Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Caryl Pagel: Notes on the CSU Poetry Center’s Essay Collection Competition

One question you might have is why a poetry press with a 40+ year history of publishing astonishing collections of contemporary poetry by established and emerging poets—a university-based nonprofit that actually has the word “poetry” in its name—would suddenly throw open its doors to those long-winded and relentless space-fillers, those sentence-loving truth-tellers we know as “essayists”?

And another question you might have is why, if the Cleveland State University Poetry Center is of a mind to invite other genres, don’t we attempt something sensible like a novel or perhaps a collection of short stories or for god’s-sake why not a book on craft? And I would respond that all of those lovely forms might still find a home with us in the future and that we do have some prose precedent, specifically a small series of smart novellas, but that right now we are particularly smitten with the essay as a result of its utterly charming and rambunctious wildness, its preoccupation with structure, its emotive, nostalgic, and tragic potential, its messiness, its love of inquiry, its ambivalence toward permanence or conclusion, its hesitations, its qualms, its idiosyncrasies, and of course its sense of music. Sound familiar? Many of the more absorbing elements of the essay echo those of a poem and of course there’s a rich tradition of transition between them. Just think: Mary Ruefle, Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, Ander Monson, Claudia Rankine, John D’Agata, Eileen Myles, Kristin Prevallet, and our inaugural judge, Wayne Koestenbaum, all began as or currently identify as poets too. Even Megan Daum, Charles D’Ambrosio, Eliot Weinberger, Leslie Jamison, Hilton Als, Amy Leach, Roxane Gay, and Rebecca Solnit write with an attention to the sentence that is poetic at heart and we’d like to celebrate the kinship.

It follows that one might wonder where in the contemporary publishing scene we can find work like this; work that is exploratory and documentary, that stretches the boundaries of observation and fact, and that asks hard questions of this thing we’ve named “nonfiction”? Well, Graywolf. Sarabande. A few NYC houses. Essay Press is back up and running, thank god. And from there any avid essay reader quickly turns to a handful of poetry presses for the rest of the best of this genre (Wave Books did Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Letter Machine Editions published Andrea Rexilius’ New Organism: Essais, Flying Object posts Dara Wier’s Inside Undivided series, Noemi Press recently came out with Julia Cohen’s I Was Not Born, Ugly Duckling’s Dossier series, etc.). The CSU Poetry Center hopes to join these publishers in supporting this still underrepresented (strange, since 2014 was supposedly “the year of the essay”?) and dynamic form.

Wayne Koestenbaum, our inaugural judge and a “cultural spy” according to John Waters, is a model of these modes. In his most recent collection, My 1980’s and Other Essays, we find that his sentences are striking, his memories entertaining, his criticism illuminating and fluid. Koestenbaum’s work is unlike any other’s except, of course, his own heroes, other poets and artists who are always on the forefront of his mind (Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Susan Sontag, and Elizabeth Hardwick, among others). In the first of what will be an annual Essay Collection Competition we are looking for writing that demonstrates a sustained attention to its own interests whether those interests are technical, imaginative, thematic, or factual. The essays might be lyrically buoyant or journalistic in nature, they might come to us fragmented or personal or hybrid. The essays will ideally serve as a location for our imaginations and a map of the author’s mind at work. They will remind and provoke.

The 2015 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Essay Collection Competition is accepting full-length manuscripts from January 1 to March 31st. For more information and to send us your work, go here:


Caryl Pagel is the author of Twice Told (H_NG M_N Books, 2014) and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press, 2012). Her poems and essays can be found in AGNI, The Iowa Review, Jacket2, The Mississippi Review, and Wave Composition, among other places. She is the co-founder and editor of Rescue Press, a poetry editor at jubilat, and the Director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She is also an Assistant Professor of English at Cleveland State University and teaches in the NEOMFA program in northeastern Ohio.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Alison Stine--On Breaking

As part of an ongoing series about rule breaking, Alison Stine answers questions I posed about conventions of genre, expectations of reader, when genre or context or venue changes truth to Truth and back again. As I read her essay Snowfall Blues in the winter issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, I thought how very much that essay reads like a journalistic profile, not exactly like anything's of Stine's I'd read before. Here, for Essay Daily, Stine describes how her essay twisted through many incarnations of "the rules," finding one set of rules to follow there, another here--NW.

On Breaking 

When I first heard his voice coming from the kitchen, I had no idea what a hold his story would have over me. I didn’t know anything about him yet. I only knew I had to hear him again.

My husband had bought the album after hearing it in a NYC record store, and for weeks, lonesome tunes floated about the duplex. Every time one of the songs came on, I would ask, Who is this? I couldn’t remember his name, couldn’t seem to stick it in my head; I had certainly never heard it before.

But as soon as Jackson C. Frank sang, something would come over me, freeze me where as I stood. The songs were aching, but the voice was strong.

Who is this?

When I researched the musician’s life, I felt the unmistakable tugs of a story.

Singer songwriter Jackson C. Frank, born in upstate New York and raised there and in Ohio, was a fire survivor, one child of only about half of his sixth grade class to escape a disaster that decimated his school in 1954. He was severely scarred. After a difficult recovery, Frank had gone on to live the kind of remarkable life that movies are made of: met Elvis as a child, loved Sandy Denny, was roommates with Simon and Garfunkel, married Edie Sedgwick’s cousin.

It was also a life filled with misfortune and pain. Frank released only one self-titled album in 1965. Though it influenced a generation, defining the 60s British Folk Revival, his music remains obscure; many fans still think the dozens of musicians who have covered Frank’s tunes (including Nick Drake and Al Stewart) wrote them. He never got a second album together. He never got it together.


The first Frank song I remember is “Kimbie,” a traditional folk tune, first set down by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who called it “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” 

The narrator is in trouble, with a woman and maybe the law. In Frank’s spare, aching cover, he sings: “She wants a nine dollar shawl—/ and I need a mackinaw.” In the same breath, he asks: “baby, where you been so long,” then answers, “I been in that state pen, / with those rough and rowdy men.” When the woman asks his whereabouts again, he repeats his answer: “I been in that state pen.”  Then he sings—softer now, swallowing the words, the vowels like lonesome caves—“and I gotta go back again.

Lunsford’s song is dark, but Frank’s version is heartsick. He sings from the point of view of a drifter, an ex-con who’s messed up again, already heading back to jail, who’s leaving in the morning, and would buy his girl an expensive, trivial thing rather than take care of himself. 

The lyric “I wish I was a mole in the ground” may have originally been in reference to a wish to work as a miner, once a more profitable and safer job than working on the railroads. But in Frank’s version, this line doesn’t feel like a metaphor. Desperation snags at his voice, and it feels like he really is wishing he was an animal, was someone or something else, was capable of tearing down the mountain of misfortune looming over him. 


Frank likely suffered from mental illness, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and dealt with many physical ailments: malfunctioning thyroids, pain from skin grafts, scars, massive weight gain, problems walking. He was institutionalized multiple times. He was homeless. His first baby died. He once disappeared for a decade. He was partially blinded by a bullet late in life. He lived the blues.

And he did not live long.
I started writing about Frank. Ten pages turned into thirty, then sixty, then ninety.

I was working on my PhD at the time. I scrapped my original dissertation—and wrote some more about this strange singer (I also wrote about a graffiti artist, a circus performer, and the abandoned factories of my home). I passed my defense. One year flew by, then three.


I had heard Lunsford’s version before—but it was Frank’s “Kimbie” I listened to for hours, so much so that I considered naming my first child after the song. When I learned the midwife’s granddaughter was actually named Kimbie, it felt like some kind of sign.

And when my son was born, for months “Kimbie” was the only song to which he would fall asleep, maybe because he had heard it so often in the womb. 


Last year, Virginia Quarterly Review accepted my essay about Frank. But they wanted some changes. The piece was way too long. What was left out, taken in dribbles, excised like the Operation game, the editor and I lifting bone by bone shard, careful not to trigger, not to set off an alarm?

Pieces of me.

I wasn’t trained as a journalist, but I know the rules, and the biggest one was: Keep yourself out of it. 


I was born the year Frank’s album was re-released (to little fanfare), during a blizzard that buried a semi tractor, and killed a woman as she walked, blinded by drifts, to her barn.  The storm stranded my mom and me in the maternity ward for a week—the roads impassable, my dad trapped at home. My parents were Mods. My dad had horn-rimmed glasses. My mom wore an avocado green mini to their rehearsal dinner. They lived in married student housing until my mom, 19 at their wedding, finished her teaching degree. My dad escaped Vietnam because of a bad back.

There were albums around the house: Simon and Garfunkel, Denny. I remember spending afternoons as child lying on our corduroy couch, holding the Best of Peter, Paul and Mary above my head, staring at the pictures on the cover, flowers and lambs and butterflies.

Did my parents buy Jackson C. Frank Again the year I was born?  If so, they didn’t keep it.  Did they see it at the store, for sale alongside Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon, Dylan’s Masterpieces or Street Legal, Stewart’s Time Passages, Fairport Convention’s Tipplers Tales?
So many of Frank’s friends had albums out that year, such a big year for that crowd. Was his album even for sale? My parents didn’t remember it. Neither of them had heard of Frank. 

I bought my mom his album a few years ago, slipping it into the CD player in the kitchen. I told her the story of his life. She looked away from the stove, holding a spoon as if she had forgotten what it was for.


The magazine had fact checkers. Thorough ones. The piece was mostly history: lists of the names Frank had influenced, how he had influenced them, the songs he had recorded, the tragedies he had survived. Those were the facts. Those were checkable.

Other aspects of the story were not so.

It was a story full of holes. Most of the characters, including Frank himself, were dead. Accounts of Frank’s life contradicted each other, differing dates and names. There just wasn’t much on Frank, which made his story both compelling and difficult. The editor called me when I was in line at Kroger. I did a major re-write on Thanksgiving. The process of fact-checking a mystery left us both exhilarated and stumped.

Everything had to be true, right? But what was true? Some of the lyrics didn’t have definite sources. Most of the photographs were black and white, or grainy. Was that a long-sleeve shirt? Was his hair more white or yellow? What had really caused the fire?
There were many I don’t know’s in the piece.  Many if’s. Many, many more questions than answers. How I discovered Frank, why I personally was drawn to him, why I couldn’t let go—those questions were not going to be answered, either, not in the essay.


VQR published my story in early January 2015: “Snowfall Blues:The Hard Life and Clear Sound of Jackson C. Frank.” VQR also commissioned for the piece a collage by artist Jen Rinnger, of vintage photos of Frank, disintegrating into flames. The fire in the image is sharp and bright, a yellow-orange wisp, flecked by black char, that hurts the eyes.

Frank’s eyes in the old photographs, avoiding the reader’s stare, hurt too.


Why did I fall for Frank so hard? Why am I haunted by his story, still?

It’s just not just the music, which is stunning. It’s not just his life, which is unbelievable—but I believe it. I know it. I am a person with an invisible disability: I was born partially deaf, which I have been told by those who don’t know any better, I hide very, very well—and he was a person with an obvious disability.

He could not hide his scars. Intentionally or unintentionally, I have been hiding mine all my life.

A rule I broke and broke hard? I saw myself in him, my true self. Frank on the outside was me on the inside. Maybe the same thing in me responds to him that responds to graffiti. Maybe the same thing in me that loves abandoned places, impoverished flyover towns, loves Jackson C. Frank.

With writing the piece, with publishing it, I just wanted to draw attention to Frank. I just wanted people to know his music, to say his name, to search for and purchase his album, to realize the impact he had, to understand his suffering—to understanding suffering in general. Frank was broken, as I am broken, as the places I come from and love are broken.

Frank lived, Frank tried, these things happened, though in what order and in what time and place we do not know for sure anymore. There is no surety, not anymore. There is only his singing: that sweet, strong voice, sure and true, unbroken as a bell.

Alison Stine is the author of three books of poetry—Wait (Wisconsin, 2011), Ohio Violence (North Texas, 2009), and Lot of My Sister (Kent State, 2001)—and a novel, Supervision (Harper Voyager, 2015). Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Awl, the Toast, Defunct, and Southern Humanities Review. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Alison Hawthorne Deming in conversation with Ander Monson

In October, Alison Hawthorne Deming’s new book Zoologies dropped from Milkweed Editions. It’s easily one of my favorite essay collections of the year, and is notable in part for the depth of its research and thinking about animals and our relationships and encounters with them. Right about then, she was also appointed as one of the first Agnese Helms Haury Chairs in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. As she’s on leave this semester, we had this intermittent conversation by email over the course of a couple months. —Ander


Ander Monson: Alison, Welcome back to Tucson! Weird day here, what with it being overcast and all. We were expecting Hurricane Odile but it looks like it slipped south of us so all we'll get is a little rain instead of the twenty-year-weather-event we were promised. I'm a bit sad to skip the spectacle. 

We're here because I'd like to talk a little bit about your great new book, Zoologies, coming out next month from Milkweed. We're also here (for whatever here means this being a series of emails) in part because of a weird convergence between an essay in your book and an essay in my forthcoming Letter to a Future Lover that I had forgotten about until you reminded me. 

I spent some time recently in a particularly odd little library in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which was once the home of the Ringling Bros. circus before they joined with Barnum & Bailey and decamped to Connecticut. Maybe the most notable feature of Baraboo is the Circus World Museum, and attached to it is the Robert L Parkinson Research Library. It used to circulate books, though the current archivist gave that up when he took over a decade or so ago, since they had no mechanism to actually ensure people returned the books (they couldn't mete out fines or anything). Mostly it's an archive now, and is run by the Wisconsin Historical Society, and services researchers and enthusiasts. I had come here because I was in the area, and because my new book is a book on libraries, and writing back to libraries, and using libraries as a medium of communication. So I've had libraries on my mind, and part of having that filter is that a lot of the stuff I've been reading or thinking about gets run through it, and so it never would have occurred to me to see if there was a circus library until it did, and I found myself there, talking to the archivist and spending some time in the (smallish: their holdings are more manuscript than book) stacks. 

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that there were a lot of elephant books there. I mean, the elephant is the most distinctive circus animal, the one most alien to Americans, certainly, and the largest land animal. So a lot of people have written about their relationships and encounters with elephants. And no surprise that most of the stories of elephants and the circus are pretty dark. Elephants being executed for being "bad" or "ill-tempered" or for killing trainers or other people, usually because they were provoked, beaten, burned, etc. . I kind of went down a research rabbit hole into elephant executions, and while I was doing it I sent an update to those who backed the limited edition I offered on Kickstarter (and this process, this writing to a limited audience on Kickstarter is itself pretty cool; as you know I've been sending some of the essays from the book directly to this audience) about the Circus World Museum and library and about elephants and sadness, and this was when I got a bunch of emails back from people about it, far more than my other updates. Clearly elephants--or maybe the circus--or maybe some other aspect of these subjects--resonated powerfully. 

So you read my update and reminded me that you had an elephant essay in your book too. I'd just read the advance copy you had sent me, and it's badass, both the essay and the book, and surely it was ringing around somewhere in my brain. Maybe if I hadn't read it when I remembered Circus World I wouldn't have thought about the library and wouldn't have found my way there. I don't know. It's hard to figure how what we read and think about screens out or in aspects of what we see or think about. So let's talk elephants. 

But I'd also like to talk about the project and how it filters things into or out of it. Your book is a project too, moreso than any of your other prose books I think (and I'm curious about this, if I'm correct, if this is more of a conscious (thematic) collection, than your other collections). How early did the idea for the book come about? How did the process of having that center of gravity change what ended up fitting into the collection? 

I'm reminded too of how elephants--and the circus--formed for a lot of us a first sense of a world beyond the one we knew as kids. I suppose it's different in the age of omnipresent streaming video and all, but for generations, the circus coming to town meant an opening, and exposed a lot of people to wonderful (and perhaps also terrible) things, a portable wildness (well, a wildness of sorts). How else was the American child to see an elephant, aside from books, which aren't much of a substitute for the actual animal? Well, there's zoos, another kind of groomed wildness. I'm interested in what seems like the inevitability of human cruelty to elephants, or elephants in captivity. But what's more impressive to me is the way that the elephants in your book (and this is representative of the way you think about animals in general) are often treated not as subjects but as characters. I'm thinking here of the two we meet in the zoo in Little Rock in particular. I mean, the essay takes the encounter with these two further, thinking about our ability to sense and connect with each other emotionally, but the actual encounter with these two elephants, how one "snuffed at my sneaker with its nostrils, the two pink hollows at the tip of the trunk opening into the warm, wet mystery of the beast's interior": that's the thing that for me remains most vivid when the essay's gone. 

How important is the idea of encounter to the essay or the book? Is that a filter you used to think about the book, as a series of encounters?


Alison Hawthorne Deming: Thanks, Ander. I’m really taken by that archival material you found in Baraboo. What’s not to love about the inky letters of the typewriter, the slightly peeling manuscript label, the at once modest and grandiose appellation of “Sabu, Elephant Historian. ” This quality of the handmade intensifies for me the man’s identification with elephants. And I’m kin to him in wanting the stories of animal lives to be, as you suggest, stories of characters not natural histories of subjects. That’s something I learned from Gary Paul Nabhan at a workshop held up at Camp Tontozona on the Mogollon Rim in the early 90s, where the ASU football team trains. Talk about juxtapositions. The workshop was called “Writing the Lives of Plants and Animals” and I believe it was in those conversations among writers and scientists that I first became stoked to think of each animal as an individual, with its quirks and urgencies. We think that way about people. But “deer” means all deer. And “elephant” means all elephants. What about this particular elephant with scars on its ankle from being chained in its crate when not performing? Just flipping that little mental switch ups the ante in considering the lives of the beasts. 

The elephants, yes, they suffer in the wild now, as they do in captivity. Ivory hunting is savage—tusks chain-sawed off their faces of the matriarchs, while the young become traumatized and lost to themselves and their kind without the guidance of their mothers. I only made a dip into this miserable pool of sorrow in the book. Elephants do fascinate us. Why? They are huge. They look like they are made of cement. Their bodies don’t make much sense to us with that absurd trunk hanging off their heads. And yet they form interesting relationships with people as laborers and performers, their strength and grace and cooperativeness on display. Well, the science now tells us their brains have structures like ours good for memory and emotion. So they must have inner lives. 

So, yeah, you speak of libraries as a medium of communication. And I’ve been working on reading animals as another kind of library. This book took ten years to write. I had no trouble finding animal stories. Encounter was important, though experience was more the operative word for me. I thought I’d put myself to the test of using experience as a laboratory—no matter how many other disciplines I dug into. I wanted to put into practice the idea that many ways of knowing are needed to read the animal world—science, history, mythology, religion, art....And, in the tradition of essayists, I would not trust my research unless it had been tested out in some way in my personal experience. 

The shape of the book was harder. I had lots of terrible ideas—you know, trying to force the collection into something other than what it wanted to be. Trying to avoid the sense that it was “just a miscellany”—the dreaded phrase that editors use when considering if you have market value. I always work from the poet’s head. Associational. And in this book I was wanting to test out the potentials of the short essay. The first ten or so essays I wrote, I told myself I’m going to do something different formally with each essay. A memory narrative. A collage. A meditation. A travel narrative. As soon as that began to feel mechanical I gave it up and just followed my nose. My editor at Milkweed Patrick Thomas was tremendously helpful in shaping the book. The central idea had become, What is the place of animals in the human imagination at this time of diminishment? And we talked about an arc moving through time from the abundance to the scarcity of animals. So there is a loose chronology to the book. My other nonfiction books were under contract pretty early in their development, so I had a central idea that drove them. In retrospect, I felt it also constrained them. This time I wanted to write it without those expectations and not look for a contract until I was done. It was slow but it ended up being the book that I think is most true to my intuition of what it might become. Yes, the project played out as project because I had a less defined sense of the project and a deeper intuition of it. 

Again, on the elephants. I recently watched the movie Water for Elephants. A visual feast, yes, of elephantine performance. But what interested me was how the elephant was used to embody and compensate for the failures of human will and emotion. A man is compelled to kill his adversary. Is this a good motive or a bad motive? You don’t have to deal with that question, if you can ask the elephant to commit the murder for you. Man and elephant can walk off screen as heroes. It gave me the creeps that the elephant became a hero for being a murderer. Welcome to the human race. 


Ander: What I love about Zoologies is in part related to its shortness and its bestiary nature. Yes, there's a way in which it reads animals as a kind of library, which is an appealing line of thinking for me given my own library interests. I very much like the idea of the book as a kind of reference, a compendium of all your collected thinking about animals. Well, not all of it, but a lot of it. That quality of collection is in part what I respond to in the project. It feels definitive and centered, even as it wanders pretty far afield. 

The other aspect that I respond to strongly is the shortness. As you know, I've had that idea of shortness on the brain for some time. I'm not sure exactly why. In part it's because until this new book of mine my essays had been getting generally longer and longer. That's not inherently bad, but it was a little weird. So with the new book I wanted to work within a constraint: I needed to keep them short enough to print or write out easily and put them back into books, which meant about enough words for a 6x9 card, front and back, in a readable font. So I settled on 750 words maximum, which is pretty short, a lot shorter than most of yours. I don't actually recommend that much shortness. It's really difficult to get a sense of movement and discovery in a prose piece that short. 

But what’s weird to me is that there’s a lot of shortness happening now. So I have this book of shorts about to drop, and you have this book of shorts just out, and our colleague Aurelie Sheehan has her book of short "histories," as she calls them, Jewelry Box, that came out last year. She's teaching a seminar this semester on collections of short things that I'm visiting next week. And Chris Cokinos just dropped his Bodies, of the Holocene. That’s a lot of short in the last year just among people I know and work with. I've been reading a lot of other shorts too, Lucy Corin's 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, which came out last year. The newest Peter Orner. Sean Lovelace’s newest chapbook. That new Stuart Dybek. . . 

So in part I'm wondering: why this convergence of shortness? I think of Aurelie more as a longformer on account of her novels, and I think of the labors of your long poems, and you're normally an essayist who's happy to go long, but here we are in the same couple years, all working on small canvases. It's probably not irrelevant that each of us were trained as poets (I don't know if Aurelie forefronts that about herself but I've always loved that about her & suspect it's in part what makes her such a sharp prose writer). Or does the Internet--a massive, nearly-infinite canvas that turns out to be a space suited, more often than not, for shorter thinking and writing--factor into it?

Or, did you start writing these shorter essays as a break from something else, maybe the rigor of the long poem in Rope? What is the potential of the short essay to you? Do you feel like any of those included in Zoologies hit it best, or fail in that regard?


AHD: Thanks so much. Yes, I think the library analogy works. A compendium of my experience and thinking--but drawn together in the manner of my habits (and yours too) of enjoying a good library browse, meandering down the lanes of books with an easy purposefulness and seeing what leaps out and announces itself. 

Formally, I was excited about the short essay. I don't know how you managed to get essays down to 750 words. I need digression in an essay in order to find my way. We do seem to have a communal case of shortness fever here with you, me, Sheehan, Cokinos. In part, this could have something to do with our appreciation that readers have short attention spans and e-surfing minds. Are there forms better at tapping into that kind of energy without sacrificing complexity and depth? Maybe that's at hand. Essays that influenced me early on with the Zoologies project: Roland Barthes' Mythologies--just brilliant and brief riffs on the quotidian, a book less ponderous than much of his later stuff but for me at least as profound. John Berger's Photocopies and so many of his other nonfiction works. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. I was also interested in Robert Olen Butler's rather perverse little project Severance. Consciousness persists, he learned, for 1 1/2 minutes after a person is beheaded. He figured 240 words would be about what you could come up with, so he wrote 60+ stories at that length in the voice of beheaded heads. It was all a good romp, but now feels a little horrible considering the spectacle of ISIS beheadings. Nonetheless, the idea of such a formal constraint in prose appealed to the poet in me. 

Yes, maybe the Internet teaches us to take fleeting attentions seriously, to refuse the discourse of ridicule and info overload that this medium puts out and instead mine it for associational riches. I think a lot about and admire how your work makes the informational overburden of our time artful in essays. In terms of how this book sits in the stream of my other books--certainly working on "The Flight," the long poem in Rope, made me want the relief of going short. But I was also working in resistance to an earlier book The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence, in which I shaped a book-length sequence around reflections and associations kicked up by one species, the monarch butterfly. That led me into research into the evolution of intelligence, sci fi, the problems of particular obsessions, I guess. But what about the rest of the animals. Surely I had something to say about them? We are living through a very profound time in the long human story as the animals leave the world. How is this possible? I wanted to look at the various ways animals have come to have meaning for people--through mythology, religion, science, sustenance, encounter...and to ask what they might mean now. And the short form saved me from the danger of trying to become an expert on any of this. An experiencer, yes. 

The essays that I think hit it best? "Dog Tags. " "Bobcat. " "Hood River Oyster. " "The Rabbit on Mars. " "Ant Art. " I really like the feel of these formally. Quite a few of the other essays as works-in-progress failed as short essays. Too thin. So I expanded them or complicated them with research or combined them into segmented essays like "Field Notes on Culture, Biology and Emergence. " 


AM: Who doesn't love the library browse? Only chumps! I love how that can work with generating a book. Or maybe it's more useful once you have an intuition of the book's center of gravity: then browsing allows you to discover its corners and fill it out. After all, just flat-out browsing with no sense of destination at all is one thing, but going into a library looking for a particular thing, but being open to what's on the periphery and wandering into the aisle with that and seeing what else catches your eye is another. 

While visiting Washington College in Maryland a couple weeks ago I happened on an essay of John Barth's, "Browsing" (from his second Fridays collection), written for the occasion of the university library's acquisition of their 200,000th book. It found my brain to be very fertile ground. It had been composed twenty years before. Reading it, I was reminded (again, this continual humbling that I also must be open to, since it happens so often to me as to become practice, having some cool smart idea and seeing oh shit, Tristram Shandy did that, etc. ) that so many of the ideas I have about libraries are shared. I wonder if that so easily shareable subject matter, maybe like yours with animals, makes the experience of writing the book more social and more networked? Does the book's publication just give you even more opportunities to talk to other people about their animal experiences and knowledge? Are you still moved to write more Zoologies?

And yeah, the downside of 750 is that there's really very little room for digression, which I also feel is pretty much essential to the essay. So in order to keep it to 750, I had to figure out other ways of writing essays, in particular embracing the lyric, and mostly giving up on narrative. A lot (though not all) of the essays in the new book actually found their first voice as lineated poems, and I allowed succeeding drafts to break away from that form and get looser as they went. So they kept a lot of the logic of my poems (in ways that my essays hadn't done before), and stayed relatively short, since even in revision their itineraries didn't change a lot (though they did start to bulge a bit in the middle with half-eaten asides that I had to figure out how to deal with). 

I'm struck, actually, rereading the shortest essays in your book by how narrative they all remain. I mean, there's plenty of room for the digressions and so forth, but a lot of them still are running primarily on story, which seems smart, especially since animal encounters and animal experiences seem so embedded in story (that's how most of us think about animals, I expect, in terms of anecdote: I think here even of cat and other animal videos which are so popular online). "Rabbit on Mars" is a notable counterexample. And it's by my count only around 850 words. Its I is pretty much implicit, though there are a few moments when we're made aware of its shaping presence. There's no autobiography, no situation to speak of, no scene unfolding. It unfolds simply by thinking and questioning. It strikes me that an essay like this must be more difficult to feel like you've finished it than, say, "Hood River Oysters," which is enfolded by an anecdote. In that essay you can just finish off the story and there's the powerful sense of accomplishment that narrative gives us. But in "Rabbit," how did you feel like you had gone far enough--or deep enough? That is, what was your criteria for feeling like it was done?


AHD: Center of gravity is an issue, isn't it. You have to get the conception or at least the intuition of a project somewhat clear in order for the browsing to be purposeful. But once you are there that center is like the little pencil on an Etch-A-Sketch and it keeps drawing particles into the thing at hand. 

I know what you mean about seeing our new ideas come up out of the old fossil beds. I'm teaching Stegner's memoir Wolf Willow this spring. It's a gorgeous book of narrative nonfiction. But in the center it breaks open into a novella. It's as if the burden of memory is just too great to sustain the scope of the project. So it has to imagine its way out of that bind. A hybrid published in 1962. And of course there is Ondaatje's Running in the Family, a memoir-poetry hybrid that came out in 1982. A beautifully minimalistic project. Make it new--thanks, Ezra. We're trying. But this is a bit off track of your question which had to do with work that is more social or networked. I am so interested to see what happens when I give readings from Zoologies. People really want to talk. They have animal stories. They have animals--one woman in Oregon wanted me to come meet the twelve turtles she lived with. A scientist working on turtle cognition! But by and large what I hear is sadness and grief. And a great hunger to find hope. So many people don't know where to look for hope. As if it were something you find in marketplace. I say you make a moral decision to he hopeful, otherwise you can't get out of bed in the morning. I could keep writing zoologies forever. Here in Florida where I'm working for a few weeks at the Hermitage Artist Retreat there is a great blue heron who is totally habituated to humans. He hangs out outside our doors. Walks with me from my writing cottage to the main house. Hangs out on the beach side by side with fishermen. I keep thinking he must be lonely for his own kind. But he seems very connected to and contented with us. People call him Ernest—a nod toward Hemingway. I might have to write something for him. Another woman at a reading lives next door to a wildlife refuge in South Africa and asked me to come spend some time there to see the amazing animals. But you know how we are. As writers we need the next new thing. And so here I am working by the Gulf of Mexico with a heron on my porch railing and I'm writing a sequence of poems about Death Valley and researching about Napolean III and his wife Empress Eugenie. Go figure. 

Funny you should mention that bit about narrative in the essays I picked out for you. I saw that too. And I was happy to remember that "The Rabbit" had a different mechanism of organization. It was in the first group of 8 - 10 pieces I wrote. At the time, I thought I'd try to make each essay in the project have a different formal strategy. So how could I make "an essay of ideas" at that length, I wondered? It was actually very easy to write Rabbit as I felt the sweep of its argument from the start. There's a four-year backstory to the essay of the "Astrobiology & the Sacred" project we did at UA a while back. But did anyone really need to know that in order to get the joke? I wanted a light essay that touched down into how profound it is to consider the possibility of life on other planets. When's it done? You just hear the click. In this case, a kind of scale shift (to use Cokinos' phrase) from this one internet joke to "the childhood of humanity. " 

Impossible to hold on to that strategy of a different form for each essay as the project grew. But I did feel that animals tend to generate stories, so I wanted to both honor that and resist it. Or at least to position the animal differently within essays. So "Dogtags" was also one of the early essays. I said, write one in which the animal is not the focus but in which the animal nonetheless reframes the experience. So I think, since I started as a poet, I often have this meta-conversation about form going on, giving myself assignments to occupy the empirical mind. 


AM: How funny is it that with all of this magnificent brain with which we’re gifted, in order to get more of it to fire for our essaying, we need to limit or blinder it a bit—that by entertaining the obtrusive part of consciousness we allow the less assertive parts to find their way onto the page? 


AHD: Yes, I think the empirical mind is a control freak in residence that we all have in our heads. Necessary of course for its shaping intelligence and analytic chops. But there are stages in the artistic process when you need to give it some busy work to keep it out of the way of intuition and free-range feeding. My piano teacher, when I was beginning to learn jazz improvisation, told me that Stravinsky said, “If you give form, you give me freedom.” I love that.


AM: I think that meta-conversation can be an important part of the discovery in an essay, that seeing what I know by writing my way around what I thought I knew. Other times—as it often did for me in reading Zoologies—that discovery comes out of the research. I found it astounding, for instance, while reading more about elephants as I was working on my book then reading yours, that until recently we were simply not aware that a large portion of elephant communication occurs at frequencies too low for us to hear (which as you point out is why they can communicate over long distances, low frequencies meaning long wavelengths meaning they carry much farther). I mean it’s astounding in the fact of it (all those different varieties of elephant calls: I lost an afternoon listening to samples online). But it’s maybe more astounding that it evidently never occurred to us—even many or most elephant researchers—that there was something big happening beyond our perception—beyond our capacity to even hear or measure it. Until someone thought to try. How easy it is to believe that what we can see or hear is all that is.

That is, until you really start to look and watch and lose yourself (to the extent that it is possible to do such a thing). That’s in part what’s remarkable about your book: how deeply you see. And by seeing deeply and looking long, as Nicole Walker mentioned in her essay riffing in part on Zoologies in this last year's Advent Calendar, the self and its relationship with the world—and with the family, your brother, etc.—starts to come back into focus in a way that is the exact opposite of solipsism. By long looking the self is revealed.

I just finished reading John Dermot Woods’ novel The Baltimore Atrocities, and in it there’s this great riff titled (and set) “At the Dead Animal Lending Library.” Reading that, I thought, huh, I never heard of that: I wonder if it’s real. I dearly wanted it to be. I was so curious that I googled it. Predictably there are no results (aside from a Google Books search of the novel). A little disappointing, but what I found was that there are a few (Live) Animal Lending Libraries, in which you can check out an animal (with equipment and care instructions and so forth) for a week. They only lend guinea pigs, rats, mice, and hamsters so you can (well, one imagines this is aimed mostly at kids) experience what it’s like to care for an animal without necessarily committing to it for its lifetime. The idea is appealing at first (why not lend animals and allow others to experience animals in some small, controlled way?) but gets disturbing pretty fast (to circulate an animal is not the same as to circulate a paperback: the fact that they only lend small (perhaps they consider them disposable?) animals instead of, say, dogs, means that maybe they understand that this idea isn’t scalable—or maybe defensible at all when you really start to think about it). I confess I’m not entirely of one mind on the subject. 

Where it brought me, though, was how it highlighted how powerful the human need is to encounter and experience animals. Housed as many of us are in our neighborhoods and suburbs, often it seems like the most obvious options are the controlled ones: zoos, menageries, the compellingly-named Minibeast Zooseum in Michigan that I always wanted to go to but never did (yet), circuses, safaris... Then there are the more direct and sustained encounters: caring for them as pets, hunting in one guise or another, or (by far the best option, one imagines) via our own experiences in the wild, whenever and however we can get them. It was hard not to think about Zoologies as offering us another option, like a bestiary, but way better: through it we experience you experiencing animals, and by so doing we get to see things your way for a little while, and that is no small pleasure.


AHD: Yes, I wanted to test out the idea that animal encounters can be found in any day anywhere if you look for them. You don’t have to go on safari or to a zoo. There’s an animal story at the dinner table. In a bar in LA, an anthill in the backyard, in the structure of the human brain and the microbial hullabaloo of the gut. Ultimately the limits of our biology, the particular sensory apparatus we have, determine what we can see. We can’t see the visual field that a bee sees. We can’t hear what an elephant says. We can’t smell what a dog smells. And even if we could put all of the sensory mechanisms on the planet together into one beautiful cyborg, there would be dark matter and whose knows what else that lie eternally beyond us. So we are small and constrained by nature, despite our brilliance and bluster and footprint.  But essays—we love them because they have the feel of testing the edges or at least showing our hunger to get past the edge.

For both of us research is a touchstone. In the essay ”Dogtags” I had a story to tell about a guy and his dogtags. That made me wonder why do we call them “dogtags” and for how long have we done? Hello, Google. Looking for a fact, I found a context in “the dogtag project” which framed my anecdote within the context of so many American families who were scarred by the Vietnam war. Totally unanticipated and yet necessary for the essay. The emotional residues of that era are not mine alone but a cultural possession.

Speaking of research, I just visited the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida near where I was in residence for a month at the Hermitage Artist Retreat. It’s an amazing place with the world’s largest miniature circus—really a whole city of tiny circus replicas. Brilliant. And then there are the old posters for circuses, one advertising Jumbo, the world’s largest elephant. Which makes me want tocircle back to where we began. . . with the sadness of elephants.  Jumbo (“The Largest Living Beast, The Children’s Mute Friend”) was not only the circus’ big draw in 1882. Barnum bought him from the London Zoological Society from $10,000. According to a NY Times article of the era, the London Zoo was willing to sell the gargantuan treasure because “they feared that he would become possessed by the peculiar insanity to which elephants at certain stages of life are subject.”  He was so famous that he was used in advertisements for metal polish, sewing machines and thread (an image of Jumbo being dragged against his will down a London street (Banner reads “America Ahead!”) harnessed to a team of horses and elephants with rigging made fron spools of sewing thread.  “Jumbo must go, because drawn by Willimantic thread!” He lived for only three years in his U.S. employment.  After an evening performance in Ontario in 1885, he was being led back to the circus train with other elephants when an unscheduled freight train appeared. Jumbo was run down, so Barnum claimed, as he tried to save a young elephant from the speeding train.  
By 1886 both his skeleton and hide were exhibited with the traveling circus, later finding a home at the American Museum of Natural History where it was exhibited in 1993 for the 200th anniversary of the founding of the American circus: “Jumbomania Returns to New York City.”

What was the point I was trying to make here? Research. The sadness of elephants. The sadness of the American circus. The hunger to be in the possession of words as a place of refuge. 


Monday, January 19, 2015

T Clutch Fleischmann and Jackie Wang on queer essays

Below is the next entry in an ongoing series on queerness and essays, an interview with the prison abolitionist Jackie Wang. More of her work can be read on her blog, and she is currently working on a book for Semiotext(e).

So we were at a reading at the Poetry Project a couple of nights ago and afterward you turned to me and said "you know, i really just think Eileen Myles shines in the essay form." which I totally agree with, I like her best as an essayist, but she's certainly considered more widely as a poet. When you said that it reminded me of the fact that we met through poetry-- we really became close when we organized a queer poetics gathering (Mad Cap) together. But I don't really think of myself as a poet, and a lot of your work is as closely aligned with the essayistic as with poetry. Anyway, what I'm wondering first is if you think of yourself as a writer of any particular genre, as someone that moves through genres?

Clutch, thank you for giving me this opportunity to think about form, and my relationship to it, which I don’t do very much. Or maybe everything I do is about form and, in some sense, is a meta-commentary or meditation on my relationship to form. I don’t know. I usually rely on other people to see the “structure” in what I’m doing. To label it. To put it in relation to a school. To see the genre in it. I have always been promiscuous when it comes to genres and disciplines because I rely on my intuition to guide me during the moment of writing. Whatever protocols I’m adhering to while writing are unbeknownst to me though I don’t doubt they are operating on me on an unconscious level. With academic writing it’s a little clearer to me—especially as I try to transition into becoming a “historian.” When I sit down to write a paper I have a much clearer sense of what I’m doing. With creative writing the structure or genre either emerges in the process of writing, or is specific to the occasion for writing itself.

Did we meet through poetry? I believe we met first through “the essay,” then re-encountered and developed a relationship around poetry. We met when you solicited me for an essay for the literary journal Diagram. I wrote you a poetic essay on the relationship between writing and silence, and poetry-as-incantation.

Maybe our relationship to poetry is similar. Before I wrote poetry and fiction I wrote essays. Later I was christened a poet by other poets and I just kind of rolled with it. Poets are very enthusiastic about identifying as poets (they’ve kinda got an in-group, cliquey mentality about it), and maybe are also eager to fold others into the tribe. Why are poets so into parading their poet identity? I think it has something to do with the fact that most people don’t give a shit about poetry, so we gotta self-valorize. I used to have this ongoing joke about the “ontology of the poet.” When poets were super self-aggrandizing about The Poet and her being and role in society, I thought it was silly. I still do, but now I embrace the grandiosity…strategically? Hmmm. Do I believe that we poets are a special breed of visionary creatures endowed with linguistic and sensory superpowers? Are poets, as Shelley says, the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Maybe at one time I believed that such statements were elitist. I was mad when Genet insisted on labeling George Jackson a poet first and revolutionary second…because I have so much more respect for revolutionaries. Now I see that the occupation of the poet and the revolutionary are closer than I initially thought—they both require a visionary mode of being and working.

Actually, I made a youtube vlog post right when I officially “came out” as a poet! Apparently the “transition” took place in fall 2011.

Similarly, do you think of yourself as a queer writer ever? Is that a term you would resist, or one that you find useful at times?

I suppose I do identify as a queer writer, though thinking about your question, I noticed that “queer” has been dropped from my bio more and more lately. Hmmm I didn’t think about it until just now so I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe “queer” has lost it’s subversive edge for me? Maybe that is a direct result of capacious uses of the term “queer” in literary circles, where queer signals aesthetics affinities rather than an embodied experience, resistance to a heteronormative way of life, or expression of affinity with certain subcultures and models of relationality. Perversion is probably more important to me than “orientation.” I’m certainly not a purist when it comes to identity but I do want “queer” to retain its freakish and non-normative edge, and for people to back their aesthetic commitments by embodying that commitment in how they lives their lives. Normal people who write weird shit disappoint me hahahaha.

At the same time “queer” has slipped out of my bio, other labels have made their way in. In literary contexts I find myself identifying more and more as a “prison abolitionist.” Some people find it unusual for writers to be so upfront about their political commitments in their writing bios, but it’s important for me to foreground my commitment to abolition, especially in literary contexts! Loma (Christopher Soto) told me that they have started to identify as a prison abolitionist in their writing bio as well.

To answer your question—I do identify as a queer writer. It’s easy for me, as woman-identified person who doesn’t have a romantic relationships with cismen and as someone interested in formal adulteration and hybridity.

When I talked to Douglas A. Martin he said he doesn't feel like he owns his interpretation. This really appealed to me because I feel like a lot of people do want to own their interpretation, like it's really vital to a lot of people to have some ownership over that, especially in terms of queerness or gender or whatever, but he was kind of just chill about it, which seemed to sidestep a lot of narrowness to make room for more openness and more questions. How do you relate to your interpretation?

I can’t own my interpretation, and that is a thrilling thing. I cannot control how my words circulate in the world and how they live in people. My words are like a baby I place in a skiff and send down the river. My words are out in the world to have adventures of her own, and I try not to be like an overbearing mama when it comes to controlling what my words do. I might check in every now and then because I am curious about where my words have been and what they have seen, but if I wanted to be all proprietary about interpretation I would have kept my words to myself, shoved them up my vagina instead of setting them free.

After I published some poems on Fanzine I had a funny talk with Dana Ward about his interpretation of one of my poems. In some of my writings I have used “Kant” as a pseudonym for a professor I was platonically obsessed with. In the poem Dana read I am at a party to celebrate the publication of a leftist journal titled Deathnotes and am surrounded by factious Marxists who are fighting about the nuances of value theory or something. Kant shows up to the party and saves me from the horrid scene. When I told Dana that “Kant” was a pseudonym for The Professor he was like “Aww, but it was so funny to imagine the philosopher sauntering into the party.” I like to imagine Dana imagining me chatting with Kant-the-philosopher about sea turtles against the backdrop of a petty feud between academic Marxists. So his reading of the poem was thrilling and in no way “wrong.”

That said, I also do hope that people engage my work thoughtfully and at least try to develop a sense of what I’m about. I have, at times, felt maybe a little “used” in terms of how people position me and my work. Like sometimes I find people aligning my work with projects that I feel no affinities with, and using my name to validate their projects or their literary camps. While I don’t feel proprietary about how people interpret my work, I also don’t want to be used as social capital by people who need a little brown queer sidekick to look legit.

You spent the night at my place last night and then today all we've been doing is reading the Argonauts and talking about it and reading Citizen and talking about it. Well I've been sleeping all afternoon but you've been reading. You talked about how Maggie Nelson's life feels very informed by what she's reading, like the life and the reading feel one in the same. Is that an experience you have, too? Who are the writers you carry around with you?

One of the reasons I was so set on becoming your friend when I met you was because I got a very good feeling about you based on your books. Maybe that’s a somewhat juvenile way to relate to people (through literary “taste”), but you seemed to like many of the books I liked—I knew I had a lot to learn about from you too. We could probably write a history of our friendship using the books we encountered through each other. I hope it’s not terribly boring that I spend so much time reading when I’m around you! It seems as though every time I see you I always borrow a little stack of things to read. Did I borrow Jenny Boully’s The Body the first time I met you? You had two editions! After we parted I read more of her books. Before you moved out of IDA I remember how at the music festival Matthew and I commandeered your house while it was empty. I wanted to stay in your bed forever and read. When you and others came back to the house to “pre-game” I was still in your bed reading. Everyone was in the mood to party while I was in raptures reading Franny and Zooey, a book I have not read since high school. In that moment the book seemed genius to me but maybe I was intoxicated. I was shocked by how little of it I remembered. Did I falsely remember a scene where Franny cried and rubbed a tear into the table? Eric, on the other hand, remembered a great deal. Perhaps his memory could even be called Proustian—ha! My episodic memory is not very good so most novels that I read quickly just kind of wash over me—rereading them is basically like encountering them for the first time.

Though I did not want to pry myself from the book, everyone convinced me to go check out the party. People teased me about being a nerd and you told Israel they would be into Dennis Cooper. Matthew agreed. We joked about how our Mad Cap email password was about about Cooper’s love for emo boys. While you were trying on cute clothes for the party (Eric was being playfully bossy and you were lovin’ it), you gave me a rabbit fur coat to try on and someone took a picture of me in it to show me how good it looked on me. I wore it to the party with zebra print flip flops. At one point during to the party I found myself near the snack table (typical!) and accidentally leaned into a little puddle of melted butter. I felt sad about getting butter on the new fur coat you gave me. When I went back to your house to get my backpack an exciting orgy was taking place, so I watched from the sidelines with a couple other people. “Person” came and I convinced them to climb over the pile of writhing bodies and retrieve my backpack. This story seems to no longer be about books.

But if books can bring us back to the body, that is a good thing.

Yes, reading is life, and life is reading. I don’t claim to be a good reader. I’m slow and unsystematic and don’t take as much time as I should to *fully* absorb a text after I read it (as in, I move on to the next book too quickly). But reading is such a huge part of my life. Books and libraries are the only things to have remained consistent for me throughout my adult life. Mommy may or may not love me (depending on the day), I may or may not have a home, life and all my relationships may be in flux, but so long as there is a library nearby I can restore myself. When there is no ground, the written word becomes my ground. When I am without a home, or am doing the vagrant thing, the library is my sanctuary. It was nice getting to hole up with you in New York that week, to ignore my phone and read the wonderful books you had around while you restored yourself through sleep. I totally needed that because I was going through library withdrawal and was starting to feel socially overwhelmed in NYC.

Lately the main writers I’ve been carrying with me are Saidiya Hartman, Jennifer Tamayo, Bhanu Kapil and Fred Moten. Jennifer makes me want to be fierce and unapologetic and to really own all the fucked up parts of myself. Saidiya makes me feel less bad about dwelling in the space of trauma and maintaining a political fidelity to wounds. Bhanu and Fred both give an exhilarating feeling that anything is possible, and a sense of what the body (flesh) can do under pressure. The “pressure” is always terrible, violent even, but the effects of the violences they explore are paradoxical.

Was the Serena Williams your favorite part of Citizen? It was mine and I think it was yours, and I've heard quite a few people talk about it. And it's also maybe the most essayistic bit in a book that a lot of people read as poetry. That seems queer to me, to come to essay within a poem.

Like I told you, the Serena Williams section of Citizen, more than any other part of the book, gave me the feeling that I was going insane. Without coming out and stating her analysis, I think Rankine is trying to “give” readers an experience—to psychically induce in them the unsettling feeling that, as in the case of Serena Williams, the rules do not apply to you. As we discussed on the train—black Americans (and, to varying degrees, non-black people of color) inhabit this experience all the time. So maybe it is true that Citizen is written primarily for a white audience, though the people on my twitter feed who have received the book most enthusiastically have mostly not been white.

Regardless of who the “intended” audience is, I think Rankine is trying to make a paradoxical experience legible: that of psychic erasure and being brutally called into presence through address. Our innate addressability makes us vulnerable, but the violence of the address varies according to how others experience our bodies. This is a dimension of anti-black racism that is explored much less than the material, economic, political aspects of racism.

But back to your question. In the Serena Williams section Rankine is able to induce the feeling of going insane in a more total way through sustained repetition (of sleights against Williams made by referees). In a way the genteel atmosphere that is cultivated around tennis makes it the perfect setting to explore racism. You really get a sense of how white people manipulate reality by selectively applying “the rules,” and how maddening and disempowering it feels to have your reality systematically negated and to not be able to do anything about the arbitrary application of the rules because those who control the game and have institutional power are white.

Overall, what Rankine is illuminating in her book is the psychic dimension of racism, and she does this by creating a text that is essentially a litany of anti-black micro-aggressions. The book works by accrual, but the Williams section works a little differently, through suspense and the gradual unfolding of a story: narrative? The logic of the book unfurls and reaches its fullest realization during this section. The appearance of “the essay” amidst the poetic vignettes disrupts the tempo of the book. I think its appearance enhances both the poetic and essayistic parts of the book by playing with our formal expectations. It’s kind of like this mostly-silent film I made a while ago—the film is completely silent until the end, but because the viewer gets so accustom to silence, the appearance of audio is that much more jarring. Rankine is more subtle than that, but when she switches modes it does force the reader to pay attention. The manipulation of tempo in writing is all about guiding the reader’s attention, and alternating between essay and poetry is one way of fucking with the tempo of a book. Of course in Citizen it’s not just these two modes she’s playing with—the book is working on *so many* registers, including film, performance, criticism, media studies, and visual art.

And then related to that earlier question, do you connect yourself with any traditions? If you were going to make a (maybe queer) lineage that leads to the work you're doing now, who would be in it?

Oh god I’m not much of a literary school-maker. Remember when we joked about doing a workshop called the New Queer Sincerity that was about writing, creepiness, projection, and queer sentimentality? Maybe that’s kinda in the New Narrative lineage of Robert Gluck and Bruce Boone or something. I dunno. I’m not a gay man. I was just solicited for the new Gurlesque anthology and it never occurred to me that I might be read as a gurlesque poet, especially since I feel like my relationship to felinity I mean femininity (autocorrect) is quite a bit different than how it’s been previously articulated in the poetics of the gurlesque. My lineage? I’m not sure. I feel a certain affinity with aliens and Asian lost girls. Feng Chen, Joohyun Kim, Vicky Lim, Oki Sogumi, Coda Wei and Christine Hou definitely feel like literary kindred spirits. And of course, I am so on board with Bhanu Kapil’s de-compositional method, which is maybe related toDeleuze’s description of Beckett’s “exhausted” mode of writing. My School? The School of the Exhausted. Hm…

What do you think an essay is?

Here I will just say, dream wildly.