‘Inside every cell is a system beyond your own capacity for mathematics.’
—Eating and Speaking
Reading each letter and word (cell) of your poems could be described as a systematic unsettling of the space between the reader and their world. What do you hope one can learn from (reorienting) the practice of reading?
You’ve identified the thing I’m most interested in as a writer and reader: the possibilities of those practices being otherwise, even if subtly so. At every stage I want a reader to be aware that they are reading, and to be aware that reading is never a simple (uninterrupted) transfer of knowledge or ideas or sensations. It’s always the construction of those things, in a relation irreducible to mere transmission or passage. It involves a lot of vague, ambient, often contradictory processes of attention that are rarely acknowledged but that contribute significantly to the experience of what is read. I think ‘poetry’, as a very loose term, is a productive practice insofar as it really emphasises these minor shifts of attention to and in language.
To clarify: I’m not just saying, reading is up to the reader. I’m less concerned about the meaning of this or that word, this or that line, this or that piece, than I am about how and why language materialises, or makes possible, the conditions for meaning to be made (and therefore also becomes implicated in what those meanings signify). So the emphasis is not on interpretation as an individuated activity but on the specific politics of interpretation—interpretation as a social practice. We’re all responsible for the way language is used—to engage with language is always a critical experience. Poetry is one way to be especially conscious of such a critical engagement.
Reading as a relational, embodied practice—this leads us to an enduring investigation in your poetry: the conditions of this embodiment. The reader’s body, language’s body, and the maintenance and breakdown of other bodies within your poems. I wonder if you could talk about this, particularly in relation to this idea of making something ‘be otherwise’—it seems for you, the rethinking or remaking of the body, of corporeality, is of particular concern.
What constitutes a body (how it is defined, determined, experienced, perceived, regulated, acted upon and so on)is radically variable. Like many contemporary thinkers I take the body and embodiment as inextricable from cognitive and conscious life. Human bodies are complexes—dynamic assemblages of material, chemical, electrical (and so on!) phenomena. And they’re mostly non-human—that is, they are mostly the domain of bacteria and parasites and so on. Bodies are also meaningful in ways that are non-essential yet no less real as a result. Think of all the important work that gets done in critical race theory, queer theory and transnational feminisms—this work is important precisely because it addresses the bodily experience of political life. So I think there’s a really fine line here to be drawn between some contemporary theory that stresses the complexity and non-humanness of material life and the social/critical theory that stresses the politics of having a body in a world overwhelmingly determined by (neo)colonialist late-capitalism. People like Sara Ahmed and Jasbir Puar are writing important work in this field—to do with the radicalisation of bodies in terms of political philosophy.
I’m always concerned by the material conditions of writing: who pays me or not, where or how the writing is written, where or how the writing is read, by whom, in what context, in what medium, on what terms, to what consequence, with what stakes. And then other stuff: is it recorded or not, in print or not, distributed or not. How does one write with the flu, in love, after a breakup, on drugs, under pressure, off the record, to a student, in an email? These things not only affect writing, they are the writing itself. Writing is hard, embarrassing. It’s hard because you’re materialising things that you have never thought before—you’re literally making new ideas! How exhausting, how humiliating! People tend to think that writing is some kind of transmissive or translational process—the jottings of ‘inner thoughts’. But thinking is not languaged in the same way that writing is—it’s a material transformation from the chaos of concepts to the articulation of ideas. And it’s labour, it’s work, it takes a massive amount of energy and it spends the body in a particular way. So I try to give an account of this awareness as I write—to make sure that the writing is both literally and suggestively an index of the body’s materiality.
This complex position of the body, always between material and political realities, seems to be expressed by your ongoing concern with food as a both a concept and a category. Food, in how it maintains and escapes the subject and its body, as well as how it is abstracted, signified, and commodified more broadly in society.
I wonder if you could talk about this in relation to two recent poems, one that made it alike and FOOD TURNS INTO BLOOD. In the case of the former, it seems that food is expressed as a kind of bodily currency (from devilled eggs as payment, to debts of beef, milk, tobacco and the split line ‘spoon hand-feeding / virus customers’) whereas in FOOD, what is and isn’t food is constantly ambiguous, and no one ever eats.
My interest in the body and embodiment is always attached to an interest in food. In lots of my work—Eating and Speaking especially—food is a recurring theme. My approach is Epicurean, in the early sense of the word, that is, to do with the elemental activity of eating and its mediation of bodies and environments.
I read something once about the space between the mouth and the anus—that long, tangled tube—as a continuation of the public space that the body opens out and into, meaning our bodies are hollow like a doughnut. I love this idea—and I think it makes the publicness of food, its social import, all the more meaningful. The lines you quote from one that made it alike are indicative of a basic fascination with food as an economic unit: every morsel has an exchange value. FOOD TURNS INTO BLOOD is a bit different. That work is appropriated from a very long OCR scan of an early twentieth-century text book teaching English idiomatic phrases to speakers of Japanese. The scan rendered most of the language into noise—hundreds and hundreds of pages of it. I combed through and harvested lines and sentences in such a way that a kind of pseudo-novel was eventually composed. There’s a central character, an exemplary ‘he’, but of course, because ‘he’ is always merely the stand-in subject, ‘his’ experiences are rarely subjectivised in any meaningful sense. Your observation that no one eats is apt—there is no one doing the eating, and yet there is always food!
‘where to live is an endless scene of depopulation’
Going on from this ‘desubjectivised subject’ in FOOD—it seems that this is an ongoing operation in your work. The line (and poem) above for me is useful in mapping this out: these words, and your poetry more generally, are located somewhere between the personal (indeed the way one lives), the effects language has on the subject (how language is used to perform this kind of depopulation) and a broader project to ‘depopulate language’ (expressing its endless possibilities to the point where it becomes [endlessly] ‘useless’). What significance do limits/infinity have in your poetry?
I struggle to work out the relationship between personal experience and the often-public practice of writing. I reject a simplified opposition between subjective, confessional writing and objective, abstracted writing. I can’t imagine anything more intimate than an abstraction, and I often find my emotions less legible than other things I experience or perceive. The relationship between subjective experience and material life is endlessly fascinating—especially insofar as both are mediated by social processes. Sometimes I think I’m being really candid but then find out that people read my explicitness as obscure. It’s not a contradiction or misrecognition: experience is just always at once explicit and obscure.
Poems are limiting technologies: here is the poem, this is the line. They lay a certain claim, stake out a definite territory. But they are small, often fatally so. So their limits also suggest a limitlessness, or an infinity of alternatives. They may say, here is the poem, but that gesture is always accompanied by its own minorness; poems are ways of showing how a limit can exist despite the always-infinite context for action. That tension—what happens in writing as opposed to what could happen in writing but doesn’t—is at the heart of how we read. It’s the guts of criticality.
To return to an earlier thought, the ‘public-ness’ of the space beyond the abyss of the mouth, also relates to your questioning of limits and what you wrote above, about the intimacy of an abstraction. It seems, in one way, so strange that what is so physically proximate, or immediate, or ‘natural’ (the space of my body, the meaning I think I ascribe to ‘my words’) is not so easily intimate, or private, but is exactly as you say, subject to and constitutive of a whole range of social forces that are unknowable, that escape.
I feel as though intimacy in your work is its undoing (I think particularly of Minor Dogs, FOOD) and what materialises is the attempt or movement (the crush, your crush) towards things (and the possibility of intimacy itself).
Crushes are intensive, extensive movements towards intimacy that continually defer the realisation of ‘romance’ in favour of facing the question of what intimacy might or could be. Crushes are non-reciprocal affections that are frank about their probable failure. Nevertheless they’re so productive—they set up the conditions for serious thought, total action. To be clear, I’m not talking about crushes on people—or at least, not exclusively! I’m talking about the crush as a way of understanding a particular way of relating to objects, subjects, concepts, ideas, moments, networks, assemblages and so on, in which the energy of desire is understood in a social context—indeed, as sociality itself. Romantic love and the couple form are drastically over-determined in terms of how we (culturally speaking) understand intimacy. I’m always disappointed by this fact, since there are so many different modes of doing intimacy and being intimate. Our cultural vocabulary for describing intimacy is corrupt—the dominance of the libido and the territorialisation of desire in terms of the family, the state, the sex act and so on, determine the narrative and valency of intimacy. We have so few terms to describe the intimacy of experience—the intimacy, for example, of reading and writing, eating and speaking,of collaborating, being alongside, sharing space, commiserating, grieving, or fighting. I think this is a great shame, not least because intimacy offers such a wonderfully complex account of things that are simultaneously virtual and actual, definite and vague, palpable and inscrutable.
‘locate a cop car unflipped’
This now gives me a chance to ask about the political nature of your work—it seems you variously disengage the regimentation of language (for example trying to express intimacy beyond its habituation) in its use, syntax, image and meaning. Do you see your poetry as enacting some kind of disobedience or resistance, and, if so, to what proposed end?
I have a very specific politics, which I aim to engage in my writing. But I try not to imagine that my writing can enact these politics in any easy sense. For example, I may perceive a correlation between notions of normativity and the way that language is used and taught. But non-normative language use—in a poem, for example—is not by itself constitutive of a critique of normativity. The critique happens at the intersection of a set of different practices. A politics has to be engaged relationally—in contact with people, institutions, histories, habits, and so on. So yes, it’s important to me that my writing investigates the way that language use is tied up with politics, and that this in turn is part of a broader mode of resistance against hegemonic violence. But no, I don’t imagine the work being done by itself in the writing. I have to acknowledge the total luxury I have—I am not in danger, for example, for writing a line about wanting to flip a cop car. So what good is that sentiment unless I am willing to act against police brutality outside a poem?
The politics of reading cannot be located in the content or the form of the text, nor in the intention of the writer or reader alone but in the intersection of all these things, alongside countless other factors, and in the way that such an intersection comes to be and carries on elsewhere. We can’t expect too much from writing, just as we cannot underestimate the politics of language use. It’s all about this double-caution with writing: don’t make it everything, don’t ignore its anything.
Lastly, on poetry being a small part in a resistance against hegemonic violence, it brought me to think of a work by Claire Fontaine, of The Society of the Spectacle wrapped around a brick. Language, a brick, potentially both a weapon and a building block. Particular also to this work is its relation to history—I wondered if you had any thoughts about particular writers that had helped you to think differently, or whether there was anyone writing now that for you particularly articulates a radical spirit?
Rather than trying to be exhaustive or definitive, I might try to list a few books that I have read recently and that have been particularly exciting in terms of radicality—specifically, radicality in the context of the contemporary. Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times is incredible. Puar’s argument, at the risk of horrifically oversimplifying it, is that in a post-9/11 US, the collusion of neoliberal capitalism, nationalism and hetero- and homonormativity have served to vilify the racial other as a newly queered enemy: at once impotent and perverted, anti-family and anti-state. It’s such a sophisticated account of the intrinsically contradictory logics of, and the continued relationship between, capitalism and colonialism. I’ve also been reading Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s collaborative book, The Undercommons, a collection of essays on the theory and practice of black radicalism. The title essay is particularly phenomenal. Generally speaking I read between transnational feminisms, critical race theory, queer theory, political philosophy and different kinds of aesthetic theories/criticisms. I think the important thing about reading and writing around radicality is that the work is constant, varied and variable, collective, burdensome. It can happen anywhere and indeed must happen everywhere, and the crippling sense of futility that comes from knowing how small gestures of radicality most often are, and how instantly the structural challenges to radical thought preclude action, and how damning our own participations and inclusions are, and how slowly institutional changes occur, and how shockingly total the subsumption of difference into global capitalism feels…these things are ever-present and vital to imagining how radicality can actually exist. So I try to figure my thinking not (only) in terms of a desire for radicalism but in terms of what can be done with the material conditions of a world so violently against the radicality of desire. Everything is awful and yet we must go on.