An Interview with Andrea Rexilius
Andrea Rexilius’s first book, To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation, was published this past spring by Rescue Press. She has a second book forthcoming, Half of What They Carried Flew Away, from Letter Machine, this fall. To Be Human examines (in digression, diversion, evasion, lyric, and interview) Rexilius’s relationship with her stepsister, also named Andrea. It is an erosive consideration of the self and language and gesture and residue. It feels not unlike wandering through an abandoned building with abandoned documents and personal objects -- though it is actually quite severe in its intellectual seriousness, never in the simple realm of wander, always asking for a response of some sort: read.
Some pieces in the book give me the sensation I got when watching Terrence Malick’s 1973 Badlands: specifically, when Sissy Spacek’s character traces words with her tongue onto the roof of her mouth. To Be Human does deal directly with the echoing, lurking weight of the tongue, but it also offers “its edgeless swarming body” as a glimpse into human alienation and overwhelm. The reading of it is deceptively smooth -- it feels sometimes light and open -- and politely rupturing. When the book states that “You and I are in a relationship” and that “We are glistening with what it evokes,” second person comes undone and spills. The reader swallows and reads on.
My first question comes from p. 87 of To Be Human, in particular, the poem “History of Human Dissection”:
Etymology traces slight changes in pronunciation of a word over time. These are not inundations. Their travel marks an erosion, as in saliva wearing the basin of the mouth away. A single river is never the same river, a word never the same, having traveled as water over the lungs. If I repeat selvedge, selvedge, selvedge you may begin to notice it consists of two words conjoined. Invention of the selvedge is concordant with recognition of the self. Distinction is the beginning of dissection.
This poem does many different things at once; many of them are associative and dependent on the reader. The things I see right away are: odd overlaps of speaking and reading, the possibility that metaphor is closest to what we say is “reality,” an assumption that a reader will create some of the space in which a poem resides, and a suggestion about human history: our (probably) mostly Victorian obsession with taxonomy is an obsession with distinction, which is, in turn, a way of dominating the world by opening it up and examining it. Do these responses seem in keeping with what you intend when you write/what you had wanted to posit with this poem? What is the relationship, for you, between speaking a thing and reading it? When you compose, do you "image-ine"? I mean: do you have a visual corollary in mind? Do you have auditory or olfactory things in mind? Textural? Is the process synesthetic?
In this particular poem I had in mind the erosion of language or fusion of language via etymology. The poem references Heraclitus's statement that one can never step into the same river twice because it is always moving. It struck me that this is also true in regard to language and then I began to see the mouth as a cavern or riverbed with speech running over it. This is one reference to the movement of language or etymology. A second reference is when I focus on the single word “selvedge.” In the O.E.D. the origin of this word is split. It comes from self+edge. An actual selvedge is the edge of a piece of cloth before it is turned under and hemmed. I like to think of this as a raw edge of the self. Then the act of hemming becomes an act of bodying. This leads to how awareness of our own boundaries or fusion of these boundaries into a hem / edge / fence, etc. creates a distinction between ourselves, other people, and the world -- and yes, that this distinction leads to dissection, the impulse to take things apart, to uncover what hems them to themselves. When I think about the composition of this poem I see a kaleidoscope unfolding one image after another, so in terms of metaphor, an actual metamorphosis takes place within the ideas and the images. I wouldn't say that I think metaphor is reality. I was thinking more about the divinatory nature of etymology, and of language as divinatory here. Metaphor might be one form of this alchemy, but it's an overworked and often simplistic form. Metaphor is supposed to behave as a bridge between one expressible experience and one less expressible one, so I'm interested when the bridge fails or when the lack of equivalence is noticed, less so when metaphor pretends to be exact, when it doesn't account for its own slippage.
You're right to say that I assume a reader will create some of the space in which a poem resides. I have this assumption because I want the experience of reading to be active, creative, generative for the reader. I don't think the act of creation should end with the writing, but this isn't to suggest that there are no expectations or roadmaps, or stable meanings in the poems. Those things are there as well; the reader is just being asked to step toward them.
One other thing I assume is that the work will be read both horizontally and vertically. Meaning is being made across the entire book as well as from page to page. This poem that you've chosen to look at is further discussed or mirrored or mentioned in a number of other areas in the book—on page 21 for instance, in the lines “The very idea of landscape implies separation and observation. / The very idea of body implies separation and observation.” I see this line as more specifically pointing to the paradox Martin Buber spoke of in I/Thou that for ourselves we are always “I,” but to others we are “you.” The word “I” is simultaneously collective and singular and it is the body, but maybe also consciousness, or maybe not consciousness and only the body, that creates this distance or contradiction or separation or simultaneity. It is this existential dilemma that most accurately describes the experience my stepsister and I shared, to feel very much yourself and yet very outside of yourself at the same time. It is, as Freud puts it, to experience the uncanny. I like the way his definition of the uncanny is linked to confrontation with one's double and to loss or displacement of the sense of home, to diaspora or exile from the familiar. The I/Thou paradox is similar, but is uncanny in an almost opposite way, in our inability to actually be separate from, and to observe ourselves. John Hooker invented a mirror in 1887 that allowed people to see themselves from the physical perspective in which others saw them. Normally our image is flipped in a mirror. The right side of my face becomes the left side. In this new mirror you see yourself as if you are someone else. This was upsetting in particular for people with asymmetrical faces. I looked into one of these mirrors once and didn't understand what was so special about it. I thought it seemed like looking into any other mirror. Maybe I have an exceptionally symmetrical face, or maybe my experience with my sister already undid that mirror experiment. Of course, my sister and I look nothing alike because we are not related, but that's exactly what made our situation so uncanny.
I don’t know if you read the blog Montevidayo, but in the Spring I was following one of their threads about “difficult art,” and I want to ask what you think about this idea, if it is even worth entertaining. I think that this conversation began with a post Johannes Göransson did about Billy Collins’s apparent distaste for work that obfuscates (the negative connotation is Collins’s). Then, James Pate wrote this series of claims:
One of the things I like about certain types of “difficult” experimental writing as opposed to a great deal of “accessible” writing is that I actually find experimental writing in a way easier to read specifically because it usually doesn’t ask me to perform an act of “close” reading to get to the kernel of truth in the text (in the usual sense of that word).
Even in a great deal of language writing, which I’m sometimes very critical about, there is a surface effect, the play of the signifier, but no depth to figure out, no Meaning under the surface. That’s one of the elements of Language writing I actually do like and respond to…
“Easier to read” might not be the right term here: it’s a different way of experiencing a text…
For example: isn’t the supposedly difficult John Cage really about a kind of vigilant ease?
I would argue that a great deal of experimental writing moves closer to music than to argument… the “difficulty” is its refusal to draw even the thinnest of lines between style and content…
When you are reading and/or reading for writing, are you interested in “difficult” work? I mean: maybe some mainstream readers think of experimental work as difficult, obfuscating, willfully obscuring, lacking clarity, etc. Do you bother with these distinctions in the first place? Do you have a position? I tend to agree with Pate; I find it much, much easier to read a page of Susan Howe than an Auden poem... what do you think?
I guess in this particular text I was thinking about how to place a number of different types of writing next to one another: memoir, poetry, essay, history. I wanted to find a way to have the facts presented, but also allow room for the strictly factual to be transcended and made creative. I don't know whether or not that's difficult.
I'm working at Naropa's Summer Writing Program this summer and one of the things that was talked about on a panel about hybridity in the context of what is cyborgean or monstrous is that the new is often monstrous or ugly because it is new or because we don't know how to look at / respond to / interact with it yet. This also suggests that we will, that it isn't impossible or “difficult.” And personally I would rather gaze into the eyes of Frankenstein than Hayden Christensen any day.
To pick up the idea that a text should be read horizontally as well as vertically in light of the term “close reading,” I would say that where I find my students most upset about “difficult” poetry is in their failed attempt to decode something. This act of decoding, perhaps, is what “accessible” poetry most often asks of its readers, to find the symbolism and the metaphors and etc. However, for me meaning is made primarily in the horizontal space of the book. A landscape of text or experience is being curated on each page, but also within the entire text. I don't expect readers to decode anything. I want to invite them into the linguistic experience of the “poetry.” Or maybe what should be “decoded” is process rather than symbolism or detail. You could hypothetically question or “closely read” the process / larger decisions of the book. Why interviews? Why essays and histories when these are actually poems? Why interviews/ essays and then research / bibliography and then poems? Why photographs of an unrelated twin relationship? Why no photos of me and my sister? Why bodies on the front of the book and faces on the back? Why three sections and not two? When I read or write about books of poetry I begin by asking questions like these, questions that examine how the text was curated. If someone's doing something with form I ask questions about that as a process too: Mathias Svalina's creations myths or Rusty Morrison's elegies or Julie Carr's notes or Alice Notley's epics, or Bernadette Mayer's sonnets, are all saying something about those forms, for example.
Hayden Christensen? What a reference. I like your idea about the curated experience/landscape of the text, and I like how this issue of taste itself (and all the ideological and prismatic spaces it implies) is present in a text. What are the things “around you” (intellectually) when you compose? From what kind of mental museum do you mine? Actually, at what point do you mark the beginning of art-/meaning-making? A gaze at a branch, a nagging film, the taste of a really bad cherry: do you begin to compose here, or elsewhere? I’m thinking of some kind of Cornellian experience of juxtapositions -- and how that would link thought and writing-labor.
Oh, I know. I didn't even know who Hayden Christensen was, but I asked Eric [Baus], “who would be the opposite of Frankenstein, like if I fell in love with someone and it happened to be Frankenstein, who would be opposite of that?” He said Hayden Christensen and I looked at a photo of him and thought yeah, that's right. To clarify, the grotesque is important here. I wanted Frankenstein's “opposite” to contain something I would find grotesque and Christensen certainly achieves that.
Lately I've been thinking more about writing and ritual space, what that looks like or includes or turn towards. I've also been thinking about duration in writing. The second book I finished that will be out with Letter Machine in the fall started with an idea of duration. I wanted to start in a space outside of writing a single poem, but didn't want to limit this idea to the serial poem or the long poem. Instead I told myself I would write a novel (secretly, or not so secretly, it is of course poetry). The “novel” carries all sorts of problems with it, like characters, plot, conflict, etc. I only thought about character because as a poet the complication of pronouns was already present in my mind. Some traces of plot or conflict probably still exist in the work, but it's amazingly easy to ignore them. I've been wondering how ideas of duration might work in a creative writing workshop. I took a course called Durations at SAIC, but it was performance based. We would create one minute performances and then shift those into 30 minute performances or into six hour performances, or we would just make individual performances in varying lengths. After writing Half of What They Carried Flew Away, I prefer to think of my mode of writing as durational. But what does that look like? Could we in a workshop learn something by creating one-minute or one-sentence texts and then expanding those into nineteen paragraphs or by writing for one minute, writing for six hours, etc.? Do written ideas respond to durations in that way that bodily ideas do? In the performance art class I thought about how repetition or variation or tempo worked to expand or contract our durations. What was sustainable? What became too simple or stunted? Alongside this there are numerous examples of durational performances in the art world. How could writers translate or learn something from Tehching Hsieh's durational experiments, for example, or is this just a parallel thing, or perhaps a bad example of the possibilities found in duration? I'm interested in the way these durational gestures enter into writing. Performance or duration of performance is always a ritual space, that is to say it contains or holds a particular focus, so that is part of the space of composition for me as well.
Also, the title of that book came from a specific experience. I was at a park down the street from my house where I found some milkweed growing near a creek, so I climbed down and pulled apart the milkweed and gathered its cottony insides. I collected a huge pile of the fluff in my arms and began to walk home. When I walked into the house I announced to Eric that “half of what I carried flew away.” I wrote that down and thought about what kind of experience it curates. What does it mean for half of the milkweed you're carrying to fly away? What other textures, images, feelings, etc. does that resemble? Half of What They Carried Flew Away grew out of those thoughts and also out of the essays I was teaching for a composition class on ways in which marginalized voices speak up to interrupt, or just to enter, and comment on or critique or call out or make visible a perspective previously shut out or unheard within the cultural narrative.
The title To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation resonates here as well, although this is not so much what that book is about. When we're not able or allowed to enter into conversation with the society we live within we are seen as less than human or as not-human. When we're locked out of a conversation, for whatever reason, we are in danger of becoming extinct, of flying away altogether. I think about this a lot now that corporations have their own “individual” voices. It strikes me as a pretty terrible idea to allow Chase Bank and AT & T and Comcast and Walmart these huge voices that eat up so much of the landscape and conversation. I'm also talking about the root system of our culture. Blogs allow more voices to enter the amorphous “conversation,” sure, but I'm talking about narrative and who is still left out or unheard or made submissive within the primary narrative of our American culture. For example the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, like Sacagawea's, is about the size of a quarter and thus got mixed up with the quarter. This of course led to the practical decision to remove it from circulation, from the cultural narrative, once again. You can collect it, store it in a drawer, keep it in your house somewhere, domestic and hidden, but it is not part of our public culture. You have to seek it out, cultivate it as a “special interest.” It historicizes or honors nothing. Another example I've been thinking about again is the Bechdel test for women in movies. I “test” every movie I watch now, and it's become unbearable.
As far as my writing practice goes, I don't write every day. Sometimes I don't write for months. When I'm not writing I'm working in the garden or making paintings or sewing or reading and taking notes or knitting. I need to have a question that I'm really interested in exploring in order to get started, usually an abstract question, a question of duration or a question of gesture or a question of proximity, system, etc. It matters less to me where the question comes from, whether out of an observation or a response or a sensation. I don't know that I really even mark that, though retrospectively I may be able to. What typically happens is I feel a silence, or maybe given what I talked about above, attention is a better word. I don't write for months, but I feel something going on at the back of the silence/attention. I read and notice and probably begin to curate some ideas, build some questions, but I don't know them and then one day I just do, and that's when I begin writing again. So maybe that is to say that the idea or the question comes from a level of consciousness that is not immediately accessible via language. I wait for it to become accessible and in the meantime I try to nourish it.
Institute Benjamenta “Classroom Dance”
Landscapes and Creatures Seven Piece Nesting Doll Set / Original Artwork
PJ Harvey In the Dark Places
Pauline Oliveros Monkey (this whole album over and over)
Bill Viola, “I do not know what it is I am like”
Abigail Child “Is This What You Were Born For?” (I wanted this to be “Covert Action” but I couldn't find it online).
When you’re wittingly or unwittingly constructing a writing question within a period of silence, you are, I presume, acquiring lists and bits of things (that’s how it works for me, I think)... and then, do you find that the bits are themselves an architecture for the question? How often do you find yourself in direct response (or even some sort of mood-mimicry)? How often do you feel that the art you collect and consume is invisible, but fortifying (a set of nutrients in a series of meals)? For example, I constantly want to steal from Fassbinder, but so far, I can only use his work as a kind of mood-start, if that seems reasonable. I don’t know how to use his actual cinematic tricks, but I like just thinking about how it might work -- same with some older Woody Allen and with any bad horror film starring Vincent Price and his moustache -- and with, right now, Henry James’s loveliness of objects and secrets and despair. And then I pick up materials from you and from Phil [Sorenson] and from other friends -- and from these weird internet-based laceworks of other art (clicking on things for access to more things).
I guess I am most interested in how artists use abstract materials, seeing as issues of ownership seem useless and tacky and capitalist, but also seeing as I try to promote (with students and in my habits) a system of trick-stealing, so that to write is simply to be constantly on the make...
I'm not sure how to answer this except to talk about what happened when I wrote these two books we've been discussing. The process was pretty different for them both. The first book about my sister took forever to complete. This is because I felt responsible for telling the story, maybe for witnessing or confessing something about it. For years I had a manuscript called A Hem that is now a condensed version in the last section of the book. I had no idea it was about my sister and I. But one day I heard the title differently and realized this writing had been hemming two A's together, two Andreas. The bulk of this manuscript was written by the body and by that I mean, I wrote these poems as responses to a series of performances I had made at SAIC that I thought were about hemming, and suturing, and sewing, and sewing patterns, and division and continental drift, etc. When I began trying to write more directly about my experience with my sister I realized I had been writing about it indirectly for years and so I decided to let those two manuscripts merge. I wove the essays on sisterhood into the histories of reading as stitching, etc.
The second book was written in a period of about two months, just after I completed the PhD program at the University of Denver. That sprang from four years of extensive thinking and fragmented writing. I wrote by weaving together notes I had taken, though the majority of it (the questions in particular) came off the top of my head, furiously. I had all of this surplus to get down on paper, but most of the time I didn't know what it was. I purposely avoided knowing what it was. I knew too much what the sister project was, so I wanted to be unhindered by an idea. The question, as I said above, was about duration. But it wasn't really a question. More of a prompt, I guess. I decided to write “a novel” (quotes included), so that I could write something extensively. I tried to avoid knowing what the “novel” was about, so that what it was “about” would appear, as opposed to “be shaped.” About half way through the manuscript I knew who “they” (the main characters) were. I took a break for a week or so and tried to forget about who I thought “they” were. I do think there is a bit more shaping involved in the second half of the book, but I tried to leave it out as much as possible and tried to let “they” become other things/characters that I wasn't aware of yet. When I finished writing it, I was able to articulate what thinking/gathering/witnessing/contemplating had made it possible, but this activity was a concluding, not an opening part of the work. I also knew where the title came from, but did not decide or think about how the title related to what the novel was until after the novel was.