Two poems from her work-in-progress “REAL LIFE: AN INSTALLATION” appears in the second issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the work-in-progress “REAL LIFE: AN INSTALLATION.” How did it originate?
A: Like a lot of poets, I found myself in a situation where I had a number of manuscripts sort of lined up, ready to send out or even slotted for publication, and it seemed to be happening too fast. It was the summer of 2011, and my partner Tim said to me, you need something to write that will take you at least five years. In response I created a process for myself – I would write every day from labor day to labor day to labor day, beginning in 2011. I did not allow myself to read back what I’d written, except at three-month intervals, and then I could do only very slight cleaning for spelling and stuff. That way I was always writing into an unknown, forgetting what I’d done the day before, keeping it strange and off-balance. Of course themes and forms emerged, but they’d shift pretty regularly, and I had to allow that, since I was not editing at all. At the end of the two years, I had twelve sections and a total of almost 600 pages. Now I am editing, forming, shaping, and cutting most of it. The editing process will take as least as long as the original writing took. Probably longer.
The title came from my daughter, who was four when I started. She’d often refer to things and events as “real life,” in order to distinguish them from stuff that was happening in her imagination, in her dreams, or in stories and movies. For kids at that age it’s important to clarify, since so much is going on all the time that is not “real life” (and they are often unsure what is and what isn’t real). I started to notice that when adults use the phrase “real life,” they usually mean work, or the mundane, the everyday, as opposed to art, sex, love, illness, dreams, play – pretty much anything that is any fun or has any intensity attached to it qualifies as not real life! I thought I’d trouble the term, while also thinking a lot about labor, work, economics – throughout the writing.
I began thinking about installation art first because I always am, but second because of a talk Fredric Jameson gave in which he claimed that the artists of the future will all be installation artists, or something like that. I can say more about that if you like.
A: What I remember from Jameson’s talk (and I think this is a talk he’d been giving a lot that year around the country) was the idea that 1) we are in a time of rampant presentism with no clear or even muddy vision for the future and no memory of the past, and 2) that all artists are now curators or installation artists, gathering materials and arranging them, rather than making them. I don’t agree with either of these ideas, though certainly I can see where they come from. Instead I see a lot of people struggling to imagine new futures and working toward them (in art and activism), and I see a lot of really relevant art that is in no way “just” a gathering together or curating. Nonetheless, the idea struck me enough to make me want to explore directly what it might mean to think of my writing as installation art. Often, long before hearing this talk (and this is probably because of my theater/dance background) I've imagined or dreamed my poems happening in spaces – I hear the voice recorded, see some kind of event or dance or architectural structure that illuminates, supports, or otherwise IS the poem.
When I was little I used to love, almost more than anything 1) amusement parks and 2) the plaster Easter eggs where you can peer into one end and see a little scene of bunnies and kids in spring clothing, or whatever. Both of these are installations – big and small – created worlds. I think I want my writing to act like that.
And so, Real Life has many imagined installations running through it, some that could be constructed, and others that could not. My friend Christina Battle, a filmmaker, is collaborating with me on a work that will bring these written installations into conversation with moving images.
Q: Your five poetry collections, including RAG (Omnidawn, 2014) are each constructed as large, expansive book-length projects as well. How does this current project relate to what you’ve produced before? How is it different?
A: You’re right about that! One day perhaps I’ll write a book of discrete poems – what Spicer called one night stands. But for now, this is how my mind works. Right now I’d say that Real Life is different because of the process of creating it. I want to hold off on understanding for as long as possible – to keep it unstable and unknown. So far that has been the case – it is too long and too wide for me to be able to see the whole of it. Eventually I assume that won’t be true, but for now it seems important to be patient, to let it unfold to me very slowly. There are certain topics that I find urgent and modes of expression that I’ve explored in relation to those topics. Here I want to push myself to find a way to not settle too quickly. I should say that there are two other books coming out before this one – and I’ve been working hard on these as well – so Real Life has also been a kind of background project at times. A form of meditation. A practice. Ongoing and continuously strange – as I’ve also been writing these other things with very different modes of attack.
Q: I like that you’re allowing your uncertainty to develop, and not letting the conscious mind interfere with what the unconscious mind is creating. I’m curious about your development into utilizing the book as your unit of composition (as opposed to the poem). How did this evolve? You mention Jack Spicer, but who (else) are your models?
A: I’d say my first influence in working this way was Lyn Hejinian. I read her first when I was about 27, and she blew my mind. Before reading My Life I had a very different idea of what a book was and what it could do. I was into minimalism, abstraction, the odd meditations of Rene Char, Tomaz Salamun, Denise Levertov, Emily Dickinson. My Life broke something open for me, even though I still love all those authors! Also, early on I read Michael Palmer quite a lot, and his sequences were a big influence as well. Cole Swensen’s work was a huge influence on my first and second books – especially her Noon, which I read constantly for at least a year.
After that, Zukofsky’s “A” and Vallejo’s Trilce – both of which I read with others over long periods of time – and these reading experiences were so rich, unprecedented in their slowness and depth – I’m so grateful to the people in that reading group for the time we spent with those authors. Williams’ Paterson is one of my favorite works to teach and reread. I love it for its struggles and all that is unresolved there. And Olson’s Maximus has also been wonderful to spend time with, to teach, to attempt to get inside. More contemporary writers that have influenced me in this way include Eleni Sikelianos – her California Poem especially (in terms of form – I love all her work), and Anne Carson for how she blends genres and forms throughout books.
Q: A number of the works you mention engage with narrative and personal information in rather interesting ways. How conscious are you about including your personal and domestic life in the conversation of your writing? Is this something you think might change as your daughter ages, and begins to gain awareness of how she is being depicted? What are your boundaries?
A: Well, first, there are three kids, and the oldest is 16. Just for the record.
I feel like there’s a question inside your question. Maybe something like – is it ethical (or polite) to depict one’s kids in one’s work? So, yes, I think it is fine, inevitable, and important. Because I’m interested in the human – in all of life, which must include relations, especially those most intimate (but not only), it would be entirely false of me to somehow exclude children from writing.
I’m not at all interested in writing that places boundaries around what can and can’t be written about. That said, I would not reveal someone else’s secrets, or willfully embarrass a child or anyone else. When I’ve had questions about my material – about whether it embarrasses a person or reveals something they don’t want revealed, I simply show it to that person and ask them directly. So my boundary is exactly that – I let the person decide and only one time has a person said “No. Please don’t include that.”
All three kids are aware that “they” appear in poems – and sometimes, in fact, their own poems have appeared in my books – credited of course. I think they understand what others also understand – that all of “real life” is filtered when written. It is and isn’t truth. It is and isn’t them. They write about me too! And even when they say things that are not true to me, I understand that what they write is true to the writing. I’m pretty sure everyone around here has a healthy understanding of writing as complex in its relation to truth.
As for the first part of the question – there are so many issues that this brings up, I hardly know where to begin. First, I’ll say that the question is loaded for me with concerns around gender. Women have historically been shamed out of writing the “personal,” or shamed for writing about “domestic” issues (read Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh for a great satirical attack on the way women’s writing has been mocked for being too involved in intimate matters). I resist that shaming and I resist any division between the personal and the political or the private and the public, because all of these divisions are gendered, and have been for hundreds of years. My personal and domestic life is my civic life, is my political life, is my public life. There is no way that my house is not political – it speaks about class, it speaks about education, it speaks about race. There’s no way my work as a teacher or a publisher is not intimate. That work speaks about love, desire, friendship, emotion.
One of the thrusts of Real Life: An Installation is to put pressure on the very question you are asking – but I’ve been putting pressure on that question ever since my first book, and I suppose I’ll always be doing that.
Q: I like hearing that your children are writing, and that you are including – credited of course – some of their poems in your books. What do you think you’ve learned about writing, whether generally or your own, from your children? What have you discovered through seeing your own work through their perspectives?
A: I learn from them that it’s great when you can write each letter in a different color.
And here’s an anecdote: when my middle daughter was about six she drew a self-portrait around which she wrote the words “There is no escaping me.” My youngest’s first written sentence was “I like myself” (I lak m sef). This has something to do with their personalities. But also, both of these statements are useful for writing. Whatever and whoever we are, that’s always going to be in the writing no matter how hard we might try to depersonalize it. There is no escaping the self, so you might as well face it. On the other hand, as I was saying to some friends yesterday, writing is this strange process of constantly coaxing ourselves to fall back in love with ourselves (or at least to like ourselves), because if we are too disgusted we just can’t do it. So there’s this facing and this forgiving that have to happen all the time.
Q: After five published poetry collections (as well as this current work-in-progress), how do you feel your work has developed? What, if anything, do you feel you are working toward?
A: This is a hard question to approach. One doesn’t like to sum up one’s work or to claim goals that will inevitably shift anyway. Also, I resist narratives of progress in relation to making art. But I do know that for a while I’ve been setting a goal, in one way or another, of more range, freedom, or wildness. At the same time, I’m also interested in how each book creates its own boundaries, whether those be in terms of form or content – a book ends up describing itself and I’m trying to be aware of what each given project wants to do or be.
To be a bit more specific, I'm working toward a couple of prose books right now (in addition to Real Life, and another book of very short poems, Think Tank, coming out soon from Solid Objects). I’m trying to teach myself to write essays I’d want to read. And, to that end, I’m studying various writers who push the essay form. One of these books is on the topic of confession (literary confession, more or less). The other is a collection of essays about poetry and affect, which will take me a long time to finish.
I guess if I could say anything about what I’m reaching for I’d say maximal range, maximal intensity, and more patience. And one day I’d like to write a novel – maybe when I am very old.