This interview is
or about 16 printed pages long
¶ Dodie Bellamy: You preface your book with a quote by Giorgio Agamben: “To be potential means: to be one’s own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity.” This quote sounds so great, but no matter how many times I read it, I don’t understand it. What is your relation to Agamben’s philosophy?
Jeanne Heuving: As a philosopher attentive to language, Agamben never forgets that statements are assertions that have effects. Thus, it is very important exactly how something is said for “community” and “being” have existence only in their saying. In a sense, all saying can be seen as fictitious, but that does not mean saying is without significance, or consequence. We need to say as we wish to say. I like his concept of “singularity,” for in asserting singular realities, “such as it is,” he refuses “the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal.”
¶ This linking of incapacity with potential — what does it mean to you personally and how do see that linking working through your book?
I decided to use this particular quotation for my book because I wanted to make sure that the title Incapacity wasn’t misread, as simply inability, but understood also as willful. For much of my life, I have felt that a rush to definitive formulations are usually only half-knowledge, or half-truths, because they leave out what is not known, or inexpressible, and what may surround the definitive assertion. For Agamben a statement is a singularity that has reality with respect to its own formulation, not with legitimating a field of knowledge or as part of an inductive whole. The title Incapacity is meant to draw attention to how my “poetry / fiction / autobiography / biography” does not hold my life. And in its refusal to substantiate meaning in this way, it keeps my life open — potential. My life is defined, in part, by what I can’t do, what I lack, and in making sure not to cover over these negative aspects, my life is larger, has greater potential.
¶ The subject of incapacity comes up in a number of different ways — the incapacity to write, the incapacity to engage with others, etc. Despite this incapacity, the book Incapacity gets written. In “Snow,” you write, “I am hidden even in my writing, feeling that the larger words — death, loneliness — are not for me,” yet you repeatedly address these big words in the book. Do you envision some narrative arc of triumph, healing, or engagement happening in the writing of your book?
Actually the book alternates between what I would call “written,” or perhaps literary sections, and daybooks or “documentary” sections. “Snow” is the final of three “daybooks” sections that are taken from journals I wrote decades ago. Although I didn’t start out this project with this deliberate alternation in mind, I began reading my journals in order to find the first writing of the material that began appearing in the “written” sections. In a sense I began seeking out the “palimpsest” of my own “writing” in order to read “into,” not “beyond,” the “obsessive,” “traumatic” events that surface in the relatively recent “written” sections of “Snowball,” “Offering,” and “Gaudy Night.” By “written,” I mean that I let my desire to write what I wish to write have sway; I let myself take on deliberately literary voices and modes of writing, say, for instance of Cocteau, Bronte, and Duras, to take on their “power” perspectives, their sweeping views, accreting voices. In initially writing the “daybooks” sections as a journal, I had no plans to publish these segments, and often was trying to record fairly minutely the way daily events “happen,” and the thoughts I had. I do have a distrust of the slippage between events as lived and as written, although I also believe that “language” is very determinative of both, i.e. there is no outside of language. But there are rather different impulses in writing, i.e. to document, to engage previous writing, etc. The pleasure of the latter can sweep one into formulations of the past, obscuring the nitty gritty currents of the present, so I also think it is important to “check” “writing” through a kind of deliberate documenting, or what one may call an ethnography, of one’s own life. By going back to journal entries in which I initially recorded some of the events that surfaced in the “written” writing, I was able to locate an initial palimpsest, or precipitate, of the writing. Since for me there was a hiatus between my initial search of trying to become a writer in my twenties and early thirties, namely the pursuit of a Ph.D. and becoming a literary critic, and then resuming this exploration with renewed desire, it was important to find this continuity in my life. I wanted to find the genealogy of my present writing in my past writing, to avoid the sweep of conventional narratives that would produce me as either “victim” or “amazon.” Like almost everyone I was vulnerable, impulsive, wrong-headed, right-headed, done wrong, done right, etc, and I wanted to locate above all a mutating self in my writing.
So, the passage you refer to in “Snow” is actually a journal entry that I wrote in my early twenties — and is still very much part of me — although I would no longer have quite the naivete, or quite the alienation, to put it that way. But I actually miss that person who could feel so deliberately about her incapacity and alienation, and so I wanted her in the section called “Snow.” “Snow” as the final section of the book is the most fragmented, most dissolute, and includes as well “found” texts that I did not write, namely some “lost cat “ ads, the kind you find posted on telephone poles around the city. It is meant to be a precipitate of the earlier sections — those bits of my life that continue on in me, “more truly and more strange.” Throughout the book, the many references to “snow” are often connected to writing: “she would publish book after book of her writing, as she lay her past to rest in heaping drifts of snow,” and “she loved the way snow could be endlessly broken apart without damaging it.” I did feel as a young woman that the vocabularies of “loneliness” and “death” were not for me, for two contradictory reasons. Most simply these were powerful words and I did not feel particularly powerful. In many ways, I was quite lonely as a child and as a young person, but the fact that I didn’t even think that the lovely, melancholic word “lonely” described my own state of existence suggests just something of the alienation I experienced. But also, being attracted to power, I knew my alienation from the way things were held some promise for me. How or why I thought that I am not sure, but in my early life it was definitely an “experiential” thing, not a theoretical idea, and then later I gravitated to theories that explained and amplified this sense that I had. In addition to the Agamben epigraph, I begin the book with an epigraph by me, an early piece of “writing” that was initially part of the decades long “botched” piece of writing I called “Offering,” a piece I was working on at the time I began turning my attention away from “creative” writing to literary criticism and critical theory, although during this time I was also something of a closet writer: “In thinking about herself as the protagonist, her sense of character disappeared as she did not experience herself in any coherent way, and in thinking of someone like her, her sense of events disappeared, as nothing so eventful had occurred as her desire to write just this piece. Certainly, she reasoned, someone like her could also desire to write Incapacity, but once she formulated her desire in this way it would disappear into the confines of her piece and she would have no desire to write it.” This statement is very suggestive of the contradiction out of which this book is formed.
If there is a “narrative arc of triumph,” it is this dissolution of my “written” formulation into some earlier precipitate of myself, some “snow” that cannot break. It is the destruction of narratives that might explain my life, some built up, half held sense of myself, that I fall back on often unconsciously to navigate the world, but that I also experience as false. I initially thought to write this book as a kind of anti-bildungsroman or anti-kunstelroman, with the aim not to achieve an integration of self, world, and work (art), but through writing to write myself into writing — a writing that wanted to find a way to write in relationship to its earlier writing.
¶ Throughout your book the subject switches back and forth between “I” and “she,” which mirrors the text’s concerns with inside/ outside, intimacy/ distance. I noticed at times that “I” would be used when the subject was alone with nature, and “she” would kick into play in a more social setting, such as the coffeehouse in “Offering.” “Snowball,” the first piece in the book, introduces the second person, and immediately links writing and self-destruction:
“Perhaps this pleasure you seek as you write, this wrenching of yourself into an old and familiar scene, this making of almost meaningless meanings, is the pleasure of self destruction;”
It is interesting what you say about “I” occurring more often in passages about nature and “she” kicking into play in social settings. Actually “she” is the mode I use most often, although not exclusively, in the “written” sections, when I want to address a larger sense of existence through “powerful” attitudes and voices; and “I” appears most often in daybook sections, although not exclusively. When I am writing about “she,” I am much more sanguine about the slippage between the actual events of my life and the writing of these events — with taking on sweeping views, accreting voices. But as I already mentioned, much of my writing in journals, thousands upon thousands of pages really, was done with the desire to locate my actual life, to document it, to study it. The “I” is something of a black beetle, climbing around clumsily on the mud heap of my life. I now think my life inheres in both of these kinds of writings, in the gap between them, but early on I was highly committed to studying my life as it happened. My desire or commitment to this deliberately factual writing has at least two important sources.
When I was a freshman at Stanford in 1969, I was part of a psychology experiment in which a psychologist was studying our freshman dorm as one of the first co-ed dorms. For a lousy $10 a week, I agreed to record my life as it happened — everything — who I talked to, what I did, what I felt, etc. In being chosen to be part of the experiment, I had to commit to writing down my life for at least thirty minutes every day and to promising not to drop out. So, some of my first experiences away from home were mediated through this recording mode. Now I am sure that such an experiment would be totally outside of human subject regulations that operate in the university today, but then as a naïve freshman wanting to honor her “contractual” agreements I thought I needed to come through on my part of the agreement, to tell everything — finding it, not surprisingly, threatening, invasive. But I also was committed to “telling the truth,” and remembered thinking, if in fact this is what I did, thought, felt, I needed to recognize it for what it was. I did not feel any justified antagonism to the psychologist — but rather that he / it was a kind of truth serum leaning over my shoulder. He also had a vaguely erotic presence in my life, which was brought to an end when I met with him in person for a tape recorded session, and he seemed bored by all that I was saying. And here I was a little freshman earnestly going at myself with this harsh gaze prominent in my mind. Ironically, it may have been through the aegis of a social science experiment that I learned my first literary technique. Or as Foucault might see it, I was learning to internalize the panopticon.
The second influence that lead me to this kind of “recording” came through my involvement in a Marxist group in Seattle, which in the mid 1970’s post Viet Nam, had turned their attention to the politics of daily life. This involvement and my own inclination gave me a strong impetus of wanting to find out “how” things happened — how it was for instance that a conversation would move in this direction rather than in another direction, so I would somewhat exhaustively record (from memory) entire conversations, daily events, my dreams, trying to determine how they happened, how they moved. In Incapacity, I have selected out say some twenty pages from the thousands upon thousands of pages I wrote in my journals.
I have a sense that almost any narrative anyone tells about him or herself is a kind of false overstatement of a far more nebulous, mutating existence. So in mentioning self destruction I mean the destruction of a self that operates in the social world through these narratives. Functioning in the world at all necessitates taking on its languages, its narratives — yet I have always experienced a gap between myself and the kinds of narratives I am embedded in. Poets’ “love of death” is really a kind of destruction of this social self that almost all of us feel at some level is a fabrication that leaves us out of things. Well, I suppose it can also be a desire to leave a troubled, difficult existence behind, to enter onto the wings of “easeful Death,” although for most poets it is the imagination of this state they want, not an actual death. In most impulses for self destruction, there is often a real thirst for life. That’s definitely true for me.
In the lovely final page of your book, the subject is absent:
Threading into the wind, almost disappearing. Fast moving sky.
Shot through with heat and luster. Heavens teeming with black holes.
In these final lines of the book, it feels as if the self has been absorbed back into nature, disappears into the sublime. How were you conceiving of this ending fitting into the overall thematics of the book? Does the book enact the pleasure of self-destruction you speak of at its opening?
I am actually surprised at how you have picked up on my interest in “nature” in the book. For me “nature” changes a great deal depending on what section of the book it is in. There is the “nature” in “Offering,” an experience of an earthquake in Guatemala, that as a trope for various kinds of upheavals and traumas, leads to the meditation, “It was so extraordinarily beautiful to be alive in a tropical country when it was breaking apart. (italics added) “ And then there is the “nature” of Wuthering Heights in Gaudy Night, in my paraphrase, “the tender north,” because it partakes of Emily Bronte’s finely wrought sense of “Heath” “Cliff’s” violence, and the violence of human relations. The ending of the book is meant to suggest a sense of absorption of self into that which is “other” than the self, and yes, you are right, these images are mainly “nature” images, although they begin with the remnant of human construction: “Bushes overcoming house. Bougainvillea hiding fence.” So what is this “nature”? Motion? Energy? If the book begins with a desire for self-destruction, this final section is a desire for immersion in the world, as a moving force.
¶ You frequently link nature with emotions/ human intensity — all the play on earthquakes and orgasm, for instance. Throughout the book nature rages beyond human control — besides earthquakes there are floods and snowstorms — and humans are pushed into a sort of opening and confrontation that is both longed for and feared. The social, in contrast, seems degraded, unsatisfying. In “Offering,” for instance, the tropical beauty of the aquamarine lake is mirrored and degraded in the aquamarine port-a-potty the protagonist keeps using. Can you speak some more about how you envision the relation between personal/ cultural/ natural? Are there other writers who address nature and violence that you admire?
I do not think there are any simple divisions between personal / cultural / natural. I do think for me as a woman (for others other social distinctions are likely to be primary) I am at a certain amount of peril to describe my existence, particularly sexual experience, since it is inevitably misunderstood, reappropriated through narratives which create false identities — innocent or monster, wife or whore. I think that a lot of people like to think we are beyond this gender stereotyping, but in the areas of sexual experience, it is still rampant, vicious really, in both subliminal and not so subliminal ways. To the extent that I turn to the vocabulary of nature, it’s a way of getting at sexual experience that will allow me to evade this reductive pigeonholing. I admire women writers who address women’s sexuality in ways that does not tame it or delimit it — and many of the writers I admire do use a vocabulary of nature. I am thinking of Emily Dickinson’s with her volcanoes, mountains, and seas; Emily Bronte’s brute northern moors, and Marguerite Duras’ memories of the Mekong River and flooding in Viet Nam. I love, for instance, in your own work when you take on “nature,” such as in “Fat Chance” and “the mansion” you are “flitting through is burnt out and strewn with leaves.” Ultimately we are all part of nature, biological, so I supposed I like these turns to nature in part because as such I engage the larger set of forces through which our lives happen. And then as I intimated, nature references can substitute for a vocabulary that is directly “sexual,” a vocabulary, that for women can definitely constitute “a prison house of language.”
You address some primal issues in this book — sexual obsession, incest, the terror of intimacy. There’s also quite a bit of narrative in your book — surviving the earthquake and the affair with the professor. Content feels very important to this book, yet throughout I got a sense of strong ambivalence between revealing and hiding, between directness and obliqueness, between private and public. I usually teach fiction classes, but in the one graduate poetry seminar I taught, most of the students were working in a sort of grad school experimental vein, in which formal issues were privileged above all else. Finally I realized that some of the women in the class longed to have a more direct expression of content in their writing, but were leery of it, as if in an experimental poetry context, content would be embarrassing, reactionary. One woman in particular would write these incomprehensible poems and then be upset because nobody could understand them. It’s as if she secretly wanted to be understood but didn’t dare take her writing in a direction that would make her writing more accessible. Being raised on 70s feminist texts, the whole urgency to express the realities of women’s lives, I was quite disturbed by this sort of formal silencing.
What are your feelings about incorporating direct content into experimental writing in general, and in your own work? Was this a struggle for you to come to this point of directness?
I have mentioned two kinds of writing in my book — the “written” and the “documentary.” The written deliberately engages pre-existing literary attitudes and vistas, which have the power to take on large, systematic social issues. I can operate at the level of literary theme without thematizing. John Ashbery is a master of this kind of writing — taking on social formulations without committing to any of them. Early on in attempting to become a writer, I wrote in one journal that I wanted to write a novel as Ashbery writes a poem. I think Incapacity was partially written with this in mind. By this I mean I wanted to write a novel with recognizable social configurations, but without committing to any of them. The question in writing is where to begin: with a certain kind of social or literary sophistication or with the “facts.” I need to do both. As a critic I am very aware how one can enter into sophisticated debates, take on sophisticated positions, while one’s own life clanks behind like a can attached to a “just married” car. I simply can’t write “creatively” and ignore that old tin can. As I have already mentioned my response to this split is not to choose, but to make the dilemma part of my writing — to bring these into proximity with each other. I can race ahead and write: “Detached sentences of unfamiliar potency filled her notebook of irreplaceable space, covering every morsel of blank that the printer had left,” or I can dissolve this into a remembered ineptitude: “the larger words — death, loneliness — are not for me.” Language is a very complicated phenomenon because while it allows us to “describe” our lives, it is also “metaphoric,” or more significantly “mediumistic.” It produces effects in us that can “violate” and / or “transcend” immediate circumstances. By being oblique and indirect, I can get on the “gravy train” of language. I can move beyond and past certain debilitating aspects of social life and create a different life. So, although I am committed to documenting my life, to being direct, I also see this as just one important mode for living / writing one’s life.
As for young women writing incomprehensible texts who want to be understood — hey I have been there. I think there are many good, not so good, and understandable reasons for writing incomprehensible texts. Aping forms that don’t really speak what one most wants to speak about oneself is a form of incomprehension, even when these texts make perfect sense. Then there are writers today who under the sway of powerful teachers are learning experimental forms since these are increasingly being taught within the university without really getting into or under them. This is another form of incomprehension. Writers can be incomprehensible when they are moving in directions they don’t entirely understand, and yet are important to them — and sometimes will become more comprehensible given time to explore these modes. I always felt — and still do — that there is no simple way of making myself understood as I want to be understood. To the extent that I am incomprehensible, this means that I am a living, changing person who is on the move. It also means that I exist somewhat apart from dominant social valuations and vocabularies. In responding to your probing questions in this interview, I do feel I can convey myself as I want to be understood because I can use the “act” of my writing as a basis for my commentary.
I have always been drawn to what I would call the “documentary” impulse in experimental and avant garde forms. The cultural critic Steve Shaviro, who I know admires your work a great deal, draws from Gilles Deleuze, among other theorists, emphasizing how our experiential selves in a society so marked by change are out of sync with our languaged selves — in that verbal formulations reflect what has happened not what is happening or about to happen. Lacan takes up the split between what he calls the “symbolic order” and the “real,” commenting that “women are out of things which are the order of words.” He is saying that because of their place in society, because of how they come to language as gendered beings, women simply are not centered in it, empowered by its social configurations. French feminists picked up on this and created an alternative identity for women, Irigaray’s sense of women as exiting “elsewhere.” French feminists are out of fashion right now, but I think much that they thought is still really valid. So, while I don’t think that we in any way have a simple, direct access to something called experience — I do believe attention to actual life, experience, in as close of ways as possible, is very important. I see your work as really committed to this kind of exploration, and I greatly admire this commitment. One of your recent works in Pink Steam that especially intrigues me is “L.A.-Kevin,” in which you log onto “L.A.-Kevin’s” live webcam, which is a twenty-four hour surveillance of his life in an apartment in West Hollywood. You watch him sleep, cook, have sex. What is so intriguing about this piece is that it is at once a kind of panopticon of the panopticon, but it is also a kind of dissolution of the public and private divide such that all space becomes intimate or neutral. One really gets the sense of how space itself, such an important mediator in human relations, is radically changed through modern technologies. Yet, within, this kind of straight-a-head attention, your attention wants to get sidetracked: “What I would not give to read the clippings on Kevin’s refrigerator door. If you watch regularly, it’s exciting to see new rooms, new angles open.”
¶ Writing about sexual obsession — this is something I’ve gotten a lot of flack for — some people will never look beyond that content to take my work seriously. Does it feel risky to you to be writing about obsession? Do you see writing about abjection and lack at odds with a feminist imperative — or vital to it? Or neither?
I do think sexual obsession is a very important subject for women to write about for political, feminist reasons. It is indeed the dynamic, or even literary mechanism, through which many men writers have produced important literary works — Catullus, Petrarch, Proust, Creeley — to name just a few. And it is a dynamic seriously off base for women writers, particularly heterosexual women writers, because of the implicit hierarchy in lover and beloved relations that “obsession” usually entails. In an obsessive relationship, at least as depicted in most literary texts, the “I’s” or “lover’s” feelings are more important than the “you’s” or the “beloveds.” Often the beloved is represented in delimiting and sometimes demeaning ways, in part because the lover is “obsessed” with his obsession. So when women enter into this dynamic, this form, they can seem socially “wrong” or even “incomprehensible,” for a woman traditionally is supposed to respect and elevate the male, not to overcome him with her emotions. So for any woman to engage this dynamic is to go against social decorums and stereotypes in such a way that she may find herself beyond the pale. Yet, sexual obsession, sexual love, really helps writers to write: it can stimulate the writer to an extreme awareness of a person different than himself; it unmoors him from his habitual life helping him to see things anew. And, if men have the sole possession of this dynamic or form in writing, it is sexist at a far worse level than one man’s obsession about a particular woman, which I would not necessarily call sexist.
But parts of the culture, the educational and psychology industries, are increasingly against sexual intensity in all of its forms. From their point of view, Petrarch would be a stalker and Creeley would be an obsessive. I don’t know what I think about all of this because I am partially sympathetic with perspectives that move us away from possessive, obsessive relations with others, and partially suspicious of them as one more form of “discipline” that is more interested in an orderly “system” than in the vicissitudes of human life. Our society is changing, i.e. becoming more interconnected, networked, and sometimes less hierarchical (although it may becoming more hierarchical at the top and spread out, disempowered, at the base.) So, if the modalities of power are changing, so I imagine would love relationships. Can there be “intensity” — or even “obsession” without hierarchy — I don’t know. I have written about your work as engaging in acts of intense love that also, I say, engage in acts of kind-ness, of recognizing how the beloved is like you, part of you, not a different kind of object. Your work does a great deal “to take back the night” to use an old feminist political rallying cry in a rather different way.
I think it is very important for women, and women’s writing, that they explore a large emotional range. There is such pressure on women to conform, to be good girls, if they want any social recognition, that it is very difficult to engage negative emotional realities, at least publicly in writing. Women are abjected by the culture; they represent lack. But according to Kristeva on the abject and Lacan on lack, they do not possess the abject or lack. As Lacan puts it, women “lack lack.” And in her book on the abject, Powers of Horror, all of Kristeva’s writers are men and their abjected others are usually women, tinged with a “prohibited” maternal or sexual “nature.” In neither Lacan and Kristeva, do women occupy a place of agency within these economies of negativity. I do think that Lacan and Kristeva are describing something that actually exists, i.e. within social realms as we currently inhabit them, but they do not seem very interested in changing these economies. They are not describing facts of nature, but rather forms of signification, deeply entrenched signification to be sure. So for women to take on the abject or a sense of lack — as their own possession — is a power move, one that opens up new emotional spaces and has the power to change social signification. In refusing to be place holders within existing social economies, but rather active agents within them, women disrupt social orders.
For some reason, as a young woman, I was really drawn to the abject, and to lack, although at the time I did not have the vocabulary, or theory, to explain why. I simply experienced myself as wanting and wanted to find myself in some bleak places. I came to these theories well after I was writing in a way that opened into these theories, and they clarified much to me about my own state of existence, so much so that for awhile I turned my main attention from “creative” writing to critical theory.
¶ You’re currently working on a critical book on eros and poetry, which you’ve described as considering “how twentieth century poets write eros in a century in which concepts of love and sexuality are often divorced.” Could you talk a bit about the scope of this project, what got you interested in it, and ways in which your research on this book influenced your writing of Incapacity?
Actually Incapacity precedes my current critical project in and lead most directly to the writing of a new poetry manuscript, Concupiscence, which changed the critical project I had been working on. In Incapacity, I am often distrustful of the metaphoric or mediumistic aspects of language; or at least I question these; in Concupiscence I go with them far more. Concupiscence is in part an ironical title, because much of the sexual energies in this book are dealt with obliquely through metaphor. When I was writing Incapacity, I had a related, but different critical project in mind. It was to be about women poets in the twentieth century becoming lovers and not just beloveds — and how discourses of sexuality emerging at this time give them a kind of permission to create themselves as lovers, because as Freud, Havelock Ellis theorize, everyone has sexuality. I was going to write about three very different poets, namely Laura Riding, H.D. and Edna St. Vincent Millay. But as time went on, I didn’t like how the question of gender positioning was the main critical question this book was asking, and I became more interested in the relationship between sexual love and writing, for both men and women. I wish I had had the time to write the first book as I was thinking of it, because this book is embedded in my current critical book, The Transmutation of Love in Twentieth Century Poetry, and this new project sometimes seems overly complicated.
One of the things that has come up in working on it is how ancient cultures, Greek and Latin, had words that meant sexual love, eros and amor. We have no common place words such as these. “Love” itself really wobbles, sometimes meaning an emotion specifically void of sexual desire, and sometimes signifying sexual desire. For the Greeks it was never a question of “true love or just sex,” as it is often put in our culture, but rather whether the lover would ennoble himself or not, given how he pursued sexual love. While the Greeks had a very different society than we do, so we cannot really compare ourselves to them directly, I do think it is interesting that they did not split love and sex, but rather engaged questions about how a love relationship should be pursued. I have always had a love / hate relationship with the concept of love, for as many have noted it can often serve oppressive ideologies. While poets, like everyone else in the twentieth century, are partially formed through the pervasive cultural dichotomy of “true love” and “just sex,” they are also reacting against it. Right now I am looking at how and why some of the most significant twentieth century poets begin writing poetry as love poetry, and how they change love poetry in the process. And I am looking at innovative poets who beginning with “love,” and not primarily critique, engage the medium of language rather directly. H.D., for instance would be a poet who begins with “love,” and Mina Loy with “critique.” Of course, there is a lot of critique going on in H.D.’s poetry, but engaging “love” formations has precedence over critique. I have done a lot of work on H.D. and Pound; and will likely do Duncan. I have also written essays on Leslie Scalapino, who I see as posed between a critical avant garde and a writing that engages language in a mediumistic way. There are many other poets I would like to do, but I am not sure who all I will be able to get to, namely Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Kathleen Fraser, Harryette Mullen and Lissa Wolsak. In this book, I look at how many of the poets begin with “I-you” love lyrics and move these libidinized intensities into third person epics. Ultimately I am asking does literature that in Pound’s words as “news that stays news” have some cathected or obsessive love energy in it. Pound’s poetry has been so generative of so much poetry, but his own affections and hatreds are so problematic. Yet, I can’t just accept the formulation that Pound was a really good writer with some really bad social attitudes. I think one needs to ask more basically how and why did a love poet in our particular culture end up becoming a fascist: what was fascism filling in for, and how can we turn those energies in another direction. There are a whole other set of love poets who I could be looking at Laura Riding, who I have done a lot of work on, Jack Spicer — but right now I am interested in poets who explore language as a medium that is mediumistic and that extends outward. Sometimes, it just seem as if I have fallen back into an old modernism, looking at poets who engage tradition; since in order to engage language as mediumistic in an extensive way it is necessary to consider how it occurs within mythical and literary traditions. But I am also asking some really different questions. I am compelled right now by how language is mediumistic — how it is highly mobile and can write us anew. Agamben in The End of the Poem asks “What does it mean for a living being to speak? Do life and speech constitute an articulated unity, or is there a disjunction between the two . . . Poetry matters because the individual who experiences this unity in the medium of language undergoes an anthropological change that is in the context of the individual’s history . . . decisive.” In finishing Incapacity and writing Concupiscence, I experienced something of what Agamben is talking about — and now I am trying to find a way to address this in my criticism.
¶ You have also written on Marianne Moore (Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore). Is Moore’s influence palpable in Incapacity — which, come to think of it, is a title Moore herself might have used.
I have some unusual ideas about Marianne Moore: that she is rewriting her sexuality. I also find her earlier poetry far more compelling than her later poetry, much of which I don’t especially like. In writing my book, I wanted to make a particular argument about Moore, that she was not the demure, sexless being characterized by so many of her critics. I made this argument through utilizing Luce Irigaray’s ideas about sexuality and language. I do think that Moore probably didn’t have much sex, if any, but that her sexual energies were involved in her writing, and her reworking of the poetic medium. Moore’s extreme particularity always appealed to me — also the obliqueness, the indirectness of her writing. From Moore I learned the delights of particularity and precision. She uses many quotations in her writing, commenting why rewrite a thing when it has already been said in the best possible way. Moore is also compelled by the documentary mode of writing, bringing her sources directly into her poetry through quotation, careful description, and end notes. For some reason I did not find Moore’s practice of quotation, documentation, or collage as examples of methods to adopt in my own writing, except of course these are my methods. I think it is very hard for writers to recognize themselves in other writers, for one needs to come on one’s own techniques through one’s own “singular” impulses, which is not to say that writers are not deeply influenced by other writers. I think Moore is definitely in me somewhere, but I can’t say I entirely recognize her. She is probably most there in her respect for particularity, singularity, and her distrust of unthinking social valuations — until in her later poetry she becomes a demigod for conservative social attitudes.
¶ As I understand it, you’ve been working on Incapacity for a long time. How long? What phases has it gone through? How has your concept of it changed over time?
I worked on Incapacity as a book for about ten years. There is a section in Incapacity called “Offering” that is a kind of “ur” text for Incapacity, and I began on that more than twenty years ago. As I already mentioned, I was working on “Offering,” when I started giving most of my attention to critical theory and literary criticism. Many of the daybooks segments — from the journals — are over thirty years old. When I picked up the project ten years ago, I thought to write it as a kind of “life story” verite, with the sense that the only “authentic” life story would be one that creates its narrative through writing that is already written — that allows the reader to catch glimpses of the “protagonist’s” ignorance as it unfolds in the writing — such that there is no narrative overview of one’s past self that one didn’t have at the time. Through collaging these texts, these early writings, I hoped to create a more “true” autobiography, or life story. I was always compelled to tell my “life story,” because it was the one thing I really knew. In the initial writing, there was some really embarrassing stuff from my early writing — I still have it and consider it one version of the larger project of Incapacity. Some writers thought I should publish it as it was, but others encouraged me to cut it. And I can’t say publishers were exactly lining up at the door to get the real goods on this unknown writer. Since I was interacting mainly with poets — the “cut it” message came in loud and clear. I have several different bound versions of Incapacity lining my shelf — the first over three hundred pages long. As it is now, Incapacity is quite honed around my emotional and intellectual obsessions — and much of the humorous dross that is my lived life is on the cutting floor. I would sometime like to publish a slightly longer version of Incapacity, which I would call Crossing Cat Street. Crossing Cat Street would bring out how this book is a “sexing of myself” through chosen sexual adventures and misadventures — actions I felt necessary to take as a woman, given that within this culture my sexuality was hardly my own.
¶ In “Daybooks” is Ramona the Ramona (1884) of Helen Hunt Jackson, or the Ramona of Beverly Cleary’s iconic children’s books, such as Beezus and Ramona (1955)? Or some other Ramona? Is Sylvia, Sylvia Plath?
I do think Ramona may have traces of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, although I hadn’t thought of it before. And Sylvia is really much from the name itself sylvan, sylph — not Sylvia Plath. I just could never get on board with Plath’s dramatic gestures, although I do admire aspects of her writing. Ramona is the imp who lives underground; Sylvia sways in the wind. I wrote, by the way, the passages on Ramona and Sylvia about thirty years ago — and the dilemma that is stated through them — that for women there is a deep conflict between desiring to be the lover and the beloved — remains formative for my scholarship today.
¶ Given the themes of sex and repression in academia that play out in Incapacity, I was amused when I came to the “Gaudy Night” section. Beyond my obvious point, what drew you to Dorothy Sayers, and this novel in particular?
Encountering Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night while I was working on Incapacity was one of those really fortunate accidents. A friend of mine, Claudia Gorbman, a film scholar, gave me the book for my birthday. Initially in writing my “Gaudy Night,” I just pulled ten sentences out of Sayers somewhat at random. I would open the book and read it until I came to a sentence that I liked, and then write that down as one of my sentences to improvise with. At that point I hadn’t even read the novel and didn’t really know what it was about. But in a classically written novel — and by that I mean a novel that has a high degree of thematic and stylistic unity — so much of the whole is in the individual sentences that the larger themes of the novel are set into play through individual sentences. Claudia knew better than I why I would like to read this book. I still haven’t read the whole thing, although I did see a BBC production of it not too long ago, and thought my God, I could have searched for a very long time to find a book with which to collaborate, and never found such a resonant book. Gaudy Night terrifically brings to the fore the intrigue, violence, and damage so endemic within the academy. Then, since in my early life I lived in England for a time and spent a lot of time at Cambridge University (not Oxford as in Gaudy Night), this book brought this part of my life into focus.
¶ One of the pleasures of your “Gaudy Night” is how motifs from other sections of the book reappear and permutate: cats, beaches, midwesterners with sandbags, earthquakes, snow. In one of the box-shaped collages of “Gaudy Night” you write, “if only she could fully inhabit that boxed in space.” Do you see collage as an opening up of the concept of the personal, a generalizing of the personal, or an erasure of the personal?
I do think finally almost all art is a “boxed-in-place,” even say in someone like Leslie Scalapino, perhaps the writer who least writes in a box — because for a text to be written or read there needs to be some integrity to it. And by “integrity” I mean some reason why this particular text hangs together. I think it is important that these “boxed-in-places” hold more and more — to break with predictable, restrictive integrities — in search of new integrities, because I believe that we are in a time of radical, radical change — and complacency in fiction and poetry is pure nostalgia. I think it is possible to go the other way, like Spicer and other writers, to create a strange little “magnetic box” “with runnerless drawers” — an image of mine in the “Gaudy Night” and “Snow” sections. But in any case comfortable coherences of the past are really poor fictions for our present. I see collage as very much opening up the personal to the point where it might become coincident with the world around it — or nearly so. But this “opening up” or “out” is highly specific, particular; so I don’t see it at all as a “generalizing of the personal,” or “an erasure of the personal.” Here Agamben’s notion of “singularity” is useful. Everything that happens is “singular” in its occurrence, although it exists within a social field that is defining, but is not finally definitive.
¶ How do all these other voices that enter the text respond to your sense of incapacity?
In order to write myself out of the dilemma that I state in the epigraph of the book, I turned to the generative “singularities,” “fictions” of other literary voices. I quoted this epigraph earlier but because it relates directly to this question, I will state it again: “In thinking about herself as the protagonist, her sense of character disappeared as she did not experience herself in any coherent way, and in thinking of someone like her, her sense of events disappeared as nothing so eventful had occurred as her desire to write just this piece. Certainly, she reasoned, someone like her could desire to write Incapacity, but once she formulated her desire in this way, it would disappear into the confines of her piece and she would have no desire to write it.” In taking on these other voices, I let myself move away from the sine qua non of my existence. I could accept the formulations of these voices because I didn’t see them as essential to my existence but as something I could connect to, partially. Voice is a little understood, and much misunderstood phenomena. In some senses, it is really a strategy for addressing reality or in Kenneth Burke’s phrase “equipment for living.” In coming to write the present version of the section called “Offering,” I was inspired by Leslie Scalapino’s Trilogy: The Return of Painting, Orion, and the Pearl and found in its use of the sentence, what some might call the “new sentence,” a way into writing, particularly because Scalapino’s signature is to be both “inside” and “outside” of her writing. I could relate to Scalapino and her life, and how she was writing it, through sentences that were familiar and defamiliar, continuous and discontinuous. Some might say I didn’t really learn a “voice” from Scalapino, but rather a technique, but I would say that Scalapino’s writing operated as a kind of “singularity” — everything about it was important, its content and form — and that “singularity” helped move me beyond the earlier impasse of my writing. As for the more obvious voices, Cocteau, Sayer, Bronte, Duras, I found them very generative, as I liked a great deal about them. They offered me an escape from my obsessive mind, its mooring in a panopticon and its distrust of language. They allowed me to take on their fictions, their fine rustling panoply of possibilities. Many writers come to writing somewhat unconsciously through the writing of other writers; for me it took a conscious act to incorporate several writers into my writing so that I could at last write something I wanted to write.
Jeanne Heuving’s recently published Incapacity (Chiasmus Press, 2004) is the occasion of her interview with Dodie Bellamy. Written at a time that has produced a plethora of autobiographies and memoirs, Incapacity performs an act of negativity, clearing and naming its space, its difficulty. An exploration of being and sex, excitement and inscription, Incapacity engages a terrain where lush and exacting scenes fall into dereliction and disrepair. At the counter all was for sale, but in other recesses, where tongues clattered, she sought to lie down with the liver-colored bitch pointer and its swarming whelps.
A writer and a critic, Heuving has published widely on twentieth century innovative and avant garde texts, including the book Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. She is currently working on a new critical book The Transmutation of Love in Twentieth Century Poetry, which addresses how twentieth century poets write “love” in a century in which concepts of love and sexuality are bifurcated. She is a recipient of NEH and Fulbright research grants, and was recently the H.D. Fellow at the Beinecke Library at Yale. She is on the editorial advisory board of HOW2, an electronic journal devoted to dialogue about innovative writing between writers and critics. She is on the faculty of the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program at the University of Washington, Bothell and on the graduate faculty of the University of Washington. A member of the Subtext Collective, she along with other Seattle writers put on the highly regarded Subtext Reading Series.
Incapacity is available for $12 through small press distribution.
Dodie Bellamy, photo by Kevin Killian
Pink Steam, a collection of Dodie Bellamy’s stories, memoirs and memoiresque essays, was published in 2004 by San Francisco’s Suspect Thoughts Press. Also in 2004, her infamous epistolary vampire novel, The Letters of Mina Harker, was reprinted by the University of Wisconsin Press. On his KCRW radio program, The Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt interviewed her about both books. The interview can be found online at http://www.kcrw.com/show/bw
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