This conversation was conducted during the winter of 2019/2020 as a reflection on two poetry chapbooks Some Ennui (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2019) and <(( ))> (Couch Press, 2016), by Lindsey Boldt which constitute sections of a larger project entitled “Weirding.” I’ve been an ardent fan of Lindsey’s intersecting practice as a writer and healer for quite some time, and find her multivalent work to be particularly important for the tenuous and difficult moment we are currently living in.
During several phone calls and chat sessions we discussed, among other things, mutual aid, the radical healing potential of grief and depression, writing as emotional labor, the fear-dispelling properties of humor, and poetry as magic.
Jamie Townsend: I’ve been thinking of your line in “A Great Whine” (from “<((?))>”) during this difficult year: “no way out but through”? The poem itself seems like an attempt to process the lack of clarity at the center of life right now since all our actions and desires are tethered to some kind of suffering. Do you see the process of writing as emotional labor? The work is funny but also very heavy at the same time.
Lindsey Boldt: I wrote “A Great Whine” sometime in 2012 or 2013 after Occupy when I processing a lot of fear and grief and guilt. I wanted to call myself out on my complicity with oppressive systems and structures, rather than continue with the sort of self-righteous stuff I had been writing. To answer your question though, for a long time I wanted my writing to DO something. I wanted it to change people’s behavior, make them realize something about themselves or the culture. Whether it did what I intended is impossible to measure, so, when I first started thinking of myself as a healer I felt sort of relieved, like, ok, this will be more direct and effective. I felt so inundated by my own suffering and the suffering of everyone around me all reverberating off each other that I felt pretty desperate to make it stop. Part of me thought, “Oh good, now I don’t have to try to fix people with poems (which is ludicrous btw), I can fix them with Reiki or herbs (also not possible).” Oof. Bad news. That sounds like emotional labor to me, but uninvited, you know? Like, who asked you to knock yourself out trying to help everyone?
But yeah, humor helps! The most successful “political” writing I’ve done are the plays I wrote and performed with my partner, Steve Orth. It was super fun to act out the parts of myself I hated most: the proselytizing newbie activist, the paranoid old crank who thinks everyone is an agent provocateur, the nice guy who just wants everyone to like them so they can fade into the background and do nothing. The whole point was to try to tell the truth and play and laugh.
JT: A lot of the poems in both these chaps seem to be dealing with dissatisfaction, boredom, “ennui,” minor versions or modalities of depression. Was writing the poems in “Some Ennui” an emotionally difficult process? Did you feel a sense of relief by turning your depression into the source for something generative outside of yourself?
LB: Starting to write the poems in Some Ennui was an important breakthrough in that particular depression. I focused my attention on the physical pain in my chest and wrote from there. Externalizing it and giving it a container “poem” made it shapeable and shareable. And yes! I felt physical relief, which is so cool. I’ve asked myself many times what happens when we share like this? Is the pain transferred to the reader or listener? That was my fear. Or can it be transformed? That was my hope.
I wanted to invite readers into some of the wilder, more ecstatic experiences in Some Ennui, and hoped the 2nd person could be that invitation. A lot of the poems started out with titles taken from internet culture like, “That feeling when…” which I love because it presumes a collective experience. Honestly, a Facebook group called “Same Same But Different,” which seemed to be full of depressed teens who expressed themselves through memes, gave me a lot of permission. Thanks teens!
I wanted to take that presumed collectivity and push it farther, to presume a wider, stranger human experience. I wanted to feel less alone in my weirdness.
JT: The connection between depression and humor is very clear in these books. Do you think poems in general are good vehicles for humor? And do you see humor, particularly in these difficult, liminal states, as an alchemical act – able to transform suffering or grief. Or, conversely, do you see it as connected to depression in, perhaps, a sardonic way?
LB: The cranky part of me wants to say, “No!” poems aren’t good at humor, but duh, we can both think of plenty of poems and poets who make us laugh, right?
And yes, laughing is powerful magic. It dispels fear, breaks spells! For me, I can feel a good laugh physically shift the tightness in my chest.
When I first started reading the poems in Some Ennui out, I really hammed up the depressed-guy persona to make people laugh. It worked, people laughed. It helped to play a persona, to blow out the depressed part of myself and make it seem absurd, which was also a bit of a shield so no one would believe that I really felt those things. Now, when I read them out, I still hope people will laugh, but I don’t ham it up so much. It’s ok if people know I felt those things.
JT: I like that you talk about performing the pieces as a way of developing a persona. Persona is play, which can be serious and irreverent at the same time; it can stretch the limits of polite social spaces. Where do you go when you write? I’m pivoting, but still thinking about this idea of remapping emotions and world building through play.
LB: Good question. Are you thinking of Some Ennui in particular? There’s a lot of parallel world logic in those poems. I love Science Fiction and Fantasy and was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick at the time. He does that great thing that Sci-Fi writers do where they create a thought experiment around a far-out concept like overlapping worlds and then proceed to create a world around that assumed truth. If there are parallel worlds, how do you know if you’ve crossed into one? If worlds overlap, what does that feel like? In Some Ennui, I took my alienation and despair and constructed thought experiments around them. See how I just made that true? Sci-Fi! I asked myself questions like: What if I’m in the wrong universe? What if our world merged with another, worse one, when Trump was elected? What if I could travel between worlds just by thinking about it? What if I could escape? Would it be worth leaving behind everyone I love just to experience some relief?
I can say more if you’d like. I’m curious what you’re thinking of.
JT: I think that’s a great answer! To be honest, I was thinking about these parallel or abutting worlds that appear in your work, and also thinking about writing in a speculative mode: how can I change or be attuned to a different way of being/perceiving? And that a change in perspective or attunement in the act of writing can be a form of healing. On that note, I’d love to hear more about the connections between your writing and healing practices. Do you see them as connected?
LB: Yes. I tried to keep them separate for a while, but they’re all over each other now. I mean, they always were, but I was trying to keep the social worlds separate, because I needed some space to try this new thing, and be this different person. It was easier to do that with people I didn’t already know, who hadn’t agreed to the same standards and expectations I had agreed to when I joined up with the poets.
The core of one depression, from a few years back, maybe 2012 or so, was the feeling that because I was developing this part of myself, immersing myself in magic, plant medicine, Reiki, etc., and differentiating from the poets somewhat, I wasn’t an artist anymore. I didn’t know how to be a writer and a witch. I had always written about myself, and what felt off-limits, but I felt like there was too much I couldn’t say now that I was practicing magic. Some of this was practical and some of this was pure fear. I was afraid my poet friends would reject me, think I was ridiculous, or worse be afraid of me. I grieved the artist part of myself for a long time.
But it turns out a lot of healers are secret poets and a lot of poets are secret healers and happily a lot of both are coming out and sharing both. The two traditions have always been connected, whether we’re conscious of it or not. The separation isn’t real.
And I use a lot of the same practices in healing work and writing poems. Poems are spells, spells are poems. Making medicine feels like writing a poem. Doing healing work and reading runes helps me think about the audience. I can’t take away someone’s suffering or make people behave or think differently, as much as I may want to, but I can remind someone what it feels like to feel grounded, or safe, or heard, or connected to their intuition. It’s interesting to think about how we would behave if our needs were met and try to create situations where we can actually feel that, if only temporarily. Poems can do that.
JT: Poems are amazing vehicles for utopian thinking! In the sense that they’re real time instances of thinking about how we process the world. I think this has a lot to do with first understanding what it is we want and what it is we lack.
So, I also wanted to ask you about dreams. There’s this trope that people’s dreams are the most boring things to read about. I’ve never understood that idea, mainly because most waking life seems surreal and a continuation of where we go when we’re asleep. You have a great line “the dream is not part-time”. What’s dreaming like for you?
LB: I hear you. What is up with that? I could talk about dreams all day! It’s like finding a new room in the house you grew up in, except the room just leads to more rooms, and you can go through the ceiling or the floor or the walls to get there, and sometimes the next place isn’t a room but a giant purple eye-shaped whirlpool in the ocean and when you’re there you can fly and breathe under wanter and have sex with trees and throw battle runes at your ex. It’s hard not to want to spend all your time in that room.
JT: I think that room can also be any space shared with loved ones – both living and dead. Do you see yourself as a part of a lineage? Who’s in there with you?
LB: Yes! The room! I like your image of a room, because that’s what poetry community can feel like, right? A bunch of people crammed into a small room, often someone’s house or apartment, sitting on the floor, listening to someone say words. Whoa. There are so many strands though, right? Each time I fall in love with a new poet (living or dead) it changes, because they bring all their people with them.
I didn’t really ever think about poetry in terms of lineage, except sort of bashfully. I remember listening to a recording of Paul Celan reading “Todes Fugue” in college, which broke something inside me. I think that’s when I decided I was a poet. I didn’t and still don’t speak German (except for a few words and phrases), but it honestly felt like something was being transmitted through Celan’s voice. I swear that poem flicked some kind of switch.
The word lineage is tricky. It feels pretty loaded, honestly, but it makes me think about Reiki–which is a Japanese energy healing tradition–how there’s an energy that is physically passed through attunement from teacher to student. You can trace the lineage. Is the same true for poetry? Are poems containers for energy? Is it something about the voice?
Listening to recordings of James Schuyler and Barbara Guest on Penn Sound when I was a baby poet did something to me too. Really all of the elders there on Penn Sound. Then, arriving in The Bay and just main-lining poetry in person…
When Kevin Killian died, my feelings about lineage changed. He was such a keeper of those stories and a bridge to the people I felt kinship with, but felt like I didn’t have a right to claim. Now it feels like a matter of respect. I’m thinking of Jack Spicer’s Poetry As Magic Workshop circle, for example. Who were their teachers? I need to know who my elders’ elders were, because they were in those poetry rooms with us too, whether we recognized it or not. For good or bad.
Can I tell you a story about the weekend Kevin died?
LB: I was teaching a weekend-long class on poetry and the oracular tradition in Mendocino at my friend Liz’s herb school. Friday night we had our first class and I knew Kevin was in the hospital and not doing well. We called in our ancestors as we opened the circle and I made a point of calling in our ancestors of path, our freak families, queer families, artistic lineages. Saturday evening after class, Steve called to tell me Kevin had died. After we got off the phone, I wrote a poem. Later, I was sitting in the school room with my students, eating snacks and chatting, and I decided to tell them, “You guys, my poetry dad just died.” That’s how I thought of Kevin. My own Dad died when I was 10, and he was a real “father figure” for me. I know that’s true for a lot of other folks too–poetry siblings. Anyway, after I said that, the lights in the school house flickered and kept flickering until I said, “Ok, Kevin” and got up to light a candle for him.
JT: The day that Kevin passed I was sitting at a poetry reading in a backyard in West Oakland and, all of a sudden, I had a poem arrive all at once. I usually write piecemeal so this felt very different, and very intimate, as the poem traced out this map of a moment of emotional and physical nudity. It seems like it happened right around the time that Kevin died because shortly after the reading I saw the notice online. It felt like a gift, which makes sense. He was so completely generous, and present.
LB: I love that, Jamie!
Kevin’s death really reminded me what it feels like to be an artist, how to hold that role, be that person. I hadn’t felt like an artist, not in the way I did in my 20’s when I was acting in Kevin’s plays, in a long long time. Kevin was always repping his own work with glamour and panache, taking up that limelight and welcoming us all into the spotlight with him. He was very coy about speaking directly about magic, but he definitely knew it and initiated many young poets into it.
JT: Yup. Let’s all be stars!
LB: Love you, Kevin.
JT: We miss you!
Regarding the sense of voices from somewhere else, I’m also thinking about your work in an oracular sense. Particularly your use of repetition in the piece “Interview”. Can you talk about about: “be on my back”? (a repeated line in “Interview”). It gets stuck in my head a lot.
LB: Yes, definitely! I’m glad the line, “Be on my back” gets stuck in your head. It does for me too. I think it’s supposed to. I’d be curious what your interpretation is!
JT: It feels hypnotic. I like that it’s not a request but a directive. “Be!” “Get up here!” It’s not passive.
LB: Totally. I like that too. The crone asks a lot of us. She requires engagement, integrity, and truth. She doesn’t let shit slide and she will not suffer fools. I guess I’m wary of explaining too much more about the line, because it’s not something I constructed, but heard, which makes me excited to hear how other people hear it. It’s a line that comes back again and again when I do automatic writing and always surprises me with its fierce insistence. It’s the crone’s voice. She doesn’t fuck around. Love her.
JT: Wow, I totally felt the crone energy! When I first read it I really did have the image of a woman bent over beneath a bundle of sticks pop into my mind.
LB: Whoa rad!
JT: Can you tell me a little more about “The Interview”? Did the piece develop as a dialogue with the crone or another presence via automatic writing?
LB: Yes! I work in a few different modes and one of them is definitely a dialog as you mentioned. It’s channeling, which I want to say, I think all writers do, and I have always done, but now do in a more focused, structured, intentional way. One section of my poetry manuscript, Weirding, was written in this way, where I identify and invoke an energy (plant, rune, ancestor, spirit, etc.) and either ask a series of predetermined questions, like we’re doing here, or just sit and listen, and wait to see what my they wants to share. The practice is a mix of ritual, automatic writing, and techniques I learned studying plant medicine. It’s great fun.
I’m often hesitant to discuss the process, in part because it feels sacred, but also because I want to protect others from making the same mistakes I made. But! Plenty of people warned me of what I would warn anyone about and I didn’t understand what they meant until I crossed the line myself. That’s how we learn. I’m happy to talk more about it if people want to know more. I don’t want to make it precious either.
JT: Did the spiral image/title of the chap come from there as well?
LB: Yes! I did a reading in LA with Syd Staiti back in 2012 or so at the Poetic Research Bureau where at some point during the ritualized performance, I texted people in the audience whose numbers I had a series of emojis <((?))>, or something like that. I never performed it that way again, but it was fun and the image stuck with me.
JT: Ok, one last question! What do you hope your work does for other people? The people reading the poems but also maybe the people in relationships with you?
LB: It’s funny, I’ve had the hardest time answering this question. I’m proofing Bruce Boone’s book, Bruce Boone Dismembered for Nightboat right now, specifically his essays on the social responsibility of writing and writers, so the timing is helpful. I have a tendency to isolate, especially when depression shows up. Since I moved up to Washington State, (to my hometown, Olympia) I’ve been physically removed from the community I had been rooted in for 11 years. There are wonderful, funny, smart poets here too! But I’m just getting to know them and doing community takes time. That’s something moving has really brought home for me; how long it took me to build the community I love in The Bay. It’s been hard. But honestly, I think I needed a break. I hope that doesn’t sound harsh. I was really struggling for a lot of reasons. In terms of my writing, I was struggling to tease the strand of my own voice out of the web. I’m beyond grateful for the tight weave that raised me, but I couldn’t hear myself and that’s on me. My friends’ voices and opinions were always in my head (fantasies of their voices). They’re so smart! They’re doing all the things so well already! Who wants to hear what I have to say? Will they hate me if I talk about that? Will they think I’m crazy? So, as painful as it is to be separated from my people, it’s been good for my writing to get quiet. For me, right now, it’s easier to do that here.
To answer your question though, if I had to choose one goal for my writing, it would be to clear the channel and trust what comes through.
Then, the social part comes in the editing, shaping, sharing with friends, reading out, re-writing, and publishing. That’s when I really think about my audience and community and, social responsibility. Maybe that’s obvious, but it’s not been easy for me. My first responsibility as an artist is to listen to myself. Then to poetry. Then to my friends. Then, then, then, etc. in that order. I guess that’s Being An Artist 101, but it’s easy to forget.
I want to make my friends laugh–and like… people in general, if that’s possible! That’s honestly my favorite thing. And I want to share my enthusiasm and wonder for wild, strange things and also my rage and grief and feel like we’re all holding it together; not that I’m asking you to hold my feelings for me, but that by going on my underworld travels and trance journeys and walks in the woods and coming back, that I bring something back to share, and it matters, and it’s useful, and I’m not the only one holding the grief and rage and frightening, overwhelming wonder and awe. That’s what I really want. You know that feeling at a reading when it feels like the whole room is humming together at the same frequency? That’s the best. That’s what I want.
Lindsey Boldt is a poet, rune reader, Reiki Master, and plant witch who is obsessed with tracing the thrum that lives inside and under things. She offers rune readings and Reiki sessions through Wyrd Energetics and teaches classes on poetry and oracular practices. Her essay, “It Bends My Light: Death & Mourning in New Narrative” appeared in From our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice. She works as managing editor for Nightboat Books books and is the author of Some Ennui (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2019), <(( ))> (Couch Press, 2016), Titties for Lindsey (OMG, 2011) and Overboard (Publication Studio, 2012). Lindsey lives in Olympia, Washington on Squaxin & Nisqually land. Jamie Townsend is a genderqueer poet and editor living in Oakland. They are half-responsible for Elderly, a publishing experiment and hub of ebullience and disgust. They are the author of Pyramid Song (above/ground press, 2018), and Sex Machines (blush, 2019) as well as the full-length collection Shade (Elis Press, 2015). An essay on the history and influence of the literary magazine Soup was published in The Bigness of Things: New Narrative and Visual Culture (Wolfman Books, 2017). They are the editor of Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader (Nightboat, 2019) and Libertines in the Ante-Room of Love: Poets on Punk (Jet Tone, 2019).