In June 2016, Kate Schapira and Valerie Witte corresponded about their books: Handbook for Hands That Alter As We Hold Them Out (Horse Less Press, 2016), by Kate; and a game of correspondence (Black Radish Books, 2015), by Valerie. The co-interview follows.
Questions for Kate, from Valerie
VW: One of the themes that recurs in your book is how we are all implicated in the problems wrought by climate change. Even the well-intentioned are still consuming energy and burning fuel all the time. “We destroy all the time with ourselves, including you” (p. 17); “we nodes of wrinkles, root mimics, we circuits shut and sluicing, we perpetrators” (p.23). After the climate protest, the speaker examines her own role and culpability in the crisis: “…each of us as if in her own private oven….at home, I eat rice and reheated greens, drink beer, put perfume on, burning everything as I go. What did I think would happen? Did I think the temperature would instantly drop, that the next day would dawn fair and clear, that the tiny repairs would be free to begin and would make themselves felt, like a canopy of ferns laid over the whole earth?” (p.28)
Can you speak to your concerns regarding climate change and how this plays out in your work? In particular, how does one reconcile the internal conflict of acknowledging the crisis and wanting to work toward preserving the planet, but being limited in the ability to do so, and how do you explore this conflict in the book?
KS: I don’t think I do reconcile it in my life or in the book! The way I explore it in the book is by trying to use these poems to practice, or to visit, irrevocable and frightening change, whether the change into another form of being (like a fungus or a plant) or the transformation into an old person or the abandonment of societal safety—a lot of the “Fungus Poems” I wrote during the later weeks of the Occupy movement, and I was thinking about what I was and wasn’t willing to relinquish, and about having that choice at all (rather than being someone who, on account of various social structures and supremacies, had no access to that safety). These poems are partly trial runs for that kind of uprooting change, and slightly—especially the spells—attempts to induce it.
A while back I read something by Cara Benson where she wrote that it’s easier for people to imagine everything about their ecosystem changing than it is for them to imagine any major changes to the socioeconomic structures in which they live, easier to imagine ecological collapse than capitalism’s collapse. I am trying to imagine both, and to be real about how much would change.
VW: I love that idea of the book as a trial run for uprooting change and how to induce it. And, speaking of the role and importance of imagination in this realm, what also struck me was the idea that if we lose our capacity for imagination and our ability to create, we lose our essential humanity. “…unless we can imagine something else our chants will die away . . . and nothing will replace them.” (p.27) “What if the spell works? We don’t have to worry. // We have to imagine.” (p.37) Further, the book is filled with references to body parts, prosthetics, and fabrications, constantly questioning the notion of the artificial vs the real. Can you speak to the relationship between the real/human and the fake/fabricated in the book, and how does creativity play into this dynamic?
KS: I love this question! I think this division partly plays into the idea of relative worth or value, which I’m trying to mess up–I don’t want people putting a price on other people–again, with a really open definition of “people”, not just human people—by saying, “You are not sufficiently real” (or for any other reason). I care about robots a lot less now than I did when I wrote the poems in the “Dogbook” section, which are some of the book’s oldest, but I left those in because they seemed to fit with the theme of “something transformed” or “something other/less than human.” On the other hand, or some hand, we have the option to transform ourselves (possibly before the other transformations get to us, in some cases?) and those manipulations may be where creativity comes in, whether we’re talking about adornment or building a whole new witch city: are new things, new ways of being, always fake, stilted, artificial, at first? If we fake it well enough, can we make it?
VW: That notion of artificiality being potentially transformative and empowering (when it seems usually to carry a negative connotation) is so interesting. On a related note, for me the climax of the book, or where it reaches its greatest intensity, is the poem entitled “Red hour.” I took this title as a reference to the Star Trek episode in which inhabitants of the planet Beta III, whose culture is known as “The Body,” exhibit no individual expression or creativity. During the “red hour” of the day, the inhabitants transition from normal and peaceful to a violent mob. The culture is governed by an entity known as Landru, ultimately revealed to be a computer.
Such a mob scene plays out, similarly, in the poem: “The robots in us ring out, pivot thrust and circuit fart in public, tear pseudoskin and fuck wall sockets. We lose ourselves in it…The hour gets everyone imitatively excited. Sparks fly. Some copulate. Some rape….One man beats a woman with fists, one with a crowbar, one with her kicked-out shoe, spitting saliva and popping their eyes.” (p.63).
Could you describe the origin of this poem and the interplay between the episode’s themes and the themes of the poem and the book? Are we in danger of becoming like this alien culture, devoid of imagination and prone to senseless violence—or have we already become this soulless and depraved as a civilization?
KS: It’s TOTALLY a reference to that Star Trek episode which, full disclosure, I saw exactly once a long while before I wrote that poem. But it stayed with me: is “no individual expression or creativity” the same as “normal and peaceful”? Does that mean that individual expression and creativity are a slippery slope to violent mob-hood? Whose vision for us might we be living out? This poem is about the transformation from one state to the other in the moment, definitely, but I wasn’t making an assertion about a one-way societal transformation; in fact, one of the things that sticks out to me about that episode is that they change back. Every person in that world goes through these two transformations every day.
VW: Could you speak to the portrayal of gender in the book? In particular, I am thinking about the recurrence of witches in the first section, in poems such as “Witch City” and “Questions for Witches”; this recalled, to me, our history of persecuting women believed to be witches, as they were perceived as a threat to society. Is our society still threatened by those viewed as “witches,” or otherwise empowered women; and if so, how and why is this power so threatening? Conversely, when you return to the issue of gender later, in the “My Old Self” section, you address the issue of aging, particularly for women, examining the fear of being viewed as a potential victim, and the anxiety that inevitably goes along with being an older woman in our society. Can you address the shift that happens as we age, in our perception of our own power and how society views us?
KS: It’s funny that you should mention this, because I feel like witchhood and old-woman-hood are states when people previously characterized as women embrace or experience gender blur (sometimes of their own volition, sometimes imposed on them by others), and many of the specific witches I had in mind when I was writing those poems are queer and/or trans and/or nonbinary. So people whose genders might be more or less femme than the people around them might expect or want, people who are “scary” to a certain kind of normative sense of femininity—the idea that an old woman is less “womanly” (less fuckable, can’t have babies) and that that puts you at risk, not just of death but of violence or erasure or both. Of course you can’t win for losing, because being “more” womanly also looks like a target to the kinds of people who think in terms of targets.
I wrote the poems in “My Old Self” in response to some really amazing self-portraits as an old woman by the artist Jillian Tamaki, currently in her 30s, because I was realizing that I didn’t know how to be an old woman and, best-case scenario, I will get to become one. How might I be? How could I be? Why don’t I already have a sense of that—where are my models, where are the people who’ve lived their lives as women articulating what it’s like to have been doing it for a long time, both from the inside and from the outside? Again, what might not I be able to do, what might close to me then, and what might open?
Questions for Valerie, from Kate
KS: The poems in “her week of wonders” have an associative, sorting quality, like you were following a thread from image to image and referent to referent, and the section title “a translation” and the recurrent phrases made me wonder if you were writing through another text. Can you talk about how you made these, and what signals—true or false—you hoped their form would send about how they were made?
VW: Yes, the “translation” refers to the source text, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, by a Czech writer, Vitezslav Nezval. Technically, how I wrote the poems was by borrowing language from the source novel, and “translating” it into my own (part fiction, part autobiographical) narrative, folding in my own emails, journal entries, and experiences; then echoing pieces of the language across the poems within each thread. I assembled them so that they occur within a week’s time, mirroring the week of time covered in the novel. Regarding associative images and references, I often write in this way, connecting one line to the next, in a tangential way, and seeing where things go. In this case, the threading and repetition also serves to reflect the obsessive, perhaps ominous, nature of the relationship between the two characters.
KS: Those multiple borrowed strands end up working together in a really organic way—I suspected a source text or texts, but I didn’t have a strong feeling of “this is natural” versus “this is borrowed”. This section is also layered in another way: the layered dossier form of “her week of wonders: a translation” strikes the eye right away. How did this deceptively orderly form help you get this section to say all the things you wanted it to say—what possibilities did both the recognizability/trope stuff (this is an email, this is a note on someone’s file) and the layering itself open up to you? Who is hearing/reading, and who is overhearing (or overreading) in this sequence—I don’t mean literally who, but what are their roles with regard to one another?
VW: I have often found that I prefer to work within constraints—by imposing a certain form, I am able to direct my work in a way that I find more compelling. With this series, I wanted to play with actual written “correspondence,” email exchanges that I had with various people. Ultimately, I settled on creating an exchange between two figures, as such a dialogue would manifest as a more intense and dramatic conversation, or plot, if you will. Using this format pushed me to include elements of the form that we take for granted: a subject, date, and status messages, and so on, which serve as ways to connect the different poems into threads/conversations. The layered email threads that develop echo each other throughout, and these echoes are meant to reflect the hauntedness of a relationship and sense of obsession between the two figures—sensibilities reflected in the tradition of the Gothic novel—the genre of the source material I used in writing the series.
I see the series as a Gothic-style epistolary novella of sorts, told through emails (or letters). Incorporating Gothic tropes enabled me to incorporate language that I wouldn’t naturally use, as well as conceive of the exchange in a way that took me out of my own experiences (upon which a lot of the content in this series was based).
KS: And what’s the interplay between the letter form (okay, email form, but these are emails that are poems that are letters) and desire (and other love-related things), between the letter form and reluctance? These poems use the vocabulary of relationship, often the kind of relationship we label “romantic”, but they aren’t enamored with romance, I don’t get the sense that if the yearning is satisfied everything will stop; rather, they seem to be about keeping going, keeping the desire for connection going. Is that right, and if it is, can you talk about how these poems work with giving out and holding back? (On p10, you “wanted to write…a brooding romance” but “what // an undertaking”—a path to death?)
VW: As may be evident, what emerges is a rather intense and tension-filled exchange between the Valerie figure and the so-called Love Terrorist; their correspondence is essentially a mind game, wherein they are trying to understand and connect with each other, yet neither fully trusts the other so is unwilling to show much vulnerability—a difficult balancing act and an often-frustrating way of relating to another person. The two correspondents are only willing to give so much of themselves to the other; likewise, the poems themselves only give select information to the reader, leaving open the possibility of varying interpretations. Sometimes, the most compelling relationships, those that drive us to obsession or passion, are not the healthiest! Not surprisingly, I read Wuthering Heights and thought about Jane Eyre a lot as I was composing the book—the foundation of those classics also being the kinds of uneasy relationships where fear, anxiety, and a sense of power imbalance are often fused with longing and deep connection. The form enabled me to explore the challenges of modern relationships as well; consider the ways technology—social media, emails, chats, online dating sites, etc. play a role in how we formulate new relationships, and all of the “games” we play using these technologies.
KS: The “Valerie figure” at least overlaps with you, I’m guessing, or you were drawn to her because of the shared name, and I don’t know where you hang out on the gender map, but the Love Terrorist seems at least gender-ambiguous. You asked about gender in my book, and I noticed especially in this sequence of yours how “girl” and “not-girl” both seem to be distinct genders (and distinct from “woman” and “a shade” and “a 3,000-year-old-forest uncovered by rains”, p7, as well). What does “girl” mean to you, besides “gender-bending and superpowers” (p10)—what does “girl” enable that contrasts with the way “women” here come with a tinge of seriousness and fear? What can a girl do in poetryland that no one else can do? What can a not-girl (by which I do not mean a man or boy) do in poetryland that no one else can do?
There’s also a background sense of gendered threat in these poems, ways that being female makes a person vulnerable to that threat; I don’t really have a question about that, but I did notice it, so if you want to speak to it that might go near your response to this question.
VW: One of the things I was playing with throughout the book is ambiguity—in the relationships depicted, in the way one phrase or fragment bleeds into the next, etc. So having confusion regarding gender (eg., the Love Terrorist’s insistence, “I am not a girl”) is another way of presenting and exploring such ambiguity. This gender-bending is also one of the Gothic tropes that I incorporated into the book (and which occurs in the source text I was working with). The language around girlness is primarily derived from the source material itself. The girl in the original novel is the protagonist, and she is literally becoming a woman in the book (the week of wonders refers to her “maturation into womanhood on the night of her first menstruation”). The girl is the heroine of the book, becoming empowered as she enters adulthood, yet she is also a victim of horrific events and villainous characters. So there is a duality at play here; I am interested in exploring the power she claims as a young woman and also the perceived vulnerability and weakness of girls and women that has persisted from the time of the Gothic novel through the present.
KS: Throughout the book as a whole, I can identify recurring/running themes of gender, threat and concealment, poetic making, friend-love and desirous love, and the way time and the approach of death works on the bodymind. In “a game of correspondence” that last element seems caught up with ideas about artificial prolongation and persistence, the effort to outlive, whereas the first section seems to have more going on about the effort to survive in the way that we usually use that word? How do these themes—of outliving and surviving—work together for you, if you see a difference?
VW: I hadn’t thought of that! I think of the first part of the book as much more constrained, the communication confined within emails, limited to the margins of a page or an email/browser window. The relationship between the two figures is also one of constraint and constant guardedness. By contrast, the second half, which I think of as an exploration of the ghosts of relationships that haunt us, is very open and sprawling—I imagine the lines scrawled across the walls of an entire gallery room—if only one could replicate this sense of space in a book! I imagine the language in the mode of stream of consciousness, the words coming out like an exchange with a medium, at a seance. That open flow of expression is the vibe I am going for.
So, perhaps the way this connects to surviving versus outliving is the contrast between constraints/holding on for mere survival versus openness of expression/searching for extending life, whether through artificial means (like Blade Runner replicants), by communicating with the “dead” (or ghosts), or the possibilities to be found in the cosmos (eg., the final line, “suddenly orbs were everywhere”).
KS: We are, clearly, both big nerds, for a very classic, old-school value of nerdery—you caught my Star Trek reference and I caught your Tolkien references, and then Blade Runner appeared. Can we talk a little bit about reference and taste, about vocabularies of myth, about the stories that shaped our understanding of the world or gave us an expandable map of the imaginary or whatever it is that Middle-Earth did for you? Would it be annoying to talk about uncoolness–do you feel the desire to be cool? If so, how do you resist it?
VW: What a fun question! Full disclosure: I actually had a coworker named Lothlorien—and that is how the LOTR references first found their way into the book (I am not a Tolkien expert). The primary sci-fi/fantasy reference is actually Blade Runner. For example, the title of my book is derived from the game of correspondence chess that is played in the film. I chose the name because I liked how it tied together the different types of correspondence occurring in the book—the emails in the first section, the communication between the living and the “dead” in the second half, etc.
I don’t know if the references to Blade Runner, Middle Earth, or Star Trek are cool or nerdy at this point—if we drew a Venn diagram of nerdy and cool, there would be huge overlap, don’t you think? I’ve definitely never thought of myself as cool; that is not a “story” I have ever had about myself, and it’s not something I can remember aspiring to. But perhaps this desire to be cool manifests itself most evidently in my writing, as you suggest.
As far as myth, I have always been drawn to ghost stories and mysteries; I want to believe in things that cannot be explained. I’m too pragmatic to truly believe in the supernatural, but I like thinking about something else being “out there,” or that things beyond our knowledge and logic are possible.
Kate Schapira is the author of five full-length books of poetry, most recently Handbook for Hands That Alter As We Hold Them Out (Horse Less Press, 2016). Her collaboration with Erika Howsare, FILL: A Collection, is forthcoming in 2016 with Trembling Pillow Press. She lives in Providence, RI, where she writes, teaches, co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and periodically offers Climate Anxiety Counseling.
Valerie Witte is the author of a game of correspondence (Black Radish Books, 2015) and the chapbook, The history of mining (ge collective/Poetry Flash). In 2014 she began a collaboration with Chicago-based artist Jennifer Yorke, and their work based on her writing has appeared in exhibitions in Berkeley, Chicago, and Noyers, France. She is a member of Kelsey Street Press and the Bay Area Correspondence School (BACS). Find out more at valeriewitte.com.