Thursday, September 24, 2009

12 or 20 questions: Joyelle McSweeney

Joyelle McSweeney is the author of the poetry books The Red Bird (Fence 2001, winner of the Fence Modern Poets Prize) and The Commandrine and Other Poems (Fence 2004), as well as the novels Nylund, the Sarcographer, a baroque noir from Tarpaulin Sky Press, and Flet, a sci-fi from Fence (both novels 2007). With Johannes Göransson, she edits Action Books and Action, Yes, a press and web journal for international writing and hybrid forms. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I wrote The Red Bird in an uninsulated room during a winter so cold that snow compressed on the roof, driving brown fetid water down my walls which froze on the window glass. Aaliyah died that winter, and Al Gore conceded. Several belts of whiskey per night could alleviate these and other problems. On the other hand, I wrote that book in a condition of extreme luxury: I was a grad student, and I have never had so much time to write since then. As a result, the book reflects a process-oriented approach to writing. Each afternoon I would flee to the bookstore and read the New York Times from front to last page, including the business pages etc. I would write down any odd idiom, caption, typo or term of art in my notebook. Then I would go to class and the bar. In the morning, while still in bed, I would return to my notebook, reread it with my eyes half closed, circle any quote that caught my attention without editing myself, and trying to perceive the way in which this randomized selection of quotes dialogued with each other. That’s how I wrote every poem in that book. It was a kind of chance-based and automatic writing, though I didn’t realize it then, since what came out at the other end of the process were lyrics. It was as Tristan Tzara describes cutups: “The poem will resemble you.”

I wrote The Commandrine under a different kind of pressure. Rather than snow driving dirty ice water down my walls, I lived under a building (in a basement apartment, but since it had a door out the back it was called a ‘garden apartment’ in Chicago bird language). Roots had grown into the pipes driving air up through the toilets, causing large bursts like the soundtrack in Victory at Sea. Also I had almost no time to write, as I was adjuncting four comp classes at two schools and teaching poetry one day a week in a public school. When I sat down for my two hours of writing time per week on Saturday morning, very strange voices squeezed through my hands and onto the page. These were archaic voices I had collected over a lifetime of survey courses and anthology reading: Manfred, Faust, “I dreamed I saw the new moon/with the old moon in her arms/Well if the bard is weatherwise tonight” That kind of thing. All these voices crowded in and chatted with each other and that’s how I wrote the nautical verse play at the center of The Commandrine. It utilizes every convention of the form: sailors, the Devil, a damned genius/poet/head of state, etc. The other poems in the book are also filled with the kinds of strange locutions you find in anthologies: apostrophes, exclamations, epithets (especially), paens, etc.

Flet and Nylund I wrote in tandem out of a different kind of project. I essentially attempted to write a genre novel in each case. I made no attempt at originality in terms of the plot or characters. In fact, I treated these conventions as a kind of form, in the same way the conventions of a sonnet provide the material and rhetorical form. Then I went about fulfilling that form using something close to prose poetry. In each case the syntax had different requirements. In the case of Flet, the sci-fi dystopic, I wanted to create a heroine with no sense of a personal past, so it’s written in a kind of hallucinatory present tense. In the case of Nylund, a baroque noir, the past tense is so seductive that the hapless protagonist is so lost in his memory plot that he becomes unwittingly entangled in a present tense murder plot.

Right now I have at least three projects. I regularly write poems, with an emphasis on performance. I am working on a collection of stories. And I have a half finished novel, a historical romance (!) set in Occupied France (!!). It’s SMUTTY.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

My parents gave me this anthology when I was a gradeschooler, I think it was called ‘Best Loved American Poems’ or something like this. It was incredibly patriotic and therefore carefully segregated into regular poems (including chestnuts by Thoreau, James Whitcomb Riley, Longfellow, etc), folk songs and ballads, and, of course, ‘Negro Spirituals’, rendered in dialect. Needless to say I found this an incredibly surreal read, particularly because I would flip around at random and find neoclassical references next to a supposed representation of ‘Negro’ speech so freighted with apostrophes and contractions that it sputtered like a machine rather than any human voice. The book was like the most incredible collapse. The Index of First Lines, as you can imagine, was like a diatribe spoken by a madman from New England. The experience was not so much ‘weird old america’ as ‘demented, dangerous old america’ , because at the same time the apparatus of the book was so didacticly cheerful. I think this book has been incredibly influential on my sense of writing. I would describe my writing as ecstatic, exuberant, dismayed, inflated, crushed down, and devious.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

When I ever get a chance to write, my writing comes very quickly and then I revise as I go. I no longer keep notes for my creative work. I’m just too strapped for time. I revise it as I go so that the shape is always adjusting itself. Then I email myself the drafts and then I lose the emails among my 4000 emails. This is a very bad and undisciplined way to work. It ensures that I have no literary history, which I like.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

My work begins at the beginning for the reasons stated above. Each book of mine seems to have a different idiolect and set of syntactical rules. Once I screw around with the sound enough to figure this out, there’s a fractal kind of process that happens. The micro- syntactic shape begets the macro-formal shape of the whole story, or novel, or what have you. The first few lines tell me what kind of piece I’m working myself up to and for. But not right away.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I adore readings. Readings are where it’s at. I love thinking about the material aspects of the text and how they relate to the sonic aspects, and how those two aspects are incompatible and open up a really exciting interval that’s full of risk and potential. People always tell me after my readings that they had no idea I would read this way, with this much energy and funny voices, that I should be an actress, etc. At first that troubled me, I thought I should do more to make the poems look on the page the way they sound in performance. Then I realized that not only is this impossible, but this gap is a kind of wonderful and awesome thing, a space of potential. And I really dive into that space when I perform and pull the whole room into that bombastic, tickish space with me. When I write poems now, as opposed to the textual practice of my first book, I try to nudge my toe into that bombastic space and imagine the poem as this flimsy medium that opens onto this vertiginousness like the city scene in Blade Runner. I’m basically writing for performance. That means the texts themselves are hopefully odd things that jump up and fly around in performance.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’m extremely theoretically concerned! All I do is protest, to quote Bob Dylan. Ok, what interests me are Bataille and the Notion of Expenditure; Antonin Artaud; Deleuze and Guattari’s minor literatures; translation theories; and disability theory. I’m interested in a kind of obscene text and obscene body, in rhetorics of failure, including the failure of one medium to fit into another, like, say, the bad fit of performance to into the printed page, and the unlimited potential energy unleashed by such failures. I’m interested in the possibility of loser auteurs, like Jack Smith and Ray Johnson. I’m interested in new theories of reading, digestive theories that deal with consumption and thus are both gross and political. I’m also interested in pedagogical theory, the way academics try to ‘control’ the text in the classroom as a kind of magic charm through which they control the students and control language itself. For example, the ban on teaching translations as primary texts in English departments reflects an anxiety over mastery. If the teacher can’t read the text in the original, he or she can’t be a ‘master’ of the text, a ‘master’ of language, or a ‘master’ of the students. Instead I think it’s fruitful to let uncertainty and discomfort into the classroom and recognize them as points of possibility. I’m pretty excited about Yoko Ono right now—not (only) for her Fluxus, but for the way she totally rewrote John Lennon as a Fluxus artist (‘Imagine’ is pure Fluxus) and for unintentionally (?)involving the entire world in piece of total theatre about race and gender with herself as the dark and hated villainess through whose heart the villagers would very much like to drive a stake. This piece of theatre has been running now for 40 years and puts Wagner to shame. I even saw recent installations on VH1 last night. What a woman.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The role of the writer is to continually destroy everything and pull everyone down deep into the mess of things and then to stand up. I’m thinking of another hero of mine, Aimé Césaire, and the imagery towards the end of Notebook of the Return to My Native Land, which uses fecal imagery to describe slaves exploding from a slave ship. In Eshleman’s translation :

I say right on! The old negritude
progressively cadavers itself
the horizon breaks, recoils and expand
and through the shredding of clouds the flashing of a sign
the slave ship cracks everywhere… Its belly convulses and
resounds… The ghastly tapeworm of its cargo gnaws the
fetid guts of the strange suckling of the sea!
And neither the joy of sails filled like a pocket stuffed with
doubloons, nor the tricks played on the dangerous stupidity of
the frigates of order prevent it from hearing the threat of its in-
testinal rumblings

And the nigger scum is on its feet

The seated nigger scum
unexpectedly standing
standing in the hold
standing in the cabins
standing on the deck
standing in the wind
standing under the sun
standing in the blood

Or in the words of Amiri Baraka, “It’s nation time, get up santa claus”

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

If anyone’s interested in working with me on my writing, I’m happy. The editors that I’ve worked with at both journals and presses have been tremendous. Editing and publishing are/should be tremendous art projects and social acts.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“It’s nation time, get up santa claus”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

Well, as I said above, I think there’s failure or non-equivalence when you move between different media and I’m very interested by that. My novels scrupulously fulfill conventions of the genres in which they participate and are thus failures; they are not interested in originality formally, plotwise, characterwise. They are only interested in their runaway prose. I also have a hunch that texts have nodes where they participate in genre and others where they write away from genre.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

A typical day for me begins with getting my toddler out of bed. I deal with her body for about two hours, take her to daycare, and go to work. I come home, feed her, bathe her, sing to her, and go to sleep. An atypical day for me includes about two hours when I can do some writing in the morning. I typically write when I’m half awake. I’m myopic and a hearing impaired ( I wear hearing aids) so I have a very mediated and partial, disintegrating relationship with the world which helps my writing. My hearing aids only like to hear noises produced by machinery, and they also make all sound synthetic through microchips, so it’s like ‘Revolt of the Things’ around here.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word!) inspiration?

I turn to South Bend. Really, until you have lived in a rotting rust belt town you have not lived. People are hurting here, and they are dogged and ingenious. They drive their trucks through the walls of their living rooms on a nightly basis. They get in fights and throw pregnant dogs at each other. They find remarkable items to pawn (one winter morning two middle aged people were standing outside one of the many pawn shops at 7 AM trying to hold a window airconditioning unit up out of the snow. They were wearing sweatsuits and no coats.). There are residential motels here, one is called the Wooden Indian and it has almost no interior. So it’s a shelter without any shelter. We have a lot of yard sales around here where everyone tries to sell used goods to everyone else. The same used goods just pass back and forth. Capitalism is played out and distended here and very visibly broken. As a pregnant woman and a mother with a toddler, I fit right in to most expectations about women in this place, at least until I open my mouth and reveal myself not to be a Hoosier. But most of the time, at the supermarket, the BMV, the playground, the IRS office, daycare, I do not open my mouth. One is not invited to do so. As Denis Johnson writes at the end of Jesus’ Son, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

This question strikes me as obscene. What home are you referring to? Are you suggesting that my home has a ‘fragrance’? I love it.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Oh my God. Well, books come from everything. I still believe, despite everything (yes Anne Frank reference) that’s there’s something special about writing, that it can hold every other art form and form in the world, and that the things that it holds badly (like performance) it is excellently deficient in and produces something interesting out of the deficiency. Then again, when I was watching those Ryan Trecartin videos on YouTube, where he has those great lines, like “My personal really concise pussy is creating a very inner monologue that I’m not going to share with you as I become dynamic.” And I think, that line is so dazzling, but at the same time, it’s as if the art is degrading into language, language is the shit of the art. And then I think of the artshow in Bolaño’s Distant Star, the photographs of the young women’s corpses disintegrating into the air, and also of “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.” (Twin Peaks). So I love the degradation and decomposition and I’m not worried about it at all.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Hmm? Write 20 more books. Produce a play. I write a lot of ‘closet dramas’, dramas to be read in the closet, as it were. I’d like to split that open.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I can’t imagine.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Lack of imagination.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book was Candide; the last great film Puce Moment by Kenneth Anger.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Getting to school in time for office hours.

12 or 20 questions (second series);


Lion Poet said...

This is what I needed.

Thank you.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Deleuze, Žižek and Artaud cited as influences. It's what I needed, too.

Finally Deleuze, Žižek and poetry in the same breath.