Thursday, February 8, 2018

It's Atmospheric, I Suppose: An Interview with Julia Drescher

Tramping through, hunting in, being hunted in the many woods (“dark” “Horrible”) that are the terrain of this book, Drescher finds/makes a clearing where a “gwhirl” is “breathing freely” and speaks in blood. Here she, who is at once many female-marked speakers, whirls, turns back on, turns her back on the usual tellers, or hunters, in order to open the epic.
– Susan Gevirtz, on Open Epic by Julia Drescher


Open Epic (cover) by Julia Drescher,
Delete Press 2017
After finding ourselves graduated from the MFA program at Texas State University, Julia Drescher and I spent the next two handfuls of years teaching there. Most every day we'd meet by the brick wall outside and talk. About the rain, about teaching thesis statements, about the state of the world, and words, too, sometimes. 

Once, I found her hand-stitching cover artwork for a book her press was preparing to launch. Another time, she showed me the wallpaper samples she'd gotten from Kiki Smith, and I ordered some, too, immediately drawn to the work.

For years our friendship went like this, sharing cigarettes, miseries, teaching tips, and jokes, before we each moved to states further north--her to Colorado, me to Washington. And while we've both left teaching, we're still connected, somewhat like telephone poles thousands of miles apart. From time to time, we remember and write. More often, we forget but then, out of our blue, we'll exchange interesting objects.  

Most recently, a package appeared on my doorstep containing Drescher's newest book of poetry, Open Epic (Delete Press 2017). 

It's a handsome book: cover, shape, and binding. And what lies within is a rattling play of thought and language, of fairy tale but not. Of anger but not. A hunt, torn apart. Like kathryn pringle and kari edwards, Drescher moves through the atmosphere of language and meaning, questioning--and asking us to question--where language and meaning intersect, deteriorate, and shift like so many pieces of earth in water.  

After reading Open Epic, I sent Julia a list of questions and asked if she'd answer them. She did. That is what follows.


What interests you about the edges of language and meaning?

JD. Right now I am listening to Julius Eastman’s “Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” & I can’t tell if what word’s being sung is “said” or “sad”. It’s awesome.

It seems like the typical turn in poetry happens in the line, but your poetry turns within the collision of language itself, which isn’t made to seem like a collision but almost part of a stroke—the reader swimming from word to word, made to trust but not trust what the next word will do to the previous. The experience of reading Open Epic, for me, is like swimming underwater above sharp rocks.

JD. The trust-not-trust of language – I have never thought of that before (for myself) but I can see it as perfectly true. I must get this from my mother, I think.

I do sometimes think of lines in (my) poems as wrecks – sometimes what gets in the way of the poem one moment & then is the way of the poem in the next (the former having to do with my tyrannical tendencies, I think, & the latter is maybe when the poem can exceed these)…As a reader, I can’t help but be absorbed by misreadings/mishearings & interminable associations (polysemy etc.) & that makes its way into my writing.

Too, I guess the ‘wreck’ of the line is tied to sound & rhythm – like, I am always off-beat, can’t quite get the senses of the sound arrangement  to “come out right” etc. This happens, as well, in reading the poems out loud – the voice in my head is not the voice that comes out of my mouth (sometimes, this is very frustrating & sometimes I find myself super-interested in this ‘gap’ more generally).

“Hilda’s Hunting,” the first movement of Open Epic, reads as a mourning song to a heroine who has been displaced by a (historical) focus on the men and their doings while simultaneously examining-through-fracturing The Hunt as a traditional, patriarchal activity. Was this originally your intention, or did one appear as you worked on the other?

JD. I very much began writing this poem from the line “Hunting is about / Completing the sentence”—& then, in some ways the poem develops out of a refusal of that construction (i.e. the reliance on – even faith in – sound & the slippery-ness of language as the means for not ‘completing the sentence’ (&, therefore, not ‘hunting’?) — ‘Hunting’ being, anyway, not quite the word for not having a wor(l)d that speaks to what’s going on, where it’s trying to get to, get out of, etc.

So—displaced in a certain sense, yes, & anger/rage (mourning) about that – but more so, I think, about being angry at oneself for being angry about that situation of being ‘outside’ of some (heroic-historical –therefore “important”, “legitimate” etc.) focus– like, what’s so great about it anyway? & then, too, that it feels like you are forced to continually inhabit that anger because, you know, the very real effects of other people acting out/on this fantasy of “placement” won’t leave you alone…(&/but then doesn’t the position of “displacement (from)” provide some things that are vital to living, that are absolutely invaluable, that the “(historical) focus” won’t/doesn’t?)

I would say (& other people have said it before & better than I) that one of the insidiousnesses of any—particularly white, particularly western—“patriarchal activity” is the fact of my own varying complicities in it even as, let’s say, I never gave (& never could give) consent to it being in the first place— which is the situation of everyone to a certain extent,  just some are more invested in it continuing to be the normative situation etc.

& so, then, thinking about whatever benefits befall from that when my whiteness is added to the mix, the construction becomes also how to give away, or refuse, what you have but never wanted in the first place…

I think the Hilda poem doesn’t seem to actually present, let’s say, “Men” as a completely physical presence as such (or, if they are there, they have already been consumed) – the speaker & Hilda are saturated in & saturate the “traditional/patriarchal” violence, trying (& failing) continually to find an out-place from that.

Do you think that a questioning of tradition/history, without a re-examination of language itself, is authentic? Is questioning itself limited if language itself isn’t also part of the questioning? It seems you’re after both these questions in Open Epic, if not to answer them then to raise them.

JD. I can’t answer this directly, I think. (It would go into that too-much-&-not-enough territory).
 So how about this:
  • After the “election” in 2016 (& surely some version/the same version of this has always been around) I saw a sign that said “IF YOU DON’T VOTE, YOU DON’T COUNT”. & it made me so very viscerally angry & exhausted at the same time. While understanding (perhaps) where it’s coming from, I find it just a completely horrible & brutal expression – As the list could be endless (&, frankly, does include most who do vote): “illegal” immigrants don’t count, trees don’t count, children don’t count, mountains don’t count, refugees don’t count, oceans don’t count etc.etc.etc.( don’t count)… all of which is unbearably true, has been true, under particularly political modes -- & so, to *repeat* this ‘logic’ of *literal & figurative* value like it will get you anywhere close to whatever beautiful better world you imagine -- is just fucked-up-sad to me…
  • I recently sent a friend of mine who’s a poet/lawyer the following query:

There's a lawyer here who's trying to get the Colorado River (I think) legally classified as a person (much like New Zealand, or that guy who's tried with chimps etc.) & I wanted to know: Has anyone ever tried to get themselves (re)classified legally as, like say, a *river* (or something)?      
  • Just yesterday I heard a story on the radio about a “Southern Accent Reduction class” being offered to workers in Tennessee. Its purpose was to help them acquire a “more neutral American” sound in order to ensure that people would “pay attention to what you say, not how you say it.” Being from Texas (& being a person who sometimes “loses” my accent, sometimes “finds” it (&, unintentionally, others!) – usually depending entirely on what person or people I am around), I cracked my ass up all the way home.
  • I think I have been in love with the word “ain’t” since before I was born.
Without knowing whose body the ghost belongs to, would it be difficult to discuss the ghost? Sometimes I feel this way in trying to write about your work, ask you a question about it, though when I am not searching for language, I do not feel at a loss in the same way. Respond how you will.

JD. It is difficult to discuss! So here is a (perhaps heavy-handed) collage:

(From Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects): “A bird detects the quantum signature of an electromagnetic wave, not the wave itself, by means of a quantum scale magnet in its eye. Birds perceive not some traditional material lump, but an aesthetic shape.”
Is there a “quantum scale magnet” in our ears, in our tongues?
(From Barthes’s “The Grain of the Voice): “am I hearing voices within the voice? but isn't it the truth of the voice to be hallucinated?”
Ghost = guest + host?
The roots being ‘fury, anger’, ‘ugly’| ‘to wound, tear, pull to pieces’ | ‘to give up, give away’
How it feels what it means to love ferociously
(From an interview with Clarice Lispector):
                                                                        CL: I’m a little tired.
                                                                        Q: Of what?
                                                                        CL: Of myself.
                                                                        Q: But aren’t you born again and refreshed with
     every new work?
                                                                        CL: Well. For now I am dead.
     We’ll see if I can be born again.
     For now I’m dead.
     I’m speaking from my tomb.
(Barthes again): “(it is not the psychological 'subject' in me who is listening; the climactic pleasure hoped for is not going to reinforce – to express – that subject but, on the contrary, to lose it.)”
(From Baraka’s “Hunting is Not those Heads on the Wall”): “And even to name something, is to wait for it in the place you think it will pass.”
. . .
Part of the visceral pleasure in reading your work is the rhythms that the language takes in/falls into, often through repetition of fracture:

she holds like these her hands
she holds
these like
her hands
like is to
pretend as

& in her hand some shine & in her hand some bruise

So not just repetition, but using repetition to cause an expectation and then, once the expectation is formed, avoiding resolution by making the language blossom differently—but then the pleasure still comes from this, from being denied resolution of our (readers’) expectations as created by repetition. Do the conventions of poetry hinder or help the questioning of language? Or is questioning itself unable to be done as thoroughly in prose? I guess I’m wondering how the conventions of poetry limit even poetry, limit language—if pleasure is a limitation. Perhaps it isn’t. Or is pleasure what is used to move the reader through the questioning, as plot is often used in prose? Your turn, speak however you will to any of this.
JD. I am glad if it does what you say.
I think very interesting things can generate & move in limits (which are or can be shape-shifting things themselves).
In terms of pleasure, this recently came out of (seemingly) nowhere:

It is as if we live
with other words—true

pleasure is always disturbing. That feeling

a body gets wanting
to follow the eyes over a ledge – no –,

I could not write a poem
to save my life. But

poetry (what’s disturbing)
is not for saving life—

it’s for giving it away

For the past several years, when I write, I’ve been in conversation partly with Flannery O’Connor. This hasn’t always been true, but it has been of late. Is there a writer you are partly in conversation with in your writing right now? What writer, or work, do you return to again and again as the years pass?

JD. It really is quite hard for me to separate or delineate reading & writing so I combined two of your questions because of this & I thought it would make it easier to respond. However, because I could go on forever about reading (who what when where why), combining these questions doesn’t make it any easier! The works I return to again & again (i.e. the writers who, when I first read them, I knew I would be a reader of theirs forever), I think, would be who I am always in a “conversation” with (though most, probably, would want nothing to do with me!)

The people I quoted in the ghost question are the most recent writers I have been reading/returning to, but with a few absences:

Literally every day I am lucky enough to be in conversation with C.J. Martin & his work.

I have been reading Akira Lippet’s books & also re-reading Lisa Robertson (& pretty soon, Norma Cole) & then, of course, for the last 10 years I am always reading/listening to Fred Moten.

How would you describe your relationship with words?

JD. My relationship with words is atmospheric, I suppose.

Since writers often find themselves in a writing workshop, whether that’s in a classroom or coffee shop, and the workshop has the possibility to humiliate/harass/wound writing that defies/questions/wonders about language and how it moves, what advice would you give writers who are compelled to write outside of convention, or in unexpected ways? Ideally, the workshop’s goal is not to humiliate/harass/wound writing, no matter its form/path/appearance, so what advice would you give readers who come across such a writer in a workshop?

JD. Workshops are weird, at best. & who am I to offer ‘advice’!!??
I can only say that my experience didn’t happen to be as horrible as I know they can be, probably because:
  1. The teachers I had always encouraged us to read read read – which I interpreted as permission to continue to be interested  over & above being (or presenting oneself as) interesting. I still think this is something to “live up” to. Also, making friends with people who were interested in reading, learning constantly, treating other people with respect etc. very much helped.
  2. When I was a kid & visiting extended family (which we did quite often), the general rule was that my sisters & I were to be seen & not heard—which meant we had to remain present at the dinner table long after we had finished eating, listening to the adults talk. On the one hand, I think this was actually really good training just generally for reading & studying, & then, more specifically, for having my poems “workshopped” (…the on-the-other-hands, I don’t even have time to un-pack:)
  3. I am stubborn as fuck. This isn’t a brag – it has caused me lots of problems & it is a problematic characteristic etc. but it did, sometimes, help me—I guess, in terms of deciding what not to listen to or, better yet, how to listen to someone who might be using the workshop to “humiliate/harass/wound”. I mean, really, it just boils down to the fact that if the position you have taken in a workshop is to be the one to “humiliate” etc., it’s just beyond pathetic & not helpful to anyone.

[&, as a silly side-note: given the *academic* workshop set-up – wherein no one has a clue as to what they’re doing most of the time but everyone feels like they have to act like they know *exactly* what to do etc.—aren’t workshops kind of like (in their best & worst senses) parenting advice books? LOL.]

What projects are you working on in either your writing, reading, or press-publishing?

JD. Through Further Other Book Works, & in conjunction with Cuneiform Press, C.J. Martin & I just published a book of the poet Helen Adam’s collages  (The Collages of Helen Adam). I just finished a long poem I had been working on awhile, so I got about a day of feeling something close to satisfaction & then I am flailing again. So now I’m in some sort of hibernation pattern (which involves lots of reading & collaging).


Julia Drescher