Torquing the Erotics of Attention: An Interview with Camille Roy
RTM: You are from Chicago, yes? Tell me how you ended up in San Francisco. What was your entrée into the writing community here?
Camille: I got very sick of Chicago – the 60’s and 70’s were violent and grim. It was like living at the end of America. Nowadays places gentrify. Where I grew up there was this paralyzing fear of more decline, so the best you could hope for was to hold on and stay the same. San Francisco seemed like Europe, in that you could walk from one neighborhood to another and no one would try and kill you. It was cafes and fog and jazz. Also, it was queer. I first visited a friend who lived in North Beach when I was a teenager. That was before the cutesy colors, the whole city seemed composed of dreamy grays and whites. My friend used to complain that San Francisco was Sodom and Gomorrah unleashed, which sounded interesting.
RTM: How much were you aware of, engaged by and a participant in the "poetry wars" of the late seventies and eighties in the Bay Area? What was your experience of this time period? How would you characterize it?
Camille: It seemed weird to me that all the ‘Language’ experimentalism was overwhelmingly white and largely male. One good thing that was happening on the South Side of Chicago (where I grew up) was the jazz scene, which was Black and community based and so different in political spirit to the middle class whiteness of the experimental poetry scene. When Silliman claimed experimentalism for the white middle class men who hadn’t been distracted by oppression, it struck me as peculiar, to say the least. It was not obvious to me that formal innovation came from social luxury – in my context, it came from communities struggling to exist, marginal communities.
But I wasn’t deeply related to that project, the “Language” project. My work was more directly formed by New Narrative on the one hand, and the feminist poetics of Kathleen Fraser and the HOW/ever crowd, on the other. Both these projects it seemed to me were spurred to articulate themselves, and even to exist, partly as self-defense. Language poetry absorbed radicalism, so to claim your space, you had to argue theory with language poets. I had to gird myself by reading Kristeva and Foucault and the like. Not that anyone bothered to argue with me – I was arguing with the language poets in my head.
Anyway, I’m writing about language poets as an abstraction, as an historical relic, which is completely misleading. I was deeply engaged by the work of Carla Harryman and Leslie Scalapino. Where does that fit?
RTM: Did you find the contestation of this period productive for your own writing?
Camille: Language poets forced everyone to be smarter. Their ideas mattered, so our ideas had to be articulated. After postmodern theory succeeded in taking over the academy, ideas mattered less. But at the time, at least for me, there was the hope that these ideas might be levers for social transformation. Maybe they were – but it was a confusing victory, because after ‘queer culture’ came gay marriage, ‘Ellen’, assimilation. In any case, this climate of argument made me search more diligently for satisfying methods, practices, and theory.
My core influences were New Narrative (Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Steve Abbot, among others) and feminist poetics, particularly of Kathleen Fraser. It was an interesting mix, both bracing and protective. What was terrific was that it drew in much of the complexity and confusion of my actual life. My writing took risks – erotic, personal, intellectual. The result was an oscillation between debased confusion and brief flashes of extreme delight.
RTM: You write software. How is this related to your other writing?
Camille: Sometimes I feel that it’s a mental deformity, all this technical thought. It’s mental gymnastics with formalist properties. Yes, it has aesthetic aspects. But it’s been swallowing up my whole mind for a little over a year, and I no longer know the difference between anxiety and determination.
RTM: You and Nayland Blake edited Dear World, a Queer Art & Lit magazine in 1991. Did you perceive a gap or lack in the venues of the time for queer art? The magazine had only one issue, how come?
Camille: Why only one issue? It was a freaky amount of work, putting out the money to print made me nervous (though in the end it broke even), and in the end it was large enough that there weren’t a lot of writers I really wanted to include that weren’t included. One issue did what I wanted to do, speaking just for myself.
As for why we did it… Queer art was still unusual. It was just breaking into the open. The great thing about the ‘emergent moment’ is that it’s tactile, gooey, personal, dramatic. You actually know people, you see them move through this moment of transformation: ‘Dear World’ was a document of that moment. In the 70’s and 80’s I knew dozens of bar dykes with interesting wit or sensibility or style, and they always stayed in our ghetto, culturally invisible. After the early 90’s, that type all went to art school. (Where they became the Judith Butler brigades.) It seemed that suddenly (on some day in 1991) all the non-profit arts institutions brought in lesbian programming directors, whereas previously there hadn’t been any.
The emergence specifically of lesbian/queer sensibilities in art was more shocking than what happened for gay men, simply because lesbian invisibility had been more complete. Gay men have long had a strong and acknowledged presence in art and literature.
RTM: In Dear World you and Abigail Child have a piece called "Sex Talk." In it the two of you write, "Among lesbians the story is a form of sex talk--a joint whereby the community and the couple are of the same body" and "The progress of tension through a narrative 'line' has parallels in the maps we make of our lovers bodies and the moments of exposure and vulnerability on the way to orgasm" (44-45). Throughout your work, including the plays in Cold Heaven, Cheap Speech, Craquer, the hybrid texts in Rosy Medallions and the prose of Swarm, there is this productive and intense engagement with narrative, the body, class, and lesbian sexuality. Recently at the National Poetry Foundation's Conference on the Poetry of the Seventies, Eileen Myles, talked about narrative and its importance for her and other queer writers. How is narrative connected to queer subjects and queer sexuality for you?
Camille: Good question. I think there is first a community of bodies and then as a writer you need to acknowledge that. But what would have been specifically lesbian about that? At the time I felt the buried alive intimacy of the lesbian queer world (eroticism plus invisibility) had the curious effect of removing the filters. It made me more present to my erotic and gendered experience. Being outside, away from the mainstream, at a remove from the filters and images and restrictions of hetero norms (and mainstream advertising), had that effect. There was a great sense of discovery and exploring the forbidden. In the 80’s, going to the strip shows that were a part of the lesbian club scene in San Francisco was going to a hidden separate world.
As the nineties rolled on, there was more and more lesbian presence in the culture. The effects were surprising. Lesbian became a new sort of norm, with teevee shows and rock stars and excitable journalists. It’s great in some ways. The life of the community is no longer stuck in bars. But the assimilation of the lesbian world has means that the quote above - "Among lesbians the story is a form of sex talk--a joint whereby the community and the couple are of the same body" – is less true. We’re less different. Not as emerged in a subculture ghetto experience. That paradoxically means that the most intimate experiences are more mediated by the mainstream. There used to be an urgency about sex talk because we were creating the world we would inhabit – otherwise, there wouldn’t be one for us. Now that’s not essential. A friend of ours who is about 15 years younger than I am was complaining the other night about all the lesbian butches she runs into who are not feminist. They don’t feel the urgency of identifying with feminism – it’s not a survival issue. So something has been lost. I think the ‘Gay Shame’ people are sensitive to this.
I liked the secrecy and intimacy of being stuck in this lesbian bubble with a somewhat random collection of people. You couldn’t be a lesbian in the wider culture but you had this bubble. Then, poof, the bubble popped, and suddenly we were separated and adrift in the wider culture. I have a hard time recognizing the ‘lesbian experience’, now. What I lived in and through has melted away. There is a superficial similarity of styles and identities but I think the core experience has mutated in profound ways.
Back to narrative: the way I understand narrative today is as a relation that torques the erotics of attention. It can be a lesbian or queer attentiveness. It doesn’t have to be.
RTM: In the "Notes on the Plays" which introduces the plays in Cold Heaven, you write, "An obvious difference between plays and other forms of writing is that they wait. Plays are porous, written to be entered." You also explain that your play Bye Bye Brunhilde was an accident, and grew out of a collaboration with Abigail Child. Tell me about how that happened, how you met Abigail, and more about the porosity of plays.
Camille: I remember strolling along with Abigail and talking heatedly about pornography, late 80’s, in San Francisco. It’s hard to remember now but the 80’s and early 90’s were a time of feminist battles about pornography and representation of sex. The subject was contested but also fresh. So we started a collaboration, a mutated exploration of terms and erotic sensibility. It was fun to do with her because I could drop the obligation to be comprehensible and take off into language with a relish I didn’t usually allow myself. Collaboration with Abigail was like compatible friction, in voices. It provoked me and I started exploring the conflict that was the crux of my first play.
Why do plays wait? They need to be inhabited, by bodies, by voices. They are often not an appetizing read, even being lifeless on the page. Because of this they have a different relation to the body. It’s like language as clothes, in that clothes simply hang empty in the closet until a body enters them.
RTM: How important is collaboration to you and your writing process? How do you engage with the writing community in the Bay Area? How important is community to your work?
Camille: Community has been very important, but has become less so. Not for good reasons: work, stress, money. Also, living through the Bush years has been nauseating. The Iraq war is a nightmare. And now a financial crisis. The stakes are so high in this presidential election that I’m chronically nervous. What’s next? Sometimes I just want to leave the country.
RTM: In the "Notes on the Plays," you also note how plays allow for division and collision: "Plays provide a frame for studying collisions. The elements of body, speech, and character are all potentially separated, precisely because they appear in the same place and time." This practice of splitting and dividing elements of language and form appears throughout your work. And as much as it might have to do with post-structuralist understandings of language and the subject, it also seems grounded in personal experience--being a lesbian, experimental writer and from a class background that is also split or divided (your dad comes from an upper class and your mom from a working class background).
Plus you use a pseudonym, another marking or enactment of division. How much are you explicitly working with division and splitting across both content and form--if I can use that awkward and arbitrary division?
Camille: I think my attention has always been drawn to incompatible experience and knowledge. Where one cancels the other out. There is mutual exclusion. But somehow it is never final, never resolved, instead there is alternation, a flickering in which nothing is extinguished. I think that’s reality, we (as individuals and communities) are constructed from materials that cancel one another out. The way I grew up, with my parents’ very different perspectives, was like being in the center of an incompatibility. Experienced but not articulated. So of course I can never stop articulating it.
Survival is another aspect of this. Not so much anymore, but I think division has been for me a survival skill.
RTM: There's been a resurgence of poets theater, a resurgence that you were partly responsible for, yes? What is it about poets theater that is so attractive again for writers in the bay area and elsewhere?
Camille: I think poets theatre is a break from the routine of readings (which are unfortunately academic, a talking head with sheets of paper and a podium, like a lecture). It also changes the relation of charged poetic language to audience. You have a range of possibilities for humor, conflict, and the body is on stage, a vulnerable place to be. I think this is invigorating for poets.
RTM: I want to ask you about audience and your writing. During the 70s and 80s in Bay Area writing there was a lot of discussion and contention about audience. Ron Silliman's article "Poetry and the Politics of the Subject" which appeared in 1988 in the journal he then edited, Socialist Review, is perhaps the most famous and contentious example.
There are writers who want a large audience and others who write specifically for smaller, real and imagined audiences. Jack Spicer might be an extreme example of a writer intentionally aiming for a small and local audience. Harryette Mullen on the other hand considers the relation of her writing to a possible but currently inaccessible future and its potential readers: "the context of my work is not so much geographic as it is linguistic and cultural. I write beyond the range of my voice and the social boundaries of identity, yet within the limits imposed on my work and my imagination by language and cultural significance....I write, optimistically, for an imagined audience of known and unknown readers" ("Imagining" 198-199). What's your relationship to audience and how might that relationship be political. What are the politics of audience as far as you are concerned?
Camille: Wow. Audience again. It is a vexing question. Who are those people?
How can we know them – and how can they know us?
Our culture is like a kitchen thick with a fog of cooking grease, the scum gets on everything. Can experimental writing ever rub away some of the scum?
I don’t know. I think it can. I think a legacy of Language writing is to try to do this by getting the critical mind active via various alienation effects. I think there are other ways, that are more intimate, but also dark. Lamentations. We have such hierarchies of emotion, the “good” versus the “bad”. I think in the space of privacy that is the poem you can move away from this dichotomy, into negativity (sorrow, vio, resent). It may not even be consoling, but it does cut the cultural grease.
My goal is always to return the materials. If I can freshen it up by slapping it around (the language, I mean) maybe the reader will catch a clue.
RTM: What are you working on now?
Camille: Negative poems!
Camille Roy is a writer and performer of fiction, poetry, and plays. She edited Biting The Error: Writers Explore Narrative with Mary Burger, Robert Gluck, and Gail Scott (CoachHouse 2005). Earliers books include CHEAP SPEECH, a play, from Leroy, and CRAQUER, a fictional autobiography from 2nd Story Books , as well as SWARM (two novellas, Black Star Series), among others. In 1998 she was the recipient of a Lannan Writers At Work Residency at Just Buffalo Literary Center. She is a founding editor of the online journal Narrativity. She teaches fiction at San Francisco State University.