October 19, 2014
It was a sunny afternoon out in the Avenues at 4037 Judah. This was my first time at Carville Annex Press, a small but inviting two story space, run by Katherine and Sarah Fontaine. You can find out more about them, by visiting their web site here: Carville Annex Press.
Both Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis were in the city visiting from elsewhere, Philadelphia in Emily's case, and Olympia, Washington in Miranda's, and it was a treat and such an engaging pleasure to have these two writers in conversation. Not only are the two friends, but their work communicates shared concerns across genre lines. They structured their reading to open up a space of dialogue; each read from her own work and then posed questions to the other, often reading an excerpt from the other's work. This proved to be generative, complex, and richly engaging for the intimate audience, everyone leaning forward as on occasion Emily and Miranda competed with the sound of the N car outside, their dark silhouettes like cut-outs against the backdrop of a sheer white curtain in front of an open window full of afternoon light. What follows includes excerpts from their readings, questions and some comments. You will get a sense of the high bar these two powerful writers set for themselves, each other, and their readers.
Emily started things off by reading some new work which examines surveillance, probing how it is oppressive but within which or under it, people continue to find wiggle room. Abendroth referenced the work of Cassie Thorton and her project, "The Poets Security Force," about which you can find out more here at Cassie's website. I think Abendroth participated in this project, coming together with others to explore in what ways one is secure or insecure, in what ways one colludes with and resists regimes of surveillance, among other things.
One of the lines I jotted down from Emily's piece includes: "It looked like it had what you needed and then it needled you." This is classic Abendroth, a line that is incisive but emerges in language that initially hides the about-face it is about to perform. I wish I had written down more from these pieces, but I got lost in the pleasure of sheer attention and listening. Keep reading and below you'll discover excerpts from Emily's writing.
Miranda read an excerpt from a fabulous piece that takes the form of a fake review of a novel that doesn't exist. Here's the first section of it:
The SnailReviewed by Miranda Mellis
But do we have the doctrine which Kafka’s parables interpret and which K.’s postures and the
gestures of his animals clarify?–– Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka”
The Snail is a novel composed collaboratively by an anonymous collective whose stated intent is to transmit that doctrine which, Walter Benjamin speculated, Kafka’s parables intimated. The reader is immersed in an aether, a Kafkaesque medium that dissolves anthropocentric defense mechanisms. However, self-forgetting absorption is not to be found in this dissolution, for there is no singular plot to unearth. The book is not plot-driven so much as plot-flown, plot-crawled, plot-swum, plot-migrated. One begins to feel it directly after a short prologue introduces the non-human narrator andinvites us to hold the book up to a mirror to learn her name
Though she is ostensibly the main narrator, ehT lianS occasionally and even suddenly goes dormant. When this happens the pages start to exfoliate language until all that is left are the blank pages, glimmering here and there with traces of ehT lianS silvery, iconoclastic departure. As ehT lianS recedes like eyestalks, the under-plots of The Snail take over. The first under-plot opens on a critic in a small studio apartment, also reading The Snail in an enormous horsehair bed. The bed takes up almost the whole chapter as well as the whole apartment. After an eighteen-page ekphrasis of the bed,
The state’s dream begins with fear and end with walls. It begins with tigers and ends with riot police. It begins with ulcerous fighting great apes and ends with gang-raping soldiers. It begins with the hippocampus and ends with automata. It begins in a womb and ends in a cage. It begins with myth and ends in space-time. It begins with numbers and ends with letters. It begins with songs and ends with signatures. It begins with names and ends with lists. It begins with slaves and ends with slaves. It begins with snails and ends with snails. It begins under water and ends under water.
When she finishes reading the state’s dreams, the critic falls asleep exhausted and dreams herself that she is searching for the authors of The Snail. As she loses consciousness the pages thin out and turn to vapor. The next chapter begins inside the critic’s mind, where she is dreaming that she has commissioned Detective Vic Deet, a moon-pale private eye, to find the authors of The Snail. During an interview with Mandaug of the Quarrel Sea, who ehT lianS claims knows who wrote The Snail,
Detective Vic Deet begins to feel his human identity dissolving. As she observes Deet’s dissolution in the dream, the critic too feels her identity dissolving. She tries to wake up to halt this liquefaction but cannot. The reader, in turn, begins to feel wildly empty. The crescent of narrative slides to black. We read that the grasses on the mountains have turned brown, the cities are flooding, and the trees have caught fire. The text very suddenly and literally fades. The reader is about to throw the book in terror, when, waking up, the critic glances out at the church windows outside her window and sees‘the virgin’. From window to window the critic and the virgin lather each other in light. The reader is suddenly also flooded with light, and comprehension. She spills beyond domestic frames becoming a lace prism, casting a rainbow as long and large as Alice. She turns the page and a seven-foot, letter-pressed gatefold on thick, birch-white paper unfolds. On every page is written the following text in red ink:
THE PLANET EARTH HAS A MESSAGE
YOU MUST DISMANTLE ALL MILITARIZED BORDERS
THIS IS YOUR PRIMARY TASK
ALL BORDERS MUST BE OPEN FOR MIGRATIONS
THE PLANET OF UNCOUNTABLE SPECIES
MAY NO LONGER BE SPATIALLY DEFINED
You can read the whole thing soon as it is forthcoming in 2015 in Black Box--A Record of Catastrophe.
Miranda then read two of Emily's exclosures from her book ]exclosures[ from Ahsahta Press. Here is Exclosure ]23[.
Can we possibly farm out and replace our prior provisional shelters--which are currently sweltering, buckling under the weight and sting of favors that no one asked for, but neither can they ignore
Having been equipped with automatic doorframes that see fit to permanently evict their very residents, who form now an incensed and fugitive public forced to tuck in their shirttails and to underwrite the social relations of their own domination
Handing over one disprized but notarized signature after the next in which the text of informed consent is always more accurately represented as the penmanship of misapprehended coercion
In blurred captivity. In close proximity. In the concrete streets of urban heat islands.
For this, my love, is living like snarling.
This is a globalized Arlington mortuary.
The nancy snouts of the glaciers receding trancelike
before the feast days of lonely manufacturing.
The formerly open tractlands standing now triply refinanced
advancing in speculative columns of glum figures
minus the ligaments of animate tissue
"Eventually, Sedakial" her voice issues by way of reply,"one realizes that there probably only exist relations and nothing else."
"And that this singular, unaccompanied wealth is either a source of great optimism or tremendous despair. Or perhaps rather it is always there, always querulous, a sort of careless and mind-vexing prism through which the two dueling emotions become inextricably and endlessly paired, occurring with nary a hair of space between them."
Parrying--with scarce a pause--between enervation and devastation."
Miranda also read from Emily's essay "The Anticipated Commons versus the Currently Inhabited One," a brief excerpt from which is offered here:
A lot of the research, organizing, and writing work that I've been involved in over the past half-dozen years has revolved specifically around prisons and mass incarceration, as they function in correlation with state regimes of punishment and control n the broadest sense of those terms. My own thinking in relation to models of counter-power and transformative tactics of resistance has at times been deeply animated by the recent resurgence of interest--within various leftist intellectual, activist and artistic circles--in the concept of "the (public) commons." In the words of anti-prison activist Layne Mullet, at its best and most provocational, "the commons changes the way we think about care work and social reproduction from an individual to a collective responsibility...[It] is a direct challenge to the state and to capital (or, at least, it makes the price of expropriation much higher)." From this standpoint, "communing" as an active and actively fought for verb is a collaborative, politicized effort of both mutual aid and direct confrontation with those forces of subjugation that would preclude all movement toward community self-determination. In this sense, the language of "the commons" is primarily anticipatory; it speaks for a world in which we don't yet live, but which we could at a minimum wish to...could labor and struggle to even.
Without question, I share with others this anticipatory desire; however, when I think of the current U.S. carceral state and the spiraling disciplinary and militarist powers it represents, I feel like the overwhelming enormity of its presence also forces us to contend with a very different form of "shared experience" (albeit one which is by no means equally shared) that marks today's landscapes. In other words, we are obliged to account for this dystopic, but altogether realistic, observation that an all-too-sizeable component of our "common" contemporary condition in this country revolves around the pervasive escalation of unparalleled prison construction and mass incarceration as but one predominant element within a violent, punitive and colonizing state. It is an element so grotesquely enlarged that at this point it has a hand in shaping nearly every dynamic of our social, cultural, and physical environments with or without our recognition of its doing so.
Miranda then posed the following question:
In "The Anticipated Commons Versus the Currently Inhabited One," you note a contradiction that bears on, on the one hand orientations and praxes that desire prefiguration and reclamation of commons, and on the other conditions that currently exclude and make impossible even the barest sliver of commons for so many. You talk about the commons as a world in which we don't yet live, and then raise mass incarceration as "an element so grotesquely enlarged that...it has a hand in shaping nearly every dynamic of our social, cultural, and physical environments with or without our recognition of its doing so." Your words starkly point up the negative image of the commons as not just privatization or private property, but as prison. In the face of this, you insist that contemporary poetics must sound out "the catastrophic...reverberations of living in a society that has effectively criminalized our most basic characteristics of livelihood and requirements for existence (our youth, our old aged, our poverty, our needs for housing or a doctor's appointment, our hunger) and instead fed them back to us as dangerous behavior and/or unsustainable, unassuageable demands." You go on to say that its crucial to see and evaluate how deep "has been the appropriation of these sentiments and this vocabulary even from and amongst us struggling to resist, reject, and arrest such logics." In a related observation, Alan Ginsberg put it this way half a century ago: "Almost all our language has been taxed by war." You quote George Jackson who writes, "The Present, due to its staggering complexities, is almost as conjectural as the past."
Can you talk more about this contradiction, and if you feel like it, about the re-siting, or reorientation from an anticipated, prefigured, "coming commons" towards an orientation to the present, as, as George Jackson put it, "conjectural" and also as the interval, or space-time, form which to ask, as you later do, "What happens if we very seriously and daily seek to hold our very preservation as a "commons" rather than as an individual stake?" How does our experience of the passage of time relate to our political imagination?
And so, a discussion ensued, followed by Emily in response to Miranda's work. Emily graciously sent in her comments and ruminations about her discussion with Miranda, post-event. What follows comes from Emily's pen:
I was particularly drawn to this passage in Miranda’s “The Snail,” a fictional review:
The critic underlines a sentence: “What is the state dreaming?” Here you must turn the book to the side, for the interval of the state’s dream is written in long horizontals so far into the gutters of the book that you have to break its spine to read it. The critic breaks the book open and pages containing the dreams of the state fall out onto the floor.
The state’s dream begins with fear and end with walls. It begins with tigers and ends with riot police. It begins with ulcerous fighting great apes and ends with gangraping soldiers. It begins with the hippocampus and ends with automata. It begins in a womb and ends in a cage. It begins with myth and ends in space-time. It begins with numbers and ends with letters. It begins with songs and ends with signatures. It begins with names and ends with lists. It begins with slaves and ends with slaves. It begins with snails and ends with snails. It begins under water and ends under water.
In general, I always love the imaginative use that Miranda’s work makes of the hallucinatory or the dream state as a space for the revelation of subterranean desires and forces, at both the individual and institutional level. I’m also struck by how many of her stories dabble in or feature divinatory and prophetic practices, which her diverse characters labor to activate to their own various uses – in the hope of anticipating or understanding both their present and future circumstances. Given that Miranda and I’s conversation together on Sunday was so rooted in questions regarding contemporary conditions and future possibilities (as well as how those two time/space/conceptual sites dance around one another in tempering, rupturing, pollinating, and caustic ways), I was particularly excited to hear Miranda say more about how those prophetic impulses and excursions function in her literary work.
I.e. What can the state’s dream potentially tell us about the lived, and all too vibrantly awake, state’s nightmare?
I appreciated how the state’s dream reveals its failure of imagination, even at the deepest unconscious level – the slow registering for the reader of just how many times the state begins and ends in the same space, the same practices – even when, as is so frequently the case, those features are the last things you personally might want to begin and end with (i.e. with oppressive, manipulative force) – or, in Miranda’s words, with “slavery” and “underwater”. Here, I associate “underwater” with the phenomenon of ears clogged, soggy, and drowning, as opposed to with fertile hydroponics or flourishing reefs, etc.
I was also drawn to how the passage above simultaneously works with and disrupts notions of causality and sequence at nearly every single turn of phrase, bringing to bear both parallelism and incongruity, both intended results and constant unpredictability.
Or, as Miranda so beautifully writes elsewhere: “not plot-driven so much as plot-flown, plot-crawled, plot-swum, plot-migrated.”
I really appreciated Miranda’s observations at the Carville Annex concerning how her work operates not via “secret” or “hidden” subplots/sub-narratives, but rather with all the threads and forces openly present on the surface of the page, constantly complicating and cross-influencing and re-shaping one another.
It made me think of this theater device that my friend, the performer and puppeteer Beth Nixon, created for one of her shows, “Is Enough, Enough?” that I found distinctly striking. A central prop in Nixon’s piece is the “Meanwhile Closet” - a double-door cabinet housing dozens of discrete compartments whose enclosed contents importantly interrupt and transform the primary actions taking place to the character on stage. Through this rather ingenious and deceptively simple physical construction, it becomes possible for Beth to uniquely evoke the multiplicity of landscapes and often conflicting alignments of identity that each one of us is compelled to negotiate and inhabit at any given time. The conventional (and non-life reflecting) idea of a single unbroken narrative arc is consistently disturbed throughout this piece and both the actor and viewer are forced to contend (as we do daily, but not so often theatrically) with the reality that our lives and bodies are not merely only our own, but are both affected and enriched by the larger historical events and social/cultural currents we occupy.
I think Miranda’s fiction always asks that of us as well – performing as a kind of “meanwhile novel” – in ways that I, as a reader, can’t get enough of.
If it’s useful to have, as part of my first question, I was also reading back to those present on Sunday this sentence that Miranda had written to me as we were thinking about this event in advance – a sentence which really grabbed me with a considerable power and staying force.
“I feel like the concerns propelling both of us as writers so overlap...the wanting to use the writing somehow to show not just the pain of what people do to survive, but also, somehow, through juxtaposition, through parataxis, allegory, and ciphers, to delegitimate/show the illegitimacy of the determining/overdetermining authority structures we object to and oppose---not just as wrong and oppressive, but also as delusional and ultimately without basis or justification in any honest metaphysics...”
At the time I responded to that important prod/reminder with:
“I love this sentence of yours - "not just as wrong and oppressive, but also as delusional and ultimately without basis or justification in any honest metaphysics..."
I also think so much of both our work struggles in that realm of what Judith Butler would articulate as 'agency within a field of constraint' - how to cultivate that, multiply it, but also not be delusional about its possibilities and limits either. And when the writing practice has to honor and plumb and sound those out and when its whole goal is to exhaustively try to blow them to smithereens.”
When I got home that evening (really to Robin’s home, which she was so generously lending and opening up a room of), I peered into Miranda’s The Revisionist, which I hadn’t read in years, and was startled by how much it’s first sentence condensed in a single gorgeous space a number of the questions my own current in-progress essay on surveillance is trying to explore:
“My last assignment was to conduct surveillance of the weather and report that everything was fine.”
Of course, this all merely brushes just one of the many surfaces of this rich encounter between two, to my mind, literary rock stars. You can find Emily and Miranda's books here at Small Press Distribution.