Monday, June 5, 2017

Cameron Awkward-Rich Interview

Below is the next interview in a series on trans writers, genre, and the essay, this time with Cameron Awkward-Rich. The author of Sympathetic Little Monster and Transit, he is currently completing a dissertation on "the politics and poetics of bad feelings in trans theory and literature," and is the co-editor, with Sam Sax, of The Dead Animal Handbook.


T Clutch Fleischmann: First off, could you tell me a bit about your relation to categorizing your writing, both in terms of genre and in terms of gender? How does thinking about genre figure into your writing process, for instance? How important is it to you that your work is or is not affiliated with "trans writing," or "trans poetry?" Where are the points where these categorizations cease to become productive in describing your writing?

Cameron Awkward-Rich: Sure, of course. The question of genre and the question of gender are linked ones, for me, although only to a point. They're linked insofar as, when I was writing the poems that wound up being Sympathetic Little Monster, I found poetry, in many ways, to be an ideal form to capture the experience of transition. Especially when the unit of analysis is the poetry collection, poetry allows for strange I's—speakers divided within themselves and/or not quite locatable—in ways that narrative prose doesn't quite. So, in a way, gender led to me genre.

But I think you are also asking a question about how much I care about—or how much I think it is useful to read my work in terms of—genre/gender distinctions. The answer is: it depends. Sometimes I write with particular genres or modes in mind (confession, essay, ars poetica, etc.), and I guess I think it probably helps to understand those poems in relation to the genres/modes they claim to belong to, but I always want the poems to mean something in excess of, or in spite of, genre distinctions. The same is true in my thinking about belonging to "trans poetry": definitely I have no aspirations of distancing myself from that description, and I really do think that understanding my work in relation to transness and as in conversation with other trans texts (the history of trans autobiography in particular) is necessary. But...I've also been in workshops where people try to relate everything I produce to transness, which—while I'm sure it's possible to do, because I'm always trans—seems silly/reductive/limiting, especially when it cuts off other interpretations.

Related to that, could you tell me how you are thinking of "essay," as it is used in the titles of (poems?) like "Essay on Crying in Public," or "Essay on the Appearance of Ghosts?" I appreciate the way it orients me, as a reader, and gives me some ways to move through those pieces that I might not otherwise come across, including the way the word sometimes links the writing to other texts (other, specific essays). Could you provide a description of essay, how you think of it as a genre? 

I'm glad you find the essay titles orienting; that's mostly why I decided to keep "essay" in the titles, to offer some suggestions about how one might approach them. I think of essays as pieces of writing that, as you note, are in some kind of citational relation to other things called essays and that set out to make an argument about something—another piece of art, a cultural phenomenon, an idea. Essays are much blockier things than poems, because they require one to offer evidence, construct a defense. So, calling some of the poems in the book "essays" was, at least initially, a way of drawing a distinction for myself between what these pieces are doing and what I felt like the majority of what the book does, which is capture an experience or feeling. Does that make sense?

Definitely. I agree that narrative prose seems somehow less suited to speakers who are divided or "not quite locatable." Could you say a bit more about why that is, in your experience? I'm wondering both why poetry seems to make more space for this, and why narrative prose might not-- how much it can be attributed to traditions, to formal qualities, etc.

In Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre, Sharon Cameron gives this account of 'the lyric' that I'm not sure I wholly buy as description of a genre, but that I find delightful. According to her, whereas narrative genres tend to produce complexity by distributing ideas and points of view among multiple characters, lyric works “not by the ceding of territory to different characters” but through “a speaker who says ‘I’ and yet is pluralistic.” For Cameron, this plural I is produced through the particular way that lyric manages time. She argues that while novelistic and dramatic narratives rely on temporal compression—to fit a life into a novel, a day into a few hours of theatre—they also rely on the expansion of moments in order to “make room for the luxury of articulated self-reflection.” Lyric, on the other hand, seems to take place only in this expanded, interior temporality, so renders time into a “still life”: moments, and the changes they index, are “not consecutive but…rather heaped or layered.” “The lyric…will withstand the outrage of any complexity for the sake of being able to present sequence as if it were unity.”

Anyway, there is something that feels both true and useful about this potentially outrageous temporality for representing trans speakers, in particular, since trans is in many ways defined by the potential simultaneity of moments/categories that are ordinarily taken to be distinct—it's a way of representing the experience of dysphoria, for example, of simultaneously being a girl and not one at all. I guess all I'm trying to say is that one of the fundamental problems of transition narratives, as I see it, is that narrative seems to require either an utter transformation (Man into Woman) or stability (Emergence...I was x all along), but lyric lets both of temporalities these exist at once, which seems more true.

Another, shorter, answer is that while prose narratives often actually do represent strange selves—the 'we' of Justin Torres' We the Animals or the multiple, floating, cosmopolitain subjectivity of the first 30ish pages of Mrs. Dalloway—when it works, it always seems like a formal achievement, something distinctive about a particular work. But, like, it seems true that one of the most ordinary features of a collection of poetry is that, across poems in a book, the speaker might always say 'I' but you can't expect that 'I' to stay the same from poem to poem. That is, what is often a distinct formal achievement of particular works of narrative prose seems to be built into the poetry collection. And while we—and by ‘we’ I guess I mean literary critics—tend to focus on individual poems as the unit of analysis, the poetry collection seems to me to be an equally, if not more, important unit for talking about how poetry circulates, is marketed and received, and so on.

Thinking of the essay-poems (is that the right language?) as being less invested in capturing an experience and more invested in offering evidence also aligns with how I think of those genres. Thinking again of the pieces labeled as essays in SLM, is there a point where any of them begin to verge outside of poetry, where they might leave poetry behind and become essay, or where the genre-thinking would fall away? Do we experience evidence, at times?

Sure, essay-poem! In the abstract I would say of course we experience evidence and of course feeling factors into how argument works, what makes essays effective, their poetics (the love of puns in literary criticism is, I think, evidence of this). Speaking concretely about the pieces in SLM, I think of "Essay on the Appearance of Ghosts" as being most obviously essay-like, if only because its use of citation + close reading + framing with vague historical truisms most closely follows the moves of (a kind of) academic writing. This won't answer your question, I think, but part of calling them "essays" was an effort to use genre-thinking in order to ask questions about the usefulness of distinctions between genres: When does experience become evidence (and vice versa)? Mightn't it be useful to think of all speech as argumentative, as making an argument? What kind of authority does citation confer, anyway?

Can I ask a question? It seems like you might have something to say about genre distinctions generally, and the essay/poem distinction in particular...where is this line of questioning coming from and/or leading to?

I appreciate the question back! There are a few motivations, one of which is that I think of my own writing and the writing I love as being somehow essay-ish, although most of the writers I'm excited about are actually located in the poetry world. I'm also interested, very much in line with your thinking about temporality, in the possibilities and critiques that emerge from trans writers in particular (although, of course, not exclusively) when we consider some of the core assumptions of memoir, essay, documentation, and all that. Trans writers, I think, offer a range of alternative ways to think of the self, progression, temporality, truth, cohesion, etc, which seems relevant when thinking about the essay's strained or even controversial relationship with truth. I also relate to genre similarly to how I relate to gender, where I feel at times frustrated and bored with the whole thing, but am still returning to both of them, maybe hoping they will break some, that categories will cease to be useful. So I'm looking, kind of, at a cluster of questions, without expectation of finding any particular answers.

I like that definition of lyric temporality, what it seems to offer. Thanks, also, for bringing We the Animals and Mrs. Dalloway into this. Who are some other writers that come to mind as giving us this form of lyric time, strange selves, etc.?

Hm, I relate to a lot of your answer here, especially to the continual return to categories of gender/genre despite (or, for me, because of) boredom with them. I find that boredom interesting somehow, because gender is so obviously a kind of melodrama, insofar as it is a story that 'works' by flattening everyone out and generating emotional intensities. And, until embarrassingly recently, emotional intensity is precisely what gender produced in me! So boredom is a new experience and I’m curious about what kind of relations to gender/genre it affords.

As for other examples of lyric time/selves, Alexander Chee's Edinburgh is a good's a novel that formalizes the self-estranging effects of trauma (historical, intimate) by making the voice of the narrator hard to pin down in time. Jason Schinder's Stupid Hope is a poetry collection that is both interested in what it means to be an 'I' in relation, but also, because it was assembled by his friends after his death, is an enactment of this. There are many examples of trans writing whose subject matter is something like the lyric self, or the self in lyric time—Ari Banias' Anybody and Chase Joynt/Mike Hoolboom's You Only Live Twice are two recent examples that I'm quite fond of—but I can't off the top of my head come up with a particular example of how this is registered at the level of form, though it must be! Uh, I’m convinced that many many recurrent figures in sci-fi might be thought of as literalizing and/or embodying something like the lyric self...time travelers, obviously, but also the various telepaths, the borg, Octavia Butler's Oankali, etc etc.

I like that, the melodrama of gender and the flattening of experience—it resonates with me, both as something I’ve noticed (the trans memoir, in its more conventional forms) and as something I had to move through. I think also of the kind of cartoonish version of the lyric poet, singing a song to the beloved, hoping that language and sound might lead to human connection—something like the childhood experience of turning to writing and reading when feeling especially alone, and how to preserve multiplicity and difference through that.

To close, could you tell me a little bit about what you’re working on now? Does your new work align with SLM, or depart from it, in any particular ways? 

To be honest, since SLM came out, I’ve mostly been writing my dissertation, which is a work of criticism that approaches many of the same themes in SLM (the usefulness of bad feelings, violence/intimacy, trans narratives, practices of reading and “reading,” etc.) in order to make an argument about the narrative habits of trans studies.

But now that that’s more or less done (!), I’m hoping to turn back to a pile of poetry that seems to be slowly accumulating into a manuscript I’ve been calling Dispatch. SLM came out pretty much all at once, in first the two years after I started grad school and taking testosterone simultaneously, so that book was really driven by a feeling of turbulence; is, at bottom, a transition narrative even though it’s in a kind of critical relation to that genre; and is really self-focused, driven by conflict within an ‘I.’ This new manuscript comes out of a different feeling, the feeling of continual return or repetition, perhaps. Also, Dispatch is much more interested in the world, thank goodness. Anyway, these new poems pull much more from resources outside of myself—the news, the archive, other people’s poems—and tend to wander around in questions like: What kind of revisions need to happen to make this a poem/world in which my friends are alive, that isn’t structured so as to kill them? How ought I pay attention, how to register the perpetual bad news without letting it fatally intrude? What kinds of we’s can be made across spatial/historical/categorical distances, and how might these be maintained?

Basically, less teen angst! Some teen angst, to be sure, but less. I hope so, anyway. We’ll see.

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