ND: I have some questions I've been wondering about since reading Syzygy, Beauty, but I would actually like to start by asking what you've been most preoccupied with in terms of the essay and essaying since finishing your book.
TF: I was on a kick for quite a while where I was thinking about the political implications of essaying, particularly about the links between innovative/weird essays and anarchist and liberation politics. I'm still excited by that, but it lead me into a more academic and critical place than I had been in a while, so right now I'm geeking out about how amazing lyric and hybrid essays look when they put on critical drag (or maybe the other way around). For the EssayDaily advent calendar I talked about Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which is a great example of that, and a lot of my perennial favorite essayists (Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, &c) work in that mode. But now that I'm thinking directly about the joining of my critical academic mind with my personal lyric mind I'm seeing examples everywhere, like in the Feminaissance anthology from Les Figues press and in the latest issue of Animal Shelter, both of which are bustling with that type of work. People are so weird and brilliant, and the world is so weird and brilliant, so it makes me really excited when the essay, in its big and basic project of thinking about the world and our experiences in it, really plays up that weird brilliance.
I've also been lucky to have some conversations lately with friends about what a transgender poetics looks like, or might look like, or might become, all of which was informed by similar conversations happening online and in some journals. So that's lead me to wonder about a trans essay and how some experiences common to a lot of trans people (shifting identities and bodies, living in a world that doubts or disbelieves your self, &c) might productively affect how we essay. I don't really have any clear thoughts there, but it's where my head has been at, and maybe some trans person who really likes to think about essays will read this and email me.
ND: I think "brilliant and weird" essays captivate me the most because of their power to enlighten the world by eschewing conventional habits of thought. Trans-poetics seem particularly situated to do this because of how much we depend on conventional gendered language to inform our reading experience. When writing do you find that situation to be a burden or a blessing?
TF: I’m skeptical of any take on life that doesn’t come across as weird and brilliant, regardless of from whom it comes. I think you’re right that unconventional thought is particularly exciting not necessarily because it’s unconventional, but because in its departure from convention it often enlightens an otherwise overlooked aspect of the world. It falls back on the tired conversation of truth in the essay, where some essayists really want the genre to uphold some idea of singular Truth. But that’s just not how the world works, that type of Truth doesn’t exist. Instead, the world is fucked up and weird, and everything changes all the time, and who I was last year is not who I am today. The tiniest little molecules that we can find all appear to be time-traveling and teleporting; children are forming multiple, distinct, yet somehow interrelated identities across the physical world and world of social technology; and most of us gleefully live as though we are not complicit in massive wars and environmental collapse. The world’s batshit, and the essay’s real brilliance and beauty lie in trying still to honestly understand it while knowing that nothing makes sense. To get back to the question, I do think my own experiences as a queer/trans person have helped me to understand the essay this way. As my own identity has shifted, I’ve had to grapple with the incompatibility of my “truth” alongside cultural “truths,” and all that has lead me to a place where I’m more comfortable with unanswered questions and lingering tensions. But I don’t think that’s unique to a trans perspective— all of my favorite essayists seem to operate out of a similar understanding, it’s just the road I took to get here.
ND: So, I want to go back to Syzygy, Beauty for a bit. The essay describes a highly intimate situation, but at the same time uses research exterior to that intimacy. How did research figure in this book?
TF: I do what I think a lot of people tend to do, which is process my life and my ideas through indirect associations. This is one of the main things that draws me to visual art again and again. In Syzygy, Beauty, for instance, I could never point to an obvious connection between Tracey Emin and the relationship buried in the essay. But I was drawn emotionally to Tracey Emin's work, and spending time with that work left me thinking about my own relationships, which in turn led me to reading more criticism about her, more interviews with her, looking at more work, &c. Eventually, the essay became a tool for me to try to pull that all back together, seeing what the outer edges of the research might have to say about my relationship after all. That is typically the kind of research that attracts me. I don't set out to solve a problem or to find an answer, but instead let my mind wander freely, enjoying the curiosity and feeling comfortable with the fact that most of what I encounter won't find its way into the writing.
ND: Your last answer made me think a lot about the balance in an essay between following a logical thought progression and allowing the mind to wander/wonder associatively. How do you work with this balance in your own writing?
TF: My mind tends to default into associate logic and wandering. I don’t think that’s something particularly unique to my experience, although I will admit that I’m totally inept at understanding narratives or linear logic, so I probably try to make use of the wandering more than some writers (I tried to read narrative-heavy Game of Thrones a couple of months ago and spent the whole time like, what the hell is happening!). Other forms of literary arts have a much more comfortable relationship with aporia than the essay tends to (again, it’s that worn out conversation around ethics and truth that seems to muck it up). As far as the actual act of writing goes, though, I rarely have those questions in the front of my mind. From what I remember, my most productive or exciting work started to come about when I left those worries behind, which for me went hand-in-hand with leaving the workshop environment. Plenty of writers, of course, can do whatever work they want while in a workshop and benefit greatly from the feedback, and I gained a lot by going through the experience. But I need to entirely divorce myself from an imagined critical audience—an audience who might ask for clarity, or who might probe my associative links in a way that stresses me out—in order to create the work. I’m just too anxious, and then there’s probably someone I’m trying to sleep with in the workshop or something, and then I get so tangled up in imagining how other people are going to read whatever I write that I end up writing something I don’t even believe in. In contrast, it’s when I write freely, letting images and theory and narrative accumulate how they will, that I actually like what I come up with. Of course, once I’ve made an essay, then I have to let those real and imagined critical voices back into head and allow them to ask their questions, like, what the hell does that mean? or, why are you suddenly talking about a dead possum here? And I’m sure I have no idea why I thought I needed to talk about a dead possum, but I can at least figure out some of what it does—associatively, linearly, logically, whatever—and from there figure out what place it might hold in the essay.
ND: I have one last question: What is the geekiest topic you have ever essayed or wanted to essay about?
TF: When I was in school I became really convinced that the movie Xanadu was an extended metaphor on the role bars have played historically in creating and limiting queer subcultures. I ended up watching it on Hulu over and over for months and trying to write the essay (I called it “Xana-don’t” because I’m brilliant) I don’t know how many times. I tried it as a bunch of weird lyric aphorisms, I tried it as a straightforward piece of queer criticism, I tried it as a hybrid with photos of myself spliced in—I probably spent more time on it than I have on any other single essay. Eventually, a few good friends helped me realize that I was just an obsessed person rambling for thirty or forty pages at a time about a kind of crappy movie and that, even if I was onto something, I was in it too deep to actually write anything coherent. I also wrote a lot about unicorns for a while.
T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and a Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM. They live in rural Tennessee and can be reached at email@example.com.
You can purchase a copy of Syzygy, Beauty here.