music written, performed & remixed by:
“What would happen if we would consciously remix what it means to be American?”
Reiland Rabaka is an Associate Professor of African, African American & Caribbean Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he also has affiliations with the Women & Gender Studies Program, Humanities Program, and Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race in America (CSERA). He is the author of ten books, including Africana Critical Theory; Against Epistemic Apartheid: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Disciplinary Decadence of Sociology; Forms of Fanonism: Frantz Fanon’s Critical Theory and the Dialectics of Decolonization; Concepts of Cabralism: Amilcar Cabral and Africana Critical Theory; Hip Hop’s Inheritance; Hip Hop’s Amnesia; and The Hip Hop Movement.
music written, performed & remixed by:
“Power is essentially a codification of flows that represents itself as truth, as reality, as the only option.”
Aaron Angello is a Denver-based poet and multi-media artist. His poetry, videopoetry and installations have been seen at galleries across the country, in print, and on the web. He also the author of the entries for “Sound” and “Remix” in the Johns Hopkins’ Guide to the Digital Humanities. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Literature at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he also teaches literature and digital media studies.
music written, performed & remixed by:
“Understanding where everyone has come from gives you a nice base to give yourself and identity, but also to work with each other to build up.”
Sara Roybal is currently an MFA Candidate of Dance with a secondary emphasis in Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. While her main focus and emphasis in dance is Mexican Folklore she also enjoys experimenting and learning other genres of dance as well as learning and exploring world cultures.
with Timber Poetry Editor Alexis Almeida
At the most recent &Now conference, Julie organized a panel on dance/text collaboration. Not only did she provide some insight into the history of this work, but her long time collaborator, K.J. Holmes, also performed a dance set to an audio track Julie had made. I’ve always known Julie was a dancer. I’ve probably read it into her work – seeing as it moves with an ease and incisiveness she maneuvers so well. But the panel really made me want to know more, understand more of how her experiences dancing have found their way into her poems, her process, her thinking, etc.
Below is an excerpt from the audio track she created. Throughout it you can hear different textures colliding: family, friends, noise, weather, silence, lines from Julie’s own poems. We’ve also published excerpts from Julie’s forthcoming RAG and her current project, Real Life: An Installation, as well as an interview we conducted over the course of the semester in which we discuss dance, dance/text collaboration, process, improvisation, gender & sexism, poet-minds, and the body as a site of resistance.
Read excerpts from Julie Carr’s forthcoming RAG and her current project, Real Life: An Installation here.
Listen to Audio for HIC SVNT DRACONES
Interview with Julie Carr:
Alexis Almeida: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me! I want to start by asking a bit about your background in dance. What led you to start dancing, and when did you start? I know you were living in New York in your 20′s – what kinds of dance projects were you taking on then? Did you feel it might play a role in your writing one day?
Julie Carr: So, I began dancing a bit late – I was twelve, and friends had all kinds of physical skills I didn’t have, so somehow I found this thing that no one else was really doing. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I could count and remember steps and keep a rhythm – the rest I had to work really hard at. When I went to college I had “given up on dance,” and had decided to “be a writer”! But then immediately on arriving (Barnard), I fell in with the dancers and got very involved. In the summer of my sophomore year of college I got a study grant and found myself at the American Dance Festival studying with Steve Paxton, the originator of Contact Improvisation and a leader of experimental dance. I was drawn to experimental forms – maybe because I was the daughter of a hippy and had been involved in punk and hardcore scenes all through high school. It was not like I was going to do ballet!
That summer I followed the improvisers around – going to Santa Fe for another festival and then, on returning to New York, finding the classes they were teaching and jams they were having. That’s how I met K.J. Holmes – she was teaching improvisation – and I also met Clarinda MacLow, daughter of Jackson MacLow – and lots of other downtown dancers. The East Village scene was, like the poetry scene then, very experimental, very interested in radical performance of various kinds – growing out of the Judson Church era of dance experimentation. Our heroes were people like Tricia Brown, Pina Bausch, and even more fringe performers like Pooh Kaye, John Kelley, Sally Silvers, Jennifer Monson and others who were working with performance and dance in new ways.
After college I started performing – not just improvisation, but also with choreographers who were working in the downtown scene. It was very busy and very fun. Somehow I made a living and performed pretty regularly in venues of all kinds: streets, parks, churches, bars, Dance Theater Workshop, The Kitchen, PS 122, Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church…. I even did a piece that ended up on TV (Entertainment Tonight), and made one music video.
I didn’t think it would play a role in my writing – more I thought my writing would play a role in dancing, which it did in various ways.
AA: Aside from being interested in this music video (!!), I want to ask about the role of improvisation in your early dancing career. I remember during your panel at &Now, your collaborator, K.J. Holmes, incorporated found objects into her dance performance – so much so that they became key elements. What drew you to improvisation in the various dance scenes you were involved in? Though I know improvisation implies a lack of preparation, spontaneity, it seems to go hand in hand with a certain amount of self-assuredness, in this case at least a bodily awareness or willingness to conjure certain instincts formed over time. Do you find that your experience improvising continues to show up, not just in your writing, but in your teaching or in other aspects of your life?
JC: Dance improvisation was introduced to me by Cynthia Novack, a dancer and dance anthropologist at Barnard College who has since passed away. Cynthia wrote a book about Contact Improvisation – Sharing the Dance – and worked with her students on improvisatory scores. From there, I studied improvisation with Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Nancy Stark Smith, and K.J. Holmes. Most of the contemporary dance choreographers were using improvisation, if not in performance, then as a way of creating dances with their dancers in a more egalitarian manner, so it was everywhere, a skill everyone was developing. We often went to “jams” – basically big dance parties that could last for days where we improvised with one another, usually not to music. So in this sense, dance improvisation was like social dance, but in other ways it was not at all – since so many of us were thinking always about performance, which is to say, about making something, about theater, and about training ourselves in certain physical skills – not just about having fun.
But dance improvisation is not about a lack of preparation at all. You have to be incredibly prepared if you’re going to perform improvisation, or even practice it in a meaningful way. You have to train yourself to be aware on all sensory levels – awake to what is happening around and within you, listening to the audience and to your fellow performers. You have to be “open,” yes, but also discerning. It’s not all “anything goes,” it’s about making theater with what is actually happening in the moment. You can tell when an inexperienced improviser is working – he or she will be very internal or extremely presentational. When really excellent improvisers work, you can watch their minds in action, you can see them making decisions and playing them out and abandoning them, you can see their own surprise and their range of expression in where they take themselves. As a viewer I loved that – I loved how improvisation (like jazz) allows you access to an artist’s process, to their mind, to their intelligence. I also love watching people get carried away, lose themselves, go places they never expected they’d go – and then come back to a place of thinking or observing. When dancers are doing set choreography, I’m thinking about the choreographer’s vision – about the design and theater of the piece. But when dancers are improvising, I’m thinking about how individuals function together – how they figure out (if there’s more than one) how to make a community – how to listen and respond and make room for one another and also how to assert, how to demand change, how to break things. This, to me, is very exciting and very important.
I suppose that years of practicing this in studios and on stages has to have an effect on how I write or how I live. But it’s hard to say. I think it teaches a lot of patience and trust – you have to trust that something interesting will happen and that you’ll recognize it when it does. Writing is, of course, always an improvisation at first. I go into writing never knowing what will happen and I do think I have a large amount of patience for not knowing, and even for not liking or being interested in what’s happening. I have developed a kind of faith that the language and I will figure something out – something we want to do together. Maybe that comes from all those years of being in studios with people and listening, watching, trying things out without too much attachment to product.
As for living – I can only wish I could be more improvisatory. On the other hand, I thrive by ritual and routine, so perhaps if I have a goal it is to be as open to surprise as possible, and to take as many risks as I can while doing more or less the same things every day.
AA: I really like this idea of “making theater with what is actually happening in the moment.” I agree that it’s really exciting to see a good improviser’s intelligence and decision-making process laid bare, to “see their own surprise and their range of expression in where they take themselves.” For me, I’ve mostly experienced this seeing music performed - watching a musician get carried away and then fall back into familiar chord progressions before breaking from them again, meanwhile listening and remaining aware of what other musicians are doing around them. I like the way you describe dance improvisation as involving an ability to assert, demand change, and break things, because it frames listening as an active, creative process rather than something that is passive or uninvolved. Are there any performances you’ve been to (or participated in) in which you felt the interaction between performers was particularly powerful on stage – dance, music, literary or otherwise? Are there poets whose choices or thought processes feel particularly dynamic on the page, who have compelled you to respond to them in your own work?
JC: I’ve seen many dance performances that blew me away because of the listening and responding going on. But I think it would bore our readers to list them. So let me talk about poets and poetry. We’ve all become really accustomed to associative leaps, sudden shifts, juxtaposition, and strange logic in poems. But I think those techniques can be too easily latched on to; they can add up to nothing. What interests me is when the writer (like the dancer) reveals a thought-process through these methods. Sometimes what’s driving a shift is an emotional outburst or interruption, sometimes it’s a mental association, sometimes it’s a sonic or rhythmic response to what’s come before. (These, by the way, are many of the same impetuses for shifts in dance improvisation – though one would have to add physical sensation to that list.)
The poets whose minds I like to watch move in this way include, right now, at this moment, Lisa Robertson, Kate Greenstreet, Fred Moten, C.D. Wright, Andrew Zawacki, and Susan Howe – and I say “at this moment” because these are the people I’ve been rather obsessively reading in the past year(s). But there are many others! And yes, I’ve been compelled to the page by their work.
In these writers, there’s a kind of searching going on, an intellectual restlessness that often comes through as urgency. There’s a lot at stake in the work, it’s not just playing around – but there’s also no final arrival. The shifts in form and media you see in these writers speaks to me about that restlessness.
In all these writers, there’s an intelligence revealed and explored and it’s not other than the emotions and sensations that are also alive in the work.
AA: That’s a great list of poets! I’d like to come back to these techniques you mention, especially juxtaposition, but first I want to move on more specifically to your recent presentation at &Now. Before the performance, you played a video montage of various dance companies performing from the 80s to the present day. All of the videos featured dance/text collaborations, though the stylistic range among the performers was very broad. Can you talk a bit about your association with some of these groups - how they may have shaped you ultimately as a thinker and why you felt it was important to provide the context of the video?
JC: I don’t have much of a personal association with those works except Anne Carson’s collaboration with Rashaun Mitchell – and that’s only because her work, her writing, has had a big influence on me as a writer. I did see the Steve Paxton Lisa Nelson collaboration when I was very young – 21 or so – and it opened up worlds for me. Before then I did not know that dancers improvised on stage, and I didn’t really know that dance and text could cohabitate a space without one needing to dominate the other. We chose to show those works because they exhibit a range of approaches to the dance/text collaboration over time. The impulse was pedagogic. A way to situate what we were doing within a context of others working within similar questions.
None of that work is available online. That was the other reason to show it – one can’t simply google these dances and watch them on youtube! It took a lot of work to compile and edit them. I’m afraid that if one does not live in New York, San Francisco (maybe), or LA, or frequent the Walker Arts Center, one’s dance education is almost necessarily going to be slim.
AA: Perhaps it seems fitting that many of these performances have not been anthologized, given how we normally think of dance as being best experienced in the present-moment, but what was so interesting about your panel was the way it challenged certain binaries and assumptions – suggesting ways the gestural, ephemeral aspects of dance performance can work alongside the archival tendencies of text. This certainly happened when the two of you combined a sound-score (excerpted above) and K.J.’s dance at &Now. Though I know much of this dance was improvised (at one point she shined a flashlight at certain audience members, telling them to “look away”), much of it was also choreographed, and I know you put a lot of work into the audio clip. What can you tell me about it? I notice a lot of looping, repetition, voices (some familiar, some not), and counting – how do you see these textures working together, and how do you see them interacting with the dance performance occurring at the same time?
JC: K.J. and I have been working together in one way or another since about 1990, so we have a very intuitive way of communicating. That said, there were some clear guidelines that she set for this work – she wanted to steer clear of there being any specific speaking subject, any specific “she,” which is why I used multiple voices throughout. She wanted a sense of chaos in the text, to locate language at the borders of sense. I was interested in the edges of language as well; numbers seem to me to be one edge or boundary (less troubled correlation between verbal utterance and concept or thing), and pure emotive sound being another – which was why we begin with counting, but move through speech into laughter and non-verbal crying out. At once point I thought I’d record people just sounding the vowels, but I got wrapped up in other things and didn’t get to that. I do love J. Michael Martinez’s demonic laughter coming through!
K.J. is always interested in edges and boundaries – and she thinks of this portion of the piece as troubling the concepts of “sanity” and “insanity.” Those words aren’t as resonant for me as, perhaps, reason and unreason, but it amounts to a similar set of questions. I selected text from the huge draft of “Real Life: An Installation” and tried to avoid anything too continuous. Layering my voice against Aaron Angello’s meant that nobody’s speech could be heard clearly throughout. The other sounds, the sampled and looped female voice in the cafe, the rhythmic mechanical sounds, the boy calling from far away – these were all manipulated in order to create pools of intensity and rhythm.
We’ve only performed this twice, and because of the aspects of improvisation, each has been distinct. I don’t think I can say much yet about how dance and text interact, unless it would be to describe what happened. I come to it with curiosity. I have a lot of trust in K.J. I’ve been watching her dance for so long, and I am never tired of it – she speaks with her body very clearly, but it’s not easily translatable into this kind of language.
AA: I’d like to move onto one of your current projects, Real Life: An Installation. What strikes me most, at least from what we’ve excerpted here, is the panoramic range of the work. Though much feels written from an intimate space, touching on issues of the body, of motherhood, of things we might associate with the “private” domain, the “installations” seem to demand their own exposure to the public, often reconstructing the concerns of other sections in a way that wants to frame them for an audience, if not directly involve that audience. How important was it for you to bring the ideas of public and private into close proximity here? Can you talk a bit about how this divide is gendered and how that might have contributed to the project’s concerns?
JC: This is such a great question because it lands on one of the central concerns of that whole project, and probably of everything I’ve written. In this instance, I got interested in how the term “real life” gets used, and began writing it down each time I heard someone use it. What I discovered is that people often speak of returning to “real life” after intense experiences: war, illness, falling in love, childbirth, but also playing games, seeing art, sex, violence, etc. So what is this “real life” that is not all of those things? It seemed to me that people used the phrase to refer, basically, to work. Real life is the mundane, the dull, the ordinary, the daily, but it especially means going to work. So in this book I want to mess with those divisions – what is “real” what is imagined, dreamed, desired, felt through our contact with others, rather than our individualized experience? Is any of this not “real life”?
It’s not easy to map those divisions onto “public” and “private,” but you are right to notice that I wanted very much to bridge those supposed divides. One of the ways that poetry gets read in our circles is as either intimate or political, as either about the “self” or about the world. I absolutely reject those divisions, and not because “the personal is political,” though it is, but because my sense of what an intimacy is, what a self is, what a domestic or quotidian space is is entirely twinned and twined with whatever we construe as public or political life.
“Why should I care about your divorce?” is really the same question as “Why should I care about your war?”
The installation is fascinating to me because of how it re-imagines interior space (the home, the office, the gallery) as a place where “you” – which is to say anyone – is invited to participate. It’s performative, but it pretends not to be. One walks into an installation as if walking into an abandoned room. Everything is there except the people who made it that way – and sometimes they are there too. The installation speaks to our impulse to peer into windows, to go on a “house tour” (not that I’ve ever been on one), to use google maps to get down into the streets where other people live. There’s a whole history of installations that are really just houses that people have done stuff to – from Kurt Schwitters Merzbau to Womanhouse from 1972, to the current work of Theaster Gates. I’ve also written imagined histories of the installation that trace the movement between private and public in the installation.
As for gender: well everyone knows that the private has historically been gendered female and the public, male. I think we retain the traces of those divisions even when we aren’t living them out anymore (and often, we are). Why, for example, has conceptual poetry been thought of as so male? Is this because we think men are less interested in writing about the self? About emotion? Well, as soon as we look at the works of Kenny Goldsmith, for example, we see that’s not even a good way of understanding conceptual writing since many of his works are obsessed with the private spaces of the self. When we think of “domestic” writing, or writing about the body, we tend to think that it is done by women. But is this really true? Is the work of CA Conrad not, somehow, about the body? What about the work or Ronaldo Wilson? What about Anselm Berrigan’s domestic poems? On the other side, what about the very publicly oriented work of C.D. Wright, of M. nourbese Philip, of Anne Waldman (just to grab a few ready and contemporary examples)? So you see that these gendered divisions break down immediately, but still we think them.
This is, I believe, just internalized and externalized sexism that continues to want to limit the work of women, to locate it in a smaller “sphere” and to consider it irrelevant. So, while first of all we have to understand that women continue to write into all kinds of material, second of all we have to see how these so-called private spaces are not, and never were, private. There are no concentric circles, it’s the wrong geometry.
AA: Your response makes me think of the “Untitled Essay” in Nilling, where Lisa Robertson refers to the domestic sphere “…in terms of a mediating skin, rather than in terms of a private interiority conceptually opposed to a social outside.” For her, as for you, the suggestion that the domestic sphere isn’t and never was private takes on political importance – “In this shift away from the spatial metaphor of the domestic, a displacement of power occurs.” I’m curious what writers you think have reframed the idea of domesticity in a particularly radical way. I’m thinking specifically of Victorian poets, for whom the domestic, the every day, was especially important, and whom you’ve written about in your book Surface Tension?
JC: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh comes to mind, for there she levies a direct attack on the feminization of the domestic sphere, or the domestication of women. Aurora recognizes the danger of a domestic space where women are given only “Their right of comprehending husband’s talk / When not too deep,” and are expected to ”keep quiet by the fire / And never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay,’ / For that is fatal,–their angelic reach / Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn/ And fatten household sinners–” Browning has Aurora respond to this servitude first by embroidering scenes from mythology in which women, in various ways, destroy men, and secondly by having her run off to become a writer. Eventually she recreates domestic space as a partnership with another woman and her child. The Pre-Raphaelites were absolutely re-imagining domestic space, marriage, and heteronormativity through their actions as well as their poems: Dante Rossetti, WIlliam Morris (in his Utopian novel News from Nowhere, marriage is abolished as a form of private property), Swinburne of course, and then there’s George Meredith’s Modern Love.
Often people read the Victorian’s as turning to the domestic as a kind of refuge or escape from political matters:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And yes, in those lines it does seem that Arnold wants the lovers to turn away from sights of war and toward one another for security (though there’s not much security to be found there). But I think that instead so many of these writers were working with and unveiling how very political the domestic realm really was. In a time of great change around the concept of the human – and the development of democracy is nothing less than that – the idea of family, of intimacy, of home, all of that becomes a site of upheaval and challenge.
I recently wrote an essay about Lyn Hejinian’s great verse-novel Oxota, which is a terrific contemporary example of a work that absolutely refuses the division between the public/political and the private/domestic. Glasnost goes on in the living rooms and kitchens of friends, in the flirtations between lovers, and in whatever might be cooking on the stove.
AA: Lastly, I want to ask about the poems we’ve excerpted from your forthcoming book, RAG. Aside from wanting to know a bit about the project, I’m in love with these lines:
I practice the body / with red implements for probing / and slices of fruit / fluid swords and light bulbs in the right places / I don’t care who likes or understands my methods
In the two poems you’ve shared with us, the body becomes a means of exploring, or rather encountering issues of race, class, gender, but what draws me to these lines is their awareness of the body’s limitations and relative position. Here, it is not only a site of resistance, where a reinforced, personal logic is used to ward off outside judgment, but also a site on which certain expectations are imposed and absorbed – in essence, it can never be fully separate from what surrounds it. I guess my question is: what does it mean to “practice” the body in the poem? And what meaning can this practice have within a broader social context, even within the context of personal interaction on the smallest scale?
JC: Hmmmm. I guess I think, to be kind of glib, we are always “practicing the body.” There is no “body,” in the sense that there is no stable, knowable, satisfied corporeal self. Instead, the body is a sight of constant change, constant desire (or disgust) – it’s where we locate pain, pleasure, appetite, illness, aging, excess, lack. There’s nothing but practicing, when it comes to the body. There is no “it,” actually, because whatever the body is is always changing at every instant, entirely fluid, a fluid-form, and there is really no distinction, or no absolute or really meaningful distinction, between my body and its surroundings. Everything I touch (or everyone) becomes me because it enters me, literally through my skin and other senses.
At the same time, as a woman, one is distinctly aware of one’s body as “thing,” as a thing that others are aware of – this is especially true for young women, but becomes true in a different way for mothers, and differently true again as you age. Whatever stage of life a woman is in, she’s going to have to try really hard not to be hyper aware of her body as a kind of appendage she’s carrying around, displaying or not, decorating or not, liking or not. And so, as much as the body is not ever a thing, it is also not (at least for women) ever less or more than a thing.
This is certainly one of the cruxes I want RAG to be about. Events happen to women’s bodies throughout that book – or they do things to their own bodies in order to “use” their bodies, or in order to escape from other people’s use of their bodies. A lot of the material was found in mythology: there’s the girl who cuts off her own hands in order to avoid having to marry her brother, there’s the one who gouges out her own eyes, again in order to avoid having to marry. There’s a woman who buries herself standing up, and another who (this is a real-life person) impregnates herself and forces an abortion over and over, and then there’s of course the mundane example of women who starve themselves. Well, it gets a bit gory, but that is the point: the body of a woman has a public dimension (as all bodies do), and violence to that body is such a given in our culture that performing that violence on the self becomes a kind of resistance.
I’m trying to think about, as you say, the body as a site of resistance even as, or perhaps because, it is also a permeable and constantly transforming and ultimately unknowable space.
Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence and the forthcoming books, RAG and Think Tank. Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry came out with Dalkey Archive in 2013. A co-edited collection, Active Romanticism: Essays on the Continuum of Innovative Poetry and Poetics from the Late 18th Century to the Present, is due out from the University of Alabama Press in 2014. She is the co-director of Counterpath Press, lives in Denver, and teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.[Top]
An Interview with Megan Kaminski
By: Alexis Smith
The 2013 Timber will be featuring lovely new work from Megan Kaminski’s recent chapbook, This Place (Dusie Press 2013). Though the poems in This Place are discussing travel, they do not stumble into the genre of travel poetry; rather they offer a lushly distinct landscape that embraces and questions space, the blending of space, and the invasion of space. Here language sharpens the Hawaiian coastline with rich precision.
Megan is the author of six chapbooks, as well as Desiring Map (Coconut Books 2012), her first full length collection. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Kansas, where she directs the Creative Writing Exchange and Undergraduate Reading Series. She also curates the Taproom Poetry Series in downtown Lawrence, recently named one of the top 10 reading series in the Midwest. I first met Megan as an undergraduate at KU and have been enamored of both her poetry and activism in the poetry community ever since. Megan kindly corresponded with me by way of email about This Place, resulting in the following interview.
The idea of place is so essential to your book Desiring Map. It seems that this theme continues in your chapbook This Place, but in your newer work the character of a tourist or visitor becomes more prevalent and also somewhat politically charged:
invasive: having spread
oneself in a way that is
detrimental to those who
Here, the body is a visitor and an even somewhat intrusive vessel; a part of the space it inhabits, but also a foreigner. Could you discuss how your focus of place has shifted in this later chapbook?
Yes, there is definitely a conscious shift in these poems—both for theoretical and for practical reasons. The more I write, read, and think, the more I become committed to an ecologically and socially engaged practice. It is clear to me that we are at a crisis point—in terms of environmental devastation (carbon levels, global warming, mass extinctions) and in terms of the crisis of late capitalism (look at this map of global protests; the world is on fire). And I don’t believe that it is desirable (or even possible) to try to write outside of these realities. So, I guess, in many ways I am writing a poetry of crisis. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty and pleasure in the poems, but there is also an urgency, a sense of underlying emergency—the body, our bodies (all animals and plants), the larger ecosystem, under attack.
So on one hand, I was very much working toward a more direct ecopoetics, and on the other hand, I was clearly in a place, Maui, in which I was a visitor, an interloper. As much as I felt connected to that place in the few months that I had spent there, I was very much an outsider. I didn’t want to leave out my love for the place and the experiences that I had there, but the last thing that I wanted to do was to write poems in which I as an outsider came to “explain things” or talk about my precious travel experiences. I did not want to write “travel poems.” I especially did not want to write “white-lady-comes-to-far-away-island-on-holiday-and-is-moved-by-the-exotic-place/people-poems,” and I was conscious always to point back to and undermine my position.
A sense of ecopoetics seems profoundly significant in your new chapbook, This Place. Could you talk about your personal interpretation of this word and how it applies to your efforts in poetry, not only as an author, but also as a member of a larger poetic community?
From my perspective, ecopoetics is a term that can encompass a broad range of practices. Obviously, these approaches are all concerned with ecological systems and our place in them, and I also think that the poetics of the work has to be deeply tied to that relationship. Of course, Jonathan Skinner’s definition looms large in my mind: “’Eco’ here signals—no more, no less—the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. ‘Poetics’ is used as poesis or making, not necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus: ecopoetics, a house making.” Skinner’s writings (his poems and critical work) and his work as editor of Ecopoetics have been formative to the way I think about these things. “Ecopoetics” existed as a term long before I was writing seriously, so I am a bit of a late-comer to the conversation.
That said, it’s a conversation that I am deeply invested in. So when I think of ecopoetics, I certainly think of poems discussing subjects of environmental import. Moreover, I’m interested in poems that employ formal strategies that seek to create a larger paradigm shift. A poetry of innovation and engagement, rather than one of remove. I’m also interested in a sort of human decentering, in which the self functions as only a part of the larger ecosystem. I think of Evelyn Reilly’s discussion of a “search for a language congruent with a world that is not filled with objects or subjects, that is not ‘the context,’ nor ‘the setting’ for subjects or objects, but that is a permanent state of flux between subject-objects and object-subjects.” I think of poets like Skinner and Reilly, and also Brenda Iijima, Sherwin Bitsui, Bhanu Khapil, C.S. Giscombe, Juliana Spahr, Michelle Naka Pierce, CA Conrad, Marcella Durand, Matthew Hall, Linda Russo, Dan Beachy-Quick, Joshua Corey, Stephen Collis, Cara Benson, Brenda Hillman, Forrest Gander, and others.
The problem of defining memory becomes a repeated theme. For example, in “This Place” you write: “place sheltering misplaced memory of belonging/ and not.” Also in your poem “Dictation”: “easy to remember/ no names for this.” How do you see the struggle of memory interacting with the definition of place and body in these poems?
The poems are certainly grappling with memory and representation. In some ways, memory can work as profound embodiment—the way our muscles store the memory of motion, of sensations, and also the way that memory can record our personal experiences in order to replay and repeat them. That said, memory is more a creation-in-flux than a reliable record. It often seems that memory is an unpredictable and unwanted guest, showing up when it is least expected. The way a certain scent or touch of wind on your skin can bring you back to all sorts of people and places. Memory can certainly create and inform our present experiences. I don’t think we can know what it would mean to say “what really happened.” I’m skeptical of memory, for sure, but memory is so tied to our reality that it seems inextricable.
There’s a lot of layering of memory and experience in the poems. The very sensation of floating in the ocean, or stepping into hot sand, is so ingrained in my conscious from some of my earliest memories. So the ocean for me holds years of memory and experience, even if I am seeing myself as very much existing in the present.
Not to be ridiculous, but the effort or lack of ability to name things in these poems brings to mind the infamous lines of Shakespeare: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ by any other name would smell as sweet.” How do you interpret these boundaries—between things and their names, the human struggle to name, and the incapability to capture a “finite thing” (from “The Pacific”) within a name? Furthermore, how much is this struggle due to the possible failure of language as a definitive thing?
I don’t believe that language can fail us—perhaps we are failing language? There is certainly a struggle around the act of naming—and most of that, for the poems in the book, at least, is tied to the politics of naming, rather than a failure of language. In some poems the problem with naming comes from me honestly not knowing what something was named. Of course, I could use Google, or do some other research (I did look things up in most cases), but I wanted to capture that experience of not knowing. I also didn’t want to do that thing that happens in travel poems, the listing of specific (and mostly unfamiliar) names as a way of credentialing, like proof of a somehow “authentic” experience or a deep personal knowledge of the place that somehow allows me to speak authoritatively about that place. I guess I am a somewhat self-loathing tourist. I’m not interested in those kinds of ideas of authenticity or authority. I’m also not that interested in the ego/persona of the speaker (Megan as the “I” of the poems). Instead, I’m interested in capturing the experience and making it permeable to others.
In Maui, the politics of naming come up in light of Hawaii’s colonial history—and its present status as a state in the US, as opposed to an independent, self-governing state. When talking about plants, animals, and places in Maui there is often a choice between a Hawaiian name or an English name. Naming is a fraught thing. We can do a lot of fucked up things with language—I don’t think the fault there lies with language, though.