Monday, October 24, 2016

Story Blindness

 These ghosts. Our smoky ropes of attachment. And our reeling them in.”
--Albert Goldbarth

1. Hewnoaks Artist Colony, Lovell, Maine

There’s electricity running through my body. My mind races as I hear the sad call of a loon far off on Kezar Lake. Frogs croak up close to the window I’ve left open to let in the cool lake breeze. Up above in the rafters of my cabin, something shuffles. I’m told squirrels seek refuge in attics. They also glide from tree to tree. I’ve yet to see one do so since I arrived in the middle of a pine forest in rural Maine.

            Whatever is up there goes about its business cracking then dragging what I imagine are branches or pinecones across the ceiling. Making a nest, no less. This cabin I’m staying in is a hundred years old. Who knows how long my attic-mate has squatted here or how many other creatures call this place home.

            My mind becomes fixated on building a narrative for whatever lives with me, but I should channel my preoccupation towards writing about my family. What I’m here for, to write about my mother and her mother, how their lives dictated everything before I was ever born. My attention shifts to that and I’m paralyzed with dread. I glance out the window that clouds over with fog.


Fog hangs over the entire forest, glowing in the early morning light, making the tall pine trees assume an eerie dominance. It draws me out of my cabin. Fuck, it’s cold—fall is, in Maine. I’m used to Texas fall, which is merely less scorching by a few degrees than summer right up to Halloween. But I endure, taking a snapshot with my phone.

I marvel at the impenetrability of fog. The way it casts a pall over the South Texas roads most mornings, suspending everything in its air.

(Are we moving forward or backwards when we can’t see in front of us? Are we frightened when we don’t know what’s ahead?)

For me, writing about my childhood experiences in memoir feels like moving through fog. I’m often frustrated at my inability to capture moments the way they happened. Uncertainty gets in the way of clarity. I’ve written about my struggles to pin down narrative out of experience, but what happens when looking at the past rekindles a sense of defeatism that threatens to efface my life?

Fog somehow infiltrates my memoir. I open with a scene: I stand alone in a dark parking lot. It’s the middle of the night and a balmy mist sets around me. I look up at a street lamp and puff breath clouds with my mouth. I’m seven years old in this instance; unnerved by the ideas my mother has put in my head. Be weary of the darkness, of the unknown. Strange things lurk there. Nothing good ever comes from straying so far. The Mexican pessimism rises like brume, so thick it obscures and restricts reality. I fight it with my own imagination.

It penetrates another moment. In this one, my father is lost in the middle of nowhere Mississippi. We park at a gas station right in front of a phone booth that’s submerged in heavy mist. It’s 1985. We’re stranded hundreds of miles from anyone who looks like us or speaks our language. 

That very scene elicits an emotion that absorbs me in the same way as that snapshot above. Take those lonely chairs and imagine a phone booth, a thicket behind dense mist. Keep looking. Look past the phone booth until you can make out the detail in the trees. Look beyond the trees until you’re inside it—suspended and terrified of the unfamiliar, the anomalous, the uncharted.

Nothing good ever comes from running away so far just to understand your problems.

2. Kezar Lake Trail

My mind hasn’t come to terms with where I am. I look down a dirt path that leads towards the lake. At any moment, I imagine that at the end of this dirt road is a wall, Truman Show-like. Perhaps, I bump into a prop, watch it topple down before me, revealing… I don’t truly know.

I’m reminded of the childhood places I lived in as a migrant farm worker. The tiny one-room efficiency infested with bugs, the brick shack with terrible plumbing, the large barracks devoid of walls—all were in a state of decrepitude and a far cry from the house my father bought and sadly couldn’t afford in Brownsville.

As a child that disparity hardly escaped me and in fact, the constant shock of moving in and out of these spaces kept me at a heightened awareness of my surroundings, made me notice the stark contrast of substandard living against gorgeous backdrops of the northern Michigan forests or Central Florida’s tropical beaches. That outside world, to me, became a fake. The reality was an endless stress.

Twenty-five years separate me from that old life, those feelings long receded. My isolation in Maine brings them back. I try thinking of something else and I arrive at the words that haunt my family narrative—andas por la calle de la amargura.

My grandfather said this once to my father, right before we left Texas to start a new life. You’re walking down a street of bitterness. There are consequences from living a life astray.


I taped old family photographs on the cabin walls.

            My mother never decorated the wall of any of the places we lived in. Few pictures remained in small frames close to our bedside, on dressers, and at some places, our kitchen table. But nothing pleasurable ever graced our walls. One time, I tried imitating what I saw in kids’ bedrooms on television shows. I had no posters, so I cut up my favorite pictures from old magazines and old an Scholastic catalogue I got from school, and tried putting them up on wall next to where I slept. The act was my first form of individuality. My mother took them all down by the time I came home from school.

What this taught me: only calendars hang on walls, a constant reminder of our interim lifestyle that was never meant for comfort.


            One picture tapped to the cabin wall is a class photograph of my kindergarten class, the kind you take at some point during a school year. In it, I stand in the second row, center, wearing a checkered hand-me-down western shirt and a big gummy grin.

I’ve written about what’s behind that grin, what the picture failed to show: hunger because I wasn’t eating.

My smile clouds reality.

I remember hating the food at this school. Their pizza, Salisbury steak, spaghetti and meatballs, and even their country-fried steak was smothered and marinated with onions and tomato paste. The aroma, or the acidity of the tomato, made my stomach turn. Then there was the foul wet rag that the cafeteria lady used to wipe down tables. The stink rose off the tabletops and hit me while I sat heaving over my Styrofoam plate. I sat miserably in the cafeteria that also served as a gymnasium, with many of the same kids in that group picture.

Like a prop from my past, that gymnasium endures in my dream to this day. In one of these dreams, I sit next to my classmates during lunch. I feel ill, so I heave and gulp. The cafeteria monitor asks what’s wrong. Then she motions that I head straight to the nurse’s office.

As I rush towards the gym’s front doors, my hands over my mouth, the cafeteria tables expand into longer more dizzying rows. I exit onto an empty walkway, and here, my mind plays more tricks.

The hallway becomes hard to walk on. In one instance, the hallway has no walls, but sheets of pouring rain. Then in another, the hallway seems fine. I wander through the hall and am lead back to the front doors of the gymnasium. I try again heading in the direction of the nurse’s office and arrive at the very same spot. I go through this over and over, each time I’m much closer to vomiting.

In some versions of this dream, my only exit becomes the bright yellow doors of the school library. The very same setting where that photograph was taken.

The library doors are a way out for me—what I was running from?

That loss of appetite was a result of the harsh shifts of environments, now manifested as a vestige in my subconscious. 

I don’t write about one detail in that picture. Right above me is a large sign that reads: NON FICTION. Those word loom over me, a banner that augurs what’s in store.


It’s hard to write about someone who’s dying.

            Before I boarded a plane to Maine, I spoke with my mother. She reminds me that my grandmother is in the ICU. The doctors tell her that she won’t make it through the week. My mother tells me this in tears. But my grandmother is conscious, even cracking jokes about kicking the bucket to my mother, who’s distraught.

I tense up; we’ve been here before.

My mother has been at my grandmother’s side non-stop for weeks. My mother willingly puts herself in these situations, often forgoing days without adequate sleep or nourishment until she herself is faint and weak. In a way, her own deprivation is a sign of solidarity with her mother, the same woman who willingly abandoned her as a child and now mocks her goodwill as an adult.

But my mother loves to suffer. For what’s a good life worth if you don’t put yourself through the meat grinder for others? This is my mother’s fundamental principle and biggest flaw—to feel alive one must suffer for others.

I grew up listening to my mother remind me to love they neighbor. “Amar a tu prójimo,” she’d say to my brothers and me. If a stranger slapped you, you’re supposed to turn the other cheek.

Here lies my own conflict between allowing myself to suffer for others and railing against the very teaching that left me vulnerable to be a taken advantage of.

The fog of resentment rises, cousin of pessimism.

 Mother asks if I want to speak with my grandmother. But I decline and change the subject. I don’t tell her I’m on my way to an artist colony. I already have a difficult time accepting that I’ve been awarded anything. Farm workers don’t just win things. We work hard, but we don’t have things like this handed to us.

Yet I board.

3. Route 5

When I’m not writing in my cabin, I take walks. The Hewnoaks Artist Colony is tucked deep in rural Maine next to the massive Kezar Lake. The New Hampshire hills roll green on the horizon. Across the lake, I’m told lives Jonathan Demme, and just down the road is Stephen King. In fact, the road I walk is Route 5, the same road where King was nearly killed in 1999 while going on a walk. Locals and tourists like to barrel through, so I’m careful.

            Route 5 evokes many of King’s novels. Rural Maine is the setting in many of his stories. The piney woods that stretch along Route 5 recall The Body, his most famous novella. The film version, Stand By Me, moves the local cross-country to the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon woods in the film are in essence a body double, a likeness seen at quick glance, but verified false at second take. That change betrays the nascent wonder I witness on my walk. The same wonder I believe King aimed to capture in his novella.

This place takes me back to my own childhood, when I challenged myself way too young to read King’s books. I’d sit up late at night trying thumbing through books under very little light. “Go to sleep,” I was told by my mother. “Reading will make you go blind!”

It amazes me to this day that reading books is a central part of my life today despite so much discouragement from my mother. “What do you see in those books?”

She saw reading for leisure as absurd. In contrast, my mother was fine with my older brother staying up late into the night glaring madly at his math book.

What I learned: learning can’t be an enjoyable act, but an afflicting experience on the road to achievement.

Interestingly, ignoring my parents’ wishes to quit reading became my first successful stab at individuality and staking a claim to my own beliefs.


Route 5 leads to the small town of Bridgton. I walk the aisles of the local Food City in search of provisions to make it through the rest of my week. The small grocery store recalls the setting of one of my favorite King stories, The Mist. In the story, a dense fog overtakes the town and a group of shoppers are stuck inside the store. But like many of King’s stories, the horror lies within the seemingly ordinary. The stranded group increasingly succumbs to claustrophobia and panic as what’s inside the mist reveals itself.

The Mist scared me as a kid and it’s hard not to recall that fear while I’m in the store that inspired the setting. I glance out at the storefront windows at every chance half expecting them to cloud over the way it had in the bedroom window in my cabin. But I exit the Food City to blue skies and a warm bright sun.

4. Pineclad

There’s a story here.

            I say this often when I write. Usually while I’m in front of my computer, but this time I’m in bed listening to rain as it falls hard on the roof. The wind blows hard, rattling the windows. Thunder compels me to look out in time for a flash of lightning. In that instance, I see the forest clearly: the pine trees that tower over my cabin cartoonishly sway back and forth. Behind it, a thick mass swells up from the lake. Just as fast as I see this, everything returns to darkness.

I try focus my thoughts back to finding a common thread in the memories, photographs, and all the ideas I jotted down before I came to Maine to write.

Suddenly, I’m startled by a crash so loud it sounds like half the cabin has caved in. I look out once more, but see nothing past what little the glimpses of lightning allows. I spend the rest of my time opening and shutting my eyes until I can longer tell the difference between the night and the moment I fall asleep.

Oh, nature, the distractor, she had other plans.

            The morning after the squall, I set out to find the cause of the loud crash. A few yards from my cabin, I discover the remnants of a fallen tree.


I stand at the hedge of an enormous forest. Behind me, a hill slopes downward. When I turn to look, the hill looks awfully steep. My brothers are at the banks of the grassy field, waving and yelling to come down—Hurry up, fatso! C’mon, let’s go!

I hesitate.

It’s so easy going up the hill alone when you’re not thinking, when you shut off that side of you that second-guesses your abilities. But I’m a kid in this dream, so easily distracted. Instead of going down the way my brothers want me to, I turn around and take a step into the woods.

            I dream a lot about forests. I dream that I’m lost in the woods or that I live in one. These dreams are never scary despite the fact that I depict myself as a child. Instead, they’re exhilarating knowing that I forge ahead on my own. All of the forests in my dreams have dirt trails. In every dream I’m always in the middle of these paths, never near an end and rarely at the beginning. In fact, I never know whether any of these dream trails have a beginning or an end or for how long I’ve strayed off my given path.

            Andas por la calle de la amargura.

            When I was nine, I lived in a large warehouse outfitted as a barracks in a small town in the Lower Peninsula in Michigan. Scores of immigrant families lived inside this encampment. Walls made from portable school chalkboards were used as partitions between families. In a set up such as this, there was no privacy. Not a day went by that I didn’t accidently catch a glimpse of a bare ass or a lumpy breast. I giggled the first time this happened. At night, I remember hearing all kinds of strange new noises coming from every corner of the barracks, farts mostly, but sometimes I was startled by puzzling new sounds I’d never heard of—aggressive moaning and soft weeping. This arrangement was perfect for a nosy kid, but the novelty wore thin pretty fast. During the day, when the adults and older children are worked picking cherries and cucumbers, I stayed behind to read books and listen to music on a little weather radio.

            What do you see in those books?

            A forest for escape: My brothers and I stand in a run stance just a few yards away from the migrant camp. Ahead of us is the bank of that verdant hill. At the top, the marvelous North Wood forest expands around us.

On your mark. Get set—go!

5. Kezar Lake

I sit on a small dock with my journal in my lap, watching the morning mist hover above the water. I think about my mother and grandmother. I have an urge to contact them, but there’s absolutely no reception for several miles. Even if I could, what would I even say?

            I’m isolated from the ones I love. I should feel bad, but I adjust. It’s a habit I’ve had since childhood—a thick skin to new things.

            But about this habit: it’s not that I don’t feel these new experiences, I just don’t process them. Writing becomes the way I process. 


            I list out things I know in my notebook:

·      A huge component of what I’m writing at Hewnoaks is about my grandmother.
·      Through my perspective, she embodies all the anguish and pessimism that haunts my family.
·      I hold grudges about the past that have nothing to do with me. Yet they mark me.
·      My grandmother is dying. This bothers me.
·      My mother is a much better person than I am.
·      I must find a way through this fog.
·      Escape!
·      Write my way out!

(—so write.)

Because there is a story here, but also ghosts.


She stands near her own mother by a wide muddy dirt road that veers left and out of sight. They appear as if they are on a hike or on their way back to their village. The sun is so bright that it fades the details of the day. Behind my mother and my grandmother, is the costal city of Tampico. My grandmother was born in that city, and so was my mother.

            My mother is eleven. She wears a summer dress that hangs on her thin frame as if she was a clothesline. Her shoulders slope downward, her face in a grimace, perhaps, but not entirely from the sun. She seems willingly detached from her mother, evident by the way she stands almost behind her and several feet away.

            Her mother stands bold, wide in almost every way: chest, shoulders, hips, thighs, calves—even her grin is wide. It’s hard to not read more into her demeanor. My grandmother is shapely and beautiful with waves of blue-black hair that rests softly on her dress. She’s hardly aware of my mother as they walk that they might as well be on two different paths.

            My grandmother moved away from her village pal norte, hitting the road towards big city Chicago with a new man, and in search of her own American Dream. My mother was left behind as an afterthought.

            The nights in Maine are cold, especially by a lake. I find myself lying in the middle of a field along with a group of other artists, looking up at the stars. Between us, we down an entire bottle of Jameson. Our lively conversation that brought us together gradually wanes, as the whiskey drifts us all into our own thoughts.

My thoughts: The more I write, the more it casts an air of deep resentment. There’s so much anger in me that I still don’t understand, that still hasn’t found a voice. When I write, it swells in me.

How to fight this?

Nothing good comes from straying far.

How to escape?

Por la calle de la amargura…

César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is a featured columnist at Essay Daily. You can read the rest of his contributions to Essay Daily herehere, and here. Also, sometimes he has things to say on Twitter.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Scott Broker on Leslie Jamison, Guilt, and Confession

A Confession: An Essay

0. A confession: this essay will be more about me than the Hungarian man I meet or the essayist I read. This is not to say that they are without import: the former is a quinti-lingual tour guide and couch-surfing host who serves the eastern side of Budapest; the latter is Leslie Jamison. It is to say that the shape necessarily begins and ends with me, that the form of the piece itself collapses if its ultimate gesture lands outside of my hands. Consider this a thesis. Or a preemptive defense. Or a point zero.

1. In the winter of 2015, I traveled through Europe, following a curved line from Berlin to Paris. It was my first time in any of these countries and I dressed my insecurities with glimmering confidence. Wasn’t there a study that said the more you smiled, the happier you felt? I willed belief that I was socially malleable, the anti-tourist who knew how to engage any given culture or personality. On train rides, I whispered greetings in German, Czech, and French until the words pressed into my dreams; on sidewalks, I walked as if the streets had been built for me or by me. I smiled. I hoped for happy.

2. Throughout The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison analyzes the overlapping space between two or more independent bodies. The intersection is hardly ever polite, and the question at stake is often underscored by ethics: how can we breach into someone else’s territory without trespassing? Crossed thresholds can yield meaningful connection just as they can herald invasion, manipulation, taking. In the first section of “Pain Tours (I),” for instance, Jamison visits a silver mine in Potosí. She comes with gifts for the miners (an offering) but immediately recognizes the actual impulse (a taking): “…they are gifts for the givers: you will give something back, as they say, and this pleases you.” She then tours the mine, listens to the way that these men pass time in darkness, and even meets the demonic statue called Tío, worshipped for his authority here. By the time she emerges into the day’s light, restored again to the world she occupied before becoming a temporary guest, she sees herself in the glass of a van. And the fact of the matter is uncompromising: she “…look[s] like a devil too.”

3. I “immersed” in Berlin, meeting a Cyprian man for a date and listening as he told me about a local sex club. When he provided a brochure for the place—a three-foot-long fold-out comprising dozens of men in assorted sex acts—I was grateful to have an artifact after putting in so little effort. It was like flicking a finger in the water and leaving the beach with a basket of fish; the paper and story were scandalized enough for retelling.

I rested in Prague, satiated with the exposure of my first few days. My friend Megan and I stayed in the apartment of another friend, Myriah, and spent our days eating trdelník—braided bread wrapped by cinnamon. On my way to Budapest, I remember thinking that the respite had been important, but that it was time I plunge back into the borderland, back into the space of others. I contacted my couch-surfing host for the night, Zoli, and arranged to meet at 5.

4. We see Jamison elsewhere. A conference for Morgellons disease in Texas. A “Gang Tour” of Los Angeles. A prison in West Virginia. She travels, talks to people, watches television and movies, speaks of her love of artificial sweeteners, and confesses herself (presumptions, selfishness, insecurity) throughout. While talking to an ultra-marathoner currently in prison in the piece “Fog Count,” she recognizes her own intentions for the interview: “…I realize my interest [in prison life] betrays the privilege of my freedom: life in here is novelty to me; for Charlie it’s day-in, day-out reality. For me it’s interesting. For him it’s terrible.” Similar acknowledgements occur throughout, pointing at the frequent disconnects and problems of living both within and outside of oneself. She is an individual who interacts with a network; and here, she is a writer who is an individual who is interacting with a network. There is folly in conversation, of course, but then there is folly in the act of writing others, of writing conversations with others. How can you shape someone into a piece without stealing something in the process?

5. Things spiraled in Budapest. Zoli was an hour late to meet me and then informed me that he had recently been mugged at that same metro stop. When we got to the door of his apartment, he turned and issued a warning: “It looks like a bomb blasted off. I have to clean.” That morning, I learned, he tried to flush some spoiled food down the toilet but it clogged; now, he had to extract it by hand. The nausea of unease swept over me and any value to the situation—Zoli, a 27-year-old who spoke five languages fluently and knew more about the United States than I did, should have seemed like the ideal talking partner—dimmed beyond recognition. I was discomfited by the neighborhood, the mess, the isolation. By the time he suggested we go out for a vodka, I was eager to move my body, to be reminded that this was not my perpetual circumstance. Zoli told me many things at the bar: he hated all Hungarian politicians, believed that gargling vodka cleared a sore throat, and was steadfast that Pest was the far more interesting side of the city than Buda. By his third drink, he was lamenting the inherited depression of all the Hungarians he knew. “They all want to leave,” he said. “To be out of Budapest. To be out of life. You know, one of my best friends killed himself last year.” I tried a lame apology but Zoli shooed my words from the table with his hand. “It is our condition to be sad,” he said. “My other friend calls me once a week and says he’s going to do it. I tell him not to but who knows?” He wiped at his eyes a few times, slapped his cheeks, tried to smile, and then forfeited to a grimace. When we walked back to his apartment, he admitted that he started hosting couch-surfers to fend off his own loneliness. It came in waves, but it had a way of swallowing him up when it did.

6. In her acknowledgments, Jamison thanks Charles D’Ambrosio for teaching her that “…the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.” And indeed, she does not escape the traps that she encounters. She is still writing about the lives of others, still entering their space and rendering the experience artistic. What makes the essays so remarkable, though, is that she knows that there are always two simultaneous subjects to any given piece: the material and the hands holding it. This idea embraces tension rather than resolve, championing the more difficult parts of encounters to demonstrate that the subject empathy (among others) most often exists in the effort rather than the outcome. Thus, 15 distinct essays grapple with a single term without ever properly defining it: sometimes, it lands nearer to Jamison or nearer to her material; often, it falls between reaching hands; always, though, we see it plainly in this frontier because that’s where Jamison admits it being. And while it seems like this might yield a frustrating muddiness, Jamison justifies confidence in what she says by being so decisive and honest about the reality of her own position in relation to the work. In the final piece, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison struggles with the trope and truth of suffering women. As with many of her essays, there is no clear solution to the paradox presented, but Jamison offers her own resolve by means of a final confession: “Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want out hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”

7. I was supposed to stay with Zoli for another night. After he left for work, I fled into the city and booked a hostel instead. When I sent him a message—my travel plans changed and I was leaving for Vienna now, not tomorrow—he asked if I had time for a farewell drink and I told him no.

How many times did I tell this story before trying to write it? I began in Vienna and carried it with me everywhere I went, tuning the pitch of the interaction (its weather, its grime) higher and higher until its sound turned so shrill that anyone listening was amazed I’d stayed as long as I did. I needed people to laugh, cringe, and worry; I needed my departure to seem necessary and obvious, for my subject to justify its own abandon. And when I finally did go to the page, the story arced out like an ECG, rising and falling in the rhythms I had already found for it. I reached my closing scene (that triumphant escape) but when I went to punctuate the close, some beat still bristled.

8. “It might be hard to hear anything above the clattering machinery of your guilt,” Jamison writes elsewhere. “Try to listen anyway.”

9. I want to say that any given essay requires confession. This seems simple, reductive. Maybe it is. Confession, though, seems like one of the most critical components to precise thinking. What is a confession, after all? It is an admission of desire, of intention, of presumption, of guilt. An articulated awareness that the totality of what any one person can say is still translated through a mind that has its own pursuits and limitations. It is what lends the shape of an essay by being the material that points the reader to who is writing those words. I trust Leslie Jamison for her honesty. I want to trust myself.

Look: This was never supposed to end with my triumph. This was supposed to end here:

I left Zoli and proceeded to write a story wherein certain details were carved in an effort to relieve a mind that was throbbing with guilt since it bid its host farewell. I was afraid of the weight of someone else’s sadness. I didn’t like the mess of someone else’s life, the way that it seemed potentially contagious. I left. I’m sorry for that. And I still want you to tell me that I was right to do so. I’m sorry for that, too. I mean it.


Scott Broker is a writer originally from Colorado living now in Seattle, WA. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are soon forthcoming from Sonora Review, CutBank: All Accounts and Mixture, Entropy, American Chordata, Barrelhouse Blog, and Driftwood Press, among others. He holds a BA in English and Philosophy from Seattle University, where he edited the school's annual literary journal, Fragments. He can be found at

Monday, October 10, 2016

manuel arturo abreu interview : T Clutch Fleischmann

The following interview with manuel arturo abreu is the latest in an ongoing series on genre and writing practice with trans and gender nonconforming writers.

manuel arturo abreu (b. 1991, Santo Domingo) is a poet and artist from the Bronx. They work in text, ephemeral sculpture, photography, and whatever is at hand, and are the author of List of Consonants and the forthcoming transtrender. They co-facilitate home school, a free pop-up art school in Portland, OR. More of abreu's work can be found here.

TCF: I like to start off all the interviews with two broad questions before getting into specifics. First off, what is your relation to genre as a writer? A lot of your work gets published as poetry, and you label some of your work with less conventional genre descriptions (List of Consonants, for instance, is an ambient novella). Does genre figure heavily into your writing or into the way you release the writing into the world?

Likewise, I'm curious about your relation to gender as a writer. Is your writing somehow nonbinary writing, for instance? Would you like yourself as a writer to be associated with any gender identifications or categories, or is that something you'd rather avoid?

maa: My practice engages text, ephemeral sculpture, photography, and whatever is at hand. The meaning I find in the process of making things (or facilitating engagement opportunities) is not really medium- or genre-specific but I do think about the way that genre (as a form of setting up peoples' expectations) is a useful aspect of reaching folks. For example, given how sculptural it was, the meaning of the process of compiling List of Consonants overlaps a lot with that of my sculptural work, but its genre allows the process and product to speak to poetic and literary questions, not (or not solely) sculptural ones. So it seems like genre figures more heavily in the release than the production?

I am trans nb. This tends to oscillate between fem, agender, and a third modality I have a hard time describing. If identitarian aesthetic groupings are useful to folks, and if the cogency of such groupings is transitive (ie trans writing is writing by trans people) then my writing is definitely somehow Dominican, somehow trans, somehow nonbinary. It's up to individual readers, critics, etc whether they deploy these groupings to make sense of the work. For some people, this is a no-brainer, but for others, it clouds their experience of the work (in that trying to fit it into to preconceived notions may end up watering down the experience).

All that being said, given how little recognition there is for work by trans artists of color, I do advocate for my work to be associated with these identitarian groupings and aesthetic lineages. First out of pride (which comes from the knowledge that the work trans folks of color do is pretty mindblowing aesthetically and sociopolitically), and second out of diversity, since these kinds of groupings tend to come with baggage (ie stylistic expectations). It's important for me that the existence of these kinds of labels (trans lit, black lit, etc) don't limit my and my folks' creative options any more than white supremacy already does. Rather, they should serve an expansive role as they help readers calibrate their tastes.

TCF: I’m interested in what it means to be creating work like yours—work that self-plagiarizes and shifts our relation to concepts of originality and origins—in this particular moment of trans visibility. As you explore in the "Transtrender" essay at NewHive, “Trans is trending, which may or may not help, but most likely hurts, actually-existing trans people… Our voices are still unheard and ignored, even as aspects of the condition become generalized and hypervisible. But both above and under the carnival of signifiers and the circulation of theoretical concepts, trans people, especially of color, still inordinately suffer and die.” Are there links between the ways writing like List of Consonants refuses standard literary models of originality and the refusal of generalizations and surveillance you explore in the “Transtrender” essay?

maa: I'm not sure if there's a cogent or direct connection, but I'll attempt to answer anyway. The creative act makes it easier for systems of surveillance to locate the creator, so I believe this is one reason why the found text gesture has come to prominence recently. There is a definite cachet to illegility, almost a form of limited liability.

It's two birds with one stone -- denial of accountability (I didn't write that) and claims of ownership (I stole/borrowed it and made it better). Standard literary models of originality and creative genius are vestiges of white male supremacist aesthetics, and naturally, the method of producing List of Consonants exists in the shadow of this oppressive lineage. Really, one could argue that the found text approach in general is heir to the sensibility of white male ownership over all phenomena, real and imagined -- a kind of manifest destiny.

Certainly the "big" found text workers appear as such (KG, VP). But I tried to emphasize the non-distinction or continuity between my "from scratch" text and the found text I merged it with. I think this gesture of displacing the creative act (the poiesis) into the copyediting / managerial realm speaks to the changing nature of creativity in a digital age. This is salient to me because the real movers and shakers of digital culture are the marginalized — black and brown women and fems.

TCF: How does this idea of originality play off the emotional content of List of Consonants? Does the wrought mourning of some of the writing following your friend’s death (“turgid lyricism and purple prose,” you call it in an interview) lend itself to that process in any particular ways? Does purple prose seem to be even less your own writing on later readings than other modes of writing? 

maa: Well, it lends itself to the merging process because I would feel shame releasing writing that I myself can't finish. In this sense the found text acted like a mixer, to cut the poison. First thought is definitely not best thought, especially in a context where I'm so grief-stricken that I'm not thinking about what I'm typing anyway. I wouldn't say bad prose is less my own writing than found text (though that's an appealing implication), I would just say that taste is driven by self-image and shame.

That being said, I frequently return to my old content and recycle useful parts from it, using a kind of “scrying” technique that treats past as plastic potentiality, not irrevocable phenomena. So I clearly find some aesthetic value in “reclaiming” e.g. the purple prose of my old livejournal, or the flaccid hot takes of my old social media content.

[livejournal homepage. made friends only on my 20th bday. 6 years after making it.]

TCF: I’m also curious if you see yourself as having a home in literary publishing (small presses, the MFA system, that sort of thing), or if that’s desirable to you. Your work in visual and video modes exists outside of the range of what many literary publishers are interested in, but it seems your writing upsets conventions of the literary much more broadly than that, including ideas of selfhood, authorship, and creativity. Similarly, you’re of course not the only one to challenge conventions like this-- are there some writers who you consider doing especially similar work, or visual artists who do work that recalls your writing?

maa: seems to think these people are similar to me.

I don't fit in very well in the literary and small press worlds. I don't have the same preciousness about the literary process and object. I find my work and attitude more accepted in art contexts, for better or worse. This may have to do with the content of my practice itself, or with my framings of it. It could be that the way I contextualize what I do aligns more with the language used in art contexts.

I don't think my writing really upsets literary conventions in a formal sense, broadly speaking. Many writers have worked in disjunctive visuality, and many artists have worked with text. Further, many from both camps have worked with found material, chance operations, and ephemera.

There are pros and cons to inclusion on both sides. Either way, the inclusion tends to be about the reification or absolution of that particular institution or scene. The 'art world' has a less narrow understanding of creative process, but the 'poetry world' has a deeper understanding of politics and oppression.

TCF: Thinking of LoC "displacing the creative act (the poiesis) into the copyediting / managerial realm," I'm excited about the untitled project at Newhive. Could you describe a little of where and how the poiesis is placed in this project? I'm especially interested in what the creative process is like regarding the clustering of verse, asemic writing, found gifs, etc.

maa: In the NewHive 'ebook,' I'd say the manageriality is similar to that of the process involved in producing List of Consonants. The only difference is that found material “stays” found, and from-scratch material stays “from-scratch.” The poiesis probably exists solely in the intent to present the material as holistic / unified, and if anything the material itself bristles against this intent.

The content itself consists of asemic writing by myself and my schizophrenic uncle, gifs I find spiritually resonant, lyrics stolen from the black metal band Bethlehem, and scrambled versions of poems I wrote in high school. As is typical in my work, I wanted to add levity to the heavy content, and I think NewHive was the perfect medium to do this — both by the design options I had available (which always remind me of livejournal, my first and always favorite 'social media') and the diversity of collected media.

I think the manageriality of this project is distinct from that in LoC; the latter was more about the trafficking of trauma, while the former isn't as easily legible. This illegibility is a facet of why I too am excited about this work.

TCF: I'm also curious about the making of the spoken voice (the video reading) in the context of the typed verse. I think about the body entering the writing in a different way than it had previously, but I'm especially interested in the moments where you laugh, or say "um," or announce what you are doing, or type. How do those moments play off, for instance, the formal qualities of the written verse?

maa: Well, I think that video and things like it dismantle the notion of literary preciousness— e.g. the idea that the book forms, the poem forms, et al are like white women and have some inherent fragile value needing protection. Often when I read, I interrupt myself and add off-the-cuff content to contextualize the poem, demean its intent, or otherwise. This may partly have to do with my way of using humor to “cut” the intensity of traumatic content, but I think it also has to do with the destruction of literary preciousness, which is just so white. My opinion is that if a book has any value at all it's because it represents the demeaned and invisibilized labor of entire communities behind it— for example, Finnegans Wake would not exist without Joyce's exploitative response to his daughter's fatal mental illness.

I definitely wanted the included video reading to act in a similar way to the rest of the content in the scrolling ebook, but I also wanted it to challenge the poietic framing I had presented so far.

[INCA install photo. by Will Elder]

TCF: Finally, could you tell me a little about what you're working on now?

maa: I am wrapping up a number of things either for public presentation or for completion. First, my co-facilitator Victoria Anne Reis and I are almost done with the 2016 curriculum of our free pop-up Portland art school, home school. I'm sad, but also we put on events pretty much every Sunday so I'm ready to have full weekends again for a bit. has been the most fun I've had art wise in a long time, and I'm grateful to the 2016 Precipice Fund regranting initiative for making it possible.

I am finishing up my second solo show in Seattle, which is called resilience, described as follows on the gallery's page:

INCA presents the second solo show from poet and artist manuel arturo abreu – resilience. This body of work continues abreu’s interrogations of the effects precarity has on the slippages between art/thought, attention/care, performance/inhabitation, and relation/labor, with specific focus here on the changes undergone by classic social technologies of “bouncing back” under capitalism such as self-care, personal faith, et al. The neo-Romanticist, self-mythologizing tinge of these contemporary modes of resilient individualism naturalize capitalism’s violence, and invoke not nature as the sublime, but capital itself. The works in the show intend to both speak to and ignore this situation, and result from engagement in passive systems, unwaged labor delegation, and narrativized readymades speaking to abreu’s own biographical context.

[transtrender cover spread. by Shell Turner]

As well, I am as finishing up my second book transtrender. Here is a sort of hoity-toity description of that text:

transtrender is a book of lyric poems investigating the impossibility of language to express the bodily and social experience of transness. Written from an afrolatinx trans position, the work in the book deals with the trap of visibility, the coloniality of gender, and the refusal of cogency in a moment where trans is trending (that is, being commodified and whitewashed). abreu manically darts from image to image in their poems, working in a digitally-influenced poetic register which, as Brian Droitcour describes, "looks like flarf but isn't." The result is a text that eschews opportunities for the reader to connect the dots, instead pushing them toward an expanded lyric awareness in which poiesis does not betray its site-specificity and gender nonconformity is not confined to a false narrative of emergence from white modernity.

And here is the introductory piece in the book:

Trans is a failure of language. Poetry is a failure of the body. As Shaadi Devereaux says, I am “not trans but transatlantic.” At each turn there were so many people we could have become, uncountable superimposed states of uncertainty killed off, the surplus value of their randomness smushed together into Being-in-itself. The immaterial carcasses of our other selves litter the multiverse, and their voiceless words come back to haunt us, the gods having grown stronger with each body that jumped overboard. Even as the subaltern of ourselves cannot speak, unintelligible phrases emerge like totems in what seems like eternal return, entrenching themselves on the tips of our tongues, spreading elsewhere as incalculable contagion. And why is the sheer thinkability of the human future in such stark contrast to the unspeakability of the past, or to what never happened? Why is the past like what never happened? What does it mean to mourn what never happened? All of the possibilities that get crushed into the manufacturing of the Real, the squishy quanta of data that leave wet traces, molten ash laden into a precarious space between formalism and empiricism. A body in a white space of forgetting. A nonbinary femhood built from sea salt, blood, and the protection of cascarilla. How can we mourn all of the forgotten histories in a sensuous way, without having access to the specific topos of each lost archive, and in the face of the irrevocable alchemy of computation itself, of the flattening of sense into data?

Deje que Legbá me abra la puerta, y que me guíe tras el sendero.

Portland, OR / 2016