgia can I have? For me, this time continues. The only thing that has really changed is that everything can be published. And this is the only thing that justifies what is taking place now.

PM: Do you think that freedom of artistic expression has changed the attitude of people to the Word and to poetry?

IZ: This complicated period is connected with circumstances that we are going through now.  We must take as Truth what we actually see. It is not the circumstances inherent in this phenomenon. We have changed and become different people. That is the reason of the loss of interest in poetry and literature that we are witnessing now.

External conditions seem to explain it, purely pragmatic conditions that are not very interesting. You cannot publish more than 1000 copies of a poetry collection. If you publish more than a thousand copies the tax will be so high that you’ll never be able to pay for its production. And if you cannot pay for the production, there is no sense in publishing it.

Why do I consider that our Soviet existence both continues and simultaneously collapses? Because the publishing industry is a monopoly. There are paper monopolists. There is a monopoly of publishers. And the distribution of books is actually impossible. The books published in Petersburg are distributed in Moscow. And the books published in Moscow are distributed in Petersburg.

And these are two cities situated close to each other according to the Russian scale. I visited Barnaul [West Siberian Plain, near Kazakhstan] and there are no books at all there. They don’t reach it. Transportation is very expensive. That is a monopoly as well. That is how I understand it, how I understand the causes and effects. If there is a certain obstacle between me and a reader we should evaluate the situation objectively.

I recited my poems in Chelyabinsk, in Perm, in Ekaterinburg, in Barnaul. Two hundred people came to the hall, not more. Barnaul is my native town. I know many people there including my relatives, etc. Many people did not come. I asked them: “Why didn’t you come to the recital?”  “The tickets are expensive.” “Are they?” “They cost five thousand rubles.”  That’s about two loaves of bread.  It means that a person starts to think: to go or not to go because the ticket costs five thousand rubles. It is nothing. Two loaves of bread is nothing. What does that mean?  It means that the part of the population mostly interested in literature and music is not able to make a breakthrough, to act as a rammer. And the people who have money are not interested in it.

What are the so-called “new Russians”? They are former profiteers. They existed in the Brezhnev era. They were persecuted and taken to prison for speculation, and now they are absolutely free. But do the speculators have their heads in the clouds? No, they don’t. Their interests are extremely simple. And we cannot hope that they will help art. They are absolutely indifferent to art, they don’t care for it.

That’s how I understand the situation you ask about. The attitude to literature will change only if there is wishful thinking. Some facts seem real. They are on the surface, but they cannot be explained the way some people want to interpret them. They say: “The attitude to literature, to the Word has changed.” But it does not change anything. People are waiting for something.  Well, people are procrastinating. They are not completely desperate, they hope for something. And we must take into account that they had very bitter experience in the past. There were a lot of wars and different battles. And this experience remained in the subconscious. And there is nothing else apart from the national conflicts. To equate national conflicts to the Civil War is nonsense.

PM: What other poets have influenced you?

IZ: When I entered the University I was very ignorant. Of course, school had given me some knowledge.  I finished night classes where the best and most skilled teachers in the town taught. As for literature, you know a lot of things were unavailable. Student community was very deep and people could learn what was forbidden.

For instance, [Velemir] Khlebnikov. He was neither prohibited nor published. His books were not sold anywhere. I went to the library and read his verse there. That was the situation at that time; people discussed something and I didn’t know it. So it was like a conversation in a foreign language for me. In order not to look like an idiot, I went to the Library and tried to close the gap. I read a lot.  I read Khlebnikov, Tsvetaeva, Khodasevich. You couldn’t read Mandelstam at that time. His poems appeared later in typed copies. You could not find his books in the libraries. Blok was published. Pasternak was more or less published. In senior classes I was not very enthusiastic about poetry. When I entered the University, the community of intellectuals, of young and very gifted guys impressed me tremendously.  I had not seen such a number of gifted people in my hometown.  I knew contemporary poetry and it didn’t disappoint me, but its influence was much less than the influence of the above-mentioned authors.

Besides, I started to visit the galleries: Pushkin museum, the Tretyakov Gallery. It turned out that I didn’t know art. I knew only what I could find in reproductions and albums. I started to go to the Conservatory and realized that I could listen to the music. Before that I had only listened in. And what was on the radio at that time?  “Polonaise” by Oginsky, “Bolero” by Ravel, “Waltz-fantasy” by Tchaikovsky. It was classic, but it was mass culture intended for mass consumption. They didn’t play Bach over the radio. They could broadcast it only on a special channel. But there were no special channels at that time. There was only one entire radio frequency. When I lived in Barnaul, I didn’t go to concerts. I thought that I would not understand anything. I had a complex, and it worked. I didn’t learn music. So, all these circumstances strongly affected me, as well as this intensive communication with the students.

PM: What philosophical works impressed you most?

IZ: Kierkegaard impressed me tremendously. The legend which broke his life, when he returned a wedding ring to his bride Regina Olsen. He had the overwhelming feeling of guilt in God’s eyes. This philosopher impressed me tremendously, and thus my interest in philosophy sprang out. I was a young man at that time, and this story coincided with my character. It was extremely difficult to get his books, only few of them had been published. I have read Either/Or. Then I read Berdyaev, Solovyev, Rosanov and others. Alexey Losev strongly impressed me. I wasn’t carried away by German philosophy. Kant seemed rather dull to me. I can’t say that I was so stupid that I didn’t understand anything, but it was not interesting to me. It was the purest philosophy that didn’t appeal to me spiritually. I was interested in the philosophers who were at the same time writers, like Rosanov or Sartre whom they published later in the Soviet Union. Since he was a communist they published him.

We had to sieve everything thoroughly. We read everything in monographs. Philosophical monographs were written in Marxist manner but they were written honestly. There were many quotations and the views of the subject exposed to criticism were related in detail. So, one could understand something reading between the lines. Plato was published freely. I admired him. I enjoyed reading him. He also impressed me. It is very easy to understand him.

*

Untitled by Ivan Zhanov (translation by Philip Metres)

We too were swimming at the shores, where we had stood

sometime before, and now someone sees us off,

looking with the eyes of a flow, losing the detail.

Does time heal everything it destroys?

Why recall the water, flowing past?

It has no shores for the one who grieves.

Saintliness and sinning burn down, not feeling the smoke—

everything is perfect on the bottom of precious ruins.

Everything is perfect and it’s not even frightening as you see

a suppurating place, killing, betrayal, turmoil.

From this place you will not move, you won’t cause pain or insult,

that which is transparent to sin is inconspicuous for a gift.

But we too have loved as were losing

sight of that which loved, wordlessly, noiselessly.

In this way the deep hidden garden—far, invisible, All-High

with its leaves in disarmed grief—opens.

Or like sight is lost by the fading body:

covering the eyes with hands—is the blindfold tight enough?

Seeing as if not what they would, they’ll grow used to it.

Did it all exist or is this just a fairy tale?

Or like love has been chased into the heart—but you cannot hide,

how it stirs, responds by vomiting,

whips, scrapes, and there’s no washing your soul

either by the emptiness of perfection or by bitter caring.

I’m not singing, but I’m crawling along the bottom of an unbearable howl

or along the bottom of leaves tearing to someone else’s deception.

More than that I wasn’t and what I really am

in this stream I cannot become.

If I ever chance to meet myself—I will not recognize:

meeting in time is not far from farewell.

Still he sees by the back goes away along the edge

who hasn’t been forgiven by you and hasn’t given his word.

He, whom you haven’t forgiven, who continues to crowd

as dead longing between the poles of a cataclysmic age.

Who are you, seen by me?  Why are you dreaming

the same sole dream of light unknown?

Who are you, unequal to yourself? What science can measure you?

You’re not taking your eyes off me, but looking calmly

and as a bond of purifying pain, leaving as a chance

for swearing all shall be committed with dignity.

Be swearing surely the bond and is like a blindfold

of the blindness, which is not worse than some kinds of sight returned.

There are no shores for it—only light without color,

light on the eyes, but likelier from the inside than the outside.

Go out, take a look with whatever eyes you have,

are clouds still floating like long ago, in the beginning,

are you still remembered and gazed upon with the skies,

through the stream and serenity of irreducible grief?

*

PM: What would you like a person to know in order to understand your verse properly?

IZ: I understand your question. If a person has an inborn taste, a feeling, and it can be only inborn, he will perceive everything. If he does not have an ear, it is senseless no matter how hard you teach him. You may teach a person to play the piano, but he will never play freely, with imagination. It is a very complicated problem.

If a person does not have the disposition to perceive art, painting, it is very hard to teach him. The knowledge given in secondary schools all over the world does not oblige to anything. If a person has no abilities, inclination, nothing will come of him. School will not give him anything. If a person perceives art, than he is gifted. If he does not it is senseless to explain it to him. I abandoned these attempts about twenty years ago to explain it to anyone.

Last year, in November, when I traveled around Russia, a guy asked to publish a book of my poems with comments. This project seemed very strange to me because I didn’t know what to comment on. If I comment on my poems for myself a lot of things seem vague, unclear to me. I try to withdraw from this philosophizing. Now, plenty of authors write philosophical essays. So, I start to philosophize. It carries me further into interpretation and perhaps I will choose another theme and will write something else. But to say that I will comment so that it would be interesting to the reader, no, nothing will come out of it.

But an interesting incident emerged when John High wanted to translate some of my poems. Ed Foster promised to publish a book.  Up to the moment, he translated about thirty of my poems. And then we discussed the nuances of interpretations, what this or that word meant, why you employed this or that word. Well, if a person without complexes puts this question, he is not confused.  A Russian interlocutor is confused, embarrassed, experiences complexes. So, when we discussed the details and nuances with a foreigner, I came to the conclusion that I could make up such a dialogue with a Russian who is interested in the subject.

Why do people confuse me with postmodernists?  Commentary is sometimes necessary. A question arises: why is commentary so necessary if people have not used any commentary before? Poets wrote their poems, verses without any commentary. Well, in fact sometimes there were commentaries. Pushkin provided many footnotes for Eugene Onegin. Of course, they are very brief and relevant. They do not interpret any phrase. Footnotes mean notes, commentaries, remarks. It is a form of commentary. Many people have tried to comment on their works. Coleridge wrote a poem and then a whole description where he tried to comment what he wanted to say. There is nothing extraordinary about it. Maybe our education prescribed to us that it was unethical to comment on your own poem. Write from your belly-button, so to speak, implying from the heart, of course, so that everyone could understand it and no comments should be necessary. I am absolutely sure that the medieval tradition also implied commentaries of the author. What is Vita Nuova by Dante?  It is a collection of texts and commentaries to them. Ten years ago, people told me: “Write your own Vita Nuova. It would be interesting.” Where did this imperative come from? They just wanted me to do it.

Let’s say I am speaking with someone who asks me about my verse. He doesn’t understand something.  I don’t see anything bad about this. If he doesn’t understand my verse, I try to interpret it. It confused me at first. I didn’t like it. I thought that if he were a clever and a well-educated person he should understand them himself. On the other hand, through some long and thorough reading and interpretation they would start to understand. People were eager to understand, innocent but intelligent people who had no complexes. If you cannot understand a text, it is not poetry. So, I put off the attempt to write Vita Nuova or something of this kind. I needed a dialogue and a commentary to correct my own worldview. It corrected my own subjective point of view. If I am ripe and able to write it as I would like to write, then I’ll have clear understanding what to do and how to write.

Recently, after a recital of my poetry, a person asked me about the meaning of the line: “And music is your wife.” What does that mean? Was she killed? What has happened to her? In Russia, the first meaning of the word «поразить» is “to kill.” The second meaning is to strike, to impress. Since music exists infinitely, when it starts to materialize with the help of different instruments, it objectivizes in the literal meaning like a hammer, a head-saw. An instrument is an intermediary between a human hand and an object. Here also between an object and a hand there appears an instrument. And a hand is a more multifaceted notion than just five fingers. This instrument somehow domesticates this object. The head-saw split the wood into lumber, a hammer clinches a nail. Scissors cut paper or cloth. And here a piano transforms into an instrument which materializes what is not material. And landscape is on the background. It is snow. A stubble. A harvested field.

PM: If it is not a secret, what are doing now? How do you earn a living?

IZ: I do everything I can find. [President] Boris Yeltsin has given me a fellowship. It is temporary help. I don’t know whether they will give it next year. It is tiny. Sometimes I have odd job, edit or do something else. Sometimes I recite my poetry. But you cannot earn a lot reciting poems.

*

Untitled by Ivan Zhanov (translation by Philip Metres)

Stone swims in the earth somewhere here,—

a slate of golden time, guardian of games and crowds,—

but it tears the way from under your feet

and sends it upwards to burn like a pillar.

I didn’t swindle like a thief, didn’t steal my freedom,

didn’t pour out my soul like wine into sand,

but shame approaches so that I would only know

what on the outside is a cross inside is a window.

You can’t break into splinters what’s impossible to subdue

and an unknown light pollinates your gaze,

and through the roots of flowers drives and drives back

the color of a golden time, the future before you.

To each earthling, the moon is closer than blood

and the lunar kin multiplies by the number of humans.

Look: above the head of streets or open fields

the wedge of lunar landscapes lifts as if in migration.


Philip Metres is the author and translator of a number of books and chapbooks, including Sand Opera (2015), A Concordance of Leaves (2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), and To See the Earth (2008). His work has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2014, he received a Creative Workforce Fellowship, thanks to the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, residents of Cuyahoga County, and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland. http://www.philipmetres.com

Ivan Zhdanov was born in 1948 in Sibera. He gained notoriety in the 1980s for his complexly beautiful poetry, admired by traditionalists and experimentalists alike. Mikhail Epstein has called his work “metarealist,” noting that Zhdanov “is the master of depicting forms that seem already to have lost their substance but regain themselves in memory, in times of waiting, in the depth of the mirror or the shell of a shadow.” He has published numerous books of poetry in Russian, and has been translated into English by John High and Patrick Henry in the volume The Inconvertible Sky (Talisman House, 1997). More information is available at his website.

J’Lyn Chapman with Rachel Blau DuPlessis

"A," The Collage Poems of Drafts
'A' from The Collage Poems of Drafts

In the fall 2013 semester, Jack Kerouac School graduate students in my Text & Image workshop read Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s The Collage Poems of Drafts. To prepare us for the book, we read DuPlessis’s conversation with Maria Damon, “Desiring Visual Texts: A Collage and Embroidery Dialogue” and attempted our own experiments, including knitting, cross-stitch, crochet, doodles, scribbles, and collage.

Interviewed by Betty Sparenberg, Genelle Chaconas, Joseph Navarro, BZ Zionic, Kat Fossell, Melissa Barrett-Traister, Sarah Richards-Graba, Peggy Alaniz, and Hannah Kezema

The Class: If you had full control of all marketing for The Collage Poems of Drafts, under what genre/category would you sell it, and in what section would you place it in the bookstore? Similarly, who is your intended audience?

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Since you have read “Desiring Visual Texts,” you might find that some of these answers connect with the dialogue between Maria and myself. I don’t know whether your question about marketing comes about because you are genuinely concerned with this book’s reaching an audience, or because of the mixed genre of this book. Both of these concerns are about categories: category in bookstore and category of audience.

I would put the book under poetry if it were categorized in a bookstore. That’s because these works are part of my long poem, Drafts. They are a move into a mixed genre from a work done over 26 years that has always been very engaged with multiple genres and their implications and “feels”—aesthetic, affective and social “feelings” evoked by the genres I use. It would be a rare bookstore that would put such a book under two categories, but in an ideal world, this book is also categorizable as an artist’s book.

There is something amusing about this question, as the publisher, Salt Publishing, uses an entirely publish on demand (POD) model and does not even pay the fee to a warehouse/catalogue/mail order institution like Small Press Distribution (SPD). I wish it did, but their financial plan precludes this. Hence, this book is mail-order only from Salt and, interestingly, from Amazon.

My intended audience is whoever wants to read it. I don’t think of an audience when I write or make mixed works, not much and not particularly, and I’ll admit that when I began to want to do these two works, it was so odd—such a departure—that thinking about who would receive it or read it was pretty far from my thoughts. I just wanted to DO it.

TC: Do you feel your work is a specific indictment of the consumption of the art object and the artist’s or gallery’s profit from this consumption? Or do you consider your work a critique of our use of language as pre-made abstract symbols for real objects in the world? Is it actually a combination of these two?

RDB: This is a pretty theoretically involved question. I want to say that these works (the two collage poems) were done playfully, stubbornly, and for the pleasure of doing them.

I am an untrained artist with a serious aesthetic “eye.” Even trained and highly skilled artists of great intelligence can be iced out of the gallery system and not be able to find an adequate or appropriate home there. However, I am not in that system. So it is hard for me to comment on whether I am indicting that system by making these home-grown works! Do I seek to be in such a system? I don’t know. The advantage is the work is shown; the disadvantage is that you may be implicitly asked to repeat things that work for the gallery—that are saleable—a kind of “mechanical reproduction” using the artist as the mechanism. But since I am primarily a poet and writer, I like to think of this work as related to my collage ethos in writing and not worry about the institutional system of selling visual art.

As for the second part of this question. I do not consider language to be “pre-made abstract symbols for real objects in the world.” Language is an incredibly elastic and synthetic (synthesizing) social and epistemological system of such complexity that terms like “pre-made” and “real objects” don’t really cover the territory with enough subtlety. Language is only “pre-made” in the sense that it is historical (we did not invent it, this minute, although new words crop up all the time: “selfie”); however, language is also social, mobile, enrichable, and vast. Yes, it uses “abstract symbols” (the alphabet), which are also (like all writing systems) an invention of great human depth and thus constitute an almost sacred gift of the past to us. The tone of the question seems to posit that language is kind of a nasty, creepy thing that deserves the “critique” of my visual texts.

These art works or visual texts use visual allusions, conventions, interesting combinations of words and of shapes put together. They are a kind of “double your pleasure” move. An enhancement.

TC: How influential is the Marxist critique and/or proletarian aesthetic to your work?

RBD: As we say in Philly—YO! I am hardly against critique! I have been very influenced by Marxist critique of social and aesthetic relations (mainly Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson and Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin) and have engaged in feminist critique, mainly by studying gender relations as they are presented and represented in fiction and poetry (and in the relations around production—coteries, friendships, literary activities). I’m deeply interested in what is sometimes called “outsider art.” However, I am not a proletarian in class position, just a cultural worker. To the degree that sometimes Marxist thinking, feminist thinking and a “proletarian” attitude ask for affirmative, uplifting works as a way of instigating utopian attitudes—I simply shrug. This is not my sense of why a person makes art. It is not my sense of what critique is, either.

TC: Do you believe your work to be art, poetry, or a symbiotic combination of the two?

RBD: I believe these collage poems are a symbiotic combination of the two modes of practice.

TC: Why are these poems presented in the form of a book rather than as art pieces?

RBD: Because they are each a serial poem (a sequenced work, in each case), and they are in a project (Drafts as a whole) that is (grosso modo) a large-scale set of serial works. Thus they belong in a book, one of the volumes of Drafts. Since they do also exist as free standing pages, it might be possible to have a gallery show or exhibit of the collages. However, I originally made them as a visual-text work to go in my long poem as an integral part of that poem.

TC: We’re interested in the use of text alongside the pieces. Is the text meant to be disruptive? Informative? Playful? Can the text sometimes get in the way of the audience’s experience with the collage, and/or how do you think readers manage these impositions of meaning?

RBD: This is a really interesting question about reading and reception. These acts are learned behavior, fundamentally—like picking up a book and knowing that in our culture you read it in a certain direction. Much of your schooling has been devoted to instilling in you ways of reading, ways of perceiving, ways of interpreting and to modes of exclusion (“inappropriate” ways of reading or questions). (Note I put “inappropriate” in scare quotes because I think of so-called error or category shifts as very creative and generative, not pieces of “wrongness.”) This said, these learned practices are generally helpful, but they may also impede your emotions or excitement or judgments—thus, the reading practices have to be revised to account for your sense of an artwork. There might be as many ways of text and image going together as there are pieces and pages. So any of your adjectives might work for a specific collage-poem as read by a specific person: “disruptive,” “informative,” “playful,” “text in the way,” etc. How readers “manage” to read anything is a fascinating question—the more you are open to pleasure, but also are very informed about art and poetry moves of the past, the more tools you have for taking in works new to you.

TC: Could you speak about the disjunction in these pieces, if the experience created by them—wonderfully disorienting—was intentional. If, as we suspect, it was intentional, then what did you really want to highlight with that disjuncture of space and words and images?

RBD: This is not my question to answer—except what I said, above. “Disruption” because of collage edges and juxtapositions is a very central modernist and contemporary strategy for artworks and visual texts. So I am in a long, fruitful tradition of collage in both poetry and art. The more you know about these traditions, the more you can get a handle on these works. There is no work ever done without some “tradition” behind it, and choice of traditions is actually a way of framing intentions. What did I “really want to highlight”? Relationships between things—perhaps different in each case? This is an interpretive question, best considered by any individual thinking about these works, one by one.

I have to say one more thing about your question. When you use the word really, you imply something like “you, the artist, have a secret, a deep and single, mono-causal, mono-ocular model for what you are doing—this is what you ‘really’ mean, and if you would just give us that secret of what you wanted to highlight, we could go away with that nugget of wisdom.” Acts like interpretation luckily don’t work that way.

TC: Do you think there is a way to write yourself out of the normal territory of language?Or, in other words, can you use language to escape language, can media transcend itself? We ask because you use both image and text and, therefore, transcend language. What are your thoughts about art transcending itself: how can one escape culture?

RBD: This question involves two (possibly three) different questions, and they are very complicated ones. I will say some very brief things about this, but full consideration would take at least one full essay.

The issue with writing too far out of language is, if you go too far, who will read it? So it is a judgment call how and whether to use many tactics available in (for example) a dada-surrealist and combinatoire mode to “get out” of language. It’s also true that what is “normal” changes from era to era. So you are, as a reader or writer, participating in a complex system that is perpetually in motion. As a writer, you have to evaluate your own dialogue between the same-old and something so new that it can’t be assimilated. This calls for a real and serious critical judgment on your part as an artist.

The issue of transcendence—we often use that sense of transcendence to praise art works that seem just terrific, or sublime in some way, thinking that the medium (or media) has transcended itself. Another way to say this is that the medium has fulfilled its potential. Transcendence is a critical term for the feeling of being very uplifted and changed by art.

Can a person “get out” of or “escape” culture? Well, I’d have to say two things, here. Of course, one is saturated in one’s own culture—or really, one’s cultures, in the plural. But such a culture will have many contradictions in it—between your ethical sense and what you see in reality, for instance. Contradictions are places where there is friction and destabilization. You “get out of” one set of cultural assumptions that way, via that clash. Further, all culture is hybrid and all culture has the potential for contact zones and places of contact, for border crossing and boundary drawing. A person can find those places in one’s own culture, can seek to know about other cultures, can be a combination herself of several cultures, can revel in new knowledge (via reading, visiting, learning languages). One might call this cultural growth, not cultural escape (which is sort of “escapist” in its feeling.) If we could not step out of what we were born into, no one could read a book or a poem at all, much less a book by a person of another culture! Reading and interpreting and trying to understand are the acts by which a person might not be doomed to be a clone of the culture she was born into. We all make new combinations—even (paradoxically) by insisting on sameness; even any thing called the “same” is never quite “the same.”

TC: What advice do you have for young writers who want to engage with the technology of language to create a more honest, less pre-packaged work?

RBD: Interrogate what you mean by the terms. Like, “more honest” than what? What’s the implied less honest work? Create and maintain your own internal shit-detector—that is, create and maintain an empathetic skepticism and an attitude of curiosity and critique.

TC: How has being a woman and a feminist changed your creative work?

RBD: Well—feminist struggle enabled me to be a person and professional in the real world—that is a baseline. It’s not so much that these social positions did change all of me in every which way, as recognizing that both gender and my consciousness of gender and the struggle against strictures were very important to me. I think you’d best read my “feminist trilogy”: The Pink Guitar, Blue Studios, Purple Passages. This question is too long to answer in general except by saying “yes—being a feminist has been defining,” but there are a few essays in these books that might help expand this point. About my creative work—this is also very important. There is production, dissemination, reception. Production was (without a doubt) compromised for me for some years—some of the problem was my sense of being correct (rather than non-compliant) in the world. Thus, somewhat the problem of “being a woman.” Dissemination—as a fact with which an artist has to cope—was uneven in my case, but I had more tools (stubbornness, for one!) to deal with it. As for reception—there is again a lot to say from a feminist perspective. Historically, women’s cultural work has been occluded, lost, dismissed, treated without respect or understanding. Thus, the necessity for criticism aware of such attitudes in reception, which continue, in clear, but pock-marked and uneasy ways, even today. But to be clear about these terms and my own position: I have a personal disinterest in a feminism of production (producing explicitly politically feminist works), my interest instead lies in language and genre and cultural exploration—which, to me, is feminist innovation. And further, I have a strong critical interest (that is, as a literary critic) in a feminism of reception—looking at the marks of gender and other social locations in works.

TC: Can you speak on your “Drafts” series and the serialization of these poems—or the “poem of a life”—and how The Collage Poems of Drafts fits into this project?

RBD: The two collage poems “fit” where they are numbered to fit in the grid of “Drafts.” One—Draft 94: Mail Art—is in the book called Pitch: Drafts 77-95 and is in the “line of 18″—meaning works in odd genres that aren’t generally thought to be part of normal literature (like Doggerel, Index). The other is in the book called Surge: Drafts 96-114 and, as “Draft CX: Primer,” it occurs on the line of 15, seen through the lens of the first poem in that line (“Draft 15: Little”). A primer is something through which you learn the alphabet. There are many orientations to smallness in this line of “Drafts.”

TC: What project(s) are you currently working on?

RBD: I am working on several books of poems, each quite different from the other, but all under the rubric of interstices (the between). Most of these will contain short poems (shorter than “Drafts”). The first one of these called, in fact, Interstices, was recently published by Subpress. Working in my own interstices, I have completed several more shorter books that incorporate a collage sensibility. One is Graphic Novella that has (in art world terms) a “trash book” feel; Xexoxial Editions will publish this collage work with prose-poem gloss. Second, I completed Days and Works which is prose, poetry, and inserts from newspaper articles—the crises and the strangeness of current existence are pointed to. Ahsahta Press will publish this. And my newest visual text is a poem with collage called Churning the Ocean of Milk, a kind of chapbook size. Although they are “technically” difficult to disseminate—more difficult than a straight poem—it’s clear that collage works with text have been something quite important to me in these years.


Recent work by Rachel Blau DuPlessis includes the “last” volume of “Drafts,” Surge: Drafts 96-114 (Salt Publishing, 2013); a new volume of poetry, Interstices (Subpress, 2014), and the critical book, Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2012), from her trilogy of works about gender and poetics. Forthcoming books are Graphic Novella (Xexoxial Editions) and Days and Works (Ahsahta). Forthcoming publications of poetry include Conjunctions, Po&Sie, Cordite Poetry Review and Golden Handcuffs Review. DuPlessis edited The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990) and has written extensively on objectivist poets.

Stephanie Anderson with Joanne Kyger

March 13 Issue of The Wednesday Hearsay News
March 13 Issue of The Wednesday Hearsay News


This is a series of ongoing interviews with women actively engaged with small-press publishing between the 1950s and 1980s. It comes from a desire not only to preserve their accounts but also to draw wider attention to the vital role of women editors and publishers in the mimeograph revolution and beyond. In these decades “poems were bouncing off the sidewalk” (Maureen Owen), and this series traces some of those madcap trajectories. This conversation was conducted from December 2013 to May 2014 via email

Stephanie Anderson: How did the Bolinas Hearsay News begin? Were you involved in its founding?

Joanne Kyger: Before the Bolinas Hearsay News started publication in 1974, there were three small irregularly published papers, The Bolinas Hit—Bill Beckman publisher—Beaulines, and The Paper.

I remember the first copies of the Hearsay being written on paper plates down at Scowley’s, one of the two local eateries. Greg Hewlett had organized fund raisers earlier to buy the town a press. Through spaghetti dinners and donations a multilith was purchased and housed in a garage on the mesa.  It was later moved to Mickey Cummings’ house a few blocks away and he was the first official printer of the “Mesa Press.” Bill Berkson published some of his early Big Sky books on it. While still housed there, the first Hearsays came out. They would often be collated downtown at Scowley’s, and then distributed locally, as they are now, at three or four downtown businesses, and in a mailbox outside the Hearsay Office.

The Hearsay was offered a space in the building behind the Bolinas Public Utilities Office in the middle 70’s and remains there to this day.

I helped the Wednesday editor, Nancy Whitefield, with the paper for several years before it moved to the BCPUD office, when it was at Bill Johnson’s house. He was a talented and playful graphic artist and, the mornings were long with coffee, brandy, and long pauses for inspiration when no articles were handed in. But the paper was always delivered to the printer by noon. A calendar of events is still the main front page feature, with birthdays listed in another column. It was a way for the town to find out what was going on, and remains a mainstay of information about musical events, happenings at the Community Center, meetings etc.

I became the Wednesday editor on my own in 1984, and usually asked someone to be an ‘assistant’ editor in order to bring other elements of news and events into the paper. Bolinas is an unincorporated town, but we have three elected bodies that represent us to the county: the Bolinas-Stinson School, the Fire Department, and the Bolinas Public Utilities District – the latter acts as a public forum for any issues that concern the town, which are brought up at the beginning of its monthly meetings. The Hearsay published all the minutes for these meetings, plus those of the Bolinas Community Center, which owns the main building downtown where different town events take place.

All articles accepted by the Hearsay, which are dropped off during the mornings when the paper is laid out or dropped in the mail slot in the door, must be signed. I think that is the only editorial requirement.

SA: Could you say more about the genre of the Hearsay News? It seems a bit like a free-for-all, in terms of content. What distinguished it from the three small papers published before it?

JK: The fact that it was reliably published three times a week and had a calendar of events.

SA: Sometimes it’s difficult—or impossible—to find a “masthead,” then or now, for the Hearsay News. Was anonymity something prized, or did the community simply know everyone involved in production?

JK: Mastheads were various; editors could use whatever they wanted, as long as they remembered to notate the date and day of the week.

SA: One thing that strikes me in the first issues of the Hearsay from 1974 is the little pieces of art and poetry (including a Hearsay limerick contest!) tucked away among the lost and found notices, etc. Were those items filler, or were they meant to have the same import as more “practical” news? Did the Hearsay News ever publish items by those visiting (or residing) poets and artists?

JK: The Hearsay editors could publish anything they wanted to fill up the paper. I always liked using poems from visiting poets. The graphics often came from visitors also. When I was editor I relied on Donald Guravich frequently for drawings and covers. The copy machine we used as a vital part of our layout design could reduce or enlarge drawings. Local pieces from contributors came first before reprints of other articles, even though they were about Bolinas. All this was laid out during morning office hours 9-12, and then the printer came in and ran off the copies and took them downtown by at least 3 or 4 that afternoon.

SA: When you say “Local pieces from contributors came first before reprints of other articles, even though they were about Bolinas,” does that mean that work by residents always came first, regardless of content? What kind of reprints would you consider?

JK: Articles about Bolinas printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, magazines, other newspapers etc. There were always lots of pieces about Bolinas tearing down the road sign on Highway One that said with an arrow BOLINAS 2. Like it was a town that never wanted to be found by the causal driver, tourist. They made local bumper stickers that said BOLINAS 2 and people would drive all over California with them.  It actually was a mysterious advertisement.

SA: How many copies were printed?

JK: When I first moved here in 1969 there were about 500 people who lived here full time. Now there are about 1500. People share copies of the paper, and there is always a copy at the downtown library. There are anywhere from 100-250 copies printed, depending on whether there are big election issues in which everyone wants a voice. Now that it is online I’m not sure how many copies are printed. I stopped being the Wednesday editor about a year ago.

SA: In the age of instant information and global news, what are some of the benefits and challenges of the Hearsay’s localism—of publishing for and about such a specific community?

JK: It certainly keeps a community glued together. Birth announcements, weddings, deaths; announcements concerning roads, water usage, the Fire Department, the school, etc. and agendas for meetings for all pertinent organizations, including the Community Center. Also the minutes taken at these meetings are published. It makes the “government” here much more transparent. The paper works as a community bulletin board in which everyone is a “reporter”—the only requirement being that you sign your name. The display ads and classified ads are local and very useful in moving goods and services around.

SA: Your phrase “everyone is a ‘reporter’” reminds me of the idea that the typewriter makes it possible for everyone to be a “publisher.” What technological changes did you witness at the Hearsay over your thirty plus years of editing? And did you publish poems in the Hearsay?

JK: Not everyone had a typewriter or printer.  Many pieces were, and still are written out by hand.  We tried to aim for a 3 ½” column width. So one could be a publisher if you had machine that could make multiple pages. I never published any of my own poems, but Steve Heilig who became an alternate Wednesday editor, published some of my work. I never heard anyone mention what they thought about my writing. I tried to keep a fairly translucent role as editor, publishing whatever was turned in, and with a back up of articles relevant to the community to use as filler when needed. One of the editors, Stu-Art Chapman made some official looking laminated Hearsay News Press Passes, which some ‘reporters’ have used to gain access to things like the Democratic Convention here in the 80’s, and various theater events.

SA: Did working on the Hearsay change your ideas about publishing and/or how you approach your creative work?

JK:  I found out how easy it was to layout a page (8 1/2 x 17 legal size), what designs and space worked best. Actually I found out how easy it was to publish something once the ‘right’ set-up is there, and have it on the street on the same day.

We did a few publications on the press, called it Evergreen Road Press, and published a few issues of a small magazine called GATE with Stefan Hyner, who then published it on a bigger scale in Germany where he lived.

SA: You’ve published some e-books; do you feel like the immediacy of the internet is similar to the oft-lauded immediacy of mimeo publication?

JK: I’m not aware of any e-books I’ve published. What are they? The internet is quickly accessible, but unless you print out what you’re reading, it isn’t as easily available for a return read—which one wants to do with magazines and poetry.

SA: I found the e-books on your EPC author page.

JK: Found the two e-books; forgot about them. Coyote Books’ Distressed Look was also in a small edition form. Permission by the Horns was eventually unsatisfactory since it wasn’t in a paper form.

SA: What do you think makes poetry or magazines something you want to see in print, to “return read” as you say?

JK: I think poetry is something you need to read more than once—unlike headlines in a newspaper.

SA: What was your favorite aspect of being Wednesday editor?

JK: I liked being able to “produce” a publication/newspaper in one day. Very gratifying to see it all distributed at the various stores downtown and at the library. For some years there was home delivery by a crew of young kids on bikes. And also I liked meeting other members of the community who came to the office with articles or questions or to place a classified ad. One could get a feel for what the ephemeral but personal sense of what makes up ‘the news’ in a small community.

SA: Why did you stop being Wednesday editor?

JK: I thought I would take a break from the paper for a while, and that while kept getting longer. New editors eventually stepped in, reflecting another side of Bolinas. One has to watch a tendency as editor to write articles advertising oneself.

SA: What’s special and/or ordinary about Bolinas, a place that I feel has become almost mythological for poets and artists? You’ve lived abroad; why Bolinas for the last thirty plus years?

JK: Bolinas is very beautifully situated in front of the coast range, on a lagoon and a mesa. Surrounded by protected parkland. I bought my house and land here in 1972 when it was still very inexpensive. I found for a while I had to save up to be able to get out of town, which is always useful for perspective. It’s very easy to live here, but one needs to make an hour’s drive over the coast range to larger towns to do any extensive shopping for groceries, hardware, clothes etc.

SA: Sounds like a lovely and insular community. Did that make the arrival of visiting poets and artists especially important for the community? (I’m thinking of Joe Brainard’s Bolinas Journal and all the different people he mentions meeting.)

JK: For the poets, it was always wonderful to have visiting poets. I’m not sure what the rest of the community thought.

SA:Apart from the Hearsay News, what were the other kinds of publishing ventures with which you were involved (as editor, helper, etc.)? (I’m thinking of The Turkey Buzzard Review and Wild Dog—would you talk about those? Were there others?)

JK: THE TURKEY BUZZARD REVIEW was a loose gathering of friends, mostly women, who got together and drank coffee and brandy and decided what to publish. Dottie leMieux was the most ambitious, so we decided she would be editor. We gave several ‘theatrical’ Turkey Buzzard readings for the community. It was always fun and barely serious. Some years before I helped edit WILD DOG, which moved from Idaho to San Francisco in 1965-66, when I was living there.

SA:The 1971 oil spill had a galvanizing effect on the Bolinas community. Do you think that that event influenced the literary/publishing scene? (And if so, how?)

JK:Kevin Opstedal does a good and accurate job of talking about Bolinas ‘Literary’ history in DREAMING AS ONE which title he has since changed to ALL THIS EVERYDAY. It still hasn’t been published outside of being online and a few xerox copies, one of which is at the library. He covers the oil spill accurately, which does give a picture of the ‘rest’ of the community, the non-poet and very active participants. It did start a very active political participation in the town’s problems, and subsequent participation on the Bolinas Community Public Utility board, elected offices. Lewis MacAdam’s NEWS FROM NIMAN FARM is a great reflection of that time. He was an elected member of the board, and the only poet.

SA:Opstedal calls the Hearsay News a “community forum” and “ongoing biography of the town, a true and immediate diary of community consciousness.” Is this an apt description?

JK: Kevin is right on with his comments about the Hearsay News.


Stephanie Anderson is the author of In the Key of Those Who Can No Longer Organize Their Environments (Horse Less Press) and Variants on Binding (forthcoming, National Poetry Review Press). Her most recent chapbooks are Sentence, Signal, Stain (Greying Ghost) and the forthcoming LIGHTBOX (The New Megaphone). She lives in Chicago and edits Projective Industries.

Joanne Kyger was editor of the Wednesday Hearsay News for over 20 years.

 

Rusty Morrison with Ewa Chrusciel

Ewa Chrusciel
Ewa Chrusciel

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! –Rusty Morrison

This interview focuses on Ewa Chrusciel’s forthcoming Omnidawn book, Contraband of Hoopoe.

Rusty Morrison: The sound value of the book’s title makes it a delight to say aloud! But I know that both words, “contraband” and “hoopoe” in the title, have great significance. Will you speak to them?

Ewa Chrusciel: The hoopoe is an orange bird with white and black stripes and a spectacular crest. It can be found across Afro-Eurasia. One of its species, the Saint Helena Hoopoe, is already extinct. This bird is also a Biblical, mythological, and literary character. King Solomon sent the hoopoe to the Queen of Sheba to convert her to monotheism. The hoopoe could speak and he accomplished Solomon’s mission. It was also a hoopoe that led other birds on a pilgrimage to see the face of Mystery—Simurgh—in Attar’s famous Sufi epic, “The Conference of the Birds.” In 2008, the hoopoe was chosen as the national bird of Israel. The hoopoe happens to be, at the same time, a symbol of exile for the Palestinians. In his poem “Hoopoe,” Mahmoud Darwish says: “But, among us there is a hoopoe who dictates his letters to the olive tree of exile.” By now Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry has found its way to Israeli high schools. Therefore, the hoopoe continues its mission. He is the smuggler of sacred messages. By ceaseless cultural crossing, he is a peacemaker.

The hoopoe stands for the other, for the foreigner. It creates bewilderment. It transports us to new places. It changes us. That’s the secret contraband of this book; well, one of them. Edith Stein suggests that the other puts us in motion, so we actively go out of ourselves to meet the other. My book embodies this desire—the desire to face the poverty of spirit, the wounded and the vulnerable in us and outside of us. And that desire tends to be disguised. The noblest contraband dwells in fraintendimento, understanding in-between or, in other words, reading between the lines.

RM: There are so many recurring references to both your personal history and to the histories of immigration in this text. Of course, in a short interview, we can’t discuss them all, but I’d love to ask you to talk about the Ellis Island poems, as well as the poems that delve into your past. How do you see these works interacting in the text?

EC: The idea of connecting the Ellis Island poems with my past and present came from my constant packing and unpacking, crossing and re-crossing the borders. I had to constantly leave behind things and places I was attached to. I had to carefully select things I could take and what I would leave behind. There was also a growing awareness that the things we miss, or long for, are usually other desires in disguise. That personal experience led me to a question about immigration and the first immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. I started to visit Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum in New York because I was interested in the objects of affections that the first immigrants carried with them. Then I got interested in the ideas they carried. The first face I saw when I walked onto Ellis Island was that of Al Capone. Ellis Island was featuring an exhibition on Alcatraz. That collision between Ellis Island and Alcatraz Island gave rise to new questions about immigration, in the past and nowadays.

In the end, I realized the poems I was writing at that time were tending towards the other/Other. They investigated the liminal spaces and the transgressive nature of our desire. In the Hebrew Bible, the stranger is always mentioned in conjunction with the orphan and the widow. Foreigners are people who cannot take anything for granted. Nothing belongs to them. To adopt Jorie Graham’s words: “They live in a perpetual state of adaptation and mercy. Their path is a ‘twisted’ one, a crooked path, the one that takes you off the expected path—the one Mercury, or Hermes, leads you towards—‘off road’, ‘off course.’” Words are also strangers, multilingual immigrants.

RM: Can you speak to your poetic process? Your last book and this one both show your mastery of the prose poem form. Do you find this strategy to best enable you to invite in, and then expose, the kind of hidden “contraband” that most actively engages and surprises your process? But you also lineate some poems, for instance, “Prayer Before Flight” and “All Souls’ Poem” and “Emergency Prayer,” to name a few. Can you also speak to this formal decision?

EC: In “Lost in Translation”, Eva Hoffman claims that we can have a new beginning in a new language. We can be free of constraints and native inhibitions. We gain distance in the second language. We no longer can take ourselves that seriously.

Prose poetry comes naturally to me in English, even though I do not use this form often when I write in Polish. In English, I let my syntax meander in order to encounter the subject of my poems, in order to storm the walls of mystery. Prose poetry seems to be a good form, for the meaning is always dynamic and ongoing for me. It expands into new domains, as new projective structures arise.

I let my sentences explode, take off, expand. Writing in English requires a constant mental shifting and shuffling between the two languages, between these two different conceptualizations of the world. It is the work of smuggling metaphors. This is also why I oscillate between the prose poem and lineated poems. Perhaps the hidden contraband of this book comes from the refusal to linguistically renounce anything—the desire to keep both worlds, the desire for bilocation. The price is the ceaseless border crossing, smuggling.

RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?

EC: I grew up during the Communist Regime in Poland. I remember the lines in front of the shops to buy rationed food. When there is deprivation, contraband is born. Poles soon figured out what is worth smuggling out of the country and back into the country.

Most important, however, the censorship gave rise to intellectual and spiritual contraband. Polish writers had to invent their own code-language in order to cleanse themselves of the Newspeak imposed on them by the Stalinist and Communist Regime. The Communist establishment banned books that criticized the Soviet Union, or any books that undermined the glory of Russia in general. Books that showed the West as an attractive place were banned. In high school, we smuggled quotes from Orwell’s Animal Farm: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. My father was in Solidarity, and as a child, I remember he was hiding some documents in a rabbit’s cage in our garden.

Perhaps the origin of writing is contraband. Writing somehow flourishes under the opposition, if not oppression. Compare this phenomenon to Kant’s pigeon—the atmospheric pressure that seems to hinder its flight makes it actually possible. Think of Hopkins’ windhover, which by hurling itself horizontally into the wind rebuffs it. Think of a kestrel which, buffeted by the wind, emerges out of the wind even stronger.

RM: Who are the authors or artists or musicians with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you currently reading, watching, hearing?

EC: When I grew up in Poland, I mostly admired Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, Ryszard Krynicki, Tadeusz Różewicz and Paul Celan. These poets showed me that poetry was like bread for the hungry. Generally, I am drawn to the poetics of omission, gaps, silence. Dickinson, Stevens, Bishop, Oppen. While I was completing my PhD and based in the US, I became interested in the poetics of A.R. Ammons, Hejinian, Jorie Graham, Cole Swensen, Anne Carson and Rosmarie Waldrop. Now there are tons of contemporary poets who fascinate me: Fanny Howe, Charles Wright, Mary Ruefle, just to mention a few. Recently, I got interested in the writings of self-taught Gypsy poet Bronisława Wajs, known as Papusza, who lived in Poland from 1908 to 1987.

I am also a fan of Flannery O’Connor. A story is good, as O’Connor instructs us, when it “hangs on and expands in the mind.” I apply these words to poetry.

RM: You chose the artist who created the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?

EC: I met Julie Püttgen at a reading of mine in Vermont and she contacted me about one of my contraband poems, which she liked. I told her I wanted to write a book with an overarching theme of smuggling and she became interested in the project. In the meantime, I went to Julie’s exhibition and I become an admirer of her art. This is why I envisioned her for the cover of the book. Please check out her website.


Ewa Chrusciel has two books in Polish: Furkot and Sopilki and one book in English, Strata, which won the 2009 International Book Contest and was published with Emergency Press in 2011. Her poems have appeared in many books and magazines in Poland, England, Italy, and the United States, including Jubilat, Boston ReviewColorado ReviewLana TurnerSpoon River Review,Aufgabe. She translated Jack London, Joseph Conrad, I.B. Singer as well as some contemporary American poets into Polish. She is an associate professor of humanities at Colby-Sawyer College.

Andrew Wessels with Claire Huot and Robert Majzels

85-conversantAndrew Wessels: As I attempt to begin this conversation, I am looking at, reading 85 in front of me. I am touching, holding 85 in front of me. I am doing both, and at the same time I fear that I am doing neither. This thing in front of me that simultaneously exerts itself fully as both a thing of language and a thing of paper. So I want to begin with what I fear might seem a dumb question: What is this thing before me?

Claire Huot/Robert Majzels: In your hand is a machine for the permutation of letters. A book. By definition, a book must contain a minimum of 85 letters, and these letters must be perpetually in motion. Meaning in a book is continually in motion. The writer/reader works the machine like a chariot passing through the the two hundred and thirty-one gates to paradise. Don’t forget to breathe.

AW: The machine: a creation. The machine: a creator. I think of Craig Dworkin’s No Medium, the impossible attempt to isolate medium, the thing-that-is-book or the thing-that-is-painting. (To cut to the chase: “No single medium can be apprehended in isolation.”) What have you (or is it I, the reader?) fed in to the machine? What do I (or is it you, the far-off and perhaps not even existent creator?) produce by activating the machine?

CH/RM: Unlike Dworkin’s examples, which are empty of content, this medium contains perhaps too much: Chinese characters, letters of the Roman alphabet, bracketed by two backward Hebrew nunim indicating as they do in the meticulously copied Torah scrolls a book out of its place. The shape of the book, the accordion fold, these are reminiscent of the Buddhist sutras. But like the case of the blank book Nudisme85 must be read in context, and interrogates the medium. It seems to promise translation, the transfer of one culture into another. At a time when China is surpassing and bypassing the American empire, 85 explores the role of translators and translations. We know that translation never quite succeeds in domesticating the other; rather, it is the target language and culture in the larger sense that is affected, changed, contaminated.

An 85 is a small engine, it probably does not matter who made it; it works when set in motion. A child who knows English letters or a poet who plays with English words and phrases can activate it. Every reading of these books by English readers is punctuated differently. Familiar letters are breathed actively. Sounds, syllables, one or two letters, are produced by the reader, who enacts another writing of the text. She starts over again, jerks, utters words, adding orthography and producing clauses. Some readers, befuddled and unwilling to lose face, quickly abandon the exercise; others persist, go back, attempt other group formations until they become the writers of the text. The 85 reader enacts the difficulty of translation, the pitfalls and loss of illusions.

The eyes of Chinese readers, on the other hand, go directly to the small seal-like rectangles containing Chinese characters. In one breath, they fluently read the Chinese text, ignoring the English letters and the Hebrew nunim. Fair enough.

We might think of the 85s as small machines interrupting the flow of Anglo-American imperialism. The English language is theirs/ours, the puzzle is only 85 letters, and yet it refuses to operate smoothly. The user guide seems to have failed, produced a bad translation. Our points of reference, alas! fail to unlock the machine. The 85s do not offer the familiar Orientalist/Wordsworthian poetic images of past translations. Where we expect “alas!” we find “a last.”

t           i

g          n

r           a

e          d

e          e

n          e

g          p

I           f

i           o

n          r

t           e

o          s

f           t

m         a

o          l

s          a

s          s

AW: The activation and operation of the machine—the string of moments that are reading—is, then, the centerpiece. I feel it is time to point to the machine’s production, some readings that have been memorialized in a series of videos. Here we see poets and we see a youth encounter the 85. We see the act of letters being forcibly reformed into words and words into recognizable, grammatical phrasings. We see what would normally be called mistakes, mis-speakings, and finally successes in the form of “correct” readings of the text. How does recording these readings both define the performative aspects of reading and also redefine what reading is—the operation of a machine?

CH/RM: One of a number of despicable things about poetry is the way it’s performed, that soulful lilting intonation pointing to its own importance and beauty, the authority of the speaking subject. The most pleasing thing about the 85 readings, to us anyway, is the way the speaker struggles, stutters, stammers, turns back, tries again. The resulting performance is an enactment of the process of translation. Or reading, or writing, because these are all just forms of translation. The permutation of letters. The hypergraphic nature of the 85 machine translates into a recorded sounding. We’ve discovered that children are less embarrassed and more willing to struggle with the 85s, perhaps because they presume less, because their memory of learning to read is less distant.

AW: This struggle that the reading of the text-object causes, and thus the struggle of translation, is a part of your investigation of the ethics of translation. An ethics that you seem to locate at the threshold between translation and ‘original’ creation, between one language and the next, between written text and spoken or read word. How does this boundary relate to both the ethics of translation and, ultimately, the creation of an ethical translation?

CH/AW: There are several aspects to this question. First, we know that what constitutes a translation, let alone an ethical translation, is historically and contextually determined. We have to take into account the idea of China, and the place of that idea in the English speaking world, the demonization, racism, imperialist nostalgia, anti-communism, rising power and challenge to US world domination, along with a number of other complex factors that make the East-West relationship such a fragile and critical terrain for intervention. It means the recognition of the difficulty and uncertainty of reading China and Chinese in English has to be part of the work of translation. But perhaps we can return to the politics of the West-China relationship later.

There is also the issue of translation itself, what is translation and what is ‘original’ creation, what is a ‘good’ or ‘faithful’ translation. And this too is historically and contextually determined. What we are attempting in 85 would not have been recognized as translation in Fenollosa /Pound’s day. The larger issue here is classification in general. For some time now, at least since Foucault, the destabilization of classification in itself has become an ethical imperative. The blurring of boundaries between categories termed translation and creation, between author and reader, between spoken and written word is the terrain on which 85 works.

But these are generalities and what might be more interesting is a closer reading of the problem that confronts the translator in this case. The Chinese language is drastically different from English, and in so many ways. For one thing, Chinese writing is syllabic, most of its syllables are morphemes, that is, they are potential words, and each syllable is written with a single graph. English uses an alphabet that transcribes sounds, letter by letter (more or less); the grouping of letters together creates a word.

Chinese and English represent two poles in linguistic systems. English is the phonographic pole; Chinese, the logographic. But there is no such thing as a script that is nothing but sounds or nothing but meanings. In the 85 project, we chose to ambiguate rather than contrast the two languages’ properties. The equidistance of the English letters, thereby eliminating the demarcation between words, creates a space (pun intended) around the letter itself, which (in a gesture reminiscent of lettrism) renders each letter expressive, as if it might operate like a Chinese character. But, of course, a single alphabetic letter is not necessarily a morpheme, a word; and it does not have the visual richness of a Chinese character.

In the case of the Xue Tao and Mao series, which we made later, the alphabet’s readable potential, or fluency, is further downplayed by the use of sans serif type (Quadraat Sans). At the same time, the visual simplicity of the sans serif contrasts sharply with the intricate plasticity inherent in the Chinese character. And yet an 85 text is a visual text.

In this sense, our project is at the opposite pole of cross-cultural experiments such as Xu Bing’s Square Word Calligraphy, which are English words made to look like Chinese characters, letters written as clusters of strokes in a Chinese calligraphic style. In other words, Xu Bing has Sinicized the appearance of English words, and thus made them unfamiliar. The initial reaction of anyone encountering Xu’s “square words” is to renounce all hope of reading them. For a Chinese reader, the characters are familiar yet unrecognizable. For English readers who have no Chinese, there is no familiarity, no question of even attempting a decoding. Even once they are told the images are English words, English readers are reluctant to tackle signification. Once we solve the puzzle, of course, we can only be impressed by Xu Bing’s artistic tour de force. Reading an 85 seems initially less forbidding than that, because of the recognizable letters; in fact, the English reader expects to be able to read the poem. This is “my” language and I ought to be able to master the text. But the challenge in “making sense” of the work is far greater than deciphering a word that has undergone a “cross-cultural make over;” and for those who complete the reading of an 85, there is no triumphant feeling, nor any applause for the persons (authors-translators) who made that text. (It is perhaps worth noting here, as an aside, that the kind of hermeneutics being solicited in an 85 is not unlike that required of scholars reading the ancient Torah scrolls wherein the Hebrew words are not separated by larger spaces. The result is an encounter between the reading and writing practices at the origin of Western culture and Chinese linguistic tradition.) The resulting reception of our work, the defamiliarization of the English reader’s own language, is in line with our choices made as translators, which turn readers into investigative creators, and where artfulness, and hard labor, are shared.

In our effort to extend the life of the original poems, to provide an afterlife, we adopted several strategies. We sometimes sought to reflect the semantic richness of a Chinese word by providing more than one of the possible meanings, and to do this without resorting to appended explanations or explications, which would be the task of the sinologist. We tried to choose a referent that suited our anti-metaphoric bias. This was made more difficult by the limitation on the number of letters at our disposal. For example, in the text by Mao Zedong, Quotation 3:19, “Clean White Sheets,” we chose to translate the word 白 [bai] as both “clean” and “white.” The word白 [bai] has innumerable meanings, stretching from “white”, “bright”, “clear,” “pure,” “void of,” “empty” and so on. In the 3:19 quotation, Mao uses the term twice in his short paragraph: once in regard to the Chinese people, translated in China’s official, anonymous translation as “blank,” the second time referring to a sheet of paper, translated in the official version as “white.” “White” for the word 白 [bai] opens up possibilities in the English language and also deflects the pejorative “blank”, as though Mao Zedong was declaring the Chinese people to be stupid, a rather common and erroneous interpretation of that quotation in the West. As a matter of fact, Mao Zedong was an astute juggler of the Chinese language, and our retranslation of his little red book is not without admiration.

We confess we did not always resist the frenzy that takes hold of you when faced with the whirlwind of connotations contained within a Chinese word. Although it is true that Chinese is not, as some imagine, pictographic, and that many radicals have long ago lost their semantic value; nevertheless, sometimes a “radical” translation is too compelling to resist. For example, this month, four 85 scrolls are on exhibition in the +15 window of The New Gallery here, in Calgary. One astute viewer, who checked our translation against the “original,” emailed us to ask why, in the Tang poem by Chen Zi’ang titled “ Mouth-song,” the translation ends as follows: “”tearsofadogalone,” when there is no “dog” in the original Chinese poem. Chen Zi’ang’s poem is about a feeling of utter solitude in both time and place and, although its implicit subject is the author’s voice, we chose to deploy a concrete reading of the radical within the word “alone”, “獨,” which is “dog” “犭.” This decision cannot be entirely attributed to a desire to make room for our own dog’s long-suffering participation in the 85 project. The etymology of the word for “alone,” 獨 in Chinese, links the notion of “being alone” with the idea of “by yourself” or “solitary,” and the presence of the radical for dog represents solitude by a guard or herding dog out of its pack and in opposition to a flock of sheep, which would connote community. If you add to the Chinese signifier, English connotations of the word “dog,” you get a starker image of an individual’s alienation. Hence between the earth and infinite sky, the poem sheds the tears of a dog alone.

These are just some specific examples of the process of translation as it operates in the 85 project, even before the reader begins to rewrite and resound the poem through his or her own work.

AW: You mentioned briefly in that last answer the layout of the individual volumes, and I’d like to take a closer look at that. Each volume has its own internal design: color and font as well as the orientation and direction of the letters/words. How were these layouts conceived, and what is the relationship between the design and how that physically affects a reading of them?

CH/RM: The design of 85 was a long process, over a period of ten years. The first 85s were composed by Robert based on the Song of Songs. He also did a series (unpublished) based on Pierre Joris’s translations of poems by Paul Celan. Claire suggested the formal constraint was ideally suited to the Chinese Jueju, perfected during the Tang dynasty period (20 characters/words is roughly equivalent to 85 letters). So the Tang 85s were really the first we designed. The look of the Tang series alludes to the stone steles commonly found in temples and historical sites throughout China, and on which are engraved examples of the great calligraphies. A particularly striking site is the forest of steles in Xi’an. In a way our Tang 85 design is maybe closer to the ink rubbings students of calligraphy make from the stone. Hence the black rectangular background.On the Tang we also arranged the 85 letters from right to left and descending order as in traditional Chinese texts. The original Chinese poem is beneath the 85 in a design resembling a seal. The result is a monumental design which is also extremely difficult to read in English. We hope, with this lineation, to undermine the glib appropriation by English language poets of non-Western forms (Haiku, ghazal, etc.). The jueju’s strict formal requirements, some of which (the tonal constraints, visual repetitions of elements within the characters, for example) are at least as difficult to translate as the Western poets’ darling haiku. The severity of the Tang 85s probably gives the reader pause and a sense of the classic importance of the works. The difficult process of deciphering the poems defeats any attempt to inject sentimentality or polished fluidity. The poem remains a stone. The backward nunim bracketing the poem refer of course to the Talmudic definition of a book and the 85 letter constraint which we’ve explained elsewhere, but they also serve as handles, like the acacia poles that carry the ark of the covenant and its contained meaning in movement. The baroque typeface is a bit of an in-joke, having been misattributed to the Dutch foundry owner Anton Janson but in fact created by the Hungarian émigré Miklós Tótfalusi Kis sometime around 1690. It took 250 years to recognize the error, and the typeface, in its contemporary version, continues to be called Janson.

The Janson typeface is carried over to the series of 85s based on the works of the Bada Shanren, created, like the Kis typeface, in the latter half of the 17th century, during Bada Shanren’s own lifetime. The design of these poems attempts to reflect the minimalist, loose, asymmetrical style of Bada Shanren’s brush, including the washed out grey ink and especially the emphatic use of empty space on the page. The block of 85 letters has evolved from a closed square 17×5 to an open ended shape. The poems, the original colophons, and the numim drift from one page to the next. In fact, the placement of these elements is in each case based on the placement of Bada Shanren’s images and text in the original works. Thus, for example, in “old cat dead again, the nunim become the cat’s ears, atop the block of text, in  “goldfish at xunyang,” they are a pair of goldfish swimming up near the surface.

The “Song of Songs” 85s retain a touch of the biblical gold color, or is it desert sand? Here, because the text runs left to right and across, the reader may feel more confident. The design echoes the Tang series but cleaner and lighter without the black stone. Only the nunim wander, barely containing the poems.

The Xue Tao series of 85s is designed in the same 5 x 17 format as the Tang dynasty; after all, she was a poet of that period. But being a woman, she has yet to gain the kind of place accorded her male counterparts, although her poems are unquestionably of that calibre. So, rather than etched in stone, the Xue Tao 85s are scratched on bamboo. In fact, the cover and background of the Xue Tao poems were inspired by our visit to the site of Xue Tao’s grave and the well from which she drew water to make her own paper in the 8th century, now Wang Jianglou park on the outskirts of Chengdu. As is so often the case, it was a very small detail that sparked the idea for the design. In the bamboo forest of the park, we discovered people had scribbled graffiti on the bamboo stems (pic attached). Of course this reminded us of the bamboo slats that served as media for writing in ancient China. Xue Tao’s paper is reported to have been red, hence the color of the Chinese poem and title of the 85s. The single narrow line of text also echoes the form of Nushu script invented by the unschooled women of southern Hunan province to record their lives. The typeface for these poems is Quadraat sans serif, a contemporary plain but idiosyncratic type, which we also used for the Mao series.

85-conversant-bamboo-web

The Mao series reads from left to right and across as does writing in modern China. These poems are drawn, or redrawn out of Mao’s “little red book” though ours is pink. Mao Zedong, who was also a poet and calligrapher, wrote on a similar pink colored paper. These 85s are certainly easier to read, laid out like a child’s Chinese exercise book, complete with squares to help keep the characters, and ideas, in proper proportion.

AW: As you answer each of these questions, I find us accumulating references and predecessors by the handfuls, both for the project as a whole and now for each individual volume. Rather than burdensome or overbearing as allusions can sometimes be, each addition here seems instead to advance toward an act of dispersion in which no single element can claim dominance. What I mean, I think, is that a blurring occurs between original and translation, writer and translator, poem and design, translator and designer, writer and reader, book and reader, Chinese and English, Hebrew and English around the locus point of this machine in action. I can neither point to, exactly, what it is nor do I find myself caring whether I can draw these lines of delineation. As much as this work is an object, what I find myself considering is less the object I am holding and more the experiencing—the action, the verb—of holding and considering the object, of watching myself stumble through the accordion-style pages of ink and paper.

CH/RM: Andrew, your statement that does not contain a question, indicates to us that we have gone through the archeology of the project and that this interview should come to a close. We have presented the concepts, the texts used, the motivation behind our selection, the physical and visual aspects of the 85s, as well as our theoretical position. So now you’re left with the book: you can read it, or not.


The 85 Project is fundamentally an experiment in reading. If the book is not read, then it is simply a beautiful object, ready (pun intended) for the enactment of reading. The act of reading an 85 is just like reading music as you execute a piece; or like reading Chinese calligraphy as you hold the brush to write your own calligraphy. It sets off a complex process of decoding which makes the reader undergo a trial in the act itself of reading, in the comprehension of your own language and in the apprehension of another language and culture. The book lives on through you.

The 85 Project is online and at Les Figues


Claire Huot is a scholar specializing in Chinese studies. She has written two books on contemporary Chinese culture, La Petite révolution culturelle (Éditions Philippe Picquier), and China’s New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes (Duke University Press), as well as one mystery novel, The Prison Tangram, featuring a bilingual Mandarin and English female detective. She holds a doctorate in comparative literature from the Université de Montréal and is presently an associate professor in the Department of Germanic, Slavic and East Asian Studies at the University of Calgary. With Robert Majzels, she is also a non-member of The Provisional Avant-garde (PROVAG).

Robert Majzels’s books include Hellman’s ScrapbookCity of Forgetting, Apikoros Sleuth, and The Humbugs Diet. In 2007, he was awarded the Alcuin Society Prize for Excellence in Book Design for the limited edition of Apikoros Sleuth. His full-length play This Night the Kapo was produced at the Berkley Street Theatre in Toronto, in March 2004. He was attributed the Governor General’s Award of Canada for his translation of France Daigle’s Just Fine in 2000. With Erín Moure, Robert has translated several books of poetry by Nicole Brossard, including, most recently, The White Piano. Their translation of Notebook of Roses & Civilization was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2008. He is presently an associate professor in the English Department of the University of Calgary. With Claire Huot, he is also a non-member of The Provisional Avant-garde (PROVAG).

Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Cambridge, and Las Vegas. Currently, he splits his time between Los Angeles and Istanbul. He has held fellowships from Poets & Writers and the Black Mountain Institute. His poems, translations, and collaborations can be found in VOLTWitnessFenceEleven Eleven, and Colorado Review, among others. He is the managing editor of Les Figues Press and edits the poetry and poetics journal The Offending Adam.

“to make a new whole of the fragments”: A Roundtable Discussion with Poets in Women Write Resistance

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Women Write Resistance Panelists


October is Violence Against Women awareness month. This October we bring together six poets from and the editor of the anthology Women Writing Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) to discuss research, invention, and resistance poetry. Women Write Resistance views poetry as a transformative art. By deploying techniques to challenge narratives about violence against women and making alternatives to that violence visible, poetry of resistance distinguishes itself by a persuasive rhetoric that asks readers to act. Leslie Adrienne Miller, Jennifer Perrine, Sara Henning, Sarah A. Chavez, and Laura Madeline Wiseman explore poetry of resistance in this roundtable discussion. These poets will be featured at the Omaha Lit Fest this fall. This year’s festival theme is warped: historical in/accuracy.

Q: What do you do if your research on a subject reveals conflicting truths?

Sara Henning: I get very excited! I explore the divergences to see if I can trace the causal relationship between difference and its source. Then, I’ll often use the discrimination as a volleying point for further examination, and see if I can find any additional conflicting truths! I imagine this process, like a fractal, can extend as far as one wants to take it, so I try to focus when I begin writing.

Sarah A. Chavez: The truth is always more complicated than we initially think and the key then is to decide what you as the writer want a particular piece of writing to accomplish. As much as possible, I try to allow my poetry to embrace and inhabit conflict and conflicting truths, but there have been times where something is so complicated, it just can’t be expressed adequately in one poem. In those situations I will make the choice to approach from a particular angle, usually whichever angle feels most organic at that time.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: My book Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience is a contemporary retelling of the Bluebeard myth in the voices of Bluebeard’s living and dead wives. Bluebeard is a story that has been told and retold, a story of truths that conflicts. Like many myths and lore, the facts of the story are not stable. Bluebeard is often framed as a story of blood and gore. In my retelling I focus on the love each of his wives felt, the first blush of romance, the complicated turns of mature desire, and the trauma gender violence slashes into the home. Though the bluebeard myth may appear to be about female obedience and the sanctions imposed when one fails to follow them, I believe another more interesting interpretation of the bluebeard myth is to read it as a celebration of the disobedience of wives, for each new Mrs. Bluebeard does unlock the door. While researching the bluebeard myth and sequencing the manuscript, I studied contemporary bluebeard variations, scholarly papers, popular culture adaptations, and historical versions many of us may have read or have had read to us as children in the form of fairy tales. I delighted in each new interpretation, each offering of the same tale if on a new slant, for it suggested to me that bluebeard is a story we’re eager to see played out. We as readers want to see Mrs. Bluebeard triumph. Yes, in many versions most of the wives are murdered, but often one wife escapes. In some variations the final Mrs. Bluebeard is saved by her siblings. In others, she is aided by a woman who works in service to bluebeard. In a robberbride groom version, her own fortitude and wit allows her to save herself. My reading suggests that when women are disobedient to patriarchy they triumph. The last wife resists by outsmarting keys, locked doors, and death by hooks. She lives and that truth is a truth I’m invested in knowing.

Leslie Adrienne Miller: I can’t imagine any subject that doesn’t reveal conflicting truths if one goes deep enough, and if I can’t get to the level of conflicting truths with a subject, I know that I don’t yet know enough to write about it. In other words, finding the conflicting truths is necessary to making poetry. Poetry balances on the edge of these, and if it falls too far in either direction, it becomes dogmatic, preachy, in other words, not poetry anymore.

Jennifer Perrine: My research always reveals conflicting truths. So much of my poetic research involves unearthing personal and family history, and any particular moment in that history has multiple vantage points, all true from the perspectives of the individuals who witnessed and lived through it.

My mother often appears in my poems, perhaps because she disappeared from my life when I was a teenager and so has remained a mystery to me. When I asked my siblings who she was and why she made the choices she did, I heard six responses, each different from each other and from the response I would have offered. What could I have done with the tensions among those truths except write?

Whether in a poem or in a novel, writing allows me to explore and puzzle through all the available truths. If I write my way into a character’s mind and body, I can have a better sense of how they would react to a situation, what the truth of an experience will be for them, and why it might differ from the truths of all the other people who stand beside them in the aftermath.

I follow the numerous threads of perspective as they separate and converge, and this helps me understand how multiple, discordant truths are necessary to stay honest about the full complexity of any life.

Q: Some writers and poets choose to invent or alter facts due to the difficulty in telling traumatic memory or describing traumatic events. What is the cost of invention to the poem and to the poet?

SH: The power of perception is an interesting phenomenon, as is the power of memory, especially when they are measured as the interstices of trauma and recovery. Many psychologists and artists will argue that traumatic events cannot necessarily be “told,” because trauma amends memory. Sometimes, the attempt at truth is all that one can muster, and that is its own truth. But invention and alteration to save the poet, or the audience, the pain of re-telling? Ultimately, I think the cost to the poem, and the poet, lies in what the poet has at stake in the telling. Why engage the traumatic event, unless the invention or alteration becomes a promising method of engagement?

LMW: Scholars have researched how and where the body records trauma and the involvement of the nervous system in such recordings—the autonomic nervous system (flight, fight, and freeze response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (calm, rest, and relaxation response). The parasympathetic nervous system stores facts, concepts, and ideas in the hippocampus. These are language based memories and allow us to tell stories. The autonomic nervous system stores behaviors in the amygdala, suppressing the hippocampus and Broca’s area where speech is produced. These are procedural and nondeclarative memories. Given that traumatic memories are often stored in a place of the brain that isn’t language based, to tell those stories means a writer makes new memories, activates the PNS, and store facts, concepts, and ideas in the form of poem making.

JP: Trauma is a wound, an absence, a loss. For me, writing trauma often involves invention, not because that writing is emotionally difficult, but because it means describing a space that no longer exists. To find words for what does not exist, one can, as Monique Wittig writes, “Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
Sometimes remembering, putting together what has been dismembered through trauma, must also reveal the process of dismemberment itself. It may be useful to demonstrate how the world has taken us apart, so that readers might imagine how to re-member those violated spaces. There’s a potential in that process, though, to write violence without offering any “effort to remember,” any way to make a new whole of the fragments—hence my willingness to invent, to shed facts for the sake of truth.
Invention, then, becomes a more active process for a reader: to make sense of the fictional representation of trauma, they must first be able to recognize that it is a fiction. They must be willing to witness the distance between the unspeakable trauma and the insufficient words used to represent it, to gaze back and forth across that chasm, to stand in the weight of that dissonance.

So much depends, though, on whether a reader has that ability, that willingness, and whether the poem serves well enough as the craft that carries the reader into that process. The risk, then, is not the cost of invention, but the possibility of its failure.

SC: I’m not sure that I see a cost to inventing or altering the facts of traumatic events to serve the art of poetry. As I mentioned earlier in regards to “fact” vs. “truth,” facts do not equal emotional truth. As human beings who live in the world outside our writing spaces, there are a variety of reasons why someone might alter logistics, especially if it means keeping themselves or someone they love safe. And when it comes to poetry as art, the writer can’t just think about whether something happened at noon or at midnight, they must also think about the best way to communicate feelings through figurative language. I don’t view poetry as a confession of life events so much as a sharing or an attempt to build understanding and empathy with readers for what a poem might represent.

LAM: I’m not sure any of us consciously change facts to protect ourselves or others, though for sure we omit things we know to that purpose, but we also omit things we know because they don’t fit the emotional arc or dramatic design of the piece as it unfolds. Again, language itself is partly responsible for this. Each word one adds in a sentence is a cutting off of all other possibilities, and when the sentence is complete, it can never capture everything that occurred along the way of its making. The subject isolates one thing, the verb moves it in one direction from a particular point in time, and everything else insinuates and inscribes specific value. The tragedy of losing all those other possibilities is offset by the fact that it means we’ll never get to the end of needing to write more poems.


Sarah A. Chavez is a mestíza born and raised in the California Central Valley completing her PhD in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found in various publications such as Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, the journals North American Review, The Fourth River, and others. Her chapbook All Day, Talking is forthcoming from dancing girl press in summer 2014.

Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013), as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

Leslie Adrienne Miller is author of six collections of poetry including Y, The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See from Graywolf Press, and Yesterday Had a Man in It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an M.A. from the University of Missouri, and a B.A. from Stephens College.

Jennifer Perrine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry, and In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. In 2014, she will serve as a member of the U.S. Arts and Culture Delegation to Cuba. Perrine teaches in the English department and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University.

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com

Catherine Theis with Nathan Hoks

Nathan Hoks
Nathan Hoks

This interview focuses on Nathan Hoks’s book, The Narrow Circle.

Catherine Theis: The Narrow Circle is a book of poems, but there are photographs and pictures included as well. Can you talk about the relationship between the poems and the images, perhaps in relation to the Blake epigraph?

Nathan Hoks: When I was writing these poems oriented toward either the interior or the exterior, I tried to think about these directions as contraries in the Blakean sense—“Without Contraries there is no progression”—and the division of the book into an interior section and an exterior section reminded me of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. So I wondered in a partly whimsical way if my book should have a visual component the way Blake’s books do. Unlike Blake, I’m no visual artist, so I gathered most of the images from public domain resources on the Wiki-commons.

The poems were written first. I feel like it’s important to stress that I went from language to image. No ekphrasis here. It wasn’t until the book felt finished that I thought of adding the images. After I added the visual stream, I enjoyed the interaction between the text and image. The images became a visual index of the book, and so many motifs became more apparent to me through this index. I was also interested in the way a picture implies a kind of super-referential power of the word. Now when the poem says “worms,” we all have the same image in our heads. Or even better, a tension occurs between a reader’s initial idea of the “worms” and the picture.

CT: Sorry, but what do you mean by “interior” and “exterior” poems?

NH: These two words took on an enchanted meaning for me as I was writing the book, so I didn’t try to pin them down too specifically. I love the word “interior” so much. It’s one of those words that I respond to magnetically. In the context of the book, it is both a physical space, usually the domestic interior, and a psychological space. It is a bit of a vortex, a force pulling inward, and the more time you spend there, the more the pressure builds up. It usually seems intimate, comfortable, and safe on the interior, but it’s not healthy to spend too much time there. It has poor ventilation and lousy lighting. The exterior is exciting, adventurous, bright and airy, but it is also death — it’s where the body decays. Threats come from every angle. There are animals and vegetation and fast machines, and it is where language detonates because we encounter others who want to decipher us.

CT: Perfect conditions for explosions.

NH: Right. And generally the body works as a transitional space or a conduit between the inside and the outside, so I’ve tried to think of the poems as little bodies. The body can heighten the sense of mortality experienced on the exterior, or it can feel like a cozy barrier to the interior. But ultimately, I think these two spaces are fluid. In moments of intensity, one flows into the other. One can experience the exterior in the interior and vice-versa. They’re like Yeats’s interlocking gyres.

CT: Yikes, it’s the Second Coming, or just a mathematical diagram charting energy flow. If one can chart such a thing….

NH: Yes! But minus the apocalypse. It’s the structure I’m attracted to. In A Vision, he has these great diagrams of the double gyres, which voices dictated to him via his wife. Yeats’s system actually doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I find it lovely and exciting.

CT: That’s interesting because later I want to ask you about your images, which function as dynamic diagrams. So what order did you write the poems in? Did you go from interior to exterior, or vice versa?

NH: Some of the interior poems came first. I tend to be diplomatic, so after I had a cluster of interior poems, I started to feel bad about leaving out the exterior. I went in that direction and then over a couple years, I basically just worked on the two parts simultaneously, back and forth.

CT: The images are in small groupings, or suites, and they have captions or tags with language stolen from your poems. They’re not complete lines, are they?

NH: No. Most of the captions are just a word or phrase sliced out of the poems.

CT: Your visual index is poetic-scientific.

NH: In the sense that many of the pictures tend to come from scientific sources but follow a poetic logic, yes. But maybe I don’t know what you mean by this term – what do you mean?

CT: Yes, I think you’re understanding my shorthand quite perfectly. For me, the images are presented in a scientific construct (cross-sectional, natural, microscopic) but since we’re reading a book of poetry, we must approach them with Poetry’s own eyes and ears—half Pegasus, half Scientist maybe. I’m very much taken with this idea of doubt that both the Poet and Scientist must have in order to do great work. All the great work needs to start in uncertainty, I think, otherwise it’s not open to any curious finds along the way, and there’s no room for marveling. How can we live in world without marveling? That kills me! But does each image correspond to a particular poem? Are they tagged as discrete, or can we read them across the whole book?

NH: I like your word “tag”—it’s as if the picture has been graffitied by the poem, which makes sense because these are all “found” images. I guess actually the picture is defacing the poem. I looked for pictures that echo specific lines or ideas from certain poems, but sometimes in an oblique way. They’re kind of smudged referents, a step or two away, hopefully enacting those inevitable swerves that occur between language and object. I put the images in little groupings so that they wouldn’t be too overbearing on the poems. I already mentioned Blake’s influence, but I was also influenced by Surrealist word-image games. Breton’s Nadja is arranged similarly, and Magritte has many wonderful paintings where he replaces images with words or blatantly mislabels images.

CT: Oh yeah! There’s that one on the cover of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, what’s it called?

NH: Yes, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which is appropriately titled “The Treachery of Images.” Also, I’m thinking of paintings like “Words and Images,” “The Empty Mask” and “Key to Dreams,” where Magritte mislabels images, or replaces images with words.  I’ve always been enchanted by captions and labels and the lovely contact made by these two systems of reference. Of course, all systems of reference are flawed, but the flaws are where the sparks come from. To me, these two systems seem to swirl around each other in a dance, touching, then swerving off in different directions, sort of like the double vortex. Obviously they’re lovers, so there’s intimacy and madness and explosiveness in this dance.

CT: Right, how to really represent representation. A lot of what we’ve talked about includes this idea of turning—gyres, flip-books, explosions. I like how you call it swerving. What’s equally fascinating is that your choice of images includes the mundane, or inartistic. I hope that’s not offensive to you…

NH: Not at all—it’s just what I wanted. For all their weirdness, I try to ground my poems in the everyday.

CT: Several references to proper nouns, or names of friends, in the book—are they real?

NH: Not really. I’m usually thinking of particular people, but they have different names and don’t totally resemble the figures in the book. I find writing toward a figure, another entity, to be a helpful trick for me.

CT: Yes, you mentioned earlier about “encountering others who want to decipher us,” and it struck me as such a rich way to think about language and relationships, about what kinds of invitations we extend (in poems/in person) to one another when we ask to be read. How do you think the apostrophe (another turning away!) works within your imagination?

NH: The apostrophe is usually just an excuse to talk about one’s self, and doesn’t the self as a construct begin to take shape when our language takes this turn toward a “second person,” toward a “you,” toward an “other”? I guess this structure is one reason I get so obsessed with directionality, with the exterior and interior as orientations. Quite a few years ago, I started using figures like persons, entities, or ghosts as centering points for poems. Sometimes they work like scaffolding and they will disappear as I rework the poem. Other times, they take on a fundamental role in the poem. So you can see the residue of that process in some of the poems with proper names.

CT: Besides friends, there’s a family at the center of this book, and a speaker whose heart is more like a vestibule he cannot keep closed. The speaker talks about fatherhood in especially tender and frightening ways. Do you feel comfortable talking about your own relationship to fatherhood?

NH: Some of this book is a response to my discomfort about fatherhood. Part of me thinks that my discomfort is silly and I’m ashamed that I should make such a big deal about it—I mean, there are literally billions of fathers, right? But having a child —and spending the majority of my time at home with him—these events have fundamentally changed the way I view myself. And I don’t mean it’s made me reform or turned me into a better, more moral person, or any of that nonsense. On the contrary, fatherhood really exaggerates my defects. I mean, it’s given me something like a mirror, a little person that reflects not genetics, but day-to-day or even minute-to-minute moods and feelings. All your anxieties manifest themselves in a child. It’s inescapable. Children are living barometers of the interior. If I am stressed out about something, I know because my son will act out in uncharacteristic ways.

CT: Billions of fathers but only one Nate Hoks, right? But not everyone is sensitive to the “living barometers” of themselves or their children. Are you planning on having another child?

NH: As per usual, there are no plans.

CT: Okay, I’ll follow up with you later. In the second half of the book, the mouth of the “exterior” becomes a monster who says, “I am an interruption and an imposture.” This obsession with mouths (holes & ears) speaks to me about the potential of poetic language to destroy the tyrannies of everyday life. In “Edge of the Exterior,” the speaker says, “I am so afraid/Of this mouth/I keep it as far/From me as possible./Here it is—/I hold it towards you.” Did you get this rush, too, when writing? Why do you write besides to be “fully washed of your self?”

NH: I should note that the last two lines of “Edge of the Exterior” are cribbed from Keats, from his unfinished poem “This Living Hand.” In the poem, he’s holding that hand out to the reader, or some vague “you.” It’s pretty chilling. To be washed of myself is a major reason to write, yes! What happens? I don’t know, and I mean that. That’s what I love about writing. Something is happening, and I’m a channel for it, but it seems timeless and it breaks all routine — the routine of daily life, but also routine perceptions and routine language. A lot of times I feel like I’m in a trance. And there’s a huge rush. It’s a drug. That’s why we’ll never stop writing. We’re addicts. Not coincidentally, I’m also addicted to exercise, which is kind of the same thing. During a good long cardiovascular workout, I feel washed of myself, I feel transported, I loose track of time — and it’s clinically proven that endurance activities release a drug-like chemical. Runner’s high!

CT: Do you have to get high every day? How much does intuition enter into your writing?

NH: I exercise almost every day, but I don’t have a regular writing routine. I work in bursts, and when it’s on, it’s on. I’ll be writing nonstop for a weeks or however long I can ride out the wave. Then life butts in and it all comes crashing down and a week or two will go by and I haven’t even looked at a poem and I feel lousy, really depressed like I’ll never be able to write or even read a poem again. Of course I’m always tinkering and reworking drafts, here and there haphazardly, but that doesn’t usually give me the same rush. Then, usually because I’m reading something exciting, I’ll be released from the cold spell and get moving again. I go through this maddening, manic rhythm every few months or so. I guess it is a routine. It’s a terrible routine, though. Highs and lows! Does that mean I’m intuitive? I think so…

CT: You’ve now mentioned Blake and Keats, what other poets do you consider part of your heritage?

NH: Yeah, Blake’s one of those poets who just won’t go away for me. I read Songs of Innocence and of Experience when I was 14. It was the first book of poems I had ever read. I still remember sitting in my high school cafeteria with my flimsy old Dover Thrift Edition, just being kind of mystified by Blake’s little ditties. Blake is one of those poets I can go back to over and over and live in their domain for weeks or months at a time. Keats too. Other poets that I feel are part of my DNA: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Whitman, Ashbery, Michaux, Tate, O’Hara, Notley.

CT: When I read this work, I feel like all my senses heighten into One Sense? Do you rely on one sense over another? What’s your preoccupation with (non)sense? Are you a synesthete?

NH: I am not a synesthete. In these poems, I try to test the centrality of the senses to experience. I mean, I celebrate the senses. I often feel I am nothing but sense. But I’m deeply uncomfortable with the implications of this. Writing itself should be sensuous, but I resist the urge to represent sense perception in poetry, as if language could approach the thing itself or the experience of the thing. Language is such a different system. The poem is an organ of sense that transcends sense. The beyond dwells within the immanent.

I also think sensation is another component of what happens when I’m writing — as much as I feel not entirely present, I also feel more in tune with the senses. They open up, they communicate with each other. I guess I’ll never escape Baudelaire’s influence, his correspondences where the senses and “sense” (i.e. meaning) co-mingle in such enchanted ways.

CT: What I admire about your poems is how they try to catalog the uncomfortable human feelings we all share. I mean, the poems are not interested in some arbitrary project about the history of cinema or the evolution of farming techniques. There’s a poem in your book that enacts the removal and close inspection of self. Do you know which poem I’m talking about?

NH: Hah! That’s every poem in the book. Are you talking about “Spiral of the Interior”?

CT: No, but what made you think of “Spiral”?

NH: Well, I wrote “Spiral of the Interior” during a winter when I had chronic ear infections. My sinuses were a mess and I suffered some hearing loss in both ears so I literally felt wrapped up in this interior of my head. The ear to me was a spiral boring into my-too-head-centered-self and all I wanted was a way out of this dreadful position. So the task was to write my way through it, both in space and time. I felt like writing through this spiral was a kind of “removal” of the self. The vortex of the interior was dislodging the self.

There’s a point in that poem when the speaker says, “‘Spiral, believe me,’” and “‘spin me/into the eggshell of oblivion…’” and I start to get real nervous, I realize I’m counting how many spirals in I am (since this is a long poem with 7 parts).

CT: I had no idea you were suffering that winter. It’s striking how illness can carry-color its own narrative where the first story breaks off.

One more question, what are you working on right now?

NH: I’m working a bunch of poems all having something to do with affinity. Right now my favorite one is about a narcoleptic elephant. But I’ve also been pretty occupied by Convulsive Editions, the small press that Nikki Flores and I started a couple years ago. Nikki taught me how to letterpress print, and that’s been an exciting and time-consuming way to make books. Thankfully none of them are my own!


Nathan Hoks is the author of two books of poetry, Reveilles and The Narrow Circle, which was a winner of the 2012 National Poetry Series and published by Penguin. He works as an editor and letterpress printer for the micro-press Convulsive Editions and is currently a lecturer at the University of Chicago.

Elaine Bleakney with Dan Brady

Dan Brady
Dan Brady

Elaine Bleakney: What a pleasure getting into Cabin Fever/Fossil Record. You’ve said elsewhere that the form of these poems take their inspiration from the painting of Eugene Leroy. Would you tell me about how your attraction to Leroy’s work relates to this choice?

Dan Brady: I was first attracted to the physical depth of Leroy’s paintings. If you look closely at most paintings, you can see individual brushstrokes, but with Leroy you don’t even have to try, the paint rises from the canvas toward the viewer. There is a tactile element to them. I imagine if you ran your fingers over the canvas, it’d feel something like running your fingers over a keyboard — similar depths and ridges. Underneath all that paint, somewhere, is a figure, a representation of a clear subject. That obscuring of the figure through depth was interesting to me. Almost like the subject was drowned in the very media which gave it life.

How do you create something three dimensional in a two dimensional art form? Leroy took that from Cubism, but had his own approach. I wanted to explore how layers like those of Leroy’s paintings might be of use in poetry. Some of the poems I’ve written in this style, like “Fossil Record” and the two poems in my forthcoming chapbook Leroy Sequences (horse less press, 2014) build slowly, piece by piece, layer by layer until the “clear” prose subject is revealed. Others like “Cabin Fever” build and then fade away, revealing a 360 degree view, our understanding of the subject remolded layer by layer.

Your poems in 20 Paintings by Laura Owens are also responding to visual art and inventing their own form. How did these poems come about? How would you describe their relationship with Laura Owens’ paintings?

EB: I saw Laura Owens’s paintings for the first time in Los Angeles, in 2001. Years later (2012?) I googled herand found that she was posting this new vivacious work on her website. It didn’t seem as grand and plotted as the paintings I’d seen back in 2001the newer works were candy-colored and inscrutable in a way I wasn’t expecting. Her marks felt volatile, urgent, fearlessand they could accommodate all these projections from me. I started “tagging” the exhibition text to some of her paintings and sketchesand, just for fun, posting her images paired with my writings as status updates for my friends on Facebook, which added a bedeviling performance aspect. It was fun, and counter to my usual process.

Dan, do you remember what it was like, seeing Leroy’s paintings for the first time? Was there one that just got you?

One writer calls Leroy’s process “a byproduct of the open-ended search for the out-of-reach truth of the figure’s presence.” I’m curious if you feel an open-endedness in your writinghow has composing through this self-directed, painterly way of writing changed you as a poet?

DB: My natural tendency is to lean toward clarity. Writing these poems has been a great push to allow open-endedness into my work. Because the poems shift the way they do, there’s both concrete meaning and an evolving ambiguity. It’s kind of the best of both worlds in that for the most part I’m very restricted and have handed over control to the language within the poem and yet by using an original text for the erasure block I still set the boundaries within which I’ll work.

On the trip where I first encountered Leroy’s work, I had first seen an exhibit in Cologne, Germany which featured artists imitating and amplifying the styles of other painters. Before I had seen an original Leroy, I saw an imitation. The artist had laid the canvas flat and had these huge pink stalagmites of paint rising about a foot off the ground. That was my introduction. I had no idea what about Leroy’s work he was referencing at the time, but I thought it was interesting and from there on out, I was on the hunt to find some Leroy paintings. In Paris, I found the real thing. I don’t think I can say that one particular painting sticks out to me. His figures have a haunting quality about them. Those are the most emotionally resonant for me, but his landscapes are even stranger in a way. Our eyes are so trained to identify the human form that, with a little looking, you can find them pretty easily in Leroy’s paintings. His landscapes are a bit harder for the mind to deconstruct, so I tend to spend more time with them.

Given what you’ve said about your response to Laura Owens’ paintings, I also want to ask you about “triggers” and if there are any particular images or experiences that seem to generate poems for you? Visual art, or Laura Owens specifically being one, but there are passages in For Another Writing Back that begin with such a strong image, like the spider for example, that I wonder if they were part of an inciting incident.

EB: Yes, images like that spider web hanging over the walking path in For Another Writing BackI think images are affairs and so have emotional timingfleeting. They are often where I start and end up orienting in my writing. Looking at visual art and being triggered by images is such a different experience. I’m primed to image hunt, or the primed image hunter is operating more at the surface, so I’m more skeptical about my encounters. The frame or the form or the building or even the slightest whisper of a construct is there to tell me what to see. So an image in a painting or a film or whatever  (for it to land as an image and for me to say “mine” to it) has to do some intense and immediate disarmament. It feels intimately related to what I have to do in writing: make it all sudden and disarming for the reader.

Rain here blurring the window. A good time to write to you about something you said about Leroy’s subject being submerged. I wonder if in “The Deep and Narrow Night” you felt there was something about this private address that was too submerged or obscured prior to your handling of it?

But now I’m also thinking of the quotation you use from Eugene Leroy to introduce your second chapbook: “The work of the artist is to be a maker of images, which in turn make the painting. But this is a secret.” What would you say about this secret in your poem-making?

DB: “The Deep and Narrow Night” is a very personal poem to me, more personal than most of the things I write, so I do feel that subject was submerged and layered and I had to do some work. I wanted to write something honest with that poem and honesty requires digging. I’ve tried to marry the form and content in these poems. The subjects are often things that slowly reveal themselves, that gather and then fade away.

The secret to making these poems in particular is that I start with the prose block, then erase down to the first phrases, build to the prose block, and then, if the poems fade out again like “Cabin Fever” does, I’ll work that out like a regular erasure but in phases until I’m down to the final phrases.

More broadly, giving yourself over to what the language wants to do, not limiting yourself to your own thinking, surprising yourself with the layers of phrases and images which in turn make the poem, I think that’s the secret. It takes awhile to figure that out as a poet. The poem is smarter than you are.

In addition to trigger images like the spider, there are also images  that recur throughout For Another Writing Back. I’m thinking of the wave, for example. How did these through lines develop?

The poems in this book are strikingly personalfeaturing your husband and your sonbut they maintain a distance that gives you room to move from pinpointed, domestic moments to larger themes like the body, love, small town life, family, and more. Stephen Burt recently called the book an “avant-memoir,” which is the perfect description. How important is it that these poems draw from your life? What role does autobiography play in your writing?

EB: Through lines and through images arrive the more space I give to my writing. They are a sign to me that something’s going right. Like you say, “giving yourself over”: I have to in order for the writing to happen. I have to be sure-footed about losing my head to it.

While I was writing For Another, Whitman’s noiseless patient spider kept coming up for me: how attached I am to writing and being in writing, and how sweet it is to come to terms with the same-old ways I go about it. Images shake the web. Lines from others“get crazy with the cheese whiz” or “Sadie was one of the livingest chits”shake the web. How others draw such sparklehorses and meaning out of language urges me.

It’s imperative to me that my poems speak from my life. It’s imperative that they wonder about the world without me. I need to ask questions from my own web while I’m here.


Dan Brady is is the author of two chapbooks, Cabin Fever/Fossil Record (Flying Guillotine Press, 2014) and Leroy Sequences (Horse Less Press, 2014).

The People: Mathew Timmons & Ben White with John Burtle & Elana Mann (Ep. 14), Kim Calder & Vanessa Place (Ep. 15)

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.

In this issue of  The Conversant, we feature The People episodes 14 and 15 with Vanessa Place, Kim Calder, Elana Mann and John Burtle.—Mathew Timmons and Ben White

 

The People: John Burtle & Elana Mann (Ep. 14)

Originally broadcast on Sunday, April 20, 2014

Artists John Burtle and Elana Mann talk about the quality of receivership and listening as a political act. Featured music by Boston band Shore Leave and as always our intro music is the song “Ocfif” by Lewis Keller.

[and]

The People: The People: Kim Calder & Vanessa Place (Ep. 15)

Originally broadcast on Sunday, May 18, 2014

Writer and poet Kim Calder talks to C.E.O. Vanessa Place about the experience of the courtroom and comforting doses of anxiety and the abject. Featured music by Animal Nudity and as always our intro music is the song “Ocfif” by Lewis Keller.


John Burtle: It could be anything. John Burtle is a native of California and is now an artist based in Los Angeles. He’s involved in numerous collective / collaborative ventures such as Eternal Telethon, KCHUNG Radio, and Citizens Promoting a more Pleasurable Public. He also recently had a solo show at Michael Benevento called Support Constructs.

Kim Calder lives in Los Angeles, where she studies contemporary literature and critical theory at the University of California, Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work has most recently appeared in Unsaid Literary Journal, Joyland Poetry, Jacket2 and The Volta.

Elana Mann: She’s a real firestarter. Elana Mann is an artist based in Los Angeles. She’s in a three person show opening on April 19th at Thomas Solomon curated by John Souza. She has also founded a number of collectives including: the Artists’ Bailout Collective, The People’s Microphony Camerata, and is part of the collaborative duo, since 2005, Chan & Mann.

The Boston Review called Vanessa Place “the spokesperson for the new cynical avant-garde,” the Huffington Post characterized her work as “ethically odious,” while philosopher and critic Avital Ronell said she is “a leading voice in contemporary thought.” Vanessa Place was the first poet to perform as part of the Whitney Biennial; a content advisory was posted. Exhibition work has appeared at MAK Center/Los Angeles; Denver Museum of Contemporary Art; the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; The Power Plant, Toronto; the Broad Museum, East Lansing; and Cage 83 Gallery, New York. Selected recent performance venues include Museum of Modern Art, New York; Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art; Andre Bely Center, St. Petersburg, Russia; Kunstverein, Cologne; Whitechapel Gallery, London; Frye Art Gallery, Seattle; the Sorbonne; and De Young Museum, San Francisco. Place also works as a critic and criminal defense attorney, and is CEO of VanessaPlace Inc, the world’s first poetry corporation.