Friday, February 08, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with K. Lorraine Graham

K. Lorraine Graham makes poems, texts and sometimes performances. She is the author of The Rest Is Censored (Bloof Books) and Terminal Humming (Edge Books) and a recent chaplet of new work from Belladonna. Her work appears in Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf (Edge Books), Omniverse, and Postmodern Culture. Graham has taught at The Corcoran College of Art and Design, California State University, San Marcos and the University of California, San Diego. She lives in Washington, D.C. and writes about the arts and humanities for the University of Maryland, College Park. You can find her on twitter and instagram @klorrainegraham

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

It felt good to have my first book, Terminal Humming, in the world as something I could celebrate and share with others, but it didn’t change my life. I used to think that the The Rest Is Censored, my second book, was very different from the first. Formally, it is. Terminal Humming is dense. The Rest Is Censored is spacious. But they both emerged through interventions into my daily routine. I wrote Terminal Humming when I was research assistant at a think tank in Washington researching US-China-Taiwan relations and missile defense systems. I’d read Vallejo’s Trilce on lunch break and then write for a while in my cubicle or outside. I wrote The Rest Is Censored on my daily bus commute between Carlsbad, CA and UC San Diego. It was a beautiful, miserable, hour-plus ride along the Pacific Ocean. I’d write until I was too nauseous to continue.

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

I wrote fiction first and some nonfiction, too. I turned a lot of my long emails into short lyric essays, although I didn’t have any context for what I was doing at the time. I went to college in Washington, D.C. and studied Chinese language, history and politics. I thought I wanted to be a journalist because I wanted to write and I did not want to live in the United States, and being a journalist was the only way I could imagine doing that at the time. But I started going to poetry readings in D.C. with a friend who was taking creative writing classes.

The poets and scholars at those readings were doing work that was interdisciplinary and engaged with both language and social observation—People like Tina Darrah, Kaia Sand, Allison Cobb, Sue Landers, Rod Smith, Mark McMorris, Chris Nealon and Mark Wallace. And then there were all the people who came to town to read—Nada Gordon, Abigail Child, Laura Elrick, Rodrigo Toscano, Nancy Shaw, Kevin Davies. All of these poets are still important to me. Until I began going to readings, I didn’t even know that contemporary poetry existed.

That last year of college and in the years immediately following, I also went to shows at the National Gallery, Hirshhorn and Corcoran, which also solidified my interest in poetry and interdisciplinary, language-based work. The Ana Mendieta and Cai Guo-Qiang exhibitions at the Hirshhorn were both formative, and also the 2001 Xu Bing exhibition at the Sackler Gallery.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially 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?

My work comes out of sloppy drafts, copious notes, doodles and images that might be extraneous to the poems.  I write and collect and then I edit forever.  It usually takes me only a few months to a year to write a first draft, but then it can take me years to finalize something. Most of the projects I’m working on now should exist in multiple forms—as book, as performance, as installation, as party. I love books because they are so portable and easily shared, but I suffer when I am trying to wrangle a project into the constraints they require.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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?

I am always working on a large project, usually several. Usually I begin with a set of concerns, interests or questions. Often these initial ideas are vague. I just finished a project called Opera that began as my attempts to read and write during a period of deep depression. Sometimes I could not leave the house or my bed, and going upstairs to watch TV was my big accomplishment for the day. So I’d sit there watching whatever was on and write a little. Eventually it became an exploration of the intelligibility of grief and melodrama.

For Terminal Humming, it was more specific. I decided that I was going to explore the socioeconomics of work and romance and incorporate overheard and found language. With The Rest Is Censored, the goal was to write until I was nauseous and continue when I was not. So the question was pretty basic: how long can I write on the bus without throwing up? What are the limits of my body?  I usually have a moment about halfway through any project where I assess and figure out what I am actually doing, and then proceed accordingly. Sometimes this means I incorporate additional practices. When I was writing The Rest Is Censored, I added the rule that I had to sit next to someone on the bus, even if there was only one other person riding with me—I was inspired by George Ferrandito’s performance piece for the New York Subway, “it felt like i knew you,” where she falls asleep on the shoulder of the person next to her. In San Diego, riding any kind of public transportation at all feels like a spatial intervention. The questions and concerns of a project become concise through the particulars of the practice.

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

I usually enjoy giving readings, and often use them to share work in progress. However, I have more problems with anxiety than I used to. I try to use my on-stage feelings/sensations as a way of being present.

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 obsessed with the way technologies of everyday life intersect with / create / enable / conjure feelings and vice versa. I care about bodiesthinking, moving, working, feeling bodies. Maybe if I had continued dancing or somehow learned about Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer earlier, I would be more of a performance artist.  What language emerges from a body caught the technologies of living? Where does a person begin and end? I can only be myself when other people are around. My writing is needy. Do you love me? Are we here?

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?

A writer arranges language and creates meaning, feeling and sensation for other people to experience and interact with. Sometimes, the best way to do that is to write a white paper with lots of tables and graphs in an appendix. Poems don’t usually make good white papers. White papers sometimes make good poems. This is the fun and advantage of poetry as a genreit’s resilient and plastic. If you add stanzas and line breaks to a white paper, you break the genre. The genre of poetry is unbreakable. Poetry continues as sonnet but also as legal document. Auden says that poetry is something that “survives, A way of happening, a mouth.” I don’t like Auden’s work that much, but I do love that quote.

So maybe the role of the poet is to survive and offer new and strange strategies for survival—or to remind us of strategies we’ve forgotten. More optimistically, poetry can offer ways of being in the world that create possibilities different from those we grew up with—or it might offer ways of reconnecting.  I might be living most of my life in a social media feed or at my job or jobs, but poetry gives me a way of at least imagining alternatives to the frenetic, neoliberal logic of media and labor.

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

I’ve rarely had the chance to work with an outside editor. I wish it happened more often. I am lucky to have a few people I trust completely, though. I could give Jessica Smith any kind of manuscript to edit and rearrange, and I’m certain I would be happy with it. Or maybe it’s just that every book I make should have a Jessica version. My husband, Trevor, is helping me rearrange Opera.  I workshopped The Rest Is Censored at UCSD, and I can look at almost every page and point out specific choices that were the result of feedback and suggestions from those classes. Shanna Compton is a fabulous editor, and her comments and feedback made the book infinitely better.

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

There’s Frank O’Hara’s poem, “My Heart.” The poem is a refusal to write programmatically. It celebrates contradiction. I mean, if only I really could “have the immediacy of a bad movie, / not just a sleeper, but also the big, / overproduced first-run kind.” I’ve been writing long enough to recognize my persistent interests in romance, technology, exile and the sadness of everyday existence (especially work),  but I try to address my obsessions through different modes and methods. We always end up sounding like ourselves, but I appreciate O’Hara’s reminder that the self is contradictory. Once, I vaguebooked about my abysmal poetry career and my confusion “about the extent to which my poems make meaning.” Linda Russo said that “it is a poet’s job to be confused, to reckon with confusion, yes? And to contradict herself, Luckily.”

Sandra Simonds’ “Letter to a Young Nonprivileged Poet” has good advice, especially about the importance of community and the relative uselessness of “sucking up to authority figures and gatekeepers” if you are not rich and white and male.

My psychiatrist always tells me to exercise and spend time outside.  My therapist always advocates finding ways of doing less—especially doing less emotional labor. When I was in my 20s, someone told me to spend less time worrying about publishing and more time reading and writing, and that was good advice.

My friends show me by example how to survive and feel joyeven though survival and joy often seem impossible and everyone will leave us and we are all going to die, etc.

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

Much of my work is in prose, and even my poetry tends to be sprawling, though The Rest Is Censored is an exception. Drafting prose is a slow process for me, but I find that the work needs less editing than my poetry. So I am slower and more careful in prose.

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?

I write when I can, which usually means I write during lunch break and for 30-60 minutes on the weekend. Since my son Desmond was born—he’s nearly 18 months old now—I have less headspace for anything other than employment and taking care of him. But my approach to a writing routine has always been the same: Find uninterrupted time and write. When I was doing my M.F.A. and working a bazillion jobs, my only uninterrupted time was during my bus commute, so that’s when I wrote. Now, I’m back to writing on lunch break when I can, although my job is busy enough that it’s increasingly harder to do that. Every few weeks, I try and devote a weekend morning or afternoon to writing, which works reasonably well depending on how long Desmond naps—or whether or not I’m exhausted enough to need a nap too, which is most of the time. I have no idea what would happen if I only had to work 20 hours a week, or if I had 3 months a year to mostly write. Or even a few weeks every year.

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

Usually I get stalled because I’m feeling emotionally claustrophobic, or because I’ve mistaken my job or social media for the universe.

I go back to Bernadette Mayer and Frank O’Hara for comfort. But I turn to work in Spanish and French when I need to remember that my daily poetry universe is not the only universe—and I always need to be reminded. My facility with Spanish and French is sometimes very good, and sometimes not. I read slowly, most recently Mapas & Escritos, by Bruno Montané Krebs, and the letters and journals of Isabelle Eberhardt. One of my regular Friday lunch break exercises is reading and translating Bolaño’s poems. But really this is me spending a lot of time looking things up in dictionaries. When I am too tired to read in Spanish or French, I read Henry James, or work in translation, or anything that is not poetry. I love self-help books. I just ordered a bunch of new poetry books through interlibrary loan, so I am finally reading Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death and John Pluecker’s translation of Gore Capitalism, by Sayak Valencia. I am always reading books about bird watching. When I was pregnant, I  read endless maternity books and birth stories. The point is to read something expansive.

Spending time with art helps. I used to go to the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn and the Phillips regularly. We haven’t quite figured out a new looking-at-art routine with our son yet, but I suspect I’ll occasionally give up a writing morning to look at art instead. Or sometimes we just bring him along and accept the unpredictability. When I’m really lucky, I spend some time with the Phillips collection and then hear chamber music there. I studied the flute and classical music very seriously until I went to college. It’s nice to return to music in a less competitive way—and I know almost nothing about music for piano and strings.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Pine trees and sea salt are Maine. Night-blooming jasmine is Singapore. Eucalyptus and ocean and sage and dust are San Diego. D.C. is magnolia blossoms.

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?

I return to music and dance, two things I have studied seriously and less seriously for some time. And visual art, too—the artists I mentioned above and many others. Language can be energizing, but I often find it exhausting and want to get away from it. I work in communications, so I am paid to write, which is sometimes terrible for me. I have been listening to Brahms’ piano sonatas at work. I like Ornette Coleman for when I want to concentrate but feel too anxious to do so, which is most of the time.

In 2010 I made a “map of influence” before a reading at 21 Grand in Oakland—it’s still pretty accurate.  Vincent Price is prominently featured in the lower right corner.

Also: Sophie Calle, Övind Fahlström, Eleanor Antin, Louise Bourgeois, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bauch, Yvonne Rainer, Ana Mendieta.

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

Some of the writers that are most important to me are fiction writers, Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Colette, Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles, Kathy Acker, Peter Matthiessen, Alejo Carpentier, Dodie Bellamy.

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

I’d like to live outside of the U.S. again—this is probably my most ambitious life goal, at least in terms of money and logistics. I guess that’s something I have already done, but I haven’t done it for long periods of time as an adult. There are endless places I would like to travel and hikes I’d like to hike. I would like to become better at cooking Chinese food. I’d like to finish some of the fiction-like things I have written and publish them. I have never seen an albatross. I would like my Spanish to be good enough that I could read two books a month instead of one every six months. I would like to always be reading more work in languages other than English, and also in translation.

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 work in media relations and anticipate working in media relations or communications until I am at least 70, so in some sense I am a professional writer. But I would love to see what it’s like to just be a literary artist. I don’t even really know what that would mean.  If I were to do something else? I like statistics and I’m reasonably good at quantitative analysis, which is a great surprise to me. It’s too late for me to be a mathematician, but working with data is interesting. I really cannot imagine a life in which I do not need to be employed, and it is hard for me to imagine being employed in a way that is truly life-affirming—though obviously there is a spectrum and some jobs are much more terrible than others.

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

I fell in love with a poet. Before falling in love, I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t have any focus. If I hadn’t fallen in love, I probably would have gone (back) to China—my undergraduate degree is in East Asian Studies and Chinese—and tried to become a fiction writer and journalist. Falling in love and being in a relationship was good; going back to China would have been good, too. But I stayed in D.C. and worked in public policy for a while. If I had fallen in love with a performance artist, I might have become a very language-based performance artist. Poet. Fiction writer. Journalist. Performance artist. I’m sure that regardless I would still be working with language.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

A baby sleep guide called Precious Little Sleep. I am really liking Simone White’s Angel of Death. I just finished watching The Americans. I manage to see a movie about twice a year. I thought Get Out, Logan and Rogue One were all fantastic.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I have a very new project that’s maybe about kinship and white supremacy and how I’m directly related to Nicola Marschall, a German portrait painter who designed the uniforms for the Confederacy and painted Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first leader of the Klu Klux Klan. It’s not a lineage I’m proud of—but I do believe that our ancestors are in us, so it’s not something I can ignore. I have no idea what form this project will take.

I’m also editing project called Feed—a part of which was just published as a Belladonna chaplet—which is a diary/documentation my social media feeds. Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr didn’t exist when I wrote Terminal Humming, but I’m clearly still obsessed with and overwhelmed by the eros of technology. Love as technology. “The stirrings of the soul” as something we make with prosthetics and media.  

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