Monday, August 30, 2010
questions by CAConrad
QUESTION: David, your work in Occultations is in part a thread of physical sensations the reader feels, and in feeling knows something new about our living bodies through your words. Visceral is a word so overused these days, but I use it here because it's the true meaning of the word in motion, no doubt. Your amalgamation of slashes, ash, harnessing a lethargic body whose eyes never tire in their knowing, discerning. At one point you write, "The common areas are where we meet but don't meet." The politics of body permeate the text in so many ways, in so many flaring epiphanies. I wonder if you wouldn't mind sharing with us the impetus for this particular collection just published by Black Radish?
WOLACH: Thank you, Conrad, for this feature and this question. I'm beyond honored to mingle with you here—it's more about poetry, your love of poetry and your support of poets and their (our) labors, labors which, for both of us I think, have the collective potential to matter. I think this is a rarer hope than is often assumed. Your support of Occultations, and of me as human being on this earth, it's just one instance of how you invite us to have honest and loving dialog, to be vulnerable with one another. I think of Thom Donovan’s notion of a "loving criticism" in relation to your giving primacy to friendship at every level of your work, which is, in contrast to negative critique, or some poetic recapitulation of "the ownership society," commoning as a poesis. Criticism as reclamation of loving discovery and investigation, an active making together. So, thank you for the opportunity to be part of that. Speaking of commoning, or the commons, I'll try to start here in responding to this amazingly full and giving question.
Occultations began, as have my other books, with a set of corporeal rituals or live enactments of language in public places—as working out of problems, concerns, anxieties, and so forth, without knowing where precisely such enactments would take me. I guess you could call these activities performances or installations or even agit-props, but that'd be giving them more weight as aesthetic objects than they probably deserve. These activities were more investigatory than "audience" inducing, more evidence gathering than performative. Each section of the book, though, was vaguely-conceived as an interlocking set of publically enacted concerns about the body (as "mortal we" to quote Laura Elrick) in relation to the disappearing commons, its replacement with increasing corporatization, information mediation, and militarization of our lived spaces, the intimate, the inter-personal, the possible viz. "what the body (poem) can do." The section you quote from, that line, like most in this poeme en prose cycle ("modular arterial cacophony") is an affiliative appropriation/investigation of found textual materials. Here, a small part of Beverly Dahlen's A Reading is set against the backdrop of the section’s "backgrounded" documents—leaked memoranda on the use of torture at Guantanamo, and a large document detailing law enforcement's use of private contractors to carry out surveillance on their neighbors. Where, through word play and line construction, Dahlen torques a sort of normative "grand" reading of Shakespeare's world as "stage," reveals it as that which, if so, must be (passive construction) "managed":
there it is now
our beautiful setting
Shkspeare's terrible prophecy: all the world's a stage
It's the last two lines here I was playing on, doing so in relation to reports on the U.S. military’s policies on managing the release of poetry written by (tortured) detainees:
Poetry...presents a special risk, and DOD standards are not to approve the release of any poetry in its original form or language… poetry is harder to vet than conventional letters because allusions and imagery in poetry that seem innocent can be used to convey coded messages to other militants.
Under such conditions, how would the DOD be able to discern "poetry" from "evidence" or "actionable intelligence"? The interrogated prisoner-as-language producing object. As information machine. And the DOD as close reader? It's a miserable, horrifying world with an underlying hope (perceived threat) of overturn, revolution. Yet when we meet we often don't meet, we avert and do not feel one another's outrage or unease, acknowledge one another's presence, and when we don't meet, we cannot act.
So each section begins as a set of words or lines or sentences floating through this body, coursing through the blood and shaping me in relation to problems that press on me at night, and these lines swirl around until some kind of architecture appears—these are bodily marks or tracks that form a morphology. At which point I enact them—usually with others. And that data recursively flows back on the page, and I shape it and shape it until it exhausts me and I find it ugly and socially-politically inept and I hate it and let go. (It feels good to have just admitted that.)
Occultations and a sort of "companion" book, Hospitalogy, these books in particular are concerned with re-imagining "the body" and what the body can do as site(s) of resistance, mediated and mediating contact zones between what is felt and what has yet to be felt. Someplace in the mini-essay at the end of Occultations I discuss how fatal illness hit me several years ago while working as a union organizer and performing artist. It was at this time, late 2004-ish, that I started writing each of these books, and as the body failed (or as its environment became more obviously hostile), the live enactments became less gestural / physical, increasingly "home-bound," and so one of the questions that emerged for me was how to amplify this condition of increasing constriction/felt-interrogation, how to map this becoming and translate the social and sensorial aspects of utterance-under-duress into a "common space" that others could use, that could offer some margin of unanticipated care. Which is to think of the body as, contra enclosure, a sort of commons. A consensually offered and necessarily damaged and mediated commons, but potentially useful nonetheless. I should mention that Brandon Brown’s embodied translation practices have been hugely influential to my writing practices. And that I take seriously due to its political implications the longstanding question in poetry after LANGUAGE of whether or how to breathe embodiment into the poem, give the work quote end quote feeling, without doing so naively or nostalgically. I take it that Brown too is concerned with this problem in some way or another. For me it’s not one of an anxiety regarding avant-gardism vs. [insert your favorite term here], but of honesty, attentiveness: an ethical regard to the complexities and paradoxical behaviors of the constructed, motional subject. So, I'm very glad to hear that you as reader feel the lines with their stutters and so forth, that they have bodily or sensorial resonance. The knee, for instance, has a brain too. And so does the skin. Etc. I can't imagine wanting anything more than hearing that these oft-ignored regions have somehow been activated or talked to.
QUESTION: The intelligence of the body is being rediscovered in a way, right? Ancient cultures all over the globe got it, they really got it. China, Africa, India, everywhere, including my ancestors in Denmark and Ireland. Not to eschew allopathic medicine (which is too easy a target these days), but herbalism, homeopathy, acupuncture, and many forms of massage and reflexology are coming home to us again. And in each case the memory in the tissue, or as you say (I LOVE how you say) the brain in the knee, is being unlocked.
This is very much part of Occultations, meaning that your fine study in this BODY and body of poems is revealing what had been tucked from view for centuries of monotheistic and scientific tyranny. There's a very rational, awakened dream component to what you're doing as well here. You START the book with a death ritual, which is a very -- dare I say it? -- shamanistic approach. Let's reclaim that shaman quality through you here by asking why you chose for us to die first? I mean is it like that ancient rite of the shaman nearly dying, reviving, and bringing new knowledge to the tribe? Your requirements at the beginning are NOT for light readers. Why do you help us die first?
WOLACH: I know you don't use the word shaman lightly and so I'm quite humbled by your take on how Occultations opens. And, yes, absolutely: neoliberal capitalism has done more to disembody us in America than we can possibly be aware of. That's how I take your insistence in (Soma)tic Midge that we find our bodies and find our planet. The body's rediscovery is of the moment, it seems, yes, and not by accident. I'm reminded of what Robert Kocik wrote as part of a recent Nonsite Collective discussion on disability and poetics under neoliberal capitalism, that in this toxic environment: "disability is shared because ability is so extremely unexplored that we have no reference… living [in this hostile environment] and working is unaesthetic and terminal. Impractical is the norm. I'm considering calling the norm eternal disability." We haven't the faintest idea of what the body is or can be, let alone what it can do. We're crippled by an incessant, false desire for instrumental exchange, hunted for the surplus value we can generate. And so those bodies that get counted, like myself, as "disabled," our shapes and gestures, our treatment and our duress, our very bodies at this moment call attention to and come to represent a problem that's actually universal, or as Robert puts it, "eternal."
But as you often say, and show in your poetry and relationships, it takes work to find our bodies, to realize how deeply marked by the catastrophes of neoliberal capitalism we are. Our needs and desires are occulted by its logic, the narrative which says the body is nothing more than biopower, valued for the distributable commodity it can produce, or be, or kill to get. Even for those of us who have been radicalized in some way, we need to make sustained efforts to figure out how we are with one another, must work to remember that everything is interconnected and absolutely urgent. What I love about you is that you are constantly reminding yourself of our interconnectedness, interdependence, and the urgency of every seemingly "insignificant" thing we do. This is a deeply ecological sensibility, and it's also a Talmudic one—that the Talmud is such an enormous palimpsest of a text, that all these seemingly inane details about a subject are hotly debated over many centuries, comes from an ethos of interconnectivity and urgency, that every action should be taken as if (y)our last. The fire ritual itself, and its placement at the beginning of the poem, draws on Eastern Russian shamanistic, Buddhist, but also Talmudic practices, among other things, not to mention poetry. It was originally constructed in collaboration with poet and performer Kythe Heller, who is a lot more open-minded and knowledgeable than I am, by the way. She drew from sources she knew well, especially Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist practices in relation to fire and song. The ritual hopes not to appropriate any cultural practice or belief crudely or dishonestly, but does draw on several practices. Hopefully it articulates the idea that to become radicalized, or to find our bodies and to feel that interconnected urgency, we need to die a little bit first.
Opening with this particular death ritual was something I felt necessary not just for the rest of the book, but for "us" beyond or after the book. Yet in thinking about how I wanted to respond to your wonderful and giving question, why I help us die first, I kept trying to figure out how I might suggest that we need to die before we can come back to ourselves, for and as one another, that this becomes baseline, in fact, for social justice. How to explain it without sounding like I want to die? I kept wondering how to say that a kind of death and the vulnerability it brings is a gift that we need give ourselves in order to be in community with one another, for one another. And that just as in some shamanic traditions there is no special difference between the shaman and the laity other than that the shaman has died or nearly died, "the gift of death" is something each of us can give—there's no special skill or status one need have to give it. For most of us, including myself, who live in a system that prizes ownership, indeed a proprietary relation to one's identity as enclosed and one's body as private and not shared or share-able, this feels paradoxical: how can death be affirming? How to talk about that? And then recently Thom Donovan wrote about you and your poetry and quoted a line from Rob Halpern's (wonderful) "Beside The Funerall of John Donne," a quote that I think captures what I've been trying to figure out how say, especially since Rob’s work, too, has had a profound effect on the construction of this ritual through late night conversations with Kythe and I. The line is: "And since I could save none of you I let go more of me into what can't contain such want." The failure to save others here is also a loss of oneself.
The death ritual asks us to suspend that proprietary relation we have to ourselves, to become increasingly vulnerable with—and as—one another. Fire both gives and takes breath: it is giving in that it will take what you offer it and reciprocate that gift with warmth. but it also always wants more—it is insatiable, can cause you irreparable harm. Not unlike us. The negotiation, the dance of urgency in relation to one another, one another's needs and desires, this fire dance, so to speak, is a way to think about the ritual as a whole. It asks us to first privately exhaust ourselves in the urgency of saying what cannot be said, then writing to those whom in our dying breaths we feel we need to speak, then to come together and toss these pages into a fire, burn them up together, disperse these final breaths into the air so that they be delivered by trees back into usable breath. Then, finally, it asks of us to cover ourselves in this collective breath, to wear this ash for the day in public. In each moment there is a killing off of that enclosed self, the privacy and tendency to hoard one's body, and in each moment we are more vulnerable, and also more open to possibilities that the logic of ownership and unified selfhood prohibit. Rob refers to this orientation to the world as "patiency," the term expressing both the death of the agent of the ownership society in favor of receptivity to (paradoxically) a hostile world, but also the affirmation of action, non-passivity, non-quiet. Absent laws that protect the body and the self from harm here, this death is not only mourned by the participant, it's risky and so the ritual is intense, yes. But there are, to quote Rob in relation to patiency again, other ways one can imagine entering this state of coming "undone," outcomes other than being harmed, perhaps by "receiving unanticipated care when the gift is indeed reciprocated, and the vulnerability held in common trust." It's through the possibilities of reciprocity that the death ritual, in many ways, also performs an acknowledgment of what neoliberal capitalism would like us not to believe: that we contain multitudes, that we are not islands, that we can give and receive unanticipated care (we can gather differently than we are used to gathering, i.e., in this stance of constant self-protection), and that the few legal protections that exist for some of us do not exist for all of us, in reality do not protect us from each other and so in fact do not have substantial existence for most of us. The wearing of the ash in public is a kind of abjection of the self, turning the marks of neoliberal capitalism outward as now visible, but it's also beyond symbolic: visibly marked, will I receive "unanticipated care" from those I've never met, as return of that gift I have opted give?
QUESTION: The "your nerve center taxonomy" section of Occultations has this miraculous pent-up demand -- for the reader -- for yourself -- for, for these others, these who make living a sado-surreal exchange. I'm certain the way into us here with your writing can prove -- as my deceased poet friend Alexandra Grilikhes says, "The poem is restorative, rather than fragmenting." It's so unanticipated. And you get us there first with this:
All evidence is xeroxed
All plans are shiva
All garrisons are deductible
All witnesses are nightblind
All terrorisms are prefixed
All perversities are redacted
All the ghosted did not hear that someone knows
All watchdogs are, as per Fusion Center Contract,
This is when you list, "raw intelligence," "daily intelligence," down to "Participating in the production of intelligence assessments." It's like something off an awful spreadsheet created by demons. But here's the thing that makes the magic of your gifts come through. This follow up from the demon's list, you write:
I imagine the outsourced analyst as split about his work, heaving
under a low ceiling, using his dick as a kind of measurement of the
depths, where my mouth ends and the rest of me begins. Everyone
has a secret life, thus nobody does. In the throes of uncertainty,
he's not as hard as he ought to be, maybe wondering whether what
he's doing is right -- or what he's done -- is right, knowing it's legal
they said, and that they said when he didn't ask about it: "it's not
based in religious or political affiliation." Where's your head I want
to say to him, wanting him to feel the choke of this body, how his
can cause love too.
Reading this, in the middle of it, I'm knowing you are giving us experiential wisdom. And clearly sensing it out for us here too. To say it's visceral is to say agreements are made with your pent-up demands for us readers out here. Acknowledged and grateful readers. Because, this, last, this last part "Where's your head I want / to say to him, wanting him to feel the choke of this body, how his / can cause love too." To have the courage to say "wanting him to feel the choke of this body, how his / can cause love too." It's the empathy I'm always in shock of inside your work.
And reading this, seeing you, hearing you say that EVEN THIS ONE "can cause love too." It's a spiritual cleansing from a spiritual crisis. But it's not clear whose crisis, maybe everyone's? WHERE though do you get that empathy David Wolach? The first time I read these lines I let out a HOLY SHIT! Mostly at the discomfort of being able to GET that you see the potential, the spiritual viability in the demon with his fucking spreadsheet of what NEXT to do to the masses. You follow up this with, "My mouth: full, out of. service."
"can cause love too" though, WHERE do you find this? Reading this book, at times I remind myself of the work you have done as an antiwar activist, as a labor organizer and labor activist. Facing down others on the line of protest, has this helped shape your poetry here? I'm not even asking for exegesis if that's not what you're wanting to give. I guess I'm trying to FEEL OUT the WHERE in you that gets this kind of empathy of writing on paper for all of us to measure ourselves against. Can you share some of that with us?
WOLACH: Well, my hands want to perform an exegesis on your really amazing exploration here, really, as I love how you relate "pent-up demand" to love and sex, sex to release and both again with the line of protest. Protest as an act of love. Love as the least we can demand. And that line, which is more permeable that it appears to be. So I suppose to connect that permeability with changeability, or with a sense that we can—and do—change in both horrifying and loving ways, this is one way I'm thinking about your exploration here, with Alexandra Grilikhes' expectation that the poem be restorative so crucial to how I read, or why I read—the poem gives us futurity and is "for us" as Thom Donovan puts it. And since on-the-ground activism involves having organizing conversations with thousands of different workers, each with different but also shared needs and desires, certainly that experience helps one listen, endure, trust, respond—become, really actively become. Organizing is poetic. Your PACE actions really bring this out, I think. Because here the conversations we have are via poetry, involve reading poetry to one another. The local landscape is queered by this roving poetic exchange, and when we did the PACE action in Portland for EconVergence, I was happily surprised by how many strangers WANTED to hear or talk about poetry's occult work of transforming our thoughts about events, how language has special restorative powers. But also. To quote something Kristin Prevallet said to me the other day while she was out here visiting: "we're fucking contradictions." And she raised her glass to this and shrugged exhaustedly at the same time, which I found to be a wonderful exposition of contradictory responses to that thought, that thought that we're fucking contradictions.
"your nerve center taxonomy" is a section of poems written out of corporeal rituals or procedures, mostly in domestic spaces, "distraction zones" I keep calling them, in which participants are in a constructed environment of distraction, noise, often physical pain while writing. The poems, like the one you quote from here, are part of a longer series of performances, some of which get typed up later. Events that I perform, I don't know, maybe once every few weeks, or when I feel I have an architecture down enough to try out. I think it's turning into its own book, although I'm not particularly interested in writing another book. I'm more interested in having the experiences and doing the investigations and then collaborating on their live performance and, well. I get restless in this body.
Maybe that's also what you find visceral here: that I'm writing from a position of unusual physical stress or distractedness etc., allegorizing conditions others are in, if not all of us, to some degree? Your (Soma)tics were hugely influential in this writing, because I, too, would have these HOLY SHIT moments after you would put a new one online, that sense that we're THIS CLOSE in this universal need to FIND OUR BODIES, which is so much about FINDING ONE ANOTHER. With these Occultations poems I'm interested in investigating particular stresses of neoliberal capitalism by amplifying them—staging events in order to get closer to understanding those I feel extremely far away from. Demons, yes, and also victims of capitalism, people whose circumstances I feel I can't sufficiently relate to, who I can't even see quite often, as with detainees at Guantanamo, or the thousands of disappeared gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and trans persons in Uganda (another ritual, not in the book). I feel that sympathy is ugly and regressive; I want to act based on feeling, feel based on some kind of knowledge beyond the research and what I feel I can already relate to, if anything. Like the poem above, as with many of these, it IS writing thru spreadsheets created by demons. It's also from tracking the contradiction of desire—I mean, a lot of us have these experiences, yes?—of sexually submitting to a demon. Of being ordered to kneel and choking on it and wanting that, needing it, but also finding it sickening. Truthfully, this is the only poem in the book that turned me on—what a horrible thing to admit, that I got off on my own poem! But that poem you quote from, it's interwoven with a broader exploration of submission, submission as a kind of protest, getting back your exploration of love and latent capacity and empathy.
But the spreadsheet is just that. I have a lot of leaked documents, some of them well known, others more local, most of them written or compiled by army recruiters or CIA interrogators (as in the case of the CIA Interrogations Manual) or union busting memos written by lawyers, while many are from WikiLeaks, a vital and now deeply threatened organization. Some I get sent to me by those who shall remain nameless, others I've found doing research. These are documents that become filters for my writing within these staged environments. So the "raw intelligence" stuff, all that language about gathering intel, that comes from this one 1,500 page leaked document taken from the Washington State Joint Task Force Fusion Center, this entity in an office building in Seattle that brings together all these State and Federal law enforcement agencies, along with all the branches of the armed forces, Immigration, and so forth, so that they can perform domestic spying, do roundups, infiltrate political groups—unions, antiwar coalitions, etc—you know, to make "our" country safer. The Fusion Center is a growing trend in the U.S., with many major cities now having these central "cells" or posts, each in conversation with the others. Among other things, these Fusion Centers create for deliberate means of getting around habeas corpus and other constitutional / civil rights, modeled on guerilla warfare tactics. They avoid legal blocks or even detection, for instance, by having the military hire hoards of private contractors, civilians, to gather information, infiltrate, spy, etc. Our antiwar coalition out in Olympia was in fact infiltrated by a Fusion Center employee; our union in New York was also continuously spied on. They aren’t military or CIA, they work for the Center…. So they don't need a warrant!
Anyway, I juxtaposed pieces of this leaked document and Appendix M of the CIA Interrogations Manual with writing I did during a staged distraction zone. First I gathered some of the language you mention. Then I really read through this document, really studied it, for several weeks (parts of it you can read as degraded / occulted info behind the poems in another section of Occultations, "modular arterial cacophony"). I meditated at night about the fact that I was in a sense spying on these "privately" hired "civilian" police—studying their files and applications for hire, which included how they scored on various exams, how poorly they performed at the firing range, or how poorly they spelled, their resumes, phone numbers, social security numbers, letters of recommendation, salaries, all manner of private information. I'd become that civilian spy, and the poem I knew would be, in a sense, my write-up of them. And who were they? Was she taking this job because she missed torturing people? Or did she take it because now, out of the military, everyone's telling her that she has only THESE skills, and so only has SO FEW options for employment? Maybe she's deeply ambivalent. Maybe not, but then why not? If so, just imagine what amazing things she could do with these incredible listening skills, you know? So I meditated at night, trying to become some of these people. Their pictures branded onto the front of their files like mug shots, like that completely sadistic device of shame called the registry of sex offenders. And for five days I did not eat. I only ate crackers and water at night, nothing during the day. Each of those nights I put myself in another stress position described in Appendix M of the CIA Interrogations Manual, some of these later becoming their own writing procedures. Standing against the wall; in a crouched position; and so forth. I did not leave the house. Of course nothing could approximate being tortured, being detained or put on a list. But I wasn't trying to approximate that experience anyway—it was a symbolic gesture, one to remind me of where I was and what I was doing, as some of those civilians I was studying had been torturers, and I couldn't stop thinking about that too. At the end of the week a collaborator friend of mine—an incredible artist and writer, Meghan McNealy—came to town and finished up the distraction zone with me, the writing part of it. We did this by watching one another watch a film, each of us viewing on loop with earphones on. We wrote, each in turn watching the other for a LONG time, writing and observing, writing and observing, not knowing what the other had picked to watch, and the game was: the video occulted from the other's view, sound off, could we nonetheless "watch" the video by studying how it manifested itself as small movements of the body, facial gestures, small sounds each of us would make without knowing it, how the eyelids would blink or when? We each wrote, and what I wrote, plus some of the language I'd appropriated and written on a blank sheet of paper, became the poem you quote above—"song for neighborhood watches."
So, I guess in regard to empathy—maybe part of this comes from a belief that we all need to be translators--I think that this takes a lot of work, mainly the work of giving up proprietary relationship to this body, sense of self, its languages, and this does have to do with protest. And I do think that the poem is restorative if it can occupy other bodies. The process of writing too. If we're in part constructed by our relationships to others, and to systemic social phenomena, then empathy is a matter of trying to understand situations people are in just as much as it is about people, and poetry is a space of trying these relationships out, this intimate and collaborative space. Of course we don’t behave logically much of the time. We are fucking contradictions. Both propositions say to me that we can organize one another into becoming other than what we are at that moment, to activate one another in these ways that the futurity of the page, that "pre-occupied territory" can articulate. Poetry doesn't replace boots on the ground organizing, but it informs it. Dottie Lasky recently wrote something like "it's not the animal inside the human, it's the animal inside the animal." I just butchered her writing. But, in any case, it's horrifying but also gives me optimism when I think just how easily I could have ended up a shitty boss or slumlord or a Marine in Iraq. Getting back to my interest in the body as a potential commons—giving up proprietary relation to this body and these poems, submitting to others so that we can become common space for mutual care, subsistence in whatever small ways: Is this body or this book (to a much lesser degree) beneficial or harmful? Maybe neither, but probably both. I guess admitting contradiction, dealing with it, that's what I'm understanding by your—really giving and beautiful—comment that something about this poem and its enactments is a spiritual cleansing. It gets back to your relating some poetry to shamanism. If you're going to try to yank someone back from the underworld—and I take it that "THIS ONE" is totally submerged—then you have to do a lot of things, not least go there yourself.