Interview: The Attacking Microbes
AJ: In The Necropastoral, you write about the classical pastoral as a zone of exchange and also how the necropastoral allows for different kinds of exchanges. We were wondering if you think of other zones of exchange. For example, within the poetry community and, if so, what types of things do you notice happening there?
JM: What I wanted to do was not so much oppose the thoughts that I was having to earlier models per se, so much as pick up the fact that with the classical idea of the pastoral, there’s this illusion of a division, but obviously, there’s a codependence of ideas and there’s an imbalance of power. There are different mechanisms and strategies by which what is supposedly set up as a barrier or division becomes this zone where different kinds of strategies of power and different kinds of exchanges are actually happening all the time. To me, that is a more accurate way of describing the way that people live negotiating power and different kinds of exchanges and interactions. In a way, there’s an accuracy there that I think that people can take and use to pick apart and describe different situations or communities they are living in, power imbalances that they’re struggling with, or acts of sabotage they might be willing to commit against power structures. I hope that it is a model that people can pick apart, retrofit, rework, and use to describe the way things might be blooming and occurring and happening in their own lives and communities. I think whatever people want to make of it—whatever elements the necropastoral, as I lay it out, have to be changed and jettisoned and adapted to make it more accurate or more powerful—I’m pretty happy with that idea. When I wrote that book, I was chasing down these euphonies and communications that I thought were happening in all different time periods and all different kinds of genres, so it’s like my passions and my aesthetic wanderings and footprints, but I don’t think that it should be taken to be at all exclusive. I think the book demonstrates a way of reading that I hope that people would want to pick up, change, and use. I would also say that what it does work against then are both these ideas of a set binary and of more hierarchical and vertical ways of thinking about literature, time periods, obviously people’s languages, and genres. To just let that flop over and let things start to meld and touch each other. It doesn’t kick all canonical authors out or anything like that, but it does hold that canonical authors have to be pulled down and shown to be interacting and alive with bacteria. Moving around and not up on. So there are no pedestals at all—they’re all kind of flopped down.
AJ: Is poetry a more fitting mode to talk about these more intangible ideas you refer to in The Necropastoral, such as residue and inversion? Things that are unresolved, or the subversive historic impact of chemical warfare? How do you feel about poetry handling those topics?
Well, you know I’m one of those poets—I don’t know about you guys, but I felt like a poet from the beginning, reading Edgar Allen Poe. You think you have to leave behind the first poem you ever read—and a little bit of that goth sensibility—when you’re not 15 anymore, but hell no. It kind of sticks and it’s very venial. It comes with sins attached, in terms of its thinking about gender, which has to be rethought and narrativized. But the drama of it, the high drama of it remains. So, for me, I would say I am a poet dyed in the wool because of those early experiences.
At the same time, I have written pretty much in every genre, so I am one of those people who think that poetry is a thing that moves. That is the art impulse. It’s not totally important to me that everyone else calls that poetry, but I call it poetry because that is what art is for me. Another thing that I do a lot in the book is capitalize things to be deliberately annoying. I capitalize Art and capitalize Poetry because I’m in Edgar Allen Poe mode and trying to be pretentious. I’m trying to take pretension back for poetry. I think it’s the thing everyone can have no matter what your class or level of education or age. This idea that you’re going to have a pretense of loving art or being moved by something, whatever it may be, is something to hold onto, so I’m into that.
The other thing I noticed about the language you just used is this idea of residue, which can both be used to discuss grimy stuff but also have this ghost hunter element to it. Like ectoplasm and ichor and presence and traces and ghostliness. Just hearing you use that language made me really excited about the idea that there’s this rhyming in, or rather, analogousness between the language that we use to talk about paranormalness and the language we use to talk about the least desirable flora and fauna—in Western culture, anyway. I think that is really exciting and I always want to go there, so I really liked what you had to say, too.
AB: Since we’re already talking about the paranormal, we wanted to ask you about the relationship between the occult and poetry, and the way those two things communicate with each other. Especially in works like yours, and I’m also thinking of Janaka Stucky and Lisa Ciccarello. It seems like the language of the occult and poetic language are just so closely related. And I’m interested in what you mentioned about how residue can be paranormal, or about really disgusting things that exist in the natural. That line between what is para and what is natural. For example, that ghosts can also be atoms left behind of the dispersed decaying people in cemeteries. And so, the paranormal actually being part of the natural.
I totally agree. I also think that, on the one hand, the history of the occult can have this obnoxious mage-y masculinist vibe to it, but then it can have totally the opposite with tons of women. Usually when you see Yeats or somebody who was held up, it was in a mage-y, wizard-like vibe in his community, but there are clusters of women doing amazing things around him. You can go ghost hunting for witches too or for women involved in the paranormal. I think they’re another way of approaching the language of energy, the idea of ritual, the idea of an important object, the idea of the flora and fauna. Of different things having Spiritism and vitality. Also, a total class of disparaged texts and disparaged bodies and disparaged life forms. Things that don’t seem to quite belong in the light, or part of the Enlightenment—the favorite species, the favorite bodies. The idea of turning to those and seeing what can be learned there, what flourishes there. I mean, hell, yeah. I wouldn’t say I had the last word on any of that stuff but I think that those places are the exciting places where things are seeping and it does have a biological force, too. Learning about these extremophile life forms and things that seem so far out of the category of life, as defined from the center or as defined by the Europeanist Enlightenment definition of what is an important life form. That there are these life forms that live in these nitrogen vents or extreme cold or they can just go dormant for years and then be rehydrated and live again. So that these are actually the winners in life, but they’ve occupied this scale or these locations or these sites or these habits of living that seem so outside what the West has led us to believe as a bounded healthy upright male body and yet we find that in fact there’s flourishing, there’s thriving, there’s form, there’s temporality that is totally outside that and might even endure. I mean, how fucking amazing! How great is that?
AB: I like how you mentioned the Enlightenment as being the epicenter of where these ideas of hierarchical life come from. Do you feel like the necropastoral and occultist poetry in general are directly speaking against the Enlightenment ideas or is it more like around them?
I think it would probably be my instinct, my personality, just to be against, but I think that it’s probably more entangled than that. The scientistic vibe of the Enlightenment on the one hand seems to create these great chains of being. It wants to award certain racial groups, certain bodies, certain genders at the top of the sapiens-sapiens scale. I want to be against all of that, obviously. Those thoughts are insidious and we find them even wrapped up in scientific outcomes that we think are good. But then there’s the Romantic period and the figure of the mad scientist—such as in Mary Shelley’s work—where it’s science gone amok that I’m totally in favor of. So, it would be hard for me to be like: I reject all Enlightenment, because without it we wouldn’t have these inversions of it, and I prize those inversions. Enlightenment chains, hierarchies, that way of thinking, that privileging, you just want to eat it all away. Attack with all kinds of microbes and make it into something else.
AB: Do you think poetry can be those microbes, the attacking microbes?
Yeah. Oh yeah, I do. Mary Shelley comes up with Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. That’s a metaphor. That’s an idea, a way of thinking that takes the world on fire, and that means something different to different readers. So that’s the idea of taking scienctisticness and invading it and imbuing it with something else. Obviously, she’s a Romantic writer. But this idea that poetry can generate through metaphors and languages, that they’re in microbes that change brains and change thinking. I definitely think this.
AB: In thinking of the necropastoral as a place that avoids idyllic trappings, something that is more humble, more sobering, and kind of more realistic in the way that spaces and animals and germs all kind of interact with each other, what are the advantages for you of looking at these places in less traditionally valued forms and playing off of the idea of the Enlightenment?
I think these ideas kind of link together. It’s a way to expose and try on, to re-center power, to look at life forms that have been disparaged but are omnipresent, but again made invisible. This is the same language that we use to rethink how communities and individuals are represented or not represented by a culture. We see it in the way that these life-forms and the spaces where these life forms (the zones where you find them) flourish, but where we don’t notice them, or our cultural noticing, has been shaped differently by all the hierarchies and hegemonies of power. I am thinking of what a poetry, nature poetry or ecopoetry, would be that was attentive to micro/macro-flora or things that are not considered privileged or prized life-forms. Where would it lead us? I have to say, to link back to what I said at the beginning, I don’t know the endpoint, the best endpoint for all of this thinking. This all began as a thought experiment and it has been writ. It has done the strange things and brought strange texts together that normally wouldn’t be taught or thought of together or read together. It has opened me into conversations with people, like you guys, and into places where I’m not the expert, someone else is the expert but they have interesting ideas and they take it in the direction of their culture, the literature they’re interested in or that they’re making. I think that’s important for me to stress, that it’s an open-ended, maybe descriptive, project. And open-endedness is kind of the point. Not everything is known about it. Not every part of the area is mapped. I don’t think if I hadn’t moved to South Bend, Indiana and lived in the Rust Belt—in a place of decaying industrial landscape that is also overcome with weeds and rotting and water and ruins—that I would have gone so far to this kind of thinking. I think that the connections of those kinds of things to history and class, the desire to see what kind of language would adhere to this landscape, is a really important nexus.
WB: You speak of the decomposing author in the text, and there’s this idea of breaking down or shedding that occurs within the necropastoral that seems like another form of producing art. We talked about griminess and residue earlier, which is like producing art in this stickier, messier form. And in our press, we’re interested in creatures and germs and bacteria and small things that are undervalued, which is why we named our press Snail Trail, and by extension, we’re very into the idea of things that contribute to the environment that don’t often get talked about or thought about. Or even in thinking about waste and what impact that has. Can you speak a little bit about what that means for your process as a writer, or just a writer’s process in general, and does that include things like decomposing language or form? How does that appear in the actual work?
I would say two things about this. One is that I do think the necropastoral is an ethics of translation, which for me means several things. One is that the translator and the poet or writer that they’re working on or with to produce a translation become linked in a kind of uneasy and unknown relationship. The power, the pulls of which cannot always be mapped at every moment. To go back to the Enlightenment, this idea of a non-Cartesian space where not everything is on an X and Y axis, you don’t always know where you are on that X and Y grid in the translator and translated relationship, right? I think that’s exciting. I think that strange things come out of it and so the reason I start there is because I’ve said that South Bend was important for me developing ideas, but I also think that editing Action Books and being the English editor—the Anglophone editor of works of translation that are often running between an immigrant U.S. writer and a non-American writer who are working together to create a text, where I am the least expert person in the room—that has been such a tonic political experience. To understand that I can be in the room, I’m not at the center of the room, I’m not the most expert person in the room, but I can still be in the room and part of the room.
This comes back to language. Because as an editor, while I’m working alongside Johannes Göransson as he translates Aase Berg, for example (and her work really does work by these unexpected compound words), is to have my brain be retrained and my English kind of retrained along that Swedish syntax. Or to have a line of poetry in my head one night and realize it’s from a Raúl Zurita poem, in Daniel Borzutzky’s or Anna Deeny Morales’s translation, so that my sense of language has been rewired by being in contact with tons of things in translation and also by having that horizontal experience of language that is translation, where I don’t need to be the master of [the English] or any language, of poetry, but I’m in the room interfacing with language and interfacing with poetry. And I could do that with humility, or something like humility anyway.
This was a long-winded, circular way to answer your question, but yeah, I feel like my sense of language has been reformatted by contact with other experts, other exquisite artists working in different languages and their exchanges. I’m so grateful and so lucky. I’ve been transformed and it’s two very different experiences: Being in this location in the Rust Belt that is considered very, very provincial and not an important place, and then working with global poetry, very important master poets from other cultures. These two very disparate experiences have somehow really repaved my brain, really rewired it. I think a lot of my own poetry depends on oscillating among dictions or yanking dictions together. I think that was already a habit of mine, but I think those parts of my brain are really activated by being a translation editor.
WB: That’s really lovely. We were actually going to ask about Action Books and translation work because you do work as an editor there, and earlier Amy asked about the intangible effects of poetry, but would you be able to speak more to the tangible ways that translation can enact change? Specifically, we were looking at the Action Books website, and it says “Action Books is interlingual, not translingual,” which I thought was an interesting choice of words because translation is that entanglement and zones of exchange, as you were just speaking of, and not just a one-way movement. Translation does rewire the brain so it is a really tangible effect. So can you speak a little more about how translation can enact that change in an environment where it’s hard for us to see the changes happening right in front of us?
I like that idea very much and I feel like you said it very well. There are a couple things about that. English is an imperial language and via the internet and via capitalism, it inserts itself seemingly everywhere, and so it’s really hard to use any kind of binary language to describe translation. I feel when I do, I’m being a little more approximate, so even when I say “the translator” and “the translated writer,” even to erect that binary feels kind of triaged because usually the poet being translated knows a little bit of English and in all cases the translator has fluency in that language and in many cases that might be their culture of origin, not always. And if not always, as the writer Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint pointed out, the translator might be working between language A and B, but she herself might have language A and B plus a birth language or mother tongue that’s not coming into the translation but is present in the process of translation in her own mind. Myint has done some really interesting thinking about that.
It seems to me that any time I theorize translation, I’m sort of approximating because I do think it’s based on exchange and not about setting these binaries back up again. Trying to come up with the right language for the website is a challenge in this way. And interestingly, Johannes and I wrote a pamphlet called Deformation Zone about “interlingual, not translingual,” but we discovered that term, ‘Deformation Zone’, via one of Aase Berg’s poems, so it comes back to English via a poem in another language. And so already the descriptor is in translation. I also find that as people move around the planet, either voluntarily or involuntarily, and pick up and adjust and add to the languages they have, it’s very hard to say to poet A, “You must write in this pure language that is supposedly your mother tongue,” because as Deleuze and Guattari say, there is no mother tongue, only a takeover by a dominant language. It would be hard to find a beginning, in most cases. Maybe there are exceptions but in many cases the poets that we translate, regardless of the culture that they might come from, they’ve been exposed to European and/or American literature. They’ve been exposed to English. They’ve been exposed to the language of capital, and so interacting with the language and its complexity and the place that it’s at seems to me to be the exciting part about translation.
I also think that far from being untranslatable, poetry is often the literary form that, you show your work, you’re putting language first, so you can show it as a language that is being put together, that is being affected, that is wired to different sources and you can do that in the translated version, too. I think in some ways, poetry is the best thing to translate because you’re not as busy with the other work that narrative writing has to do.
I want to go back to my Enlightenment answer because I feel like I was too equivocal. I’m anti-Enlightenment, for the record.
WB: Just as a closing question, we were wondering what other ideas or questions are you pursuing in your current work?
I’ve been thinking about the toxic, in the biological sense of the word. It came into my mind as I was really thinking hard about what the lyric is, as a substance that acts. What is this intense, concentrated substance? What is the special thing that is the lyric, that intensity? What even is it? I can describe its technical properties. It generally has these understood speakers and addressees, at least in Western culture, but what is it? What is that twangy lyre-produced thing that is the poem? When I thought about this intensity, I began thinking of it as a toxin. And then when I started researching the etymology of that word, I discovered that that word really comes from the idea of a poisoned arrow. It comes from classical culture through a set of associations and, specifically, in some cases, that toxin as the poison arrow is wielded by Amazon warriors, so there’s all kinds of ideas about warfare and gender and the body and weapons tied up in the idea of the toxic. And thinking about the toxic, I was also thinking about the link that Plato and Socrates bring out about writing as a drug, a poisoned drug that can be both a poison and its own remedy. And writing is specifically that, the pharmakon. So, I started thinking about the toxicon. What about deliberately emphasizing the poisonous aspect of writing. Writing as poison, what would it mean? That’s what I’m thinking about. My next book is going to come out in the spring and it’s going to be called Toxicon and it’s meant to suggest a quiver full of poisoned arrows. Maybe that’s what a book of lyric poetry can be. We’ll find out.
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of eight books of poetry, verse plays, prose, and poetics essays. Recent books include _Dead Youth, or, the Leaks_, a play which inaugurated the Leslie Scalapino Prize for Women Performance Artists, and The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, from the University of Michigan Poets on Poetry Series. Her next book, Toxicon and Arachne, is forthcoming from Nightboat books in 2020. With Johannes Göransson, she edits Action Books and teaches at Notre Dame.