KMD: I've truly enjoyed reading all three of your books, and was intrigued by the dream-like quality of the poems in Arco Iris. They seem at once ethereal and carefully grounded in concrete imagery, rendering everyday things (like coffee, used electronics, and the sky above) suddenly and wonderfully strange. Along these lines, many of the poems take place in an unnamed tropical location, which for the reader, is both anywhere and nowhere, a tangible place place and a psychological one. With that in mind, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between travel, the literary arts, and the human psyche. What does travel make possible within your writing practice? And within conscious experience?
SV: That's interesting. I don't think of Arco Iris as dreamlike or unspecific. It's actually named a few times as South America-- many regions in South America-- a continent my partner and I traveled for a few months about nine years ago. The book is, in my experience of it and my intentions for it, a kind of anti travel-poetry. Or a rejection of the trope of travel (especially of the white traveler going to a brown place to have a "writing experience" or to buy themselves an authentic transformational experience or etc.). It is a book in which I can't write or think myself out of a scenario in which my movement in the world (as a white American, especially) is not complicit with neoliberal violence and/or globalism and its many layers and types and shades of (economic, racial, political, physical...) violences. I wonder if the ethereal experience you had of it was what I felt to be the spellcasting of capitalism--you try to say something against capitalism, it is immediately appropriated as a product of capitalism (and neutralized?), ad infinitum.
But along those lines, after having read your Music for another life and Vow-- I'd love to ask--what do the ethereal, the dreamlike, the bride, and the book mean for you in those collections? And perhaps related, do you understand or do you think through your work on a book-by-book level, or a poem-by-poem level, or as a group of books together, or...?
KMD: That's a great question. I've always thought of reading as a kind of travel, in which one is carried from consciousness as we know it into a kind of dream state. For me, the physical object of the book facilitates this transformation, this dreaming as much as the work itself.
As much as I hate to admit it, it all begins (for me at least) with the book's cover, as well as its size, texture, the way it feels in the hand. It is for this reason that I love to be very involved in the design of my books. When Max Avi Kaplan and I co-wrote Music for another life, we actually typeset the entire book, designed the cover, and selected the cover image from within the collaboration, presenting it to the publisher as a finished, fully-realized product.
My approach to the book as a physical object emerges, in a lot of ways, from my approach to poetry manuscripts. For me, each manuscript is really one long poem, an entire world unto itself. With both Vow and Music for another life, the book as object was merely an extension of the project, the world I had envisioned within the text itself. I think that we tend to overlook the many ways that poetry is physical, that writing and even publishing are embodied acts.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your process, since your books always read as fully realized, cohesive worlds, the kind I strive for (and at times fall short of creating) in my own work. I'm intrigued by the relationship between the individual poem and the larger manuscript. How do you negotiate the poem and the project, the larger vision? Is it possible to have one without the other? Lastly, how does a given project or manuscript begin for you?
SV: When I was first writing things for the world to see (by which I mean: in my MFA program), I thought on a poem by poem, or even line by line, or word by word level. At this point I think I might feel how you do-- that my books are equivalents of long poems, or, more to the point, are a single word-centered project versus a "collection of poems." I think the word "poetry" is the best thing to call what I am writing these days maybe only because it's not anything else. (Not a story, not an essay, not an article, not straight scholarship, not journalism, not....). I admire that poetry can hold so much, is being asked to hold so much, and that it seems to be easy for it. I am extremely interested in what is often called hybrid or conceptual within the outstandingly elastic abilities of poetry-- these efforts that pose a challenge to the other categories of writing (scholarship, journalism, coding, etc.), asking them to also expand their abilities and considerations and concerns and ways. To democratize, as I believe you said in another interview.
I'd love to hear you speak more about the democratization of writing (scholarly writing about writing), if you're so inclined. I'm also like to know how the instinct to democratize enters your work/career/etc. (Mirzoeff's phrase: "democratizing democracy" is something I've thought a lot about.)
KMD: I love this question. Most of my poems are a (very small) effort to make academic forms of writing more inclusive. Scholarship in the most traditional sense is frequently predicated on acts of exclusion, since most of us can name many things that don't fit within an academic essay: personal experience, aestheticized language, an interrogation of received forms of discourse, experimentation, and the list goes on. In my opinion, many of these things that are excluded from academic writing appear much more often in contemporary women's writing. It is most commonly women's writing that is othered, excluded as non-academic, even irrational. I'm deeply invested in creating a way of using academic forms that is not hostile to women, but rather, allows lived experience, poetic language, and experimentation to compliment and complicate what we think of as rational discourse. In my new book, Fortress, especially, I drew from academic texts like Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, and presented much of the work in footnotes, but my own experience proved central to the discussions of empathy in the book. I think that academic writing is often very personal, whether we like to admit it or not. For me, it's more productive to acknowledge and deal with the ways that different categories of writing, different types of language blur together, rather than trying to maintain a false semblance of clear boundaries.
This interest in democratizing academic writing has shaped most of my career choices, as you suggest in your very perceptive question. I'm active in the small press as a volunteer editor, and have a small press, Noctuary Press. With Noctuary, I try to carve a space for texts that don't fit within the traditional modes of dissemenation, distribution, or even established submission categories. I hope that by publishing uncategorizable texts, I'm playing a small part in expanding what is possible within our thinking about what a text, publisher, or book object can be.
I think that my interest in democratizing academic writing is one of the many reasons I'm so drawn to The End of the Sentimental Journey. It's also beautifully crafted, witty, lively, and engaging. I teach the book in my poetry workshop and my students find it wonderfully refreshing. They often express their surprise that critical writing can be as much fun as poetry, as beautifully written, and as innovative in style. To what extent did you see this creative approach to literary scholarship as a feminist act? How does gender shape the ways that we inhabit academic forms of writing? Is academic writing (and the interrogation of academic forms) linked to larger issues of social justice for you as writer?
SV: I think dismantling anything at all, these days, is my first instinct toward social justice or feminism. I'm also interested in the building--but, cyclical nature of my brain etc.--I've been in dismantle mode for a long time and therefore the dismantling of categories of thought, of writing, of understanding, of power--that is all I seem to want to do. Academic writing is ripe, ripe for implosion and expansion. There is no reason why it shouldn't do more than it does, and do it in more kinds of ways, and there is every reason why it should. Academia, if it is to remain relevant, simply put: needs greater inclusion of women, people of color, queer people, people from different socioeconomic experiences, and people from more parts of the world. This is a longish way of saying that to stay relevant academia needs also to be/think less white, less rich, less male, less heteronormative. Obviously, obviously: what is "academic," what is considered worthy of our study, should be vast and dangerous and offensive, and the language we use to speak about it should not be tamed, not be simply rule-following, and not be simply traditional. If academia can't accommodate this kind of inquiry then it's no longer relevant--just wealthy and self-congratulatory. (Thus, yes, End of the Sentimental Journey-- and everything else I'm reading and working on these days.) This is part of what is interesting to me about the recent wave of creative writing PhD programs-- I have a lot of faith in creative writers' potentials to contaminate academia.
That said, I think journalism and investigative reporting and history, or what we've been calling journalism and investigative reporting and history for a while, are also areas that feel like ours for the taking. Call it documentary, call it political, call it hybrid, call it researched, call it academic-- I've been reading almost exclusively poetry that is engaged with social justice issues of there here and now, and social justice issues as they have resonated historically. And by social justice issues I mean race. I mean gender. I mean capitalism. I mean war machines. I mean oceans dying. I am reading everything I can find in this vein (and there is a lot). Personally, I think these are exciting dismantlings and exciting times for writing (but really bad times for most other things). I can't wait to get old and see all the crazy-good shit this next generation is going to do, but also I don't want to rush it because probably the world is going to end in environmental disaster.
Speaking of which: what crazy-good shit are you working on right now?
KMD: Speaking of feminism, expansion, and social justice... I'm working on a feminist response to/erasure of/reframing of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The book is a collaboration with visual artist, photographer, and costumer Max Avi Kaplan. The fragmented, elliptical poems in the manuscript recast the narrative from Lo's perspective. As we worked on the book, Max and I also became very interested in themes of disembodiment within Lolita. More often than not, the reader is given only tiny fragments of Lolita, never the full person. We are presented with "a honey colored limb," "knobby knees," a pair of sunglasses. Max's magnificent photographs present their female subject in small fragments, frequently showing her hands trying to escape from rooms, unlocking doors, or dialing a rotary phone. We wanted to call attention to the way Lolita is frequently disembodied, fragmented within the book, but also to empower Lolita, giving voice to a character who is frequently spoken for (in much the same way as Petrarch's Laura). The book, In love with the ghost, is forthcoming from Negative Capability Press in 2015. I hope you'll check it out.
And I'd love to hear about your current projects as well. What can readers look forward to?
SV: I'm working on a few things-- the final revisions of Viability, coming out in 2015 with Penguin; and I've been working on something I imagine will take me years to finish that takes as its center, well, I guess I'm not sure how to talk about it yet-- it's in that long, silently-loud part of becoming something. I'm neck-deep in a few things, I guess. And reading and reading and reading. Researching fetus images in literature and visual art-- so if you know of any....