Friday, June 3, 2011

Sharon Zetter and Christine Hume on Insomnia, Motherhood, and Vocality

Sharon Zetter, Music from First Novels and Christine Hume tonight, June 3rd, at Studio One Art Center 7:30pm

Sharon Zetter:
In your most recent book of poetry, Shot, I was struck by your invocation of night and the landscape of dreams and dreaming that you meditate upon. What is/was it about the nocturnal landscape that you are so interested in exploring? (This question seems particularly apropos as I write to you in the midst of the witching hour.)

Christine Hume:
I have been an insomniac for as long as I can remember, and feel physically connected to night's unfathomability. As much as its wrecked havoc in my life, I wanted to investigate insomnia as the most promising step toward self-knowledge. I also wanted to play with various nocturnal realities, including the ways in which we do become other people--chemically, psychologically etc--at night and in threshold states on either end of sleep. What happens when we are stuck in a threshold state? My great hope is staked in ontological fatigue: to reinstall slowness and self-doubt as a new aesthetic motor, to infect the reader with enriching fatigue. Flaubert does this in another way, says he wants to make the reader so catatonic that she will go mad but never fall asleep! My high school track coach's mantra was "fatigue is a mental condition," and though I think she meant this as a spur to keep running and run faster, my goal in Shot was to let this catchphrase take on as many lives as possible. In doing so, I'm hoping to dismantle a dependency on catharsis and the impulse to be productive, to structure my leisure and to feel guilt about "dead time." Luckily, in the middle of writing the book, I was pregnant and then had a child, which in effect entirely changed my relationship to sleep. Or maybe that process also had something to do with writing Shot. I used to become a werewolf, and now I can most nights (write it!) sleep. Or dream of werewolves.

SZ: I've also been an insomniac for just about all of my memory's length (mine recently abated as well--with the birth of falling in love!). I wonder if there is something inherently nocturnal in our writerly dispositions...Now that you have found sleep, how do you parse those two selves: the Christine of the night and threshold state in juxtaposition to the Christine of the day-awake? Or do you have a new view entirely? Also: how has becoming a mother/having a child altered your writing practices/interests?

CH: It's fortunate that I can answer these questions as one, albeit indirectly, as I think the before and after photos of me would be just as easily captioned BEFORE MOTHERHOOD and DURING MOTHERHOOD as DAY and NIGHT. I still have dark circles under my eyes. And I still prefer to write in the morning, but now I'll take what I can get, interruptions and all. Or as you say in one of your poems, "How the potential is / an arrival: every angle."

Of the umpteen different responses that come rushing to mind, then, I'll rewind to the time right after my daughter was born. Below are notes I took in those first months. (I'm still fascinated by the notion of "voice" and have come to realize that individuation happens first in the sonic field--vocality is really how we first come to know ourselves, not by the mirror (as in Lacan's mirror stage). That is our very first power of self-recognition is our own voice--that blurtish, spastic, stuttering, expressive, arrhythmic factory of vocal sounds.)

When I read my poem aloud in front of an audience, I am aware of my failure to voice it as I hear it in my head: I am lending to my writing a voice that always seems to fail the language.

When I am talking to my pre-verbal baby, I lend her a language that I can understand—I provide both sides of the conversation. This is not only a falsification of her voice but it’s a failure to recognize her language and her inclination toward imitation of nonspeech, onomatopoeia and nonEnglish sounds, sounds that have no representative function, but are not meaningless.

Think of Jakobson’s “apex of babble,” an infant’s vast capacity of sounds that must be partially lost to learn a single language. The loss of a limitless phonetic arsenal is the price my child must pay for the papers that grant her citizenship in the community of English-speakers.

When I teach her my language I fail to keep other languages alive and I fail at my ability to discover or reach beyond foregone conclusions.

My daughter’s stubborn sounds of attempt display the powers and deficiencies of language itself, an incompetence built into language, a verbal uncertainty that threatens my own fluency. After all emotional or intellectual intensity sometimes correlates with verbal insufficiency, which correlates with imaginative success. This paradox is best captured in music or tones of voice, that sounds and silence link us to our earliest states of being. Cadences lie less than words.

I may speak to my daughter in words, but to her they are not words.

Language is the child’s way of exploring and seeking pleasure. Language leads her back to bodies.

My failure is necessary for my daughter to learn language. My failure is also necessary for my own writing. I feel no assurance in what I write, I rewrite and erase, I am endlessly enmeshed in a work that cannot end, because I am always looking back at what I write. When I look back I see terrible things that petrify me and electric things that make me want to go other ways, or in multiple ways at one time.

What do I teach her? That all knowledge is a reduction of the unknown to the known. Blanchot paraphrased: A writer is her own first dupe, and at the very moment she fools other people she is also fooling herself.

I realize that failure—the thing that forces me toward editing, correcting, negating what I've already written—is also the very thing that insists I keep writing, adding more words, trying out new formulations and arrangements. Failure is necessary, but it is also impossible.

I attempt to work with and through my own failure, my guesses at who my daughter is and what will help her keep becoming. If I dedicate myself to motherhood, I dedicate myself to answering the call of this failure, the sense that the voice and language I lend to my daughter will help her take her own form (not mine), to help her understand her own choices, to help her attain a greater sense of her possibility and future, which includes the possibility of failure.

Please tell me more about The Dacha Project, your "off-grid educational homestead dedicated to creating sustainable living practices for working artists, located outside of Ithaca," in relation to your poetic practice. What new forms of public knowledge and empathy have you discovered in this collaborative process?

SZ: For me, The Dacha Project is about potentiality--specifically the potentiality of community and chosen family. The dacha is comprised of six individuals with simultaneously overlapping, parallel, and convergent ideas of both its current and projected mission. What that has meant for me and my poetic practice is the creation of an open field. An anchoring that allows for wider movement. And, beyond the material level, a possible home (which contains multitudes). The dacha is a space where cultivation of the creative force is constantly at work and at odds. This has led me to a deeper investigation into what it is I want my poetry to be and how I want it and I to enter into the world. Robert Creeley points to this when he posits that "form is never more than an extension of content." The collaborative force of the dacha is inextricably linked to the force that resides within each of us and all of us as one. Just as important as empathy--which is essential--has been a constant reevaluation and recommitment to myself and to our project.

CH: Your work seems inextricably relational and searching for locatability without seeking absolutes or stasis. I want to go back to "How the potential is / an arrival: every angle." I'm wondering how you negotiate this mining of potential with the possibility of personal failure. I mean, how do you manage "a constant reevaluation and recommitment to" yourself AND the collective project? This is a very American question!

SZ: This is quite a paralyzing question! I think, at first, failure is terrifying--even in this hypothetical notion-state. But what I would posit is that reevaluation and recommitment also point to, and hinge upon, rebirth. And rebirth can only occur when there has been a failure on some existential level--a death of sorts. Does this mean that failure is not only inevitable, but necessary? Are our poems, ourselves, merely caught in the eternal recurrence? This swings me toward Frank O'Hara's "Song":

I tell you
how I hate disease, it's like worrying
that comes true
and it simply must not be able to happen
in a world where you are possible
my love
nothing can go wrong for us, tell me

How can the self not want for nothing to go wrong? But also: how can nothing go wrong? In the simplest, most evasive terms: I manage by managing. Perhaps it is the Jewish New Yorker in me, but yes--I agree with Frank: "it's like worrying that comes true." It is possible that, in a future reevaluation, my self (and my poetics) could be in tension with the collective project. Which would then bring recommitment into question. For me, this is where stasis and absolutes come into play--both of which are essential. Stasis in the form of silence, meditation, reflection and family, relation, God for absolutes.

CH: And on a smaller square, how is the context in which the reader/listener comes to your work essential?

SZ: I would hope that a reader coming to my work would be interested and invested in relations--both with themselves and with others. Also in dialogue--again, with themselves (the myriad selves you point to in your investigation of the threshold moments) and with others. But also: any poem can and should transcend contextual limitations. Which is not to say that context is meaningless--a reader's familiarity with my artistic interests adds an important texture and grain to their reading. When I first came to "The Glass Essay," I was so taken by Anne Carson--her voice, the darkness, the stillness and strangeness that are braided into that particular piece. But I had yet to read Wuthering Heights! For me, "The Glass Essay" moves beyond a dependence on Bronte's text, but once that added contextual layer is brought into the fold, Carson's work takes on further importance and depth by being placed within a larger lineage. However, If I were to place a reader (in the act of reading) in context: I would plant them on the N train to Coney Island in the thick of August.

In line with this...Who are your beacons? That is: who are the poets that you find yourself returning to for sustenance? Although, of course, visual artists/filmmakers/"prose" writers/etc. are all welcome around these parts as well.

CH: I hesitate here for the usual reasons, but also I think coming to the Bay Area calls subtextuals of this question into relief for me. The Bay Area has such intense and long-standing poetry communities, that it's difficult not to think of how one's self-proclaimed beacons will map onto those various collective identities. For me the anxiety of inclusion runs as deep as the anxiety of exclusion. I like to think rather of Goethe's Elective Affinities and Tom Stoppard's remake, Arcadia, which updates the chemical affinities metaphor with chaos theory and thermodynamics, where characters are reactive entities. My affinities run toward Jeff Clark, Claudia Rankine, Christina Milletti, Caroline Bergvall, Gregory Whitehead, Yoko Ono, Anne Carson, Janet Cardiff, Alphoso Lingis, Bhanu Kapil, G.M. Hopkins, Aime Cesaire, Mina Loy, Muriel Rukeyser.... I'm also lucky to have Rob Halpern and Carla Harryman, both of whom I adore personally and admire artistically, for colleagues. Finally, a gathering of affinities I hope to see while I'm there is at SFMOMA, a show called "The Steins Collect."

Right back at you. Who/what gets your artistic engines running?

Now it is my turn to hesitate over the anxiety of in/exclusion! Other than those names I have already called out (Creeley, Carson, O'Hara), I would be not-myself without the affinities of Edmond Jabes, Emily Dickinson, Faulkner, Whitman, John Ashbery, Dan Flavin, Ann Lauterbach, Brenda Hillman, Don Revell, James Tate, Frank Stanford, Flannery O'Conner, Kiki Smith, Diane Arbus, Fanny Howe and Paul Celan. And yes: Stein.

Sharon Zetter lives in Oakland and works at Studio One Art Center. She is a co-founder of The Dacha Project, an off-grid educational homestead dedicated to creating sustainable living practices for working artists, located outside of Ithaca, New York. In 2009 she received an MFA from St. Mary's College of California, where she served as the poetry editor for Mary Magazine. Her poems have found home in Hanging Loose, Shampoo, The Greenbelt Review, Monday Night, Soft Skull and Blood Pudding Press, among others.

Christine Hume is the author of three books of poetry—most recently Shot (Counterpath, 2010)—and a chapbook with CD, Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008). She is Coordinator of the interdisciplinary Creative Writing Program at Eastern Michigan University.