Monday, August 8, 2011

A Conversation: Laura Sims and Joseph Massey

Joseph Massey: What does the apocalypse mean to you, and do you believe we're now in the midst of it? And how does it play into the manuscript you're currently working on?

Laura Sims:
Apocalypse means everything to me. By that I mean: 'apocalypse' can mean and be so many things, great and small. There are: personal apocalypses, marital apocalypses, physical apocalypses, job apocalypses, nuclear apocalypses, weather-related apocalypses, and so on. These all share a cataclysmic end followed by a raw, often painful, beginning. In the larger scheme of things, there have already been a number of apocalypses (like Chernobyl, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hurricane Katrina, any of our great or small wars, or the recent spate of devastating earthquakes, to name a few), and yes, we're in the midst of a multitude of overlapping apocalypses, and also there are more to come, and maybe some of them, or at least one of them, or all of them combined, will eclipse all other apocalypses that have come before, and that will be The Apocalypse.

And then what? That's what my book is concerned with, for the most part. Even in the event of a gigantic earth event, there will probably be survivors. It may be the end of the human race as the dominant species, but we'll still be around. My interest in reading and writing about apocalypse stems, in part, from nostalgia for an earth I've never known, one that's fresh and clean, full of natural resources, and free of strip malls, highways, and chain stores. Wouldn't it be nice to have the slate wiped clean? Don't we kind of need it? And wouldn't it be hard and grueling and depressing? And wouldn't that be refreshing? To strip away all of the useless activities and anxieties in which we indulge in the 21st century and be forced to use our basic, forgotten human skills, the ones programmed into our mammalian brains (hunt, gather, make fire, reproduce, etc.). I admit that sounds appealing to me, as much as it sounds terrifying and awful. I'd probably die (or at least want to die) if I had to rely on those skills, mind you, but I'm still smitten by the idea of having to do it.

I started to think about these issues...well, because it does seem like we're living in the end times, even though that has not been an uncommon thought throughout human history. But also after I read David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, whose protagonist believes she's the last person on earth, and whether or not she is, she has to deal with the ramifications of living in a world emptied of everyone, and every living thing. Her situation (real or imagined) is both strangely enviable and deeply distressing. When the trappings of civilization fall away, and all other human or animal companions disappear, do we, should we, must we go on living? And what does that 'life' look like? There's a compelling purity to that life, as I was describing before, but there's also (of course) a great, unending emptiness. Kate (the protagonist) turns her brain into the last reliquary of civilization, but to what end? There will be no future human generations, so the book emanates a sense of loss that is both intimate and immense, all-encompassing.

I'm using a lot of source material for the poems that includes books (science nonfiction, science fiction, political nonfiction), films, tv shows, informative pamphlets, and online survival guides. Some of the richest ones have been: the revamped Battlestar Galactica, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich, The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, the animated film "9," Tropic of Chaos, by Christian Parenti, and the New York Department of Health's pamphlet on disaster response. I've tried to find sources whose words and images appeal to me--there's a plethora of apocalypse material out there, but a lot of it is pure crap. Or just boring.

JM: Do you feel any anxiety over the so-called "death of the book"?

LS: How can I be anxious about the death of the book when I'm so busy worrying about the end of the world??

But seriously: yes and no. Yes, because I think what's really dying is the book-object, not "the book," but I love book-objects and want to always have book-objects available to me, and in the world in general. Of course you could argue that a Kindle is a "book-object" but I mean the old-fashioned version, with paper and binding and glue and words inked or printed on pages.

No, because as I just said, I don't think "the book" is dying -- people are still reading, they're just reading differently; the format of "the book" is evolving, and ultimately its evolution will preserve it for the future. Hopefully. But I don't believe that people don't read anymore -- I think that's b.s.

JM: Do you have a writing ritual, or rituals? Any superstitions surrounding the act?

LS: Right now my ritual is: get it done, and get it done fast. I write during my infant son's naptimes, or after he's gone to sleep, before I crash for the night, so when I have some time I just try to clear my mind as quickly as possible, sit down, ignore everything else, and write. No time for rituals!

I don't really have superstitions about writing, either. I do have a lot of anxiety about losing my work, though--in fire, earthquakes, accident, theft, etc.--I do an awful lot of backing up. Now I use an external hard drive to do that, and also Time Machine on my Mac, and also Sugar Sync, which backs up data online.

JM: If Lorine Niedecker suddenly reanimated from the dead and made herself available to you so you could ask one question, and one only, what would that question be?

LS: What is it like to be dead?

Laura Sims is the author of My god is this a man, forthcoming from Fence Books in 2013. Her previous books are Stranger (Fence Books, 2009) and >Practice, Restraint, (winner of the 2005 Fence Books Alberta Prize). She is a co-editor of Instance Press, and lives in Brooklyn.

Joseph Massey
is the author of numerous chapbooks and two full-length collections: Areas of Fog (Shearsman Books, 2009) and At the Point (Shearsman Books, 2011). Work has also appeared in various journals and magazines, including The Nation, The Cultural Society, Verse, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West, Asterisk, Tight, A Public Space, Mary, Carve, Northwest Review and American Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets, among many others; and in the anthologies For the Time Being: The Bootstrap Book of Poetic Journals (Bootstrap Productions, 2007) and Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams (University of Iowa Press, 2011). He lives in Arcata, California.

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