The Instead--Emily Abendroth and Miranda Melllis

Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis in the California Native Garden
at the Arboretum in San Francisco hosted by the Carville Annex

On Sunday November 1st, I spent the afternoon sitting in a stone circle in the Arboretum basking in the pleasure of hearing Diana Block read from her new novel Clandestine Occupations, a book built around 6 female narrators, all involved in social justice advocacy, and Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis read from their ongoing exchange or correspondence project--The Instead--due out from Carville Annex Press in the spring. They've described it below.

But first, I can tell you that their constraints and considerable intellectual and creative powers/prowess have produced a beautiful, whip-smart piece that traces thought's and advocacy's engagement in the daily; the piece explores, among many other things, the overlap of sod and fracking and prison sites, Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," workout boot camp, Brian Massumi, and Gregory Bateson on play, authority and discomfort in pedagogies, shifts/splices/changes.

Miranda's close-reading of Lamar's video and Emily's reading of boot camp pedagogy through the bridge of Lamar's song blasting in the studio was particularly pleasing and densely layered. These close-readings reminded me of the many communal readings performed by the band in the novels comprising the ongoing series From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate by Nate Mackey. In Bedouin Hornbook, for example, the band is in San Francisco when they come across some graffiti on a boarded-up storefront. It reads: “‘Mr. Slick and Mister Brother are one of the two most baddest dude in town, and Sutter Street’” (26). Each band member interprets the message differently. Their conversation, a performative debate or critical dozens if you will, occurs before a crowd, one that participates with laughter and critique of their own.

To the pleasures of reading--on our own and with others, in humor and horror, criticality and hope--as provided to us by Emily and Miranda!

The Instead [24/48/72/96/120] is a record of a series of five email dialogues conducted during prearranged, bracketed time periods between two time zones, states, years, and people: Emily Abendroth & Miranda Mellis. The first dialogue unfolded over 24 hours between 11/18/1411/19/14; the second over 48 hours between 12/29/1412/30/14; the third over 72 hours between 4/11/154/13/15; the fourth over 96 hours between 6/27/156/30/15; and the fifth over 120 hours between 9/1/159/5/15. The dialogues are punctuated by pauses during which each person went to work, or off the grid, or to sleep or . . . to wake up/return to new thoughts, notes, and questions.

The selection that follows below is a short excerpt from Emily and Mirandas second 48 hour dialogue session.

EA: I think its interesting to think about how writing or other art practices might at the very least endeavor to de-mask relations even if they cant, all on their lonesome, change them. In other words, we might not be able to write the undoing of prisons or the dissolution of militarized borders but we can use our writing to unleash questions and activate inquiries that might assist in bringing the necessity or efficacy of said systems into such a deep position of suspicion or destabilization that the writing participates in collectively motivating or propelling acts that push us closer toward that undoing. This is the work that language can potentially do when it refuses to demurely accept the naturalized or the normative protocols of its eras status quos.

For instance, what happens when we replace the phrase police violence” – which is critically at the forefront of so many peoples minds right now with the phrase the violence of policing? A lot happens actually! Suddenly were training our eyes and minds to look, not for a few individuals who exhibit exaggerated acts of aggression within an otherwise functional system but, at a system whose very existence is predicated on the violent enforcement of restrictive codes of behavior meant to protectthe property, lifestyles, wealth, and political ideology of a very specific segment of the population only (along very predictable and historical! race, class, and gender lines).

What about when we speak not of prison violencebut instead the violence of prisons? Not about gender violencebut the violence of gender? Again, I think a lot of important work can potentially take place in those re-framings. Perhaps even exactly the kind of labor that your vision of the archer conjures in aiming their arrow at a specific point where the intersectionality of various systems of oppressions is made legible and the depth of the reverse engineeringrequired reveals itself.

I think the word decarcerationis and can be powerful in that way and Im glad whenever I hear that it successfully strikes as such to othersears. When the Philadelphia-based group that I work and organize with, Decarcerate PA[1], first named itself several years ago, we were excited to have generated a moniker that was also a verb/an action, embodying a demand for the reorientation we were seeking and not just a description of the problem we were confronting. But while I definitely agree that prisons are a striking locus point for viewing the intrinsic violence, disequilibrium, neglect/abuse, and deeply rooted supremacist/imperialist tendencies of the nation as a whole in an amplified state, I think that folks who are closely and critically examining the relations at play in schooling, health care, gender inequality, transphobia and militarism, etc. are also doing the work of mapping many of these same dynamics and intersectionalities. I think that maybe the task for each of us, in our various counter-power organizing efforts, is to turn what were working on into a keystoneof that kind (whatever its focus), so that it becomes a vehicle of transport for drawing connections to other people and struggles and disparities, rather than one that isolates (y)our organization from others or puts it in a position of fighting for its unique priority on a scale or ladder of issues that are actually all deeply linked.

Im curious if you think of that kind of intersectional mapping work as something that fiction can also do? I certainly think of your fiction as often achieving or making room for something like that a kind of intricate tracing of complex links and dense connections that in other forums or arenas sometimes get designated as having to be ignored or left behind because it all gets too messyor too hard to articulate in the form of a single slogan or request/demand. And I definitely think I frequently go to poetry or to a writing practice in general with the personal need to open up that kind of space, whether or not I actually succeed each time in creating it. A space to not have immediate or correct answers, a space to rest in and wrestle with indeterminacy. In that vein, I wanted to offer this other passage, also from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, in their essay Politics Surrounded:

In the clear, critical light of day, illusory administrators whisper of our need for institutions and all institutions are political, and all politics is correctional, so it seems we need correctional institutions in the common, settling us, correcting us. But we wont stand corrected. Moreover, incorrect as we are theres nothing wrong with us. We dont want to be correct and we wont be corrected. Politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt that can never be made good. We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.

I love how the indeterminateand the everything(at least in terms of whats of consequence) become parallel terms in this closing, each understood as something that we owe one another, coupled with an obligation to give the lie toinstitutions and cry wolf on the weak to non-existent forms of self-determination that were consistently bribed with as compensation for our obedience.

Its interesting to consider that one of the important spaces/uses of fiction or poetry might not be so much to invent, but rather to try to pull the wool off of current conjuredor fabricatedrepresentations of the daily real politic. And that this effort to comprehend those forces of the mundane, both banal and fantastical and frequently monstrous, might require powers of mind that weve been explicitly encouraged to leave uncultivated or underdeveloped. The novelist/essayist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has written: I most seem to understand the inner logic of social processes when I am deep inside imaginative territory.

Where do imaginative territory and the inner logic of social processes come into contact as you are writing or conceiving of a written piece? Or, to take it out of the realm of writing alone, when you are making breakfast or brushing your teeth or teaching?

MM: The inner logic of social processes which are misogynist and ageist will tell me when I am brushing my teeth to lament their condition. Sure: my teeth are not new. They bear the signs of the passing of time! And various other signs. Once my front tooth was knocked out. A friend picked it up. At the emergency room, the attending physician asked if anyone had the tooth. My friend held it up. This doctor, whose hair went down to her waist, put that tooth back in. It didnt re-rootit was dead, unplugged from my nervous systembut it has dwelt, if not lived in my mouth ever since, magically holding up, a little tomb, and its discoloration tells the story of the sudden flight it took! I can laugh nowthat happened when I was sixteen. It was a waking nightmare at that age of intense facial self-consciousness. One is so out of control when it comes to the face. People socialized as female are taught to obsessively try to control what others face when they face our face. Theres that trope of the dementedly made-up female face, exaggerated eye make-up, smeared lipstick, when the face becomes abject, pleading for a rest from all this impression-control. Some kind of long-term experiment is being performed on how much mental space people will devote to trying to control something that (a) cant ultimately be controlled and (b) doesnt matter.

In J.M. Coetzees novel Elizabeth Costello there is a scene in which the main protagonist analyzes an animal experiment such that it becomes an exemplary parable of the stupidity of reductivism, as well as the damage done when the unexamined assumptions of power go untested. Elizabeth Costello (I think of her as Cotezee’s avatar) rejects the idea that animals do not possess reason. She recounts an experiment that was conducted in the 1920s by Wolfgang Kohler with an ape named Sultan who was deprived of bananas until he figured out a way to get them. He stacks crates to reach bananas suspended beyond his reach. What Costello emphasizes is the stupidity of setting the stupid task, which by its very structure precludes a real exploration, and ignores the pain and confusion of the context. She imagines Sultan thinking: “What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?” That is, the experiment asks the wrong questions: “a carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics toward the humbler reaches of practical reason.” This is like the corporatization of education. This is like the mercantilist policing of bodies that teaches us to focus on appearances rather than experiences, on controlling impressions rather than reveling in the sensuous immanence of our bodies, of textures, colors, the play of forms. So rather than proving or disproving the question, the experiment does a third, unintentional thing: it sabotages intelligence, structurally reducing us to the less interesting thought. Reducing my relationship to my teeth when I am brushing them, to worrying about how they appearwhich I am inculcated and invited to do by the misogynist, necro-politicking patriarchy that precedes mewould be to think the less interesting thought.

Excursions into imaginative territory can instead make me wonder at the fact that teeth are an extension of the nervous system, that they are solid, immersed in the fluidity and space of my mouth, that they show me the inside of my body, that they allow me to eat, and they also show me my innards logic as death, my skeleton. The inner logic of social processes, such as the structure of health care, insofar as I have access to it, can allow me to imagine that the socius thinks my teeth matter, and therefore that my life matters (in that having teeth allows me to eat and continue to live). That inner logic, since health care and dentistry are not accessible to me unless I can fulfill the condition of earning sufficient amounts of money, also tells me that if I stop fulfilling that condition, stop earning money, that my teeth, and by extension my life, dont matter. I have to keep earning my teeth, so I can chew up the commodity world. This thought is the end point of a possible, as yet, unwritten parable in which from the state of someones teeth we can extrapolate the teeth of ones state. We can look into the inner logic of social processes, and see intertwining systems. Parables are compressed, distilled versions of complex logics that imaginatively counsel us as to their effects. I love Kafkas parable about the leopards breaking into the temple. But lately, I have had this Kafka parable on my mind a lot:

I can swim like the others only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it my ability to swim is of no avail and I cannot swim after all.

On the one hand, no justice without remembrance. On the other hand, no change without forgetting. If our memory of our former inability to swim is stronger than our  knowledge of how to swim, even if we know how to swim, we wont be able to swim. Sometimes one has an idea for how to solve something and one sets out to enact changes and bring about a solution and one is confronted by treatises on The Hopelessness of Changing Anything and The History of Impossibility In General. That wont work, because when we tried to do that before…” The memory of the former inability to swim prevents swimming. This is of interest not only with regards to learning but with regards to social change. We think of learning as remembering, but the parable says, remembering may also entail forgetting. This parables root system is connected to the story of Lots wife, Edith, as well as to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both are told not to look back. Edith (my grandmothers name) looks back and becomes a pillar of salt. Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice. On the one hand, fuck you Hades, etcetera. On the other hand, the moral of the story is, know when to look back, and know when not to.

[1] decarceratepa.info


Tonya Foster & David Buuck Reading at the Poetry Center Oct 22, 2015

A late October afternoon, students thronging the campus walkways, parking challenging! I'm at San Francisco State for Tonya Foster and David Buuck's reading at the Poetry Center.

In the audience, students, Steve Dickison, Emily Abendroth, CA Conrad, and others. David, equipped with visuals, began the afternoon. His was a somewhat improvisational talking through some of his  BARGE (Bay Area Research Group Enviro-aesthetics) project, with sustained attention to his "Buried Treasure Island: a detour of the future," punctuated by readings from Site Cite City and a sung rendition of "Dead Men Don't Bite."

You can hear David read/sing "Dead Men Don't Bite" here at the Poetry Center's Vimeo channel.

I don't know why I missed David's Treasure Island work when it was happening in real time, but I wish I hadn't. It strikes me that his project might also be called, in the parlance of the Composition and Rhetoric world, truly multimodal; it is comprised of tours that are performative "detours" on Treasure Island with people in hazmat suits as "ghosts of the future," framing ignored "views" of the island and city beyond it as tourists and others gaze at the military industrial complex in the form of the Blue Angels streaking across the sky.

There is
  • the event of the tour itself,
  • and all the research and work that went into developing it, (the project drawing attention to the toxic dumping ground the island became courtesy of the US Navy),
  • the text, podcasts, guidebook,
  • and the photos that accompany them, or are produced around and after the events.
  • Then there is David's reading and singing and talking about the piece.

I loved how he detournéd panels once bearing graffiti which were then painted-over; he labeled them as in a gallery or museum--"untitled municipal painting."

Here's a section from "Buried Treasure":

Notes On Method: Paranoid Landscapes (2008)

                                  The sick/ of magic/ lining up                                                         --CA Conrad

Throughout the work on this project, BARGE has had to re-adjust its methods to fit the 'facts on the ground,' even as those facts filter themselves through ever-more paranoiac scrims. By listening to the materials instead of imposing one's narratives upon them, and letting the symptoms proliferate into new forms of understanding--the telling itch, the site-specific discharge, the rash judgments, and above all, the 'black spot' where the no-go zones meet flesh--one could open up the terrain for uncanny encounters with the site and its hauntings. For instance, when the window opened behind me and the voice hailed me with her version of events, to be narrated in a kind of speculative poetics that the guidebook had yet to accommodate, the feeling was not of surprise as much as the recognition that this encounter was meant to happen at exactly this juncture in the field work. Thus the strange white car that would often be waiting at off-limit sites right as I was approaching would turn up in the rear view mirror at exactly the moment I was wondering aloud where it had been hiding. Of course one would turn a corner and suddenly come across a three-legged dog trotting down an empty street. Of course there as a Naval "Ghost Blimp" that disappeared from the island years ago, only to show up in Daly City, its engines running and its pilots missing. Psychogeographic research became a kind of landscape-fugue, a cognitive napping, where somnambulatory dériveations chart the ground-scores by which the island improvises song within that seeming null state between past and future. No map could hope to chart such fever-dreams, what with the open containers full of poisoned land from other sites, the fenced-off littoral zones, the underground petrol tanks bellowing beneath the fault lines--all real time objects of a land-based dream-work that has yet to be fully translated into the new cartography. In the converging crises, when the contradictions work themselves out through the post-disaster, post-oil ecologies to come, the survivors will have had to make use of every site for spectral nourishment, every nook for plant life, producing oxygen for the new lungs, fever and ferment for the new species-dreaming   (53).

I am looking forward to reading David's book!


Tonya began her reading by noting that "poetry doesn't happen without community," and then she read a portion of something she said is old though she is still very much "mired" in it. This piece with its lovely alternative titles aimed at different contexts and perhaps audiences: "Pay Attention To Where You At: A Mathematics of Chaos," a.k.a. "Its Difficult Subjects: Jamming Between Misery and Majesty," a.k.a. "Its Difficult Subjects. Talking Shit. At the Crossroads."* This work is engaged with a deep love for place--whether that place is Harlem or New Orleans, while it is also a powerful meditation on disaster and catastrophe and grief. She quoted Blanchot, "the disaster takes care of everything." Tonya's take is complex and surprising. She notes that as a kid, the possibility of a deluge created a kind of innocent excitement. A day of rain might mean a day out of school. That was then, and momentary. I am looking forward to seeing this piece published.

She then read from her new amazing book, A Swarm of Bees in High Court. I love this book; its pleasure in plying language; its sharp observation and critique. There's so much attention to prosody. It is rife with anaphora, alliteration, and a kind of staccato rhythm a/mi/d/st words rendered multiple. Here's a few sections from various poems.


Beside her, he lies
curled--sleeping apostrophe
--possession and "O!

           mission accomplished."
Again to t/his sweat. Now sleep.
But not for her--sleep

           less eyes like stagnant
city pools. Saltiness, then
this thirst for ice.


Knots of a woman
who ain't numb with want. Who's not
effaced by shut eyes?

Nots form this woman
who sugars her mustards, who'll
want but never ask.

In her body swarms
swarms of cells, of tissue, of
sounds--"achoo," blood, "shush."

In her body, swarms
mundane sadnesses--wearied-
womb, "little cash," years.

Her self is a sleep,
is snake-eyes, knothole, whistle,
skull, gristle, and nerve.

Her self is a sleep
from which t/his voice might wake her.
To what? To what?

from Aubade

To be--the water
that bandies a body, the
body of a once

young wo/man n
a bayou of sound & words in
the pre/ab/sense of sleep.

To be--a boat as
in raft or pontoon. Each word,
a boat in which s/he

is, in which s/he is
sentenced and bandied about.
To be about to...

To be about...

To be bandied about by water,
to be busted and broke,
to be bored, grief-bore, work-bore.

to bleed,

to be backache, bone of nightshifts,
to be barren as salt lick, to bear bellyached and bloat,
to be news and less.

To be--tethered between seer and (un)see.

To see and to be
seen?--what it is to live on
perennial blocks.

Her voice, no matter how loud or clear, is rendered silence, his do--
shadow projected across a page, across a street, an age, across
two bodies in bed        (59-60).

You can listen to a brief bit of Tonya's reading on the Poetry Center's Vimeo channel here.

Oakland-based writer David Buuck is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics and co-founder and editor of poetics journal Tripwire. Recent books include SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013).

Tonya M. Foster is the author of A Swarm of Bees in High Court and coeditor of Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art. Her writing and research focus on ideas of place and emplacement, and on intersections between the visual and the written. Her next collections are a cross-genre collection on New Orleans, and Monkey Talk, an intergenre composition about race, paranoia and surveillance. Her poetry, prose and essays have appeared in Callaloo, Tripwire, boundary2, MiPOESIAS, NYFA Arts Quarterly, the Poetry Project Newsletter and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.

* Thank you to Steve Dickison for assistance with these titles!