Lucy Ives

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Impossible Views Reviewed in NYT Book Review

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Impossible Views Reviewed in Art in America

MAGAZINE JAN. 01, 2018

by Jameson Fitzpatrick

That Lucy Ives's Impossible Views of the World (published in August by Penguin Press) and Andrew Durbin's MacArthur Park (published in September by Nightboat Books) are both debut novels written by poets who are also art critics might explain the two books' further similarities. Each centers on a neurotic art worker—Ives's Stella Krakus is a curator and Durbin's Nick Fowler, a writer—in the midst, simultaneously, of an affair with a wealthy, insufferable man; a research project with no clear end; and an ensuing existential crisis. Stella and Nick are both erudite, hypercritical narrators prone to exacting description and essayistic digressions about art, urban life, and the familiar archetypes that populate arts professions. Most significantly, the two protagonists share a fascination with utopias—and a troubling readiness to accept their impossibility as an excuse to stick to the status quo.

This is not to say the books are not distinct. Stella, to a greater degree than Nick, dwells in the particular, as does her story: Impossible Views of the World takes place in the course of one eventful week. An awkward thirtysomething "termed a cartographic specialist in the art history world" but "a dilettante in the world of cartographers," Stella works as a curator in the American Objects department at New York City's Central Museum of Art. (Called CeMArt for short, the museum is a barely veiled send-up of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though the administration's immoderate coziness with a corporate sponsor smacks of the Guggenheim.) Her unfulfilling routine is upended by the disappearance of her colleague Paul, who is "almost a friend" and an obscure but respected poet. Tasked with completing Paul's work on the checklist for an upcoming exhibition, Stella discovers in his desk a photocopy of a fantastical early-nineteenth-century map of a utopian community called Elysia. Determined to figure out the map's significance, she steals the document, along with copies of Paul's files. What follows is an art historical caper that Vogue aptly dubbed "something of a From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for grown-ups."

As Stella gets closer to determining the map's provenance, she may (or may not) be uncovering a conspiracy connecting Paul's disappearance, several generations of a wealthy but disgraced New York family of artists and patrons, possible forgeries, and CeMArt's latest exhibition of American portraiture. That exhibition is organized by the impossibly handsome Fred Lu, a senior curator in American Objects and scion of two wealthy New York families, with whom Stella has been conducting a (mostly) emotional affair while going through a bitter divorce. Stella seems to loathe Fred almost as much as she loves him, particularly for his willingness to collaborate with WANSEE, a multinational corporation seeking to privatize the world's water supply and partner with CeMArt to open satellite museums around the globe.

Where Impossible Views finds its subject matter (and critique) in the institution, Durbin's MacArthur Park looks to what Ives, in her blurb for the novel, calls "the precarious margins of the art world." And where the focus of Views is small, concerned with inconspicuous but meaningful detail, MacArthur Park is big and sprawling, in both its settings and its questions. Nick, a twentysomething poet and budding art critic, begins his travel narrative in New York, where the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy catalyzes a preoccupying anxiety about climate change and the impending end of the world. He then sets out on a nebulous book project "about the weather"-and on trips to Miami, upstate New York, Fire Island, Los Angeles (because he has been commissioned to write about the Tom of Finland Foundation), London, and Vienna.

While in Los Angeles, Nick's book about the weather (which, in a reflexive turn, is what we understand ourselves to be reading) also becomes a book about utopia. This section opens with a history of intentional communities and cults in Southern California, beginning at the start of the twentieth century and concluding with Scientology; at the Tom of Finland Foundation, Nick's guides frame Touko Laaksonen's erotic gay drawings as a "utopian project." But Nick suspects that "a utopia of men is no utopia"—and that all utopias, however appealing, are illusory. In Impossible Views, Stella comes to a similar realization about the Elysia of her map. Though she never believes the town depicted is real, when she finally solves its tantalizing mystery—her own idealized project—she is not quite satisfied. Every utopia fails on its own terms.

TOGETHER, Impossible Views and MacArthur Park suggest that art itself might be such a failed project. Or that the art world is, at least, as Nick implies while considering the 2014 Pierre Huyghe retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

The art world is an unregulated economy that borrows from other economies . . . to continually update its relationship to the world and, in acting as a conduit for other (and all) disciplines, strives to become the clearest image of the world in which we may better see ourselves. . . . Art tries to be everything for everyone at once, all of it contained within salable products that can be exchanged between artists, galleries, individuals and institutions, across media, in a ‘conversation' about what now means, and what that now once meant and will someday come to mean. . . . Everyone wants to be an artist because everyone wants to speak about the now.

An impossible aim, to be sure, "to be everything for everyone at once." But it is not its ambition that dooms the project of art so much as its constraints, "contained" as it is. Consider, in Impossible Views, CeMArt's partnership with an evil corporate sponsor that wants to include affiliates of the museum in each of its planned "smart cities"—"‘technology responsive' communities" around the world in which people will "take refuge not just from everyday inconvenience and security issues posed by fundamentalists but from approaching environmental collapse." (It's worth nothing that WANSEE echoes Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where Nazi officials planned the Final Solution.) The proposed sites include Nevada and Abu Dhabi, evoking international expansions undertaken by the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and others.

Art's complicity in capitalism and its exploitation of natural and human resources is not news, nor is this the most meaningful insight offered by these novels. "Everyone" might want to be an artist not only because they want "to speak about the now" but also because they wish to be a part of the noble project of crafting an "image of the world in which we may better see ourselves." Who doesn't? Who in the art world, anyway? But reflection is not action, nor is this the only way to imagine art's function. As Trotsky wrote, "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes."

In their accounts of the flawed contexts in which they live and work, both Stella and Nick position themselves as outsiders. Though they blend in well enough, they go to great lengths to make it clear they see through the fictions that others around them happily accept. Disgusted by the scene of the swanky party where Fred announces CeMArt's partnership with WANSEE, Stella wonders: "How could I possibly be a curator if Fred was a curator?" Of the partygoers at a club vying with feigned nonchalance to be photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans, Nick says: "I watched them and did not once allow myself [to] slip into their time." Both fixate on the class differences between them and their more affluent lovers (Nick hates his boyfriend Simon's "moneyed affect"), though both protagonists are white and middle-class, hardly outliers.

Stella and Nick's desire to see themselves as exceptions to the rules of their lives is paired with a sense that they are powerless to change those rules. Stella laments that the circumstances of her life—her career, her relationships—feel beyond her control, even as she recognizes that she must bear some responsibility for them. Nick speaks of history grabbing and shoving us forward as if our role in it were passive. This echoes Stella's description of the "invisible hand" she feels guiding her during her boldest moments. Ultimately, Stella's most profound discovery in Impossible Views is not the origin of the map, but of that hand. Drunk at a friend's party, she cracks it: "When it feels like there is that weird hand. . . . That's you encountering yourself."

How Stella and Nick imagine themselves in their own communities is how many in the art world seem to imagine themselves in the world at large: as outsiders who know better, exceptions to the ugliest aspects of their time and country, but powerless to do anything but study works of art. Through these characters and their delusions, Ives and Durbin reveal the flaw, and danger, of such thinking: it's precisely at the moment we feel most helpless that we are exposed to our own potential power. Helplessness, as Nick says, is a mask. What that mask obscures is not our complicity—it helps us feel that, in fact—but our ability to hammer a better reality into existence. Knowing the mask is there opens the possibility of taking it off, which makes the difference between the meek administration of American objects and the self-determination of American subjects.


Knowing the mask is there.


Both erudite, hypercritical narrators prone to exacting description and essayistic digressions.


As Trotsky wrote, "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes."

NYT 10 New Books We Recommend 8-24-17

10 New Books We Recommend This Week

The year of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution has seen a number of new works published on Russian history, and our list this week includes two of them: Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government,” about an apartment complex in Moscow built for the Bolshevik elite; and the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War,” about the Russian women who served in World War II, new in translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Laurent Binet remembers a time when literary theory was all the rage, in his fictional take on the death of Roland Barthes; Lucy Ives sets a smart mystery amid the office politics of an art museum; and the pioneering programmer Ellen Ullman offers some much-needed perspective on the tech world.

Radhika Jones
Editorial Director, Books

NEW PEOPLE, by Danzy Senna. (Riverhead Books, $26.) Senna’s sinister and charming new novel, about a married couple who are both biracial, riffs on themes she’s made her own — about what happens when races and cultures mingle in the home, and under the skin. “Senna’s aim is precise and devastating. She conjures up ’90s-era campus politics with pitiless accuracy,” our critic Parul Sehgal wrote. “It’s a novel that reads us. It anticipates, and sidesteps, lazy reading and sentimental expectations.”

THE HOUSE OF GOVERNMENT: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine. (Princeton University, $39.95.) This panoramic history plotted as an epic family tragedy describes the lives of Bolshevik revolutionaries who were swallowed up by the cause they believed in. The story is as intricate as any Russian novel, and the chapters on the Stalinist Terror are the most vivid.

THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II, by Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Random House, $30.) This oral history, the first of a series that won Alexievich the literature Nobel in 2015, charts World War II as seen by the Russian women who experienced it, and disproves the assumption that war is “unwomanly.” Distilling her interviews into immersive monologues, Alexievich presents less a straightforward history than a literary excavation of memory itself.

A LIFE OF ADVENTURE AND DELIGHT: Stories, by Akhil Sharma. (Norton, $24.95.) In eight haunting, revelatory stories about Indian characters, both in Delhi and in metropolitan New York, Sharma, the author of “Family Life” and “An Obedient Father,” offers a cultural exposé and a lacerating critique of a certain type of male ego.

FREUD: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews. (Metropolitan/Holt, $40.) Crews opens his study with the question of how Freud, whose scientific reputation has plummeted over the past decades, could retain so much cultural capital in the 21st century. In a single volume, he draws a portrait of Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester and all-around nasty nut job, bringing a new level of detail to these accounts.

THE SEVENTH FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE, by Laurent Binet. Translated by Sam Taylor. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Binet’s playful buddy-cop detective novel reimagines the historical event of the literary theorist Roland Barthes’s death. It’s a burlesque set in a time when literary theory was at its cultural zenith; knowing, antic, amusingly disrespectful and increasingly zany.

TO SIRI WITH LOVE: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines, by Judith Newman. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) Newman’s tender, boisterous memoir strips the usual zone of privacy to edge into the world her autistic son occupies. In freely speaking her mind, she raises provocative questions about the intersection of autism and the neurotypical.

IMPOSSIBLE VIEWS OF THE WORLD, by Lucy Ives. (Penguin Press, $25.) In this dark and funny first novel about a mystery in a museum, a young woman is stuck in an entry-level job as her private life unravels. Read it as the story of a young woman coming unglued, an art-world mystery or a museum-based episode of “The Office,” complete with a colleague in persistent search of a staple remover.

LIFE IN CODE: A Personal History of Technology, by Ellen Ullman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Twenty years after the publication of her classic of 20th-century digital-culture literature, “Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents,” Ullman discusses her career in programming and the dangers the internet poses to privacy and civility. She knows how to decode her tech-world adventures for word people, and her essays explore gender relations and misogyny in the office, among other enduring issues.

THE DESTROYERS, by Christopher Bollen. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) The heir to a construction empire goes missing on the Greek island of Patmos in Bollen’s third novel, a seductive and richly atmospheric literary thriller with a sleek Patricia Highsmith surface. In this world of remote coves and beaches, wealth and luxury are inherent, but also inherently unstable.


Complete with a colleague in persistent search of a staple remover.

  • A version of this list appears in print on August 27, 2017, on Page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review.

Impossible Views in Sept 17 Vogue

An ultracharming debut.

Impossible Views in Sept 17 Cosmopolitan

Da Vinci Code fans die hard.

Impossible Views Reviewed in Kirkus (starred)

Kirkus Star

An art historical mystery that will interest fans of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, with a narrator equal parts intellectual, ironic, and cool.

In Ives’ scintillating debut novel, an up-and-coming young New York museum curator named Stella Krakus must solve the mystery of a co-worker’s disappearance, fend off her soon-to-be ex-husband, and retrieve her heart from an ill-conceived office dalliance. Stella, who is a 19th-century cartographic specialist, finds a photocopy of a meticulously detailed and illustrated old map titled “Elysia” folded up in her missing colleague’s pencil drawer. Her largely scholarly detective work on the matter also entails a bit of breaking and entering and lunch with her glamorous, secretive art-dealer mother. Ives’ writing derives much of its humor from a combination of high and low—arch formulations and mini-disquisitions studded with cussing, sex, and jokes about Reddit. Its delights include a description of Stella’s Williamsburg neighbors—“proofreaders dressed as majorettes, anorexics in suspenders, rich women in artisanal clogs propping up sobbing toddlers”—and this account of love: “the feeling…of it being spring for the first time, the face of a tiny kitten who is speaking fluent Spanish and is also a genie who can grant your wish, of being truly implied as the person I really was when another person spoke my name. My heart was a piece of paper. It was a paper fan. It was a dove.” Also delectable are an excoriating direct address to the cheaters of the world and a definition of charm in art that seems to have much wider applicability—it's “what happens when nothing works in a given painting. But what you get when nothing works is everything.” Yes!

A diversion and a pleasure, this novel leaves you feeling smarter and hipper than you were before.


Also delectable are an excoriating direct address to the cheaters of the world and a definition of charm in art that seems to have much wider applicability—it's “what happens when nothing works in a given painting. But what you get when nothing works is everything.” Yes!

  • Review Posted Online: May 15th, 2017

  • Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2017

Impossible Views Reviewed in Publisher's Wkly

Ives’s smart and singular debut novel chronicles what turns out to be a big week in the life of Stella Kraus, a petite and observant map expert for a Manhattan museum resembling the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over the course of seven days, Stella works through the one-sided residual effects of an affair with an inscrutable colleague being groomed to run the museum. Stella also copes with her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s inappropriate appearances at her work and work functions, eventually taking the matter into her own hands, so to speak. And what about the disappearance of a male colleague? The illustrated map Stella discovers while snooping in his office quickly becomes an obsession as she attempts to determine its provenance by embarking on a sort of scavenger hunt. Ives maximizes her story’s humor with subtlety; a line here and there is enough to call attention to the absurdity of, for instance, the museum’s corporate benefactor’s attempt to secure the world’s water rights. She also isn’t afraid to make her heroine unlikable, which works in the novel’s favor. Ives’s prose and storytelling feel deliberately obtuse at times, requiring readers to slow down to fully immerse themselves in the narrative’s nuances, but the result is an odd and thoroughly satisfying novel. (Aug.)


Odd and thoroughly satisfying.

The Hermit Reviewed in Publisher's Wkly

In her newest book of poetry, Ives (The Worldkillers), an editor and writer of many stripes, condenses what she calls “some kind of thinking about writing” into a cerebral collection replete with meditations on the writing process, dialogues concerning phenomenology, micro-stories, anxieties around a failed novel, lists, quotes, games, and notes to the self. Readers are invited to an inner conversation as the poet grapples with the idea of writing, the history of it, the creative act itself, and also the text as an object, asking permission to be seen (much as Ives permits herself to feel), to exist in the eyes of others, and to participate in the canon. What saves the book from being merely being a treatise or a personal journal is that the reader is taken along on the creative journey; Ives muses about another author or a technique, such as the idea of description, and the page transforms into an experimental playground where she produces gorgeous passages of lush imagery. There is some appeal in the variety of texts and in Ives’s insights into her life as a writer, and she succeeds most when she allows readers passage into this potential space: “One must possess only the ability to tolerate a given position long enough to make it intelligible to others.” (July)


Gorgeous passages of lush imagery.

My Mother, the Metropolitan Museum, and I


I recall, as a girl of eight or nine, discovering a photograph of my mother taken a few years before I was born. In the image, my mother stands in a white room. She is laughing as I had never seen her laugh in life, completely taken by elation. Surrounding her are large-format photographs, presumably waiting to be hung on the walls. Some are still wrapped in paper, but two—showing beautiful women—are visible. One of the women is also laughing, almost as much as my mother. I later learned that this long-haired, gently disheveled, smoking and ring-wearing figure was the singer Janis Joplin—though for now she was just an anonymous subject who reminded me a little of myself. When I brought the picture to my mom, she told me that the photographs were by a man named Richard Avedon. In 1978 Avedon, a.k.a.“Dick,” had a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where my mother worked as a curator.

This was a standard mother-daughter conversation. There were many unusual objects in our Upper East Side apartment, and I was a wily sleuth. I was even beginning to believe—knowing nothing of the cost of child care—that my mother’s reason for sometimes bringing me with her to her office after school was that she wanted my assistance. We traveled, hand in hand, from the neighborhood’s upper reaches to Fifth Avenue and the Met’s imposing neoclassical façade. As we ascended the steps together, I believed that the building belonged to us. Only we knew about the unfinished blocks at the tops of the grand columns—meant to become figures personifying the four great periods of art, from Ancient to Modern, but never carved. This was the power of the museum: It could hide a flaw in plain sight and look magnificent while doing so.

My mother and I proudly entered, making our way to my mother’s department. She was a specialist in European drawings and prints, and her office was accessible via a secret door in the wall of one of the galleries, which she opened using a key, often in full sight of gawking tourists. We’d pass through a study room, into the haven of my mother’s private work space.

The smell was of ancient papers, leather, inks, and resins. I did homework or looked through my mother’s collection of antique doorknobs, keys, and keyhole covers. She liked to purchase these odds and ends at European flea markets. I had no idea what they meant to her.

Later, museum closed and workday done, we exited the departmental warren and descended through the empty, darkened building. We passed shadowy busts and portraits, obscure arms and armor, sacred objects visible only in outline. These walks, sometimes up or down staircases inaccessible to the public, would reappear in my dreams. Sometimes it would be impossible to find my way out of the museum; or a work of art might come, disconcertingly and messily, to life. In reality, we always reached an exit without incident. In one subterranean storage hall, passing a giant two-dimensional reproduction of a blue hippopotamus sculpture from ancient Egypt nicknamed “William” by the staff, we’d even salute. My mother’s heels clicked reassuringly. This was her place.

These are my most vivid childhood memories. Of course, there were privileges: an early viewing of the immense Christmas tree along with the intricate, miniature crèche, put out every year without fail in the medieval hall; my mother’s ability to give the occasional tour to my grade-school class, an event that filled me with pride. However, it was the incidental things I cherished: eating lunch in the staff cafeteria, looking through my mother’s suitcase after she’d come home from a business trip. These moments impressed upon me the dignity and solace of work. The institution encompassed my mother; it seemed to support her at every turn.

Dinner conversation with my father revealed a different side of the job: other people. There was the macho curator who always had to get his way, flaunting the economic superiority of his specialty and mocking my mother’s lowly prints and illustrated books. There were also regular updates on Brooke Astor, the late heiress, with whom my mother lunched from time to time—and here the tone of the report shifted. Mrs. Astor was extraordinary; the chauvinist was forgotten amid reflections about Mrs. Astor’s palatial apartment, the pleasantness of her conversation. Sometimes celebrities appeared, requesting tours. There was the week of Brad Pitt. Despite repeated entreaties, all my mother would say was that he seemed “attentive.”

I knew from the Avedon installation picture that my mother’s life at the museum had been different before my time, maybe more surprising. It was, after all, her first big job. She’d fled a difficult family situation in San Diego and taken a master’s in art history at Columbia. Here she’d met my father, who was studying law and had previously worked construction on the side. They’d made a go of it. My mother changed her first name as well as her last in marriage, and my father left behind Yonkers and his working-class roots. My mother had the physical gifts that permit self-transformation: She was slender, with sweet, symmetrical features and beguiling brown eyes. She made powerful friends, including the philanthropist Lincoln Kir­stein, and rose quickly through the ranks at the Met, becoming the director of her department. She met Andy Warhol.

“But what was Andy like?” I demanded to know. I was a teenager now, and the 1990s had brought renewed hunger for Warhol’s commodified irony. Even Kurt Cobain seemed to be modeling himself on the Factory magus.

“Weird,” my mother said. “Quiet.”

By this time, my mother and I disagreed on many topics. Not least among these was my appearance. All my clothing was deemed too tight. My eye makeup was eternally inappropriate, what my mother termed “your Cleopatra eyes,” a mild dig I tried to take as a compliment, given the Met’s spectacular Egyptian collection. Meanwhile, I was athletic, verging on Amazonian, or so I felt. By age twelve, I was already passing my mother in height. I played three sports. My face came from my father. His Assyrian-Iranian and Polish features—dark hair, broad face, pronounced nose—had won out over Mom’s German-WASP blend. In spite of my apparently British last name—in fact an Ellis Island corruption of my paternal grandfather’s Ivas—everyone assumed I was of Eastern European descent and Jewish. Among friends’ families I usually smoothed over any confusion by preemptively proclaiming that I had no religious education at all, which was true.

Only later did I understand how fully one can reinvent oneself in New York City, particularly with a good partner in metamorphosis, as it were. In my mother’s case, I was never entirely sure if that partner was my father or the museum itself, which during certain periods seemed to consume her whole each morning, spitting her out again, mysteriously transformed, at nightfall. I continued to grow away from her, at first physically, then creatively. I became obsessed with drawing, a pursuit my mother discouraged vehemently when a high school teacher suggested I apply to art school. I would go often to the museum on Friday afternoons to work on my sketches. I no longer bothered to venture up to my mother’s office; I came alone and sat alone and left without her.

After I was accepted at Harvard, the polar opposite of art school, my mother began taking me with her on research trips, perhaps because I was a good sounding board or perhaps to keep an eye on me. We went to London, Paris, Australia, and French Polynesia. Our last trip, an inquiry into Paul Gauguin’s final days on the remote island of Hiva Oa, was challenging. I was tailed by wild dogs when I foolishly attempted to visit the artist’s grave alone, and my mother came close to drowning. This episode took place on a volcanic beach, where we were walking. I don’t know why my mother decided to swim, but swim she did, and was caught in a rip current. Our host, Monsieur Gaby, and I stood on the shore, watching with mounting horror. “Swim to the side!” Gaby yelled, probably in French. Eventually all was well, but in that petrifying moment I saw clearly and for the first time the distance between my mother and me. It wasn’t just the fast-moving ocean.

Later, after my mother had staggered back to land, we all stood staring at one another. I felt as if I was meeting her for the first time. Gaby, meanwhile, seemed ready to depart. We piled into his SUV. As the vehicle bounded up the lush mountainside, I reflected on what an odd couple we must appear: the brooding daughter wandering off into an overgrown cemetery; the sociable mother nearly swept out to sea. Or perhaps we were not so much “odd” as inverses, I thought, mirror images.

But what a strange and difficult mirror it was.


Date: June 1, 2017

Publisher: Vogue

Format: Print, Web

Link to essay.
This essay appeared in print in the June 2017 issue of Vogue.
See PDF below.


Model Ingrid Boulting in Grès, photographed by Richard Avedon for Vogue, 1970.


The author’s mother, Colta Ives (second from left), installing Avedon portraits at the Met, 1978.

The Repatriation of F$

NEITHER FRANZ KAFKA nor Louis-Ferdinand Céline had extensive experience in the United States, yet both wrote novels set wholly or in part in the land of opportunity. In 1932’s Journey to the End of the Night, Céline limns New York’s “gold district,” aka Manhattan, which the narrator-hero, Bardamu, fancifully maintains can be entered only on foot, “like a church.” “It’s a district filled with gold, a miracle, and through the doors you can actually hear the miracle, the sound of dollars being crumpled, for the Dollar is always too light, a genuine Holy Ghost, more precious than blood.”[1] This eerie concatenation of capitalism, architecture, and human ambition resembles the earlier surreal landscapes of Kafka’s Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), written 1911–14 and published posthumously in 1927. Yet, there is a haunted and perhaps more vicious mood circulating in Amerika’s bizarro USA: The Statue of Liberty, for example, holds a sword instead of a torch, and “unchained winds” blow around her. “One couldn’t look for pity here,” the protagonist, Karl Rossmann, reflects of this port city of “haste, precision, clarity of representation.”[2]

While hyperbolic and rife with allegory, these portrayals of pre-World War II New York are weirdly accurate. Or, rather, it is their use of hyperbole and allegory that makes them accurate. Modern New York is a place one can see even without seeing it with one’s own two eyes, given the long-range power of media. The city really is the dream of skyscrapers, big bucks, and mobility dangled before the exploitable immigrant, which also makes it something of a nightmare. And these novelizations, dreamed and fantasized and pasted together from others’ accounts, resemble, tonally and rhetorically, nothing in the visual arts of their time so much as the paintings of Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944), who, as a Jazz Age socialite and actual resident of the US, would seem to have little in common with either the clerklike Kafka or war veteran and later anti-Semite Céline. Yet both authors are uncharacteristically comic, even zany, when it comes to American tableaux. It is, for example, possible to compare Amerika’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a massive imaginary entertainment operation that ostensibly hires all comers, to Stettheimer’s canvases, which are likewise anomalous sites of performance, often depicting large casts of figures. In their detail, excess, and carefully deployed allegorical systems, Stettheimer’s paintings depict an era of conservative nationalism and roaring decadence, a contradictory cultural and political amalgam that looks ever more familiar.

STETTHEIMER BECAME an American late. Though she was born in Rochester, New York, she lived somewhat less than half her life within her country of origin. In an early instance of the mix of extreme privilege and social uncertainty that would define her life, Florine, along with her four siblings, was whisked off to Germany as a young child after her father abandoned the family. It is not known whether her mother, Rosetta Walter Stettheimer, was aiming to save face or cash, or both.[3] The result was a childhood like an extended vacation. Florine briefly returned to the US in the 1890s, to study at the Art Students League, the first school in New York to permit female students to make drawings from nude models. She was otherwise in Vienna and Paris and other places European, often in the company of her chic sisters, Ettie and Carrie. There were performances of the Ballets Russes, discussions of the vitalism of Henri Bergson, careful examinations of canonical Continental paintings. Then, with the outbreak of the Great War, the Stettheimers decamped to New York, which became a permanent home. Florine Stettheimer would leave the US only once thereafter, to vacation in Canada. In 1914 she was forty-three, with an impressive education but no career.

Most critics of Stettheimer’s multiform body of work—which includes poetry, furniture, and stage sets, along with her complex paintings—have a tendency to cast their essays as close readings of the artist’s social calendar.[4] These treatments have mainly taken the paintings as portrayals of, and decorative backdrops for, Stettheimer’s interactions with Marcel Duchamp (who may have modeled Rrose Sélavy on her), Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elie Nadelman, Gertrude Stein, and Carl Van Vechten, among other celebrities, some of whom, like best-selling author Joseph Hergesheimer, were more renowned in their own day than they are now. With recourse to her archives at Columbia and Yale, Stettheimer’s careful readers have disclosed her uptown avant-garde coterie. She is understood to have led a life of comfort and leisure, if of questionable romantic and professional fulfillment. The contradictions were many, but increasing quantities of family money seem to have made them more interesting than tragic. (By the time Florine, Ettie, Carrie, and Rosetta Stettheimer resettled in New York, they were apparently quite financially secure.)

Starting around 1918, Stettheimer entered her mature period. She stopped painting post-Impressionist mediocrities and got weird. She festooned her studio with cellophane and Victorian lace. She gilded liberally, filling her canvases with lithe little bodies en pointe. She was at once a consummate Continental decadent and a patriotic American modern—a hyper-feminine late bloomer and visionary, the ultimate outsider-insider. She became a satirist of artistically inclined upper classes, as well as a depicter of nationalist pageantry. She was not a bad poet. She showed infrequently and was nearly forgotten after her death.[5] Andy Warhol got a private viewing of her work in 1961 from a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though professing his “love” in his memoir POPism, Warhol was not above dubbing his forebear a “wealthy primitive painter.”[6]

There is, to be frank, often something of a letdown when it comes to Stettheimer’s reception. Wanda Corn and Michael Leja—two art historians who have, to their credit, shown a greater tolerance than most for the minutiae of the interwar period in the US—have little to say about her. Yet, as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith observes in her review of the current one-woman show at the Jewish Museum, “Every 20 years or so an exhibition devoted to Florine Stettheimer . . . shakes up modernism’s orderly hierarchies.”[7] This latest survey, “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” suffers somewhat from a cramped, windowless setting. Stettheimer’s four late masterpieces, her “Cathedrals” series of 1929–42, in the permanent collection of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, are not included, meaning that it is all but impossible to comprehend Stettheimer’s enormous achievement as a painter by way of the show. Without the “Cathedrals” as zenith, the exhibition culminates uncertainly in maquettes, publicity headshots, and barely legible snippets of film related to Four Saints in Three Acts, a 1934 avant-garde opera, featuring an entirely African American cast, with libretto by Gertrude Stein and score by Virgil Thomson. Stettheimer designed iridescent cellophane scenery and feathered and sequined costumes for the show, making something of a splash.[8]

The catalogue for “Painting Poetry” hardly mitigates the disappointment. Even given the dearth of popular writing on Stettheimer that is not a rehashing of Linda Nochlin’s 1980 tour de force in this magazine, the two workmanlike essays by Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik are lamentable. (Uhlyarik, for example, resorts to such platitudes as, “Stettheimer painted herself into an art history of her own making, informed by a long classical tradition and activated by a vanguard attitude.”[9]) A subsequent coda-like transcript of a roundtable discussion among contemporary painters rehearses the usual terms in which Stettheimer is praised.[10] Overall, this lackluster if jauntily packaged retrospective, with its anodyne title and incomplete trajectory, deviates little from the boom-bust cycle Smith describes.

IF WE WANT TO grapple more seriously with Florine Stettheimer, it is worth returning to Kafka and Céline’s unreal depictions of the US. We could well think of Stettheimer on similar terms: as an artist who treated America as an exotic, largely unknowable locale and who used the space of fantasy and escapism this orientation opened up as a source of inspiration, improvising at will. This way of looking at Stettheimer may not endear her to contemporary American audiences, who seem to enjoy her work mainly for its flowers, stars, large-eyed maidens, and ubiquitous crystalline frills. However, highlighting Stettheimer’s interest in allegory and appropriation helps to explain such apparently contradictory impulses as her life-long fascination with the figure of the faun as portrayed by Vaslav Nijinsky in his famous choreography for L’Après-midi d’un faune, a ballet based on a Stéphane Mallarmé poem with a score by Claude Debussy, and her equally powerful obsession with the far less sensuous George Washington, to whom she dedicated an entire shrinelike room in her Bryant Park studio and who repeatedly appears in her paintings.[11] From the intently researched exoticism of contemporary designers Léon Bakst, who created sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, and Paul Poiret, the celebrity couturier who in 1911 held a “Thousand and Second Night” fancy-dress soirée, Stettheimer learned the power of orientalist pastiche.

Critics often note the impact Nijinsky’s June 8, 1912, Paris performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune made on Stettheimer. She immediately began sketching costumes and scenery for her own ballet, the story of a well-heeled father-daughter duo who are accosted by art students and compelled to don Bakstian/Poiretian garb and begin dancing. Though the ballet, L’Orphée des Quat-z-arts, whose title cites an annual Parisian ball, was never staged, Stettheimer’s mock-ups evidence rapt work, including collaged fabric and beading. This early undertaking is usually seen as a sign of the talent that would be more concretely manifested in Stettheimer’s designs for Four Saints in Three Acts. L’Orphée might also be read as an indication of Stettheimer’s fashionable equation of personal liberation with the assumption of non-European dress; the clothing of the art students points to a generalized East, in which the constraints of Western society are imagined not to apply. Indeed, in one of the very few extant photographs of Stettheimer, taken ca. 1917–20 in her Bryant Park garden, she wears a matching set of billowing pantaloons and embroidered white tunic. Stettheimer’s garments are even more loosely cut than Poiret’s iconic “lampshade” tunic ensemble, but the association is unmistakable and incorporates another trend in which Poiret also participated: deliverance from the corset.

Stettheimer thus favored an eccentric exoticism—one in which fauns, George Washingtons, and other stock figures were caricatured and fetishized—over related contemporaneous avant-garde movements, even as she maintained a rather straightforward relationship to the sensuality of paint. The academically trained and always elaborately decorative Stettheimer was, for example, never fully taken with Dada’s sardonic anti-art. The Stettheimer sisters’ liking for puckish Duchamp, aka “Duche,” their sometime French teacher, occasionally took a turn for the patronizing, as when Ettie Stettheimer referred to him as a “charming garçon” or the “queer but charming French boy who painted ‘Nude Descending the Stairs’ and other cubistic creations.”[12] Meanwhile, the uncanny imagery and narrative ruptures of Surrealism never caught on with Florine, nor did the movement engage the materiality of paint as much as she might have liked, though comparisons to Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo are hardly out of place. For Stettheimer did not just daub, she built her faux-naive pictures with an artfully wielded palette knife (which is why it is remarkable that her substantial canvases sometimes look like finely delineated New Yorker covers in reproduction). Stettheimer has also been said to have roots in the European Symbolist tradition, and there are clear parallels between her work and the oneiric images of Odilon Redon, for example. However, to the synthesis of the symbol she clearly preferred the ambivalence and deferral associated with allegory, the effect produced when a thing in a picture does not represent that thing, purely or exclusively, but rather points to something else.[13] This current runs so strongly through her work that the very fact that it has not been clearly elaborated by Stettheimer’s critics suggests that the artist’s failure to fully “appear” within either the canon or major American museums may be due as much to this omission as to the artist’s gender. For it is difficult to understand or, for that matter, see Florine Stettheimer, without examining her allegorical depictions of America.

An important political fact of the era during which Stettheimer resettled in New York was the increasing prevalence of attempts to define American identity, as well as domestic policy, with recourse to types and categorization. The use of statistics by the government during the Progressive Era, while ostensibly indicative of a turn to objectivity, was also linked to attempts to limit access to US citizenship and the protections it entails, as well as to jobs, reproductive rights, freedom of movement, and so on. The rise of “race science” in mainstream academia in the teens drove a wave of popular white supremacist publications that claimed empiricist authority, including books like amateur anthropologist and anti-immigration activist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race of 1916. While the US had maintained a policy of relatively open borders until the late nineteenth century, in 1917 the Asiatic Barred Zone Act expanded California’s anti-Chinese restrictions of the 1870s and national anti-Chinese restrictions of 1882, identifying a large portion of Asia as the source of unwanted immigrants, who were to be banned along with idiots, illiterates, anarchists, et al. This was followed by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from most parts of the world. Though Stettheimer was born in America, she was raised a European. Her status as a native daughter who had to become American in middle age was, in itself, a challenge to the essentialism of nativist views. However, Stettheimer brought with her a European eye for Asian and Middle Eastern art and design. Painted in the midst of the developments enumerated above, her first mature works recognize the racial and ethnic divisions of American society with an outsider’s clarity, even as they participate in the reduction of nonwhites to stock types. At times her use of cliché and stereotypes can appear merely fey or decorative, since these types are obviously not intended to be realistic; yet it is worth examining how her work both resists and conforms to conservative currents of her day.

STETTHEIMER'S New York/Liberty (1918–19) is an early example of the technique for superimposing diverse historical and personal events that Duchamp later termed multiplication virtuelle, a technique that inscribes multiple, discrete meanings into a single image.[14] Depicting battleships in New York harbor, New York/Liberty layers manifold times, tacitly commemorating Stettheimer’s 1914 repatriation into the port of New York, even as it more overtly indicates America’s late May 1917 entry into WWI and President Wilson’s subsequent voyage to the 1919 the International Peace Conference.[15] Though ostensibly about victory and American exceptionalism, Stettheimer’s composition seems designed to be read as an allegory for immigration and assimilation under the American flag (clearly pivotal processes for Stettheimer) as its vantage point is from on board a ship that, as indicated by a thickly gilded Statue of Liberty, is located near Ellis Island.

The Manhattan cityscape that dominates the top half of the canvas functions as a painting within a painting. A bit like a birthday cake, parade float, or theatrical backdrop, this seductively vulnerable skyline justifies the guns mustered to protect it. Like the red, white, and blue banners employed throughout the scene, it signifies both power and peace. Despite its consummate charm, the city appears secondary to the enlarged seal of New York City occupying the bottom margin. Featuring a pair of allegorical figures, this doubly significant seal is a supposedly collective image, an icon for the municipality. But it has been personalized and privately “stamped” by Citizen Stettheimer, who as a woman did not have the right to vote in 1918. The Dutchman, no hardened colonist, possibly an early twentieth-century Dutch naval officer, is jaunty with ribbons. Meanwhile, the Native American employs a union shield as a bizarre breechcloth, while wearing a flag-themed headdress. Stettheimer’s revision of New York City’s social compact suggests, in a strange softening of the US’s new 1917 exclusivity, that Lady Liberty lifts her lamp for all those who resemble Broadway extras. As do Kafka and Céline’s novels, New York/Liberty complicates the utopian fantasy of a newly arrived immigrant. It presents an Oz-like America seen, gleefully and somewhat ignorantly, from the exterior, an advertisement for a theatrical production full of esoteric, and perhaps ultimately inaccessible, cheer.

In the late 1910s and early ’20s, Stettheimer’s paintings become increasingly social, and the miniaturization of compositional elements explored in New York/Liberty and other paintings like Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918) predominates. Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum (1924) shows a more complex and less ambivalent response to the question of American identity, filtering its visible forms through a beauty contest reimagined as a hybrid event incorporating a circus. Stettheimer presents a pageant of human types watched over by recognizable individuals, including herself at upper left, smiling and well made up, next to writer Edna Kenton and photographer Edward Steichen. At lower right, an impresario who may or may not be a slenderized Barnum oversees bathing beauties tanned and pale, as well as, at center, children in feathered headdresses, a Rudolph Valentino–like figure leading a horse that may or may not be a Lipizzaner, and, at left, an all-black band in elaborate uniforms over which the painter has obviously lingered.

The beauty contest is a pretext for various kinds of showmanship, which Stettheimer organizes according to genre, race, and gender. A seemingly endless supply of palm fronds and dripping red, white, and blue crystals mediate the carefully divided scene, in which everyone stays in his or her corner, as the show goes on. With the exception of Stettheimer and her artist friends, who are legible as themselves, everyone plays (and represents) a role, a mere type, suggesting that their identities within this convocation are at least partly performative. Identity’s fungibility is additionally figured, for example, by the labels (“Miss Atlantic City,” etc.) held by the beauties. Read allegorically, the painting offers a retort to American nativism, since it implies that much national belonging is merely “put on,” contingent and assumed for public occasions. Yet, here Stettheimer also limited herself to satirically depicting contemporary norms rather than upending or abandoning these norms for something else. Though the painting presents a quasi-democratic social sphere in which Americans ostensibly gather to have fun, there remain real divisions and inequalities within the collective setting. Indeed, so many shows go on simultaneously that it is difficult to determine the actual nature of the contest or what is at stake, and for which participants. The scene is, additionally, unrelentingly festive and self-congratulatory, though there is something unsettling about the many knowing smiles exchanged: some smile because they observe an amusing scene, others because they are on display. The painting’s commentary on these dynamics is uneven, whimsical, never quite attaining irony or critique.

Stettheimer’s unusual semi-realist, semi-allegorical mode in her mature paintings, combining both stylized stock figures and portraits of individuals known to her, of which Asbury Park South (1920), depicting a segregated New Jersey beach, is also an example, reaches its zenith with the late “Cathedrals” series, four large-scale compositions devoted to Broadway (1929), Fifth Avenue (1931), Wall Street (1939), and Art (1942). Though Stettheimer’s work was not commercially successful during her lifetime, in the “Cathedrals” series she explicitly appropriates commercial styles only hinted at elsewhere, exploring billboards, industrial lighting, illustration, entertainment industry publicity, and contemporary fashion. The costumes and sets she designed to great acclaim for Four Saints in Three Acts clearly influenced these late paintings, which are setlike in their composition and contain lacy elements recalling the cellophane she used in these designs.

There is a certain seamlessness between this light and purposely vapid work and actual advertising, as one clipping in Stettheimer’s papers at Yale indicates: an East Coast department store advertised its latest cellophane raincoat collection, imitating Stein’s prose style in the copy and including illustrations of Stettheimer’s scenery, an image of one cellophane lion plus palm tree. Like Kafka’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, where “angels” on ladders play trumpets all day to publicize the performances, Stettheimer’s late works devote themselves strenuously to the American cult of celebrity, perhaps reveling in the emptiness of this endeavor. Even their satirical elements feel resigned to the vapidity of glamor, and recognition of a certain emptiness in New York social life may be as close as Stettheimer came to openly acknowledging the divisions of her new-old homeland.

AT THE END of her life, Stettheimer was working on a ballet about the life of Pocahontas, which, like her 1912 effort, was never to be staged. This patriotic work—celebrating the foundational myth in which Pocahontas rescues John Smith—had a number of strange features: Stettheimer and her collaborator, Virgil Thomson, had decided that Smith and his countrymen would wear Scottish highland garb rather than the expected British costume, and the ballet’s Native American characters were to be dressed in cellophane, gold foil, and feathers. The curators of the Jewish Museum show chose not to include the twenty-two maquettes Stettheimer produced, instead devoting space only to the two earlier stage design projects.[16] Yet the designs for this unfinished epic are worth mentioning because they demonstrate Stettheimer’s enthusiasm for styles of appropriation germane to period popular culture, along with her use of the trope of the noble savage, a stock character embodying the concept of the uncorrupted outsider and therefore allegorizing humanity’s innate goodness, a figure not unlike the faun. This choice of subject additionally implies Stettheimer’s acquiescence to increasingly fervent nationalism leading up to the US’s 1941 entry into WWII, suggesting not only that she viewed indigenous identity as yet another performance, available to a modern update via musical theater, but that she believed, or was willing to pretend that she believed, in an excessively cheerful national origin story.

It is possible that Stettheimer, an unmarried and childless Jewish woman, played down her own anomalousness in mainstream Protestant America, while also answering her family’s polite rejection of her ambitions to be an artist, by exoticizing and feminizing nearly everyone and everything in turn. However, such speculation verges on armchair psychology and almost certainly misses the point, which is that Stettheimer struggled with questions regarding power and assimilation throughout her American career. Oil painting, an economically and culturally dominant art form, became reconciled to minor decorative styles in Stettheimer’s hands, even as she took on major themes, including the nature of American identity. Stettheimer’s ever-changing signatures reflect the fact that she deliberated a great deal about her own authority as an artist. Until about 1920, while she still painted in a derivative European style, she favored her initials, “FS,” superimposed in such a way that the “F” appears to be impaling the “S,” transforming the first letter of Stettheimer’s surname into a certifying dollar sign, as if to say, “Look at me, I am a rich American!”[17] But in later paintings she more confidently offers her full name, often trompe l’oeil-style, trickily “written” on a depicted object. She additionally abbreviated, sometimes becoming the saintly “Florine St.,” a moniker that may have had something to do with Stein’s opera.

Wealth allowed Stettheimer to be at once candid, utopian, hermetic, escapist, appropriative, and in violation of good taste, and she grew into this fact from 1914 on. She assumed an American identity of a kind, as a woman who could, at least in theory, buy whatever she desired. Whereas staunchly middle-class William Carlos Williams in a 1923 poem railed against the lack of “peasant traditions to give them / character,” which made average Americans fools for “gauds,” Stettheimer embraced artificial forms of pleasure and liberty, for she could afford them.[18] The mature Stettheimer made no secret of her affection for luxury. No longer using the hermetically crest-like “F$,” she proudly provided, usually in white, a full, or nearly full, name on her decadent, gilded, and frosted canvases—at least until The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931), where her old “F$” does double duty as the mark on a luxury car. Yet, in spite of her wealth, Stettheimer depicts herself in her final, unfinished painting of 1942, The Cathedrals of Art, standing on the side of folk culture. In the painting, icons of modernism such as MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. and a painting by Picasso appear on one side of a templelike structure, while signifiers of vernacular aesthetics, a stylized bald eagle and Juliana Force of the Whitney Museum, occupy the other. Stettheimer is standing on the side of folk-influenced American Art, as the right-hand column reads, rather than on that of the more lucrative high-modernist Art in America, on the left. Florine Stettheimer, formerly F$, had become extraordinarily, surreally American, as only someone who adopts her nationality as a decorative style can.


Date: September 1, 2017

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Print

Read online here.

    1. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, trans. Ralph Manheim, New York, New Directions, 2006, p. 166.
    1. Franz Kafka, Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), trans. Michael Hoffman, New York, New Directions, 2002, pp. 3, 28, and 13.
    1. Rosetta Walter Stettheimer possessed “an inheritance,” according to a wall label at the current Jewish Museum show, that permitted her to support her five children. In her 1994 dissertation, Florine Stettheimer: Alternative Modernist, Barbara J. Bloemink speculates that the move to Europe might have allowed Rosetta to escape the censure of her even wealthier relatives in the US while also living more cheaply.
    1. Such works follow in the footsteps of Barbara J. Bloemink’s Friends and Family: Portraiture in the World of Florine Strttheimer, Katonah, N.Y., Katonah Museum of Art, 1993.
    1. Stettheimer’s first and only solo show during her lifetime, which opened in October 1916 at M. Knoedler & Co., “Exhibition of Paintings by Miss Florine Stettheimer,” was not a success, in that no paintings sold. As others have indicated, though Stettheimer never again consented to a solo exhibition, in spite of pleading invitations from Alfred Stieglitz among others, she contributed individual works to group shows. Stettheimer asked that her paintings be destroyed upon her death, and though her wish was not carried out by her survivors, her legacy was somewhat loosely managed, leading to further obscurity for an artist who had in fact established herself as a major painter with those who knew her work, including such critics as Henry McBride and Paul Rosenfeld.
    1. The Met curator in question was Henry Geldzahler. After a visit to Warhol’s studio, during which, as Warhol writes, Geldzahler “scanned all the things I collected—from the American folk pieces to the Carmen Miranda platform shoe,” the curator extended an invitation to view Stettheimer’s “Cathedrals” series, then in storage. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, New York, Harcourt, 1980, p. 16.
    1. Roberta Smith, “A Case for the Greatness of Florine Stettheimer,” New York Times, May 18, 2017,
    1. “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” supplies sparse interpretive text regarding Four Saints in Three Acts. For more analysis, see Judith Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 2009, p. 168. Brown writes: “The cast members, in all the ontological presence accorded the African American, appeared in relief against the modern and deeply compelling absence of the set (and against the disembodied absence of the ‘civilized’ and thus white modern subject who did not appear at all on the Four Saints stage). The modern script that accepted the civilized/primitive binary held true, then, even on the avant-garde stage. Modernity, represented by the manufactured plastic sky, is here aligned with death or stasis, in contradistinction to the life force of the African American cast on stage.”
    1. Georgiana Uhlyarik, “4 St.s Seen by Florine: A Case Study,” in Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, ed. Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik, New York and New Haven, Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2017, p. 56.
    1. The roundtable, with Cecily Brown, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Jutta Koether, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Valentina Liernur, Silke Otto-Knapp, and Katharina Wulff in conversation with Jens Hoffmann, praises Stettheimer’s use of color, her style of figuration, and her feminism, noting the queer and/or “trans” aspects of her work. Painter and installation artist Karen Kilimnik, one of Stettheimer’s most obvious living artistic heirs, is not included; see Florine Stettheimer, pp. 143–159.
    1. In a letter to Carl Van Vechten, as Bloemink notes in several publications, Stettheimer quipped of Washington, “He is the only man I collect.” Her 1939 painting The Cathedrals of Wall Street contains the dedication, written along two flowing ribbons securing a red, white, and blue bouquet offered to a massive gilded statue of the first president, TO GEORGE WASHINGTON FROM FLORINE ST 1939.
    1. Letters of 1916 and 1917 from Ettie Stettheimer to her friend “Gans.” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.
    1. To clarify: A symbol is combinatory and imprecise, bringing together many meanings and suggesting that they coexist, also in the object’s real instantiation. Allegory, by contrast, severs the allegorical object from the context in which it occurs, deploying it as the representative of some hidden or secondary meaning. This is why allegorical depictions are more strongly associated with religious encoding, as well as conspiracy theories and other forms of paranoid reading.
    1. The painting’s point of view is that of an individual aboard a ship approaching Ellis Island. It would seem to include Stettheimer’s own return to the city along with larger, distinct events related to WWI. New York/Liberty is thus a history painting imbued with Proust’s modern, synthetic sense of time.
    1. Included in the current Jewish Museum show, this painting also had the interesting distinction of being the only artwork borrowed from a private collection for the Whitney’s 2015 reopening exhibition, “America Is Hard to See,” which was otherwise drawn entirely from the museum’s permanent collection.
    1. Another reason for not including the Pocahontas ballet maquettes may be their fragility.
    1. The “$” created by Stettheimer’s early initialing of her paintings was pointed out by scholar Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen in a talk at the Jewish Museum on May 11, 2017. Butterfield-Rosen did not speculate on the meaning of this visual pun; the interpretation offered here (for better or for worse) is the author’s own.
    1. Williams’s poem “The pure products of America / go crazy,” later titled “For Elsie,” was included in his 1923 collection, Spring and All, reprinted in Imaginations, New York, New Directions, 1971, p. 131
Narrative After Nature


To the extent that the world is made up of narrative discourse these days, it seems to have two fundamental ingredients or axes: plausibility and syntax. I write, “To the extent..,” because I am unsure how great the influence of narrative on current existence really is—or, for that matter, where narrative is. But to the extent that narrative is still with us, it seems to manifest itself via plausibility, a quality, and syntax, a quantity. In other words, narrative has to have some persuasive valence and it has to put things in an order; these are the minimums. We are also apparently living in a time that flatters and elevates the minimum, a curious aesthetic point in itself.

Take, for example, the news, a narrative form. It has lately taken one of the more dramatic turns in our newest era of turns, implosions, inflations, and drops. And we could talk, in particular, about a turn, in style and tone, of one of the most read organs of narrative discourse in the English language, the New York Times. Uncertain mental paging backward suggests one signpost of the shift to a buoyant new reportorial voice and enthusiasm for visual media, i.e., video, occurred in mid-2016. In May of last year the Times’s Executive Editor Dean Baquet delivered a memo outlining a coming transformation of the time-honored publication of record, long the haven of “All the News…,” etc. No more would the Gray Lady focus myopically on incremental, event-based coverage; up-to-the-minute announcements, Baquet noted, are available all over the Web. Rather, the Times would focus on “authoritative journalism and information readers can use to navigate their lives.” Stories would “relax in tone.” Editors and reporters would develop pleasing new “story forms” attuned to the continually changing ways in which readers consume information and, I guess, live. Baquet’s memo of May 2016 is of a piece with March 2014’s Innovation Report, a document that begins with the Sheenian—and now, I suppose, Trumpian—assertion that, “The New York Times is winning at journalism.” This report admitted the newspaper’s urgent need to seduce new readers, along with an ambition to become more “nimble” and fluent in the ways of the digital age. More recently, in January of this year, the 2020 Report appeared. Things look a bit more sanguine (particularly following the so-called “Trump-bump” of increased subscriptions during the harrowing miasma of post-election days and the interregnum). Baquet’s May 2016 memo on the ubiquity of free up-to-the-minute information is expanded, in the 2020 Report, into a thesis about why certain sorts of journalism are less read, “The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most ‘dutiful’—incremental pieces, typically with minimal added context, without visuals and largely undifferentiated from the competition. They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.” The Times must now dedicate itself to “All the News That’s Worth Paying For,” if it is to survive.

To return to my original contention, the Times now deals in plausibility, not fact. And it arranges this plausibility, employing a fun, multimedia syntax. These two gestures suffice, at a minimum, to give it a new narrative style. All this is particularly keenly clear to me because, from time to time, I read microfilm versions of the Times of yore in the basement of NYU’s Bobst Library. I awkwardly manipulate the little film reels and the required viewer for research purposes (this isn’t a case of nostalgia!). Though I do not doubt a single one of the eminently reasonable rationales for change supplied in either one of the Times reports or the memo above, I’ve lately been struck, as I scroll through old articles, zooming in and out, by the loss of the former fibrous, drab, newsy tone. On my way home from the library, I’ll take a look at the current paper, or, rather, update. My daily New York Times “Evening Briefing” appears in my inbox, concluding with a cheery image of some squad of adorable animals or a salute to a counterintuitive and amusing statistic. A sea lion has been rescued in a fuzzy sling! Losing your house keys is, paradoxically, healthful! In spite of myself, I often tremble as I come to the end of the briefing email. I know I’m being courted, entertained, if not pulled back from some imagined psychological brink. In someone’s eyes, I may be a bad reader. I may be distracted. I may not know what’s going on. And at this moment, as I am reading and recognizing a general plausibility overtaking fact, I often miss that former carelessness and professionalism, the hardboiled voice of the mean, old, strict, and somehow trusting paper, the one that talked about “unabashedly savvy real estate” and people who were “stalking a job” (this was the early 2000s, when the table was being set for another implosion), and so on.

If we are readers of realist novels, struggling with the gooey concept of the merely plausible, we might take a long view. We might indulge in some soft epochal categories. We might say that if the West’s 19th century was The Century of the Clerk, and the 20th century The Century of the Teenager, it has already begun to appear, if always prematurely, that the 21st century is The Century of the Troll. Each of the aforementioned figures has its own peculiar relationship to the act of narration. And another obvious tendency allies them: Each labors to reproduce culture. Bartleby, Bob Cratchit, and Bouvard and Pécuchet either did something repetitive or nothing at all; cinema and novels from The Magic Mountain to Lolita, from Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar to Infinite Jest, addressed themselves to individuals on the verge, exploited, ridden with angst, destined to embody whatever culture was, just before they became irrelevant adults; online expressions are relentlessly dissected, distorted, redistributed, but are there any good novels about this yet? Or is it that everything now is about this, including elections? We know well the clerk’s superannuated affect, either nonexistent or mystifyingly attuned to minutia. The teenager longs, weeps, rages, and ironizes, as the curtain of the most American of centuries falls on a pharmacologically managed excess of anxiety and deficit of attention. And now we seem to wonder if we should bother awakening into the next hundred years (who, anyway, is in charge of narrating it?).

The troll, broadly defined, is not a critic or satirist, so much as a weird method actor. The troll has traditionally participated by defining participation itself in an ambiguous if not absolutely negative light. The troll establishes the terms of others’ commitment to truth (which is to say, to any idealized and apparently unmediated entity) and reflects these back as image and/or text, and incessantly. But the troll’s either antisocial or paradoxically altruistic (or, both) interventions have already been extensively analyzed by individuals more qualified than I, and I would merely like to draw from this somewhat hastily defined category a general sense of why the plausible is so important—and how we can possibly give this category a more active, if not positive, valence.

Looking into a series of fragments I’ve jotted down in a notebook, I come across the following vague question, “Given the variety of temporalities that exist, solutions?” I’ve also written a phrase, “Lack of a preexisting commons.” And another strange question, “Does what we cannot forget take the form of an event?” In my own thinking around narrative, I’m familiar with discontinuity. It’s taken me years to learn to write a legible paragraph, and I still approach prose with trepidation, as it’s a highly artificial undertaking for me. (The way I think feels nothing like what I am doing here.) All the same, I am interested in the aspects of narrative that occur at the intersection of technique and reflection, and in prose, though of course not all narration occurs in prose.

Plausibility probably seems, at face value, like an extremely, even depressingly, insignificant quality of narrative. Indeed, it is. But plausibility, as a mere or minor way of addressing what is the case, of reducing the copula from hard-and-fast equivalency to a dotted line, offers us something by way of method that should not be ignored. Much as the troll proceeds from categories in which truth and the sublime are not merely under erasure but the tortured disillusionment leading to said erasure itself constitutes a risible piety, those who manipulate the plausible begin from an analogous point of liberty—a liberty that may also double as disaffection, alienation, boredom, despair. Yet those who play upon plausibility rather than actuality rescue contemplation from foolhardy ideals as well as from paranoid excoriation and embarrassingly principled condemnation. Or, rather, in the weird light of the subjunctive, such writers might, under the right conditions, permit contemplation to occur. (Plausibility need not, for example, be a species of pandering….)

I am not really much on optimism these days, but I did want to say something about why I think it’s particularly worth paying attention to weirder forms of narrative prose right now. I interviewed the writer Dodie Bellamy over the summer, and she said something to me that stuck. She said that there are reasons not to throw out narrative, and I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve thought about this in relation to Renee Gladman’s great new book of short prose, Calamities, in which refrain, repetition, and digression are treated as significant narrative forms—or, they become narrative forms, at least in the sense in which I find myself coming to understand narrative. Narrative does not have to be about moving things forward. It can be about going farther into what one has wanted a word or a sentence to be able to do, describing that wish. One could narrate writing itself, though of course the act of writing has a tendency to become a bit different from what is being talked about. Gladman opens each of her short “essays” (her term) with the incipit, “I began the day….” From here, a variety of things can occur; we might learn about a language game some academics are desultorily running their hands over, or we might hear about the effects of recent reading on the present, about the proximity of old loves. Plausibility is a gentle mist that squires us around. Someone is talking in these essays. Or, rather, someone is writing. I struggle here to express to you the elegance of the thought that is presented in Calamities. I think of the staircase, that fantastic human invention. I guess I would like to ask you to think of a staircase that has some sunlight on it. There is no anxiety in this writing about conviction. A step is offered; you go down. Syntax rises to the occasion, as style.

Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that I see the lightness of such plausibility and gracefully proffered syntax as becoming realer than the labored references of realist prose, but maybe you will understand what I mean. There is something that I want narrative to do now, which is, simply, to believe that I am here and will read, that my presence as a reader is a plausible one. The writer and artist Madeline Gins, for one, often worked with a fantastic sense of obviousness in this vein, so clear and energetic. In her first book of prose, of 1969, WORD RAIN or A Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), Gins writes, “I give you this book for a present. It comes with a room, light, a country, sky and weather. I will arrange for you to be made aware of these in detail. You may look at everything. You will see only what I see. Look at this sentence.” This will never happen, but I might like it very much if tomorrow’s “Evening Briefing” concluded with this such a series of sentence-based announcements. And if the New York Times began exploring this sort of story form.


Date: April 6, 2017

Publisher: The Poetry Foundation

Format: Web

Link to the essay.


Pages from WORD RAIN or A Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says) by Madeline Gins.

A Note On Vanitas


The driver exited his vehicle to take a selfie with the animals.
—Wikipedia, “List of selfie-related injuries and deaths"

Is all still vanity? Four hundred years ago, Dutch and Flemish painters produced hyperrealist still lifes of flowers, food, and luxury goods, seemingly fixing these gauds beyond time. So-called Vanitas images symbolize the brevity of human life, as well as the ephemerality and essential emptiness of earthly pursuits. Paradoxically, the Vanitas image also boastfully advertises the artist’s “ability to give permanence to the ephemeral and thereby overcome death,” according to historian Sybille Ebert-Schifferer. This tantalizing tension between human mortality and human ambition maintains today: High-net-worth individuals spend ever more in hopes of liberating their physical selves from senescence and death, while the rest of us obsessively save our memories to the cloud, convinced that the digital records that compose us will act as viable substitutes after we are dead. Meanwhile, the online graveyard grows. For example, the number of deceased individuals with Facebook profiles increases by an estimated 8,000 “users” per day, suggesting that our attempts to memorialize everyone and everything may mainly recall the fragility and brevity of life. Just as the Vanitas—also known as the pronkstilleven, or luxury still life, for its shiny and expensive contents—reminded wealthy patrons of their own earthly impermanence, we now negotiate a world of images that confusingly express our time’s extreme finitude (global warming, resource wars, economic stratification) even as they promise escape and immortality (life extension, quantum computing, planetary colonization).

In its earliest appearances in the English language, “vanity” flags the transitory nature of the human body, as well as the essential bootlessness of corporeal whim. Derived from a Latin root meaning “empty, void,” vanity is a paradoxical and sometimes dangerous way of relating to the self: To be vain is to mistake the changeable for the permanent, to love an image in the place of embodied presence, as the drowning victim Narcissus did in myth. Vanity is a conceptual error at once semantic and ontological, in which an item belonging to one category (the body) is presented as if it belongs to another (the numinous). Vanity may be the category mistake to end all category mistakes, a tragic misapprehension that is, all the same, associated with a non-negligible supply of pleasure and fun. Indeed, vanity often assists in crucial ways in our identification and interpretation of value, particularly when it comes to those endlessly seductive, sometimes troubling, sometimes anodyne items: art objects and luxury goods. Though we should perhaps know better, we hope that new purchases and proximity to beautiful, costly things will bring us increased vitality.

In this sense, little has changed since the 1600s, when opulent still-life paintings repurposed the failure to fully recognize our mortality as subject matter. Roland Barthes remarks on the seductive “sheen” of these meticulous and costly renderings of tables piled with wet grapes, split peaches, and shimmering oysters, which symbolize pleasures of fleshly existence; and the occasional leering skull or recently snuffed candle, which symbolize frailty and death. He reads the precise detail of these images as not merely allegorical, but expressive of a drive on the part of the artist to imprint one’s mark “upon the inert by shaping and manipulating it.” The art historian Svetlana Alpers, meanwhile, observes the remarkable “attentiveness” shown to the things of the pronkstilleven, whose astonishing realism suggests that they may also be visual documents of a new and modern style of looking, proofs of an emerging empiricism; soon artists might not merely paint nature but influence it.

As Barthes and Alpers note, the author of the Vanitas painting always seems just about to step into the image, to seize an oyster or disturb a precarious table setting. In Jacques de Gheyn II’s 1603 Vanitas Still Life, a massive hovering bubble threatens either to burst, ruining the composition, or to reflect the curved image of the artist himself, thereby interrupting the illusion of this apparently perfectly impersonal representation. The skill necessary to convey this opposition—between the ephemerality of experience and the overwhelming sensual presence of the physical world—ups the ante: The effort lavished on the delicate, shining surfaces implies that the painter may not believe in his own fleeting nature so much as his vicarious immortality, as guaranteed by the liveliness of the very work he was engaged in painting. The eternal present of the Vanitas image is animated not merely by the voluptuous objects it contains but by the illusion of an eternally living artist, who forever seems to hover just beyond the frame.

What is vanity now, and does it equate with mere selfishness or indicate a more complex balance of rational belief and carnal experience? Cryogenics labs offer to reanimate us into a future of improved technology. Luxury spas promise the approximation of youth. Google’s (a.k.a. Alphabet’s) Calico biotechnology arm will leverage the power of nature to extend life. These endeavors—often described in terms of service, even obligation, to the entire life-loving species—are buttressed by antiaging researchers who seem driven to prove that the more privileged among us are in fact no longer absolutely mortal. At the same time, we must reckon with the fact that, for the foreseeable future, we’ll all age and eventually pass away, particularly since senescence and death are not just emotionally but monetarily involved processes. The populations of many countries are disproportionately aged and aging, which poses challenges to the configuration of cities and economies (as well as questions about representation and inclusion); collective resources are already being strained, even as wealth is distributed with an unevenness that rivals the early nineteenth century—a statistic that becomes more disturbing the longer one ponders it.

The ways in which we recognize and deny death are embodied in the material things with which we surround ourselves. The drive to collect, categorize, and archive is one response to the uncertainty of mortality, and today’s ever-expanding capacities for digital storage encourage the endless memorialization of oneself and loved ones. The permanence or impermanence of such traces, which depend on the viability of servers and compatibility of files, software, and hardware, is debatable; indeed, the update could be the double-edged sword upon which our digital identities fall. Yet perhaps posterity is of lesser consequence to us than it once was. We are able to document our lives with unprecedented speed and medial diversity and produce endless streams of selfies and video testimonies for the “here” and “now.” If most of our content is addressed exclusively to the immediate present, perhaps we have begun to dispense with the notion of posterity at the very moment at which we are, at least in theory, able to save everything. In this case, it is not merely our conception of mortality that has been destabilized, but also our sense of time, in that we have begun to favor ephemerality and inhabit the present—on Snapchat and beyond—in new ways.

This issue of Triple Canopy features artists, writers, and critics who are thinking and working in the midst of these paradoxes. They reflect on a wide range of topics, from the unstable glamour of K-pop to the collective process of aging in naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), from the deadly force deployed by the American police to the consolations of the recovery of one Los Angeles artist’s cenotaph-like home, from the antideath architecture of Arakawa and Gins to multiple contemporary interpretations of the Vanitas image tradition, from the much-heralded “end of death” to the pursuit of impossible—or nearly impossible—forms of beauty. The futility of human striving meets the plenitude of digital memory, and acts of self-representation contrast with attempts to comprehend the situation of the human species, prompting us to ask: Does death still define life as the “vanity of all vanities,” as Ecclesiastes has it, if death is also a highly remunerative field of scientific research and product development? How will solutions to the perceived problem of mortality be shared out, fairly or otherwise? What framing device will replace the all-comprehending selfie stick?


Date: September 15, 2016

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Link to essay.


Otto Marseus Van Schrieck, detail of Still-Life with Insects and Amphibians, 1662, oil on canvas.


Sodom, LLC

The Marquis de Sade and the office novel.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the term bureaucracy entered the world by way of French literature. The neologism was originally forged as a nonsense term to describe what its creator, political economist Vincent de Gournay, considered the ridiculous possibility of “rule by office,” or, more literally, “rule by a desk.” Gournay’s model followed the form of more serious governmental terms indicating “rule by the best” (aristocracy) and “rule by the people” (democracy). Yet bureaucracy quickly developed a nonsatirical life of its own once the French Revolution got under way. The Terror was, of course, infamously bureaucratic, with dossiers the way to denunciation, condemnation, and execution.

On July 2, 1789, as legend has it, a voice rang out from the interior of the Bastille into the street below: “They are killing prisoners in here!” Two weeks later, citizens stormed the Bastille, inaugurating the long and complex series of events that would constitute the French Revolution. The alleged yeller, one Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, had been removed to the insane asylum at Charenton ten days before the siege, thus having miraculously galvanized his potential liberators or murderers and evaded them. It is a singular piece of luck that Sade was not present for the storming, for it is likely that, descending upon the marquis’ luxuriously appointed cell, the sansculottes would have had some difficulty differentiating Sade from his oppressors, much less from their own.

As this series of apocryphal events intimates, the Marquis de Sade occupies an unusual place in French letters. He is at once the paradigmatic aesthete to end all aesthetes, a supreme materialist and spendthrift, an aristocrat determined to organize his life around complexly choreographed orgies (and the eccentrically appointed locations necessary for these performances), and an iconoclast, if not a revolutionary. Though the paper trail that emerges from his early life includes at least three accusations of flaying, stabbing, poisoning, and other unusual forms of physical and emotional abuse—leveled by prostitutes and other women poorly protected by the law—Sade has been held up as a beacon of sexual liberation during an era benighted by Christian repression and hypocrisy. Susan Sontag and Julia Kristeva have praised the freedom of his writing and thought. As the myth of his cry to action from within the Bastille indicates, Sade’s readers are willing, in spite of his title, to receive him as an anarchist hell-bent on upending the feudal order of his day.

But for all Sade’s aristocratic indulgence of peculiar whims and profligate spending on whips and whores, he is also one of the first major authors of what we might term modern bureaucratic literature. His writings are extraordinarily, pruriently concerned with acts that can be accomplished only by people working in groups who follow, in an orderly fashion, arbitrary rules and regulations. These secular constraints not only defy common sense but fly in the face of what we usually think of as basic respect for the sensations and lives of others. Thus another neologism: sadism. The writings of the Marquis de Sade describe dispassionate intimacy in the plural. In this sense, they foreshadow the social world of the contemporary office.

Like the word bureaucracy, sadism is a neologism that has taken on a life of its own. Today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sadism is an “enthusiasm for inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.” Yet Sade’s notion of dispassionate intimacy is quite particular. His sadism is less concerned with pleasure in the pain of others than with a lack of feeling regarding the pain of others. Though many of Sade’s writings describe characters who engage in cruel and murderous acts of sexual congress, few if any seem to enjoy the pain of others, no matter how necessary the mutilation of flesh to the act in question. Sade’s embodied economic processes, his sometimes rather less than mutually consenting coworkers, labor to produce orgasm—which is really just a route to apathy. After orgasm, Sade’s libertines are briefly freed from the confusing sensation of need. The libertine looks dispassionately down upon the flayed corpse in which he has just succeeded in ejaculating and experiences clarity. The corpse cannot, reasonably, be the object of affections or emotion; it holds no spell of either generosity or dependency over the Sadean character who has just made use of it. A corpse, even if nominally endowed with life, can inspire nothing other than apathy in the libertine. And apathy is the aesthetic mode that, for Sade, correlates with the best forms of agency, since it demonstrates the libertine’s freedom from Christian sympathy and its attendant hypocrisies. An absolutely liberated, absolutely impersonal pleasure testifies to the libertine’s refusal of insincere social bonds. “Virtue suffers the punishment of crime,” wrote Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet in 1771, “even as crime enjoys with impunity the pleasures that should be the rewards of virtue.” Sadean sex is, to inject a contemporary term, the fuck of the spreadsheet, in which all markers of identity and sentimentality are like the footlong dildo the eponymous libertine heroine of The History of Juliette uses to impale a nine-year-old girl: detachable, iterable, and sortable by size. Anyone can be a libertine, provided she or he is willing to be systematic.

The most famous of Sade’s narratives, 120 Days of Sodom, is also the most explicit about the Sadean protagonist or sadist. Here again liberation through apathy, rather than through cruelty or enjoyment, is key. The four friends who convene at Château de Silling for a four-month debauch are not so much interested in harming others as they are in orchestrating an experience that will be beyond anything they have previously enacted. This experience will, therefore, culminate in their absolute liberation from moral order. Drafted during Sade’s incarceration at the Bastille in microscript on a forty-foot roll of paper pieced together from smuggled scraps, 120 Days was a physical labor of desperation, passion, and personal and political rage, the composition of which was apparently accompanied by elaborate masturbation rituals. Sade never completed the manuscript, so we do not know what will happen to the libertines on day 120—but it seems to be a matter of little difference if they were to walk away from their fortress of horrors with plans to reconvene the following year or if the secluded castle were spontaneously engulfed in flames, taking all occupants to their deaths. (Manuscript notes suggest that sixteen people will survive the events at Silling and return to Paris, but who knows what, in a final draft, might have occurred.) Our own ambivalence regarding the book’s actual ending, which Sade sketches out in his notes as a series of coordinated imprisonments and executions, is not accidental. It results from Sade’s skillful cultivation of simultaneous prurient interest and utter apathy in the reader of 120 Days of Sodom. We are fascinated by the four libertine friends’ stats, by their personal deterioration or fortitude, by their ability to orgasm repeatedly or not at all, by the revolting details of body hair and the shapes of their buttocks. But beyond their appetites, appearances, and aristocratic titles, we know little of the friends save what they do in the fortress. And because what they do in the fortress is determined by a set of laws drawn up at the outset of their macabre vacation, plus narratives supplied by ancient procuresses invited expressly to narrate acts of debauchery, our psychological understanding of the four friends remains limited. We know that they are very rich, highly sexed, extraordinarily well organized, and thoroughly apathetic. Of the victims we know significantly less: they are young, beautiful, soft-skinned.

Within this desert of spiritual detail, one piece of familial backstory is supplied. At the opening of 120 Days, we learn that each of the friends has raped his own daughter and that each has married the unfortunate daughter of another one of the four friends. This arrangement guarantees that Christian marriage has been reimagined as an enterprise of debauchery. Yet this brief peek at a previous arrangement among the four provides a key to the meaning of other relentlessly formal coital permutations set up later on: 120 Days of Sodom is not a novel about the apathy of institutions and how they dehumanize and anonymize their members. It is not about marriage, unless we understand the four friends’ relationship as a kind of marriage. It is, rather, a novel about the apathy of coworking, a description of how individuals collaboratively create codes for behavior and imagine actionable scenarios in an enclosed space—i.e., office, another relative neologism derived from the Latin word for “obligation”—all the while guaranteeing that their actions will be impersonal. This is the sense in which 120 Days of Sodom can be considered an “office novel.” It is also, bizarrely, a comedy; it is the story of a highly successful office and how it works.

If, as in Tolstoy’s formulation, all successful offices are the same, what are the universal qualities of Sodom, LLC? What does this happy office have that other offices also share?

Hierarchy. The four friends form an executive committee, which is overseen by the four procuresses, four duennas, and four storytellers, who operate like a toothless board of directors. Beneath the four friends and their advisers are eight individuals titled “fuckers” whose professional function is not mysterious. Forming the ranks of junior staff are the four friends’ four unlucky daughter-wives and a group of sixteen children who are essentially sacrificial victims, aka interns—or, in a more perverse reading, the very 8½-x-11 multiuse acid-free paper on which the workplace discourse is pitilessly inscribed. There is no mobility within this hierarchy. A kitchen staff of three is exempt from the orgies so that it may concentrate on preparing food. There is also a scullery staff of three, all apparently murdered at the novel’s close according to Sade’s final notes.

Accounting. Sade’s own hand appears throughout the manuscript to count characters, particularly if any have been killed off, and to tally activities. At the close of the manuscript, he instructs himself to keep an account of the particular passions of his four central protagonists, “as, for example, the hell libertine,” though what he means by this is not entirely clear; it appears that he was separated from the manuscript before he was able to make good on this plan. This dispassionate accounting seems to require that the author catalogue the preferences of the four libertines so that each friend is scientifically differentiated. Elsewhere in his notes, Sade complains of his own tendency toward confusion and repetition, an imperfection he planned to correct with a more stringent accounting.

Purpose-built office space. The Château de Silling has numerous chambers with diverse designated functions. For example, everyone is required to defecate in the castle’s chapel. There are bedrooms for sleeping, a dungeon for torturing and murdering, a stage for communicating tales of debauchery. There are no exits; these have been walled off at the novel’s start, accessibility being a liability rather than an asset as far as the libertines’ place of business is concerned.

Production schedule. Each day at the Château de Silling unspools in a regular way. All present arise at ten AM, and debauchery and dining occur at fixed intervals until two AM. There are designated months for certain activities, as well as designated apparel. All present are made aware of their hourly tasks, but only the libertines know of the torture and slaughter with which the four-month fiscal year will end.

Catering. Delicious meals are provided in a timely fashion by dedicated cooks.

Bonuses. There is an unusual amount of eating of shit. In some psychoanalytic readings of the practice of coprophilia, excrement represents money. Certainly scat functions as a rarity in everyday sexual economies. At Château de Silling it is plentiful.

Dispassionate intimacy. All sex acts are preordained and coordinated by statutory schedule. The victims of the libertines cannot choose whether or not to have sex, but even the libertines are not free to choose when, whom, or how they fuck. The only emotional reaction manifested by the libertines is that of impatience, inspired by delays in sexual activity worked into the schedule set at the beginning of the novel. These delays have a speculative function. They increase the libertines’ passion through denial, which increases the yield on passion’s principal, as it were. Such delays are not directed at any particular libertine. They are impersonal, general, and purely pragmatic.

Office work sets into tension, in close quarters, the ambitions of the individual and the destiny of the group. Office workers rub elbows with one another and gather at the water (or kombucha) cooler, rolling chairs collide and become entangled, sweaty softball tournaments are organized. It is possible that the success of the individual can become the success of the group, but it is more likely that in order for an office to succeed, individuality must be undermined, in that it must always directly serve the plural. Here is a rationale for the current vogue for open-plan work spaces, in which one has little privacy unless urinating, defecating, or making coffee. The open-plan-office worker must progress from a state of hyperconsciousness of the effect of her fleshly presence on her coworkers to total numbness in order to get any work done. In such work spaces, the sensitive are likely to spend their days endeavoring to stop unconsciously fidgeting or touching their faces or hair. Open-plan offices also stymie the unusually creative and independent, reducing them into collaborators. Management likes this. Accountability and credit can circulate in offices and even temporarily land, but there should be no authors in offices, only positions. Meanwhile, offices are not just places. Offices are not merely locations, nor are they particularly egalitarian. There are “office politics.” The office has a will of its own, yet, paradoxically, it is not exactly collective.

Setting aside for a moment the annoying behavior to which we must become inured if we are to survive the office (inane chats, baffling email communications, multipage budgets), we must also learn to cherish less our personal specificity. This soft injunction to conform often has a funny way of meaning that we must also become inured to our colleagues’ specific personalities. We do not fully choose or even desire our coworkers, no matter how intentional or progressive the workplace. At the office, we need one another to fulfill certain tasks by means of certain skills. We have less need, inevitably, of our coworkers’ personal histories, the deep reasons why they are the way they are or need whatever is needed. Nor do we have much use for our coworkers’ bodies, in all their ample particularity. We must, with our coworkers, develop forms of dependency and attachment that are risible and fungible, but not too risible and not too fungible. The legend emblazoned above most office doors should be “Try Not to Harm One Another When Convenient but, Above All, Don’t Love One Another.” Far worse than insulting one’s office mate or stepping on a colleague’s toe would be to recognize her or him as one’s soul mate. In such a scenario, all work would cease. We, like Sade’s libertines, require a modicum of impersonality, if not an actual series of statutes or rotating cast of narrating hags, in order to interact effectively with our coworkers. We tersely sign our emails “Best,” but what does this really mean? How can we wish for the best on behalf of someone we—purposefully—barely know? And yet there is no more appropriate or versatile send-off. The polite, efficient apathy implied by “Best” is one of the greatest office supplies known to the contemporary world; it should be bottled and sold in bulk at Staples—which, perhaps, in some sense it already is.

Did Sade know he was writing about office life? Did he intuit that the neoclassic return of republican forms of government to the West would also bring new administrative cultures, new ways of dispersing agency within groups, new levels of mediation and organization of bodies by form and file not even imagined by the church? For Sade, the project of “being with” is a notion not as fraught as it is aggressively simplified. His erotic project, like Kant’s ethical project, is a reasonable means of removing hypocrisy and contingency from social interactions—or, perhaps, of removing hypocrisy by way of removing contingency. (Jacques Lacan, for one, was so taken by the marquis’ infallible logic that he placed Sade’s texts in dialogue with Kant’s writings on reason and ethics to contextualize modernity’s path to Freud.) Sade seems to dream of a sexual relationship in which choice, chance, personal dependency, and the existence of a consenting other have been removed. As things stand, there is too much contingency and complexity in sex for Sade’s taste. Indeed, according to Sade, sex can never be too orderly or too public. It is this valence of his thought that seems overwhelmingly applicable to the contemporary office, if not to contemporary social life overall. We suffer still from an excess of contingency when it comes to others. Too much is possible, particularly in light of the “death” of the Catholic god against whom Sade railed. In major metropolitan areas—hives of office life—everything is permitted, and too many bodies are way too near to hand.

The German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann wrote a lecture on love in the summer of 1969 in which he argues that love is an important form of mediation, a solution to the problem of excessive contingency in republican social life. According to Luhmann, love allows us to simplify our social lives in a way that is, counterintuitively, not reductionist, since love depends on our individuality in order to function. Luhmann argues for the exceptionality of love, maintaining that “other media of communication can take the place of love to only a very limited extent, just as love can not take the place of truth or power or money without limitations.” Compare Luhmann’s solution to Sade’s: the latter removes love altogether while the former describes love as a logical necessity. Perhaps this is why Sade’s descriptions of human interactions seem so much more applicable to office work than to personal life. While the personal continues to dominate contemporary culture, it is difficult for those of us who cherish our individuality, as well as our privacy, to take Sade entirely seriously. We should also be just a bit afraid of him.

It is crucial to mention that 120 Days of Sodom is, in spite of the copious violence and elaborate intercourse, one of the most boring novels of all time, particularly if read from beginning to end. One might, at some point in its pages, prefer to take up with an ATM receipt or an end-user license agreement. The novel expresses apathetic joys that are less reminiscent of the aesthetics of the snuff film—a genre that, pace ISIS, is almost always determined to have been faked—than the horrors of petty administrative perfections, callous email exchanges, and endless insurance forms. The faint pleasure of office culture is merely the anodyne pleasure of any coworker, scrolling through email before she heads out to the next meeting. It might seem like perversity to describe it as such, but take a closer look: herein lies your pleasure. For today, everyone is a libertine.


Date: September 1, 2016

Publisher: Lapham's Quarterly

Format: Print, Web

Link to the essay.


The "Flesh" Issue.





The Many Ways & Reasons to Mix Poetry + Prose

Contributing to a Long-Standing and Very Various Tradition

All I often knew was that I did not only want to write poems. This was a theme through my adolescence (I was an early writer, in some ways) and then later. A bizarre depression settled over the already strange young person that I was, for I had inherited a world that stringently divided prose from verse, that swore to the usefulness of prose and the mere tolerability—bemoaning a noxious lack of good, clear purpose—of poetry, as pop songs played in the background. And on this point I have mostly remained despondent. I have never wanted only to write poems or, for that matter, to write only prose.

But as luck and the lucky fact that it is nearly impossible for a human being to have an entirely unique desire would have it, I was not alone in my wish for literary combination. Though this form, practice, or, as it may be, genre is seldom taught in school (I have been to many), there exists a long-standing and various tradition of bringing together poems and prose into synthetic items of literature. In the classical West sometimes this is called prosimetrum. Elsewhere, I have liked terms like “miscellany,” “saga,” “postmodern novel.” There are, it turns out, not just many ways, but many reasons to write a work bringing together groups of sentences with groups of words that are measured out according to principles and patterns that are not merely grammatical. If your eyes can withstand another 1,500 words, you may gather what are, in my opinion, a few of the better reasons for engaging in this sort of mixture.

REASON ONE: you recognize that much distinction is arbitrary. I do not know if prose is the opposite of verse. This is like asking what the opposite of a cat is. Some may know that verse and prose have long had the strange if plausible function of designating, in writing, the difference between song and “plain” speech. It’s on these grounds, anyway, that much of the much-touted, as well as the much-debated, specialness of poetry, particularly lyric poetry, is, as far as I have been able to ascertain, based.

Let us jump to the 17th century in France. A character in Molière’s Bourgeois gentilhomme remarks (I paraphrase), “Very cool. I had no idea I’d been speaking prose my whole life.” Such limp delight at learning that one is already playing by timeworn rules suggests a rhyme between canonicity and complacency, of course, but could also hint at the radical irrelevance of the very category of prose—or, for that matter, speech. It is surely easier to maintain interest in these matters when writing has not lain down and died in the pit suggested by the verse-prose distinction. The German Romantics’—to jump again—idea of prose was pleasantly nonstandard. If aphoristic, it was endlessly so, like a staircase in a dream. Their poems were likewise dreamy; sometimes fragmentary, disordered. Their novels included folk songs and other lyric professions, suggesting that there was something particularly worthy about the combination of lineated language with the paragraph, the breaking of prose. The poet Novalis wrote about the sentence as a temporary “containment” of linguistic dynamism, maintaining that “A time will come when it no longer exists.” And Friedrich Schlegel, in his “Letter on the Novel,” composed at the dawning of the new (19th) century, insisted on a lapidary lineage of mixed genre dating back to the late middle ages: “I can hardly imagine a novel otherwise than as a mixture of narrative, song, and other forms. Cervantes never composed otherwise, and even Boccaccio, in other respects so prosaic, decorated his collection with inset songs.”

It seems, too, that within the apparently mongrel and/or pastiche environment of novels including songs, which is to say, songs surrounded by narrative prose, poets might act not only as convenient speakers or singers but also as more or less curious characters, bringing me to my second rationale, aka, REASON TWO: it is conceivable to you that the poet is as likely to be a character or other figment, as a genuine, living person. For Anglophone readers, the inevitable point of comparison is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, of 1962. And, as this novel points up, when the poet, here one John Shade, becomes a character, we find a literalized depiction of those aspects of personality and personal history that in America the professional critic was tasked with discovering and/or vivisecting on behalf of the lay reader. Whether or not Nabokov was aggressively satirizing New Critical leanings in American letters, Pale Fire, like Novalis’s The Novices of Sais, places a poet in a landscape, which is at once the prose of the book and a more-or-less everyday world. In this sense the novelist might be acting as a sort of historian, folklorist, or cultural critic; the song or poem does not appear free of charge but rather demands context, which is often a close cousin of interpretation. It hardly need be said that in the novel the poem can be deployed in an endless number of ways, ranging from artifact to spell.

Yet, the paradigmatic examples of books of poems combined with plot have to be a pair of works written by contemporaries in 11th-century Japan, The Pillowbook by Sei Shōnagon and The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. In these two books, the first a diary, the second a novel, numerous characters within court society compose poetry. This is at once a pastime and a kind of networked system of communication and signification, permitting simultaneous epistolary address and reference back to the system, to its histories and commonplaces. Through the poems interspersed in The Pillowbook and The Tale of Genji we learn not merely the emotions and motivations of characters, but also how they deal with the problem of writing and how they deploy it, whether as lure, dissimulation, entreaty, or gift outright. For writing is not only unnatural, it is also and of course a means of obtaining and manipulating power. And the ambiguity of the poem permits kinds of meaning prose’s obviousness precludes. A description of a flower may be just that, yet it may also be sign or secret message; it will be read differently by different characters, just as by the reader herself, who reads over, as it were, characters’ putative shoulders.

The prismatic nature of the poem, its turning inability to remain “just text,” or “just address,” or “mere symbol,” or “absolute literal designation,” and on and on, is also exploited in exceedingly interesting ways in the American modernist context. The lack of (Romantic) mysticism or (medieval) intrigue is made up for in prosimetrical works that take the poem as an item capable of varying and destabilizing contemporary prose to ends at once aesthetic and political. Works by Jean Toomer and William Carlos Williams bring me to my third and final historical reason to combine, REASON THREE: you are bored with a certain (sad) status quo. Toomer’s Cane, of 1923, presents a combination of modernist poems, clear and vivid in their depictions of American landscapes and persons, with short prose vignettes employing vernacular language along with song-like refrains. This unique book’s intent seems to be to bring into dialogue the values of high modernism and the everyday speech and African American folk culture of the South; it seems to have ambitions at once ethnographic and loftily, exactingly stylistic. William Carlos Williams meanwhile locates an American identity through improvisation and excess, re-describing both prose style and the capacities of verse through various modes of excerption, appropriation, and apostrophe, after a fashion that belies his reputation as a rigorous reducer of words into machine-like things. Though Williams wrote many books of mixed genre, Spring and All, published in the same year as Cane and home to the famous minimal poem including a “wheel / barrow,” is the scene of a particularly powerful explosion of speed-fueled prose typewriting; it’s a book of leaps and lashings, a seeming attempt to prove that poetry can invade the syntax of the American sentence, ecstatically. If it does not exactly promote the joy of romantic love, then it demonstrates the power of an encounter of another kind, between precise syllabic poems and a tumbling, rushing onslaught of prose. Like Cane, Spring and All is a comparative text; it invents new terms and tastes by way of contrast and association.

Above I have supplied three reasons, and though I like them fairly well, they do not, in the end, as is probably to be expected, exhaust all my thinking and feeling about varying, combinatory writing styles. I may care most about a mixture of styles because it allows the paranoiac in me to comment on the conservative literary (not to mention educational) systems that I fear linger in our world, in spite of—and sometimes even paradoxically by way of—the iconoclasm of modernist heroes et al. Verse is not just, to my mind, a form with various technical appurtenances, since it has a long history and specific social functions (inputs, outputs); like prose, it seems to me at times a sort of system, with myriad institutional nodes. Though I am not so heroic myself as to believe that my contemporaries are in need of saving, I do often find that some perverse aspect of me would very much like to make things a little bit messier, throw a wrench in the engine, and otherwise, pick your frustratingly well-worn metaphor, cause to function less smoothly said system of literary production. Most of all, stubborn being that I am, I find myself drawn to various styles of silence, said silence being a possible ingredient in, or sign of, the still, at least to me, unaccountable distance between poetry and prose.

Anyway, could we remove a poem from its job as a poem? A sentence, from its job as a sentence? What would we need to contribute to writing to cause such odd dismissals to transpire in a believable manner? What is the very smallest unit that can indicate plot, as such? What occurs (to us) when we are not sure what we are reading? To the extent that these aberrant questions have answers, they indicate the direction toward which some, though certainly not all, of my writing tends, which is to say, not toward the invention of new reasons for writing between and around and among established literary modes, but toward the invention of instances of contrast, that can in turn stand in stark contrast to the abundant supply of similarities I am sure to have found, in my perverse search for fresh difference.


Date: August 3, 2016

Publisher: Literary Hub

Format: Web

Link to the essay.


Blue and yellow make green.

Archival Fiction Upends Our View of History


Realist historical fictions, with the rustling demands of their costumes and their period-appropriate speech, often depend on painstakingly described physical veracity, sensory believability, to steep a reader in the past. While not necessarily factual, such works say: This really occurred, and now you, too, may experience it. As the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt enthused in a review of “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell—perhaps the paradigmatic contemporary example of such fiction—great historical novels “provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life.”

But a handful of recent works of fiction have taken up history on radically different terms. Rather than presenting a single, definitive story—an ostensibly objective chronicle of events—these books offer a past of competing perspectives, of multiple voices. They are not so much historical as archival: instead of giving us the imagined experience of an event, they offer the ambiguous traces that such events leave behind. These fictions do not focus on fact but on fact’s record, the media by which we have any historical knowledge at all. In so doing, such books call the reader’s attention to both the problems and the pleasures of history’s linguistic remains.

The book that made this distinction clear to me is a new novel by Danielle Dutton, called “Margaret the First.” Dutton’s Margaret is Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who lived from 1623 to 1673 and was one of the first British women to publish in print under her own name. Cavendish wrote numerous plays, poetry collections, memoirs, philosophical and scientific treatises, and one of the earliest works of utopian science fiction, a novel titled “The Blazing World.” Her marriage to the liberal and well-connected William Cavendish was significant not just for the title it afforded her but because of William’s acquaintance with such contemporary luminaries as René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and Marin Mersenne. Though Margaret’s interactions with these men were mostly indirect, their influence is felt throughout her oeuvre, including her unusual “Philosophical Letters,” of 1664, an imagined correspondence in which she debates many of their views and the mechanistic scientific tendencies of the time.

Cavendish’s life had enough drama to serve a more conventional historical novel; at least one or two of her illegitimate children, lost to history, could surely have been imagined in these pages. Or Dutton might have chronicled a love affair with, say, the cross-dressing Queen Christina of Sweden, whom Cavendish imitated in one of her own most audacious social stunts, baring her rouged breasts at the theatre. But Dutton’s Duchess mostly stays at home. And she exists, in this book, as a study in textual vestiges, as much palimpsest as person. She is first revealed to the reader via the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys. Dutton draws on quotations from Pepys’s diary to narrate an amusing interlude from his life: he was in a crowd when Cavendish’s carriage drove by, the mob shouting after it “Mad Madge! Mad Madge!” (The origins of that nickname are disputed, but Cavendish was well known for sartorial, as well as literary, eccentricity.) Dutton’s Pepys feels himself slightly above fandom, but he is struck by her nonetheless: “The whole story of this lady is a romance, and everything she does,” he writes.

That Cavendish’s contemporaries considered her a sort of fiction, even in the flesh, makes her a particularly appropriate subject for Dutton’s approach. The novel is told half in the first person, half in the third, and in some sense very little occurs. Dutton does not supplement the fascinating material details of Cavendish’s milieu with period intrigue; there are no poisonings, no clavichord-backed avowals of love. There are, instead, vivid, episodic bursts of narration, recounting a birthday party, the teasing of her by siblings, and Margaret’s time at court in Oxford, after the revolution interrupted her aristocratic family’s bucolic life. Dutton gives us brief, imaginative glimpses of the youthful Margaret, but as she becomes more famous and, therefore, more recorded, by herself and by others, what we get becomes less speculative, and more tied to those records. In this way, Dutton foregrounds the textual limitations of history, even if it means inventing less of Margaret’s later years.

Dutton’s previous novel, “Sprawl,” is an ekphrastic meditation on the aesthetics of American suburbs, and “Margaret the First,” like that book, is largely descriptive. So, for example, a section about Cavendish’s struggle to conceive a child consists largely of a list of the cures that were prescribed to her and her husband:

This time they tried, for him, crystals taken from wood ash and dissolved in wine each morning; for me, a tincture of herbs put into my womb at night with a long syringe. I submitted silently, William out in the hall. Come autumn I was to be injected in my rectum with a decoction of flowers one morning, followed by a day-long purge, using rhubarb and pepper, then a day of bleeding, then two days where I took nothing but a julep of ivory, hartshorn, and apple, followed by another purge—and on the seventh day I rested. After this came a week of the steel medicine (steel shavings steeped in wine with fern roots, nephritic wood, apples, and more ivory), described by a maid as "a drench that would poison a horse."

Throughout the novel, Dutton treats the reader to a variety of carefully researched objects: “a fine sugar cake with sprigs of candied rosemary like diamond,” “a transparent beehive from which the men extorted honey without disturbing the bees.” Cavendish believed that everything in the universe was fundamentally material, and that matter—including, for instance, books and letters—was capable of thought. It makes a kind of sense, then, that Dutton would reanimate her through textual and material sources—including Virginia Woolf’s essay about her, “The Duchess of Newcastle,” lines from which appear in “Margaret the First.” Dutton acknowledges this in an Author’s Note, and includes a list of more than twenty other books she drew on in her research. Reviewing the book in the Times, the writer Katharine Grant suggested that this reliance on other sources might make readers see the novel as “more a sewing together than an entirely original work,” as though that would be a bad thing. But this is a virtue, and the key to Dutton’s portrayal.

Dutton’s handling of history calls to mind other recent books set in the past, books that have, on the surface, little in common with “Margaret the First.” Marlon James’s Man Booker Prize-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” from 2014, revolves around an attempt on Bob Marley’s life in the late seventies. But the book is full of contentious, unresolvable voices, and never gives us an objective spot to stand on. The role of narrator cycles among members of the police, both Jamaican and American C.I.A., and among agents of various syndicates; there are also relatively innocent bystanders. The story is constantly shifting, and no one seems entirely up to date on what has actually happened. One of James’s characters, Papa-Lo, a Jamaican gang leader of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, gives voice to this continual state of uncertainty. “Sometimes,” he says, “I don’t learn till too late, and to know something too late? Well is better you never know as my mother used to say. Worse, you all present tense and have to deal with sudden past tense all around you. It’s like realizing somebody rob you a year late.” The novel revels in the immediacy of oral history even as it points out, “Rashomon”-like, the difficulty of establishing a single, unified story via first-hand accounts. Perhaps, James seems to suggest, there is no such thing—no pure, stable, and eternally recognizable occurrence, against which all other occurrences can be measured.

John Keene’s short story and novella collection “Counternarratives,” published last year, does something similar, albeit in a very different style. Keene presents many of his stories in the official voice of history; they include maps and newspaper clippings and employ archaic prose styles, and they gradually reveal the ways in which histories lie. “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras” opens with a news account of the discovery of a dead body in a favela. Then the story shifts to a historian-narrator, who chronicles a dynasty of slave-holding Brazilian oligarchs. Gradually it becomes clear that neither this historian nor the news report can be trusted. Elsewhere, Keene’s protagonists speak in the first person, at once revealing themselves and receding into attractive turns of phrase. Keene’s polyvocal narratives masquerade as “primary-source documents” and present convincing first-person testimony, while at the same time establishing undercurrents that undermine the victors’ tales—and any hope that we will ever fully settle on the truth.

These techniques are not entirely new, of course. Umberto Eco’s best-selling “The Name of the Rose,” published more than three decades ago, is a semi-archival fiction, which imagines that the pages of Aristotle’s writings on comedy were poisoned by a zealous medieval monk, then destroyed in a fire. But Eco’s murder mystery is a flagrantly fictionalized work of literary commentary; his novel wants us to meditate on the canonical prohibition of laughter via an obviously fanciful imbroglio. Though it’s not a work of fiction, a more interesting point of comparison might be Michel Foucault’s strange 1975 text, “I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother...: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century.” Foucault collects the dossier of the legal proceedings, including first-person testimony, along with Rivière’s own beatific autobiography. “Pierre Rivière” is, then, quite literally an archive, but it also functions like a novel, a quality not lost on Foucault.

Though she draws extensively on textual sources, Danielle Dutton does allow herself the freedom of a novelist. (Her author’s note begins, “This is a work of fiction.”) “I am much too,” Dutton’s Cavendish says at one point, unabashedly comparing herself to accomplished men of her day. Cavendish is much, but I have been unable to locate this boastful phrase in any of her published output. Of course, this does not mean that the Duchess could not have scribbled it somewhere or, perhaps, thought it. But clearly, in “Margaret the First,” there is plenty of room for play. Dutton’s work, like James’s and like Keene’s, serves to emphasize the ambiguities of archival proof, restoring historical narratives to what they have perhaps always already been: provoking and serious fantasies, convincing reconstructions, true fictions.


Date: May 6, 2016

Publisher: The New Yorker

Format: Web

Link to the essay.


Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, seen here in an undated seventeenth-century illustration.


The Pink Trance Notebooks
By Wayne Koestenbaum

I THINK OF the aphorism as a sympathetic form. The aphorism is succinct, correct. It slinks shut, sometimes with a little snap or tone. Its brevity is a performance and thus requires skill, also a source of its sympathy. Something (even a great deal of something) has been left out, but the aphorism is not merely or only a fragment or piece, something bit haphazardly off from something else. The aphorism is careful, rather than abrupt, and frequently warm. It is, as they say, lively. “I am dynamite,” says Nietzsche. “I’m like the animals in the forest. They don’t touch what they cannot eat,” says Karl Lagerfeld. “In love, he who heals first, heals best,” says La Rochefoucauld. “My vagina hurts when I watch gymnastics,” says Chrissy Teigen.

Wayne Koestenbaum, poet, novelist, and critic, in his recent The Pink Trance Notebooks, says, “— don’t / keep saying ‘Stabat Mater’ / as if it meant anything —.” Also: “I wrote / down every word the / drunk jocks muttered.” “I am the love / child of Las Vegas / and Belarus.” “I made a film / (Warhol-style) of the child / psychologist and me / orally grappling.” And: “am I / squirrel-like?”

Aphorisms please us. Aphorisms are literary. They end quickly. However, their boundaries are somewhat trickier to establish than one might imagine at first glance, and it’s in this that their peculiar literariness inheres. Literature’s transgression of boundaries (legal, generic, national, stylistic, etc.) allegedly establishes its value and/or goodness. This is the reason we like writing that is literary rather than not, that is not, therefore, purely professional, scientific, didactic, legal, personal, academic, commercial, factual, or whatever else. As artist and critic John Kelsey noted a few years ago, one can hardly be blamed for thinking that literature, in all its liberation and excess, has already been obviated by something called the internet!

As it mobilizes and gains speed, art becomes a lot more like what literature once was (which is a strange thought now, when literature is itself being superseded by digital culture): in its time, literature was a massive info leak that eroded disciplinary hierarchies, overflowing national borders and property lines alike.

“In its time.” I think about the collaborative project of the Athenaeum, a literary magazine put together in 1798 by the Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich, two key Romantics. Romanticism’s revolutionary republican, a subject by natural right, required a new mode of literary authority, with the result that the Romantic author styled himself “a massive info leak” — much as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy maintain in their work on “The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism,” The Literary Absolute. With the adoption of the aphoristic series, experimental writing becomes exciting to both writer and reader on account of this writing’s incompleteness, its interest in futurity, its individuality, and its allegiance with process rather than fixity. Or, as the poet Novalis informs the reader of an odd, aphoristic series published as “Blütenstaub” (Pollen) in the first issue of the Athenaeum, “The best of what the French won in their revolution is a piece of Germanity.” A magic genealogy imagined here, in which France’s revolutionary war at home wins it a piece of foreign spirit (if not soil), is made plausible through literary induction. Novalis maintains, “It is a matter of course, for we stand on exactly the road the Romans arose from.” Because Germans are aesthetically linked to Roman mores, republicanism is also German, as is — the reader triumphantly discovers — la République. Romantic literature permits a specialized and nearly nonsensical synthesis, i.e., “France is German,” that is also an overflow of other disciplines, of other criteria for truth — or, as Paul de Man fastidiously puts it, “the continuity of aesthetic with rational judgment […] is the main tenet and the major crux of […] ‘Romantic’ literatures.”

Whether or not it now makes sense to view the discursive syntheses of the World Wide Web in a similar light (i.e., as somehow like art, which is somehow like literature, which is basically Romantic), not least of all because of the existence of algorithmically generated hierarchies, the question of a link between literature’s abilities or ambitions and republicanism remains — as does the question of what literature may, more generally, do or say and for whom. Without taking Kelsey too much to task, it hardly needs to be said that definitions of literary value that depend upon Romanticism are probably incomplete.

Enter Wayne Koestenbaum. Or not, “Enter Wayne Koestenbaum,” because I’m not sure Koestenbaum shares my weird dread that literature may one, not exist, or two, be the inherited fever dreams of a bunch of second-rate philosophers, but enter Wayne Koestenbaum anyway, because Koestenbaum has some very interesting ideas about how to combine aesthetic and rational thought and has placed many of these thoughts in a book called The Pink Trance Notebooks, a series of poems that take the form of lineated aphorisms. These aphorisms are witty, have music if not rhyme, and are occasionally quite visually precise. They combine the sometimes painfully personal with erudition and wit. Re: my aforementioned dread(s), Koestenbaum seems to suggest that I could consider asking myself, “Why do straight men / want to hang out with me? / Why does the Iliad exist?” Good questions.

Like the fascinating rubbish tips that have collected on the ground in a brief metaphor in a certain dodgy English translation of Lacan’s essay on “The Mirror Stage,” in The Pink Trance Notebooks well-turned phrases of diverse origin have been let fall. Choice aphorisms seem to have dropped into a series of notebooks in the course of the writer’s approach to an image of himself. We do not know what the writer’s image looks like except in some screened, flickering, or otherwise transitory view. (Possibly there is no monolith, anyway.) Advice as to whom we’re dealing with, what sorts of men, women, art, and gestures he likes, is always partial; always displayed as non sequiturs, small flags, signals, lines. I would hesitate to call this code, since the rhetorical dynamic is not one of replacement of one thing by another but rather replacement of any feasible or conceivable whole by a sidelong glance, a flash, a sinew. Yet the synecdoche bears a “natural” affiliation with some environment. A whole social life, a whole life, flows on behind these glances. And there is a sense that the eye that beholds what is here also squeezes, flexes a bit, recombines, palpitates something that is, as in that cliché, fugitive. But like most clichés, it’s not just that.

A number of authorities have remarked that time may have two valences rather than three. In other words, that the division may not be between past, present, and future, but rather between the fixity or relative knowability (of course, debatable) of the past and the virtuality of just about everything else. The present is constantly unfolding and therefore impossible to freeze, still, or otherwise capture. The future, meanwhile, is an irrelevant puff of ether, a nightmare or fantasy toward which we are all, if the calendar is to be believed, inexorably drifting. Yet Koestenbaum’s poems seem to have felt, rather than everybody’s everyday speculative dread, a temporal split, and on a daily basis. They dispense with the dumb dream of the future and peruse the present’s extraordinarily limited depths. Smallish (though neatly organized into larger units via notebook), they seem to have been written in — or on, or with — a quite particular portion of the present’s inexhaustible not-quite-yet-ness, the side that kisses the past, and this is why, I believe, we see the word “trance” in this collection’s title, or, rather, why these are trance notebooks rather than notebook notebooks. One does not get to inhabit the queer aspect of the present, its virtual, glowing, ebbing outline, while making a rational spreadsheet at high noon, socialized in a budgetary meeting, sunlight roaring in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, wide awake, and perhaps, because one is so conscious, enjoying some cold-pressed beet juice. (Of course, bright sun can produce its own delirium.) No, because no matter how awake one may be in this scenario, no matter how pink one’s juice, this is not where the present lives. The present is a nothing; it is also all there is (“preemptive / Kaddish for the not dead,” Koestenbaum begins one vignette). The present’s wildness, its unsuitability for codification as knowledge or fact, also suggests the need for trance, as well as the need for synthesis.

I like the notion that trance — being another German import, musically speaking — could displace the sublime. People have spanked the sublime pretty thoroughly of late and, from what I can tell, dispensed with it; but the German Romantics, those so deeply invested in the literary aphorism and that form’s bizarre borders, of course cherished sublimity, with its simultaneous pain and pleasure, its symmetries of annihilation and incontrovertible presence. And I think the Romantics’ desire for an aestheticized language of republicanism, one of magic synthesis, remains a significant object lesson. We have, at any rate, arrived at a moment in American poetry (apologies for the nationalism) at which certain long-cherished questions of address and form are no longer enough to help us out. So-called “conceptual poetry,” whatever this term means, which was apparently designed to give equal traction to all persons with browsers and word-processing software, a highly reasonable aesthetics if ever there was one, has devolved into an attempt on the part of the usual suspects to leverage the commons, if not history itself, during the course of yet another academic conference. Meanwhile, for all the reasons that the lyric has traditionally been disappointing, the reasons Adorno suspects that the lyric’s “own principle of individuation never guarantees the creation of compelling authenticity,” the lyric is still, like your sexy pizza slice costume, failing to impress universally and unequivocally this fall.

The trance state is one in which we are led; we slough off the limits of agency in favor of becoming not one, but n+1 (with apologies to the magazine, whom I don’t mean to invoke). Entranced, we are in the sway of some unknown — or, depending on the kind of trance, some known — other. Rimbaud, famously: “Je est un autre.” But Rimbaud was only drunk. The trance state is not a pronominal exchange; it’s an encounter, an ecstatic combination rather than a coma, renunciation, or switch. Speaking of the lyric, Koestenbaum asks, “Is Whitman pro-onanism / or anti-onanism?” He answers himself, “Obviously / both, Whitman is / pro-bowel.” One could call this a question of profundity, or one could read it as the announcement of a poetic mode that has always, for excellent reasons, been just a few steps ahead, as well as just out of reach, of the ideological quandaries Romanticism so agonizingly and so ecstatically thought to make us care about.


Date: December 2, 2015

Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books

Format: Web

Link to the essay.


Wayne's world.


Definitions of literary value that depend upon Romanticism are probably incomplete.

  • The essay by John Kelsey cited in the text is "Next-Level Spleen," originally published in the November 2012 issue of Artforum.

Raymond Roussel

Galerie Buchholz

Difficult author; reclusive aesthete; visionary fabricator of fantastic objects literary, conceptual, and material: The reputation of Raymond Roussel (1877–1933) often precedes him. In photographs he is a pale, impeccably groomed man with a resplendent moustache. A shy smile pairs oddly with the wild energy in his gaze. His writings, allegedly incomprehensible to all but the most committed appreciators of his day still receive less attention than his biography or, what is perhaps more accurate, legend.

Galerie Buchholz’s recent exhibition is the latest view into the Roussel annals. It also functions as a housewarming: Previously exclusively a Berlin concern, Buchholz now has a foothold near the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Behind the robust façade of a townhouse of the sort normally occupied by foreign embassies, Buchholz’s three-room offering of Rousseliana is an extremely welcome addition to the neighborhood and feels, more generally, like a happy return to a fan favorite. Roussel’s work never gets old—partly because of how strange it is, and partly because so few people have actually read it.

Roussel wrote long, formally and conceptually complex poems, as well as novels. He is best known for 1910’s Impressions of Africa, a novel that he published at his own expense and later mounted as an elaborately costumed play. The structure of the novel is famously based on the punning difference between two otherwise identical, seemingly insignificant phrases: les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard (white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table) and les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard (letters of a white man about the bands of the old pillager). Beginning with the first of these two arbitrary images, Roussel concludes 26 chapters later with the second; in the pages between, he describes the court of an imaginary African king at which, in a fantasy of colonialism reversed, a troupe of European entertainers are detained, forced to enact various impossible tableaux.

Like the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s oeuvre marks the encounter of Victorian representational styles and ideas about time with those that come to characterize modernism. Unlike the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s writings are not concerned with phenomenal reality. Instead, Roussel wants his readers to consider unreal visions already mediated by writing or other technologies, not experiences but rather images of experience; Roussel is a practitioner of the trope of ekphrasis, or description of another work of art in writing, par excellence. In Impressions of Africa, in what amounts to a displacement of lived time by performances and scientific experiments, unusual devices give rise to new images and texts. There are light-projecting plants; a glass-enclosed mechanical orchestra powered by the thermal sensitivity of bexium, an imaginary metal; a photo-mechanical painting machine. These “machines correspondantes,” as Gilles Deleuze called them, have the additional effect of rendering ornament essential rather than “removable,” as in Walter Pater’s formulation. For Pater—whose stylistic economy was influential for modernists from Proust to Ezra Pound—the “surplusage” of decorative language diminishes meaning. Pater’s rules are passionately flouted by Roussel, whose nearly nonsensical ekphrastic delays, or stoppages, produce exciting excursions into speculative artistic and scientific practice.

Galerie Buchholz helpfully parses Roussel’s relationship to Proust by means of the inclusion of two editions of Proust’s prose-poem collection, Les Plaisirs et les jours, published in 1896, the year before the appearance of Roussel’s first novel-in-verse, La Doublure. This juxtaposition is characteristic of what is most exciting about the show’s display of numerous books, which allows us to draw our own conclusions about the milieu in which one might have encountered these publications for the first time. Even more startling and immediate are enlargements of a series of Roussel family snapshots, some taken by Raymond, including a close-up of Madame Roussel and a pet dog with eyes that appear to be made of glass. Here we glimpse a largely unknown corner of the archive.

Yet far more space in this modest gallery is devoted to the better-known reception history: Roussel’s influence on artists from Marcel Duchamp (who attended a performance of Impressions of Africa) to Joseph Cornell to Marcel Broodthaers; the connection to Surrealism; the American poet John Ashbery’s oft-cited importation of Roussel’s work into American English; Michel Foucault’s early monograph. Such diverse adulation for the show’s subject is reassuring, but upon coming to the fourth vitrine stocked with untouchable publications, one begins to wonder what, in the age of, when bibliographies of obscure texts can be instantly formulated, one is looking at. The sheer quantity of materials included in the show, along with recent works by Cameron Rowland and Henrik Olesen, among others, feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Though for Roussel more was always more, he always advanced via carefully designed procedures. More and more we want narrative and arrangement, space to think about the overwhelming amounts of information we receive; it might have been nice to consider the ways in which Roussel’s miraculous inventions anticipate our desire.


Date: November 1, 2015

Publisher: Artforum

Format: Print


Not a bad cover!

The Image of Genre


IT WOULD BE a very long list indeed if I were to name all of the visual artists dead and living whom I know to have written novels, commissioned novels to be written, or published other literary works. And such acts of publication have not been limited to the bound book. Artists have hung framed pages in galleries, installed (therefore unreadable) books and pamphlets in vitrines, photographed poems and novels and plays, performed poems and novels and plays, printed poems and other unclassifiable though apparently literary texts in vinyl on gallery walls, fabricated and displayed objects described in canonical poems and novels and plays, and even stopped being artists in order to become full-time writers. (Although, I personally know of no one who has done this last thing.) This is to say, it would be a very long and likely incomplete list! The phenomenon to which I refer, that of literary production for not just gallery space but also specific audiences of contemporary art, as opposed to concertedly “literary” audiences, is so broadly, variously, and at times ingeniously undertaken that I am doing no one a major intellectual favor by pointing out its existence.

But, having thought this phenomenon over a bit, and being a writer, it occurred to me that it might be worth discussing the persistence of not just the category of literature — in these intensely mediated days — but also and more significantly the categories of literature, especially by way of the appropriation of literary styles of authorship by visual artists. I should note that I am not angry at visual artists for becoming, or already being, literary authors. I would only like to offer a few observations about how this appropriation of certain semi-professional roles seems to occur, with these observations grouped under a title that indicates, by way of preview for those with limited time, what I am about to argue.

Since the turn of the century before last, literary experimentation has been good for creating readers fluent in the ways of literary experiment. Whether or not exclusively due to such efforts, we are now familiar enough with the diversity of literary genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that we no longer require written works to adhere to particular laws of form or content in order to be able to read them. The progressive pastiche of various literary heroes, both modernist and post-, has greatly expanded our conception of what and where a poem might be. Even so, radio and moving images quickly overtook (or, had already overtaken) our experimenting heroes, indicating new levels of fungibility of content. These media simultaneously overtook, in publicness and popularity, a genre-agnostic entity of even longer standing than modernism itself: the novel.

It is worth pausing a moment on the novel. I have called it a “genre-agnostic entity,” but it is, of course, also a literary genre. As its name suggests, the novel is a new or novel kind of work, and since its earliest appearances in various parts of the world previous even to the 11th century, with varying degrees of fictiveness and interest in something called a plot, it has been a kind of long-form commemorative and speculative writing that is also quite willing to absorb and depict other kinds of writing and styles of speech and thought, both literary and nonliterary. Fast-forward to the 19th century in France and the novel has become a multifariously designated space for the writing of history, of journalism and critique of journalism, of sociological and economic analysis, gossip, sex tips, table manners, poetry and song, political debate, satire, travelogue, fashion reporting, not to mention dictionary entries. (It is also worth noting that most of this mix can as easily be found in novels of the Renaissance and before.) The novel has survived on the merits of its engaging narrative structure and closeness to everyday life, but these qualities are possibly less significant than its willingness, even eagerness, to be other kinds of writing and forms of expression. As we have seen of late (with Cole, Heti, Knausgaard, Lerner, et al.), the novel, fiction’s grand unit, is also quite often documentary and/or true.

The brilliant omnivorousness — or content-agnostic composting, depending on how you understand literary evolution — of the novel has additionally meant that its diversion into an array of predictable subcategories or strictly defined, sometimes concertedly commercial types known as “genre fiction” is yet another opportunity for appropriation; here of a more fixed version of the novel by some less fixed one, or the other way around. The novel alters, specializes, divides, recombines. It plays on cultural and aesthetic dichotomy, portraying division as well as synthesis. The existence of so-called “genre” novels proves that a major part of the appeal of the novel is its ability to be other than itself: the quick read of the formulaic thriller or bodice-ripper is diametrically opposed to the slow-burning reveal of the literary masterpiece — or, at least, I think so.

I only think so, or know I only think so, because of what I know of the state of genre. I am familiar enough with the diversity of genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that I no longer require literary works to adhere to particular laws, in order to know how to read them. When I come to a lengthy insurance contract included verbatim in a novel, I know, for example, that I have permission to skim or skip this text and don’t need to read closely in order to discover key plot points and character motivations. It’s present merely for verisimilitude. I mean, I may believe this. On the other hand, I may believe that this insurance document is a painstakingly constructed scrim behind which lurks a secret architecture determining the course of all events occurring within the world of the novel. It’s up to me, the reader, to administrate the reading, to decide. The insurance document is a decorative accessory to the novel, or, in another scenario, the novel is a decorative, possibly interpretive accessory to the insurance document; either I am reading a novel with an insurance document attached or it’s an insurance document with a dependent novel. This is a plausible present of genre, genre as conventions of reading, as a series of decisions about which kinds of reading go where. (In the past, genre had been a succession of rules for composition, later it indicated different species of texts, and even later the kinds of textual patterns one saw in a given text.) Now genre may be in the eye of the beholder. Or, as an acquaintance recently remarked, the public sphere is built from genre. I think that what this acquaintance meant is that the public sphere is built from conventions of looking and reading, from publicly or mutually recognizable conventions for determining what kind of a thing something is and what we might be able to do with this thing.

This becomes clearer with a (mostly) literary example: I think that we are interested in the recent publication by Badlands Unlimited — a publishing concern run by artists Paul Chan, Ian Cheng, Micaela Durand, and Matthew So — of a trio of romance novels because here a high-art brand is publishing a low, popular form, several works of literal “genre” writing. In its adherence to genre convention, this series, “New Lovers,” enacts a kind of image. And in this image is included our amusement at cheerful fulfillment, as well as gentle flouting, of conventions. These books, probably fun to read (I have not read them, though I have discussed them with friends who claim to have done so), are also designed to have a valid conceptual existence, even without being read or requiring our reading. (I don’t, for example, feel pressure to read them, though I like knowing about them.) Though books have been for some time trading on this fact about their existence — that it does not always matter whether or not we read them, that they look nice on a table and so on — here it seems that the physical container, the trim size, cover design (very generic!), etc., is less important than the very genre. It is not that the books are images of books — though they have circulated widely online as JPEGs — but that they are an image of genre, an image of a series of conventions for reading as well as for discussing books, an attitude toward what they may or may not contain.

Reviewers and critics hoping to demonstrate an earnest relationship to “New Lovers”’s first installment of three publications helpfully perform our reading for us, summarizing plots, treating the writers like literary authors in interviews, adding exquisite detail to the image of genre. Indeed, here there may even be a kind of good-natured pun on the very term, as applied to painting (“genre painting”), in that scenes from art-centric everyday life, and perhaps less sex itself than the consumption of porn and images in general, are reproduced for us as the species of these novels. (For example, God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, by Andrea McGinty, tells the tale of an “art career” as it devolves and/or improves into a series of sexual exploits.) Our ongoing interest in the image is reflected via the genre of these novels; in this sense, they represent a kind of catachrestic portrait of everyday life, documenting nobody’s — which is to say, everybody’s — actual activities and reflecting an improved, possibly “tasteful” version of our (conventional, everyday) looking habits, tastes.

Anyway, artists write novels all the time. I think immediately of AA Bronson’s Lena, or Lana, and Andy Warhol’s a: A Novel, and there is even a recent anthological publication devoted to artist’s novels to tell us more. Of course, I am not sure that the fictions of artists are inherently interesting. I am not sure if the fictions of novelists are inherently interesting! But there seems to be a special license associated with the literary enterprise when undertaken by a visual artist. The artist knows how to organize visual information. The artist manages the informational architecture of the novel, too. The artist makes available aspects of the novel that have to do with this work of management, questions of material format, discursive truth and artifice, means of distribution, intellectual property. The artist’s novel seems to celebrate the tactics of the studio, unsurprisingly, rather than the dynamics of nuclear families or other human genealogies. In this sense, the artist’s novel also seems linked with poetics, where this term refers to a set of strategies for making, especially in or with language. This is, then, not quite the private literature of the living room, bedroom, airplane, or poolside lounge. Reading an artist’s novel is often a kind of aesthetic or intellectual work rather than a leisure activity. And this is yet another perfect deployment of the novel, generically speaking: As we have already seen, the novel does not care which type of everyday life or habit or profession or other nonliterary thought or activity you want it to absorb. The novel is already (and always was) something other than, and in addition to, fiction. It is only too happy to become the discourse of art.

Institutions and businesses displaying visual art, which are related or adjacent though not identical to the public sphere, could also be built from genre. Certainly they have a tendency to cultivate particular conventions of looking. If they do not already enact certain generic conventions, they seem like plausible sites for human encounters with genre. A gallery wall becomes peculiarly useful when we think about it like a page. This wall, like the page of a book, is more or less public, though often only theoretically so. Like print and digital books, the wall of the gallery has a mixed relationship to privacy and propriety. Like print and digital books, the gallery show is usually a mix of singular authorship and shared, collective, and/or industrial production. The analogy is broad and not particularly compelling in itself, and it would probably not be worth drawing this comparison were it not already being drawn for me.

Recently, wandering the cubicles of a large art fair, I came upon some pieces of text by the artist Darren Bader. These were printed on a wall. I turned them over in my mind. In a space of constant potential social encounter, one needs a place to direct one’s eyes, so I read the text with care. I wondered if I should consider the text poetry. It was fragmentary, divided into smaller units. One unit mentioned Emily Apter, a professor of French and American literature with whom I had once studied. I felt a weird kind of gratitude. I also considered the fact — these “poems” were often about reading — that I should be reading more, more frequently, and also in larger quantities. I was spending, I mused, too much time in public.

A few months later, at MoMA’s show of Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series,” multiple rooms displayed books, ca. 1912–1948, behind glass. Cover art and design by Charles Alston, Margaret Bourke-White, E. Simms Campbell, Aaron Douglas, and Winold Reiss stood in metonymically for what I could not read inside. Elsewhere, books were displayed fastened open to a single spread. I photographed titles by Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Scott Nearing, Emmett J. Scott, Jean Toomer, Walter White, Carter Godwin Woodson, and Richard Wright, among others, creating a visual bibliography I later found for some reason to be more complete than the online checklist for the exhibition. I wasn’t sure what my impulse to collect or “read” these titles and authors in this way meant. In so doing, it is likely that I was mostly considering exhibition strategies and not really reading much at all. Yet, reading was being mentioned. The unit of the book — evidence of cultural production — was being mentioned. With my iPhone I dutifully (and privately) repeated this mentioning gesture.

There is a strange promise of privacy in many public displays of books. “You’ll read this later,” such displays seem to say. And when one is alone or, at least, at home, if one is not reading something else, one might indeed read. But the promise might also remain just that: a promise, and a kind of fantasy. Sometimes displays of books or book-like displays are also an image of a kind of reading, a kind of reading worth describing as an image precisely because it is so difficult to obtain in a time of ubiquity of text. The limits of the book are, perhaps, more porous than ever; sometimes, particularly if the book in question is a PDF, I find these limits nonsensically breeched by my email. The book could, in the context of an exhibition, be a metonym for a kind of historical knowledge or cultural production, but it might also be a metonym for a kind of attention, style of reading, or even a mode of consciousness. And in standing in for a kind or convention of reading, the book-as-image is a vague image of genre. (Such images become increasingly precise and focused when they bring us closer to acts, rather than fantasies, of reading — though fantasies of reading are also pretty interesting.) There is really a great deal of exhibition of reading these days. Reading is variously and frequently — via reading rooms, performances, and installed printed objects — purveyed as a notable and attractive habit of everyday life, which it also, to be clear, is; in this sense, displays of reading are a lot like genre paintings.

Not one to be left out of a market in which it is so clearly implied, the Bibliographical Society of America at last arrived at the party with the recent publication of an article addressing the strong showing by books in current visual art. This article, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art” by Michael Thompson, provides an exhaustive 50-page description of the 2014 Whitney Biennial’s book-related contents. For all the nerdy delight this extremely precise and engaging account of bookish stuff in the Biennial inspired in me, it let me down a bit by concluding with a sort of non-conclusion, that “books as an aggregated medium comprising many component parts, present few constraints for contemporary artists.” Thompson further observes:

The one component that all conceptual art needs is an idea, and a book, which can take the form of scroll, codex, score, patterned broadside, leporello, audio recording, manuscript sketchbook, and most recently electronic file, and which has long been viewed as the primary means by which to transmit ideas of any kind, whether scientific, philosophical, literary, or artistic, may therefore be the final irreducible essence of conceptual art: an idea without a fixed physical object. [i]

It is inevitably true that books and ideas go well together. However, it is a little odd to find a bibliographer turning to a canonical summary moment in the history of art, something called “the final irreducible essence of conceptual art,” in order to explain the invocation and discussion of the everyday activity of reading that the many displays in the Biennial including books undertook. Displays asked visitors not just to recognize the possibility of reading but to do it, with various necessary time commitments, levels of concentration, and access (many books were behind glass). I much prefer Thompson’s earlier claim that books have a lot of “parts,” and therefore artists like them. I’d go even broader and speculate that in addition to “parts,” books have a lot of kinds, and therefore artists know that people like books (that people even resemble books) — and that people like books so much that people want to experience their liking of them and experiencing of them, over and over again. And people want to talk about books and hear more and more, as Gertrude Stein might say, about how everyone likes them. Do people like books more than paintings? It’s a tough and perhaps silly call, but if you think about it: likely, yes.

What the final, irreducible essence of conceptual art, in all its majesty, may allow artists to do — as it broadcasts its expensive maxims into the present, out of the pit of the past — is to put things in galleries that are not works of art. Though context may do its darndest to turn these non-art things into art, it remains possible to say that what is being displayed, and therefore via visitors’ eyeballs as well as gallerists’ and curators’ efforts valued, isn’t art. I do not mean to suggest that such things aren’t valuable. Rather, their value is imperfectly symmetrical with, and imperfectly assimilable to, structures and conventions of value associated with artworks. What also becomes clear, which is to say, noticeable, is a plurality of modes of authorship; that professional artists aren’t the only individuals who make things and that everyone who makes things isn’t an artist (this last point being meant more as an economic and professional fact than an insult). Thus, if we come to look at a poem, or an essay, or a novella in a gallery — if we see a framed page from a novel by Jill Magid, for example, or a page photographed by Erica Baum —we are reminded of one of visual art’s closest outsides, the outside of reading-not-looking, even as we remain within the context of visual art. And this moment of exteriorization, this appearance of the anomalous if commonplace activity of reading along with the conventions of literary genre in the space of visual art, by way of a certain kind of image, reminds me of another moment in history, one that has little enough to do with conceptualism.

Classicist Gregory Nagy’s “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria” gives an account of the professionalization and inscription of lyric poetry — in other words, the way lyric poems came to be treated, once they were actually written down. According to Nagy, a “reenacting I” in written lyric poems reenacts an archaic form of public address that would at one time have occurred before a live audience, at a symposium. Here the written text represents a reality that, according to Nagy, is already generic; the live performance was in itself “a fictional occasion,” with pursuant compositional rules and necessity of adoption of a persona corresponding to group expectations. [ii] In this sense, once we get to the written lyric poem, what we are reading is a fiction of a fiction, a mise en abyme, as Jacques Derrida (with apologies for the name drop) might put it, a “thinking about its own possibility.” What is real or historical in the archaic, live format, in the expectations of a certain group of listeners, must be somehow reenacted in the written environment. Nagy reads anticipation usefully: Whoever fictionally “speaks” in the written lyric poem, formerly a singer, is the product of the interaction of a group and a conventional role, which interaction, in being written down, is also being reread at some historical distance. The lyric genre, even in its earliest written forms, is according to Nagy already historical, complexly fictive, and dramatically opposed to the private, whether or not we might read such poems privately.

I have to say that I think literature that occurs in art galleries is more interesting when it has done a bit of thinking about its own possibility, and when this thinking has included consideration not just of format and some broad idea of interdisciplinarity, but also consideration of readers — readers both past and present, many of whom may also be writers. (I am thinking about the inclusion, for example, of social histories.) A mention of genre that expresses various kinds of fictionalizing of social forms, and which even socializes fiction, is also a way to think about habit. In this sense, we get to keep our pun: images of genre are paintings of everyday life in which a day lasts a long, long time.


[i] Michael Thompson, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109, no. 2 (June 2015): 183. With thanks to Stuart Comer for bringing this important article to my attention.

[ii] Gregory Nagy, “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 1 (2004): 46.


Date: September 13, 2015

Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books

Format: Web

Link to the essay.


Hanne Darboven, Detail from Quartett >88<, 1988, 1989, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2000.

"Lucy Ives by Tan Lin" in BOMB


I first met Lucy Ives when she edited a short novella of mine, The Patio and the Index, for Triple Canopy. I take a while finishing things up, so we worked on it for over a year and a half, then published in October 2011. Though she's since left Triple Canopy, I feel I've been in touch with her more or less continuously for quite some time. During this period I've read all her poetry—starting with her first book, Anamnesis—as well as her works in prose, including nineties: A Story with No Moral. Anyway, I was recently up in the northernmost part of Manhattan, playing tennis with my twelve-year-old daughter and asked Lucy to join us there, in a spot overlooking Spuyten Duyvil Creek, with the dog roses in bloom. It's one of the prettiest places in the city, and the flowers remind me of the Japanese roses my mother and father used to tend. And there's tennis. Although we met up to talk about Lucy's new novel, Impossible Views of the World, which deals with New York City and the art world, I also had a secret agenda: to get her to pick up a racquet again. She told me she had played as a child.

TAN LIN Are you doing anything autobiographical in Impossible Views of the World?

LUCY IVES Less and less. More and more, I have no life and have to make things up. I've found that to be a good solution to the problem of being a writer. (laughter)

TL I find that life sometimes offers itself up as one long description, rather than one long story, and it's sometimes useful, in fiction, to allow the idea of narrative to subside and description to take over. That's sometimes called the realm of "nonfiction" and it's associated, at least for me, with the use of a documentary apparatus or the bibliographic. How would you describe the relation between fictional and nonfictional elements in your novel?

LI Well, I'm not sure about "nonfiction." For me, nonfiction might not even exist. But that doesn't mean fiction exists in opposition or contrast to so-called real life. Fiction is a way of seeing around corners. It's a system of mirrors that isn't designed to catch my own image, but rather images of what I'm not able or permitted to see in my actual life. I'm not exactly sure how it is you can know something that you don't know, but fiction works like that for me. It's a device for collecting information.

TL What were you trying to collect or see exactly with this latest work?

LI I don't experience life as a narrative structure, so I was curious about that.

TL Life is amorphous and lacks such structure. On the other hand, it's extremely chronological. Can you comment on the distinction as you see it?

LI People talk all the time about the story of their lives, and I thought it might be useful to try to write such a story—except I didn't want to write about my own life, at least not in a straightforward way. I wanted to do something weirder. But, truly, my novel is about relationships. It's often difficult to see the limits of relationships when you're in them, so the book is a way to test those limits and learn more about what it means to exist with others, to be related to them, to be needed by them.

TL Is that essentially a narrative activity?

LI It might be a kind of solitary activity.

TL Stella Krakus, the novel's narrator, is a born observer. In one of the early chapters she's examining her boss's office and sees her "personal collection of bioephemera." And then Stella speaks of her own "wandering eye." I take this to be part of the story's varied inflections, where descriptive nooks and crannies seem to be hiding in the plot. And so, in a way, you have a plot submerged in extensive description and observation.

LI That's right. I really like to linger in description. Originally, there was a very detailed, massive artwork in the book, sort of at the heart of the story, but I cut it out for various reasons.

TL What was it? Can you talk about that artwork a little?

LI It was a large three-dimensional work—a massive cube of wood someone had carved with insane, painstaking detail on five sides, top included, cutting quite deeply, to the center. It showed various intricate landscapes on each side. If anyone were to try to make something like that in real life, it would certainly fall apart. It's not possible to fabricate, which was part of the point.

TL Why did you edit it out of the novel?

LI It didn't do what I needed it to do in the plot. It was at the end, and once I cut it, the thread I was tracing through different places in the book went somewhere else. And that made all the difference. It turned out it was actually a block, a figurative and literal block, even if it was pretty fascinating. There was something important about having a false lure that needed to be taken away in the end.

TL A lure for you?

LI Yes, I think so. It's very strange. In some sense, I must have needed to convince myself to write this novel. But I ended up putting this artwork in a little book of aphorisms and things, The Hermit, which was published last year. I'm very thrifty in that way. Waste not, want not—especially when you've gone to the trouble of creating a massive artwork that can't possibly exist.

TL There must be some residual traces of it.

LI Its residue in Impossible Views of the World relates to certain characters. It led me to create a pair of counterfeiters. I won't say more than that.

TL Is there an appendix that explains this missing artwork?

LI There is an appendix to the book, but it's a historical timeline—so not exactly an explanation. And I'm not sure it has to do with that artwork. It includes both real and fake things, and both real historical events and fictional historical events that only occur in the novel.

TL I noticed more than a few time stamps throughout. Like "8:05," the narrator waking up, the days of the week as chapter headings, the times when emails are sent, and so forth, which are all local and specific and serve to situate or arrange people and the feelings they are having. People are aware of time in the book, and its structure is cued to days of the week, much like a diary. Why is this chronology so important?

LI There is a lot of time.

TL I think about T. S. Eliot's footnotes at the end of The Waste Land, and they are, of course, partly a joke and partly a serious commentary on the failure to achieve coherence across a vast plane. How are we to take your timeline and your time—by which I mean, the time in the novel?

LI Much of the time in Impossible Views is filtered through email, as you note, and the narrator is always on her phone, even though the reader doesn't always know that. It's not always so in your face, but there is a sense of time as mediated and parceled out by email and the functionality of SMS messages, along with some selective web browsing.

TL Yes, Stella's world is highly mediated, certainly by filial and family relationships, and also by technology. I'm thinking of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who described love as a "symbolic media of communication." Certainly a number of semantic codes are at work in this novel, aligned with notions of class and social differentiation, and these are in turn connected to your use of description and observation. Your book is very funny, but also about class and the kinds of feelings mediated within specific social systems, including the museum world. Could you talk a little more about how this relates to the characters? Do they stand in as types that manifest as highly observed descriptions, or as something else?

LI They are types, but I've tried to show, at least with Stella and her parents, some of the complicated nuances of class in New York at the end of the twentieth century. Stella has one parent who is a first-generation American and has experienced a dramatic change in class during his lifetime, and another who is perhaps far more conscious of class but has mostly worked to maintain a certain middle-class position, which she pretends has been hers all along, even if it hasn't. Stella enters this scene with very different ambitions—at least, she thinks so—and proceeds to observe yet another narrative about class as it unfolds in her workplace, where there are members of the one percent, to give a quick thumbnail sketch. These observations play into Stella's descriptive work, as she is often attempting to understand how the institution relates to society at large, whether it's a reflection of society or something else. And it does seem to be truly something else—if not an extremely depressing reflection!

But, then, as you mention, there's also the way in which our networked culture makes its own intervention into these social and economic systems. You'll notice that through emailed articles, and the New York Times online appears as a sort of character in the novel. I think this publication has a lot to do with Stella's class-related interrogations. It provides a counterpoint to her descriptions—as do many of the other acts of communication she engages in on her phone.

TL That's interesting. Sometimes, I like to give my students a book and a set of colored markers. I ask them to mark all face-to-face conversations in blue, all SMS communications in pink, all phone conversations in orange, and all email conversations in green. Then we look at how all those things are tied together. That's part of what I thought about when I was reading your book. Is Stella's primary mode of communication electronic or face-to-face conversation? Or is it some other operational mode working beneath the level of plot? I find it fascinating. There's not a huge amount of dialogue in this book. Can you say something more about this notion of Stella's parceled-out time?

LI Stella is alone most of the time, and she has relatively brief interactions with people. But she's also concerned with a pretty elaborate landscape of the past. There's a personal past, but there's also a historical past, and, contrary to what one might expect, she would like to have a greater commitment to the historical past—and less of a commitment to her personal one. But the presence of her phone, among other factors, makes this difficult.

TL So on the one hand you have a historical—or art-historical—and panoramic scope, then you have details that function in the resolution of the plot, which are also employed to individualize the characters. Can you comment on this crossing between what seem like two different perspectives as they relate to satire and the narrative development of the piece? What does the historical past hold for Stella that the personal one somehow lacks?

LI There is some hope that the historical past, in all its myriad detail and complexity, will provide justice or explain everything. The novel repeatedly offers this up as a possible solution, only to suggest that history is actually at once insufficient and crucial. You're always left to contend with the present.

TL I wonder if there's some sort of criticism of narrative here. You were trained primarily as a poet. Writing a novel is a very different sort of exercise.

LI It took a really long time. This book is the product of six or seven years of work, and I learned a lot about how narrative functions during that time. I don't know if I'm critical of narrative here, but perhaps that's because I'm not entirely convinced that Impossible Views is concertedly narrative. It seems narrative, but it might be something else. Certainly a lot of my other work points to possibilities for structuring writing and working with characters in ways that are nonnarrative.

TL You wrote one novel prior to this one, nineties.

LI Right, but that's really more of a novella. It's almost a short story, though it's too long to be a short story. It's also different because it's primarily an exercise in style. It tries to turn a period style into prose, and characters into a period style. I get the sense that book has often been misunderstood as something it isn't. It's really an object without real people in it, whereas Impossible Views is more of an experiment in trying to think about actual subjectivity, different forms of time, and distinct forms mediating contemporary discourse and narrative.

TL Impossible Views is very character driven. Yet there's a lot of description and very little actual dialogue. Can you say something about how character emerges from description in this book?

LI The narrator is an expert in caricature and satire in drawings. She's also a caricature in some ways. She sees things in a satirical light. I'm very interested in the role of satire in our time because it seems to have taken over our cultural discourse in ways that are actually sluggish and ineffective. Satire doesn't have the kind of liberating force it may have once had, even a decade ago. I get worried when the New York Times rehashes some late-night comic's bit as an item of news in its daily email. It scares me when a newspaper doesn't seem to feel that satire is within its grasp somehow, that it needs to outsource. Maybe it's a deskilling thing in a period when newspapers seem to be in decline. I mean, where are your cartoonists? What is a newspaper, in this case? And what's satire?

TL Has satire become the way we do politics?

LI Of course it hasn't. Satire is a mode of writing and speaking related to irony, with the difference that it's supposed to be constructive. It has much to do with perception and little to do with political agency. But maybe it has become the way we do politics. It isn't that politics is satire, but that we no longer know how to talk about what we would like to be the case and what is the case without recourse to it. Nothing could be more obvious, and yet I think this illustrates the mode—and mood—we find ourselves in. It's good we still have some broad version of satire, because this means there's some possible connection between what we want and what is the case. If there is no longer such a connection, then satire will cease to have meaning—and the impossibility of satire is, to my mind, the impossibility of politics. We are getting close to such a state. Though I should say that there have been some great recent satirical works of fiction, by Paul Beatty and Jen George, among others.

TL If your novella, nineties, was an object and a stylistic experiment, and this new novel is about character, how did you get from one to the other?

LI I don't want to describe myself as being too eccentric, but it's just something that started to happen to me. About six or seven years ago, I was supposed to be doing an academic task when the first scene of this novel just popped into my head. I wrote it down, but I thought: This is not what I'm supposed to be doing right now, I'm not supposed to be narrating this scene. I had no idea what it was, but I just wrote it and this character appeared—the narrator. I somehow found this channel where I could switch into points of view that are coherent. They're like caricatures of subjectivity, but they're also more closely mapped onto language than my own experience of subjectivity as a human being is.

TL I don't understand that. How are they mapped more closely to language?

LI I mean that they exist in language, whereas I'm an embodied, organic thing. They're just there, and I started to encounter them in my academic work, for example. There are other figures who have presented themselves since then, and who I've begun writing about. Some are contemporary people, some are a bit more historical. I know you're not supposed to talk about things that just happen to you. You're supposed to be an expert and do things deliberately, with clear research goals and so on, but my experience of this character is that she just appeared as a kind of dead space within professional discourse, making it possible for me to talk about some things. It goes back to making a device that allows you to see around corners you can't see around in your real life.

TL You're saying that she's a highly mediated stylistic device rather than a character in the traditional sense.

LI Yes, that's exactly right.

TL When does a stylistic device become a character? Was that not desirable for you?

LI I resisted it. That was part of my editorial process, though at some points I did allow her to just be a character and experience certain kinds of contingent events in the story rather than have her just serve as a tool or a device. That part of allowing her to be a traditional character is more complicated for me, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable—deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

TL Why?

LI Because I don't want to suffer, and it bothers me to vicariously experience the suffering of others. I don't want to bring new beings into the world who might suffer, even if they aren't real and will never live and die. It seems irresponsible to me. It's something that I think about and believe about the world. But it's also a form of paranoia, I know. I had a conversation with my editor, Ed Park, about this. He helped me to better describe how people exist in time, instead of showing them as if they existed simultaneously all at once. That's actually how I see things. It's a more normal mode of perception for me.

TL I think that's how everyone thinks probably, with a lot of things occurring simultaneously. Just because thinking is mushy and laying things out in a sequence is—

LI Do you think that means we actually exist in a lot of different moments of time at once?

TL Yes.

LI I think that, too.

TL Narrative is an imposition on an amorphousness that people don't want to accept. Allowing that amorphousness to sit is just as interesting, and I think it results in a different kind of fiction.

LI That is one of the clearest descriptions of something that I've been aware of for a long time.

TL I'm curious about your editor. How did he work with the tension between time as a kind of simultaneity and narrative form as a progression? Was it important for you to have something like a beginning, middle, and end?

LI At some point, my editor encouraged me to stop the action and understand the difference between my descriptions and digressions, and the action itself—what was happening to the characters. He was almost encouraging me to have a more ethical relationship with the characters because in the first draft of the novel there were many more digressions about works of art, literature, and philosophy. There was a whole long passage about Gottfried Liebniz's Monadology as well as other really long descriptive passages. There were also several invented novels that, fortunately or unfortunately, I excerpted at length. (laughter) Those passages were much longer then and there were other elements that went on forever.

TL Was it right to cut those? I'm just playing devil's advocate.

LI I don't know! But you're better than I am at actually thinking and feeling in descriptions. I use them a bit sadomasochistically as a way to explore negative affect and the hell of other people, and to be like, "It's beautiful, you all have to stay here and look at this crap." I think maybe Ed was saying to me, "Do you really want that for yourself? Is that what you want for other people?" He called my attention to what normally I would think of as a sloppy humanist way of dealing with literary elements. He helped me to see that the event is interesting. My novel remains episodic, and it has a pattern, but I'm not sure that's the same thing as a classical plot. If you look at it closely, you'll see there are two patterns running parallel with one another. Together, they approximate something like a plot—or maybe they trick certain readers into thinking that they're reading something that has a resolution.

TL Is that part of the satirical element of the novel?

LI So, again, there are a couple of fake novels that I've included parts of in Impossible Views. The second one I excerpted, Phillip Crystal, is about a young man living in a small city in western New York that is being ravaged by the image industry, by fictional versions of Xerox and Kodak. The novel contains fictionalized accounts of groundwater contamination catastrophes that happened in the '80s. But this novel within the novel is really centered on a nuclear family, and the larger novel doesn't really deal with this matter. It's not an elucidation of family dynamics, really. This is my way of saying that there are unresolved plot elements disguised as artworks throughout the book. It doesn't matter that they're never resolved, because they are just works of art and/or objects. In my opinion, one of the major problems in real life is that many events tend not to be resolved, certainly not in the way that fictional plots are resolved. They're just left however they fall. So I was able to introduce those kinds of elements into my novel by using objects or texts that are incomplete or can't be excerpted in full because they would just completely take over the story.

TL You mentioned that some of the descriptive passages got trimmed or eliminated entirely after editing. What was the line that separated an acceptable description from an unacceptable one?

LI Are you looking for advice? (laughter)

TL Yes! When is too much too much? And how do you know?

LI You don't work on description that way. You're much better at it than I am. You don't have the problems I have.

TL Why don't I have those problems?

LI Because you're better adjusted and were better cared for as a child? I don't know if that's true.

TL I like this idea, but I think I'm quite maladjusted. That's why I prefer long and episodic works that don't go anywhere. But what problems get solved by means of description in Stella's life? She's a very good student of looking and thus of methodologies of description. Can we talk about the psychological dimensions of description for a moment?

LI No, we can't, because, though description might be psychological, I mainly experience it as work. I know you're not supposed to say these things—and though I have a mother who was a curator, I wrote this novel about someone who is trained to describe so that I could prove once and for all that describing things is a real job. I'm sending a message the best way I know how: writing is a real job, too.

Tan Lin is the author of over thirteen books, including Heath Course Pak, Insomnia and the Aunt, 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004, and The Joy of Cooking. A show of his work opens at the Treize Gallery in Paris in October 2017.


Date: September 13, 2017

Publisher: BOMB

Format: Print and web

This interview is included in the fall 2017 issue of BOMB. Link to the interview online.


The magazine's website.


The author Tan Lin.


Leibniz's writing on the monad.

Poet Novelist: Conversation w/ Andrew Durbin

Poet Novelist: An Interview between Andrew Durbin and Lucy Ives

Andrew Durbin is the author of Mature Themes (Nightboat 2014). His work has also appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, Frieze, Texte zur Kunst, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. He co-edits Wonder and lives in New York.

Lucy Ives's books include Anamnesis (Slope Editions, 2009), nineties (Tea Party Republicans Press, 2013; Little A, 2015), Orange Roses (Ahsahta Press, 2013), and The Hermit (Song Cave, 2016). Her writing has appeared in Art in America, Artforum, Lapham's Quarterly, and Vogue, among other publications. A former editor of Triple Canopy, she is currently editing a collection of writings by the artist Madeline Gins.

Both Durbin and Ives have published novels this year MacArthur Park (Nightboat, 2017) and Impossible Views of the World (Penguin, 2017), a New York Times Editors' Choice.

Poetry Society of America: The obvious question, but one that holds a certain fascination for poets: how did you think the process of writing a novel differed from the process of writing poetry?

Andrew Durbin: For me, writing a novel more closely resembled writing an essay and, in many ways, I think of MacArthur Park as a series of essayistic set pieces that I strung together using a loose and semi-autobiographical narrative. This wasn't totally unlike how I've written poetry in the past. My poems usually appear in prose, and they often self-consciously adopt various voices, forms, and styles of "non-poetic" writing, like the essay or the short story, so the distinction between these genres has been fuzzy for me from the start. I'm not sure I've ever thought of the differences between a fiction or a poem or an essay to be particularly meaningful to me, and I see my novel as a fiction stumbling into poetry and vice versa.

Lucy Ives: My novel, Impossible Views of the World, has the appearance of a traditional novel, in that elements such as "plot" and "character" are readily identifiable. I guess I'd say, perhaps too cannily since in retrospect, that many poems I've written have included these elements as well, though few people were likely to be looking for them in poetry. But I'm not really a poet; I'm a nonconformist writer who is interested in form and genre. Or maybe that's to say, I'm a poet, by which I merely mean, I'm a nonconformist writer who is interested in form and genre.

Andrew Durbin: Do you think of Impossible Views as a poet's novel? I don't quite see your new book as part of that odd genre (I cringe at the term since I've never been quite sure what it means, really), but I'm interested in the history of poets writing novels and those novels being called this specific-ish thing, the poet's novel. Did any of that come into play as you wrote?

Lucy Ives: Thank you for asking me this question. I feel a little embarrassed because I definitely have not succeeded in writing a poet's novel with Impossible Views. I've done other weird things that interest me, like making it very difficult to determine the novel's genre, but I haven't written something autobiographical or even really experimental—at least, not in the sense in which I believe that term is usually employed with respect to poet's novels, so called. I am very interested in mimicry and satire, in the ways in which the tropes of the realist novel can be warped and reworked to serve new ends. I'm always thinking about travesty, in a literary sense, and I guess you could say that Impossible Views is me writing my way into the field of the novel. It's an extremely silly book but I'm quite serious about what it does at the level of form. I should note that, in deference to the tradition of the poet's novel, I did include one character in Impossible Views who is a poet and who is writing a poet's novel—so that anyone looking for a poet's novel in my book would not be disappointed.

At risk of annoying you, I wanted to ask, would you ever write a poet's novel? Have you? What kind of novel are you writing with MacArthur Park if it is, as you note above, like "writing an essay"? Are there any important precedents for you, whether novels or other, here?

Andrew Durbin: You're incapable of annoying me! I'm not sure I have. If one tradition of the poet's novel is a text that dispenses with most of the straightforward aspects of fiction (like a plot or recognizably distinct characters), as in the novels of Leslie Scalapino and Renee Gladman, for example, then no, I haven't done that and probably won't. But following the New Narrative poets, many of whom wrote great novels (usually about narrative), then I could see MacArthur Park fitting in that lineage, since my book is, on some level, about writing a book. In the end, the novel is something of a happy accident. I initially wrote many of the parts—the chapter on Tom of Finland, the final section in London and Vienna—as separate from one another (I had originally imagined a more disjunctive book). But then, as I sat with them over the years, I found that these pieces belonged more tightly together than I had first realized, since they were each linked by a speaker (me, not-me) with like-minded concerns about art and community in the age of climate disaster. The book came in through the back door rather than the front.

A few observers have focused on your book's ample and brilliant use of secondary material, much of it invented, but, for me, I found Stella's voice to be one of the novel's oddest, most arresting features, partially because it's one that blends (like the book itself) so many tones and vocabularies. I loved Stella's moments of circumlocution, her office-administrative humor, her flashes of "intractable personality issues." It's an unexpected tone for a literary caper, and it's very different from your other work. She is hyper-intelligent, confused, driven, curious and—at times—a little melancholy. Can you talk about the prose of Impossible Views and how you developed Stella's unique voice?

Lucy Ives: I think your point about the novels of New Narrative being "about narrative" is a good one. I want to linger with that idea for a second before I start talking about Stella, because I think it's a good expression of the way in which a novel can also function as a work of criticism without becoming something other than a novel—or, while becoming something other than a novel, while also being a novel (I'm into these contradictions). Works of art are usually making arguments about various things, and I like to think of them as doing that at a level that is somehow previous to interpretation. In other words, we aren't required to look at them in agonized ways to understand them as having positions, political or otherwise; an argument might be built into the very choice to write in a certain way. This may also have something to do with ways you and I might both be influenced by non-literary forms of practice. I get the sense that you are interested in a broader field of art and performance; meanwhile, I like nerds. If I choose to write something that counts as "literature," part of that choice—for me, at least—is refusing other professional affiliations in favor of this sort of non affiliation. I didn't write this novel, or anything else I've written, because I can't write in any other way. Rather, I wrote in this way and wrote these things because I don't like writing that's too useful. Once an academic told me, "Your writing is so incredibly clear, which is amazing, because you never say anything!" This person was my teacher, and his preferred pedagogical tool was the insult (sadly common among boomers in the humanities). I took comfort in the knowledge that he had no idea how right he was.

But about Stella: There is a sense in which, as well as being human like, she is a stylistic tool, a way for me to synthesize various kinds of speech and writing and put them all in one place so that we can look at them together. It was important to me that she be able to curse and obsess over orthographic conventions. That she be able to talk about sex and clothing and class and the print revival, and so on.

OK, so here's a different sort of question: Can you tell me a little about the title of MacArthur Park? I find the rhyme in it fascinating—in this way that makes me feel weird about it also being the name of a real place. Can the title tell us something about how you think about places and names in the novel (and perhaps elsewhere)?

Andrew Durbin: My work is often concerned with the representation of place rather than the place itself, and the thicket of questions—political, aesthetic, social—that that divide reveals when we begin to venture into it. I like to get entangled in those questions because they inevitably raise a number of backend issues about my status as a viewer or listener or author. In the novel, the narrator drives past Echo Park, mistaking it for MacArthur Park, and tells his fellow travelers that Donna Summer recorded a song about the park that he loves. (Him being wrong matters in a way I won't discuss here.) Later, in that same chapter, the song acts as a Proustian madeleine of sorts. When he listens to it again, he is jolted into an extended memory of a night ride he took with a friend many years before in which they listened to Donna Summer and Frankie Knuckles. He is overcome by the memory of where he comes from (the South) and the awkwardness of his body (his friend attempts to take a photograph of him as Knuckles' "Your Love" plays, but he turns away in embarrassment). This is a long way of saying that I don't come to that kind of emotional material—another kind of thicket—so easily unless I begin somewhere else, whether it's a fiction or not. So, it is weird, that the title refers to a real place. But I think that's part of the strangeness of representation: that it is purports to stake a claim, in some way or another, about something or somewhere that belongs to people besides its author and is therefore subject to disagreement, to a mix of feelings, to a difference of opinion and experience.

It seems appropriate to bring up your title! It's lifted from a book within the book, of which there are many, and it concisely captures the "impossible view" your novel's protagonist attempts to take in her gumshoe research into her colleague's mysterious disappearance. Impossible Views is filled with such moments where viewing becomes a liberating, terrifying, and sometimes seemingly impossible moment of decision for Stella. Can you talk about some of the way your novel approaches seeing and being seen?

Lucy Ives: What a juicy question. My instinct is to say that my novel has a rather depressed or sunken relationship to the notion of seeing and being seen, in that the narrator feels she is constantly misapprehended by those she knows. But, on the other hand, this narrator, Stella, is an ecstatic seer and obsessive describer of the life and objects that surround her; the novel is packed with the work of description. Perhaps Stella is attempting to compensate for what she experiences as her own illegibility via this incessant description, these "impossible view[s]," as you call them. Or perhaps she's attempting to transform description—a field in which she excels and which is traditionally associated with stasis and decoration—into a mode of action. There's something, too, about the insoluble strangeness of being seen; it may not be possible to know how others see you, what they see, and so forth. That eerie and sometimes devastating feeling of being mistaken or misunderstood remains widely available, daily, even. And I think you're right that Stella relives, or attempts to recover and revise, these moments of misapprehension in her own acts of perception. It's part of why she's so driven to find out. She's doing that classic thing of giving to her environment what she wants for herself. Therefore, too, the impossibility. But I should also note that I'm not convinced that Stella is really as misunderstood as she believes she is—her mimetic theories are full of flaws, alas! She is, after all, an art historian.


Date: October 3, 2017

Publisher: Poetry Society of America

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Bookforum talks with Lucy Ives

Lucy Ives was supposed to be writing her dissertation when Stella Krakus, the main character in Ives’s debut novel, Impossible Views of the World, came into her mind. It would take six years for Stella to fully emerge, but when she did, she brought an unlikely triumvirate of irrepressible qualities: a nerd’s expertise in maps and early Americana, a kooky and misanthropic sense of self, and a gimlet eye for the art world in which she seems surprised to have found herself. Stella is a curator at the fictional Central Museum of Art in Manhattan, and when one of her colleagues disappears, she quickly decides to ignore her professional responsibilities in order to pursue his trace through the more obscure corners of the museum’s collection. Along the way, Stella confronts her soon-to-be-former husband, Whit Ghiscolmbe; her colleague and occasional lover, Fred Lu; and her steely mother, Caro. I recently corresponded with Ives to discuss the book’s brief glimpse into this young woman’s singular, sparkling mind, what Stella’s future might hold, and what it would be like to run into her protagonist on the street.

The entire book takes place over a week in the life of Stella Krakus, a curator at a major arts institution in New York City. She’s a native New Yorker and there’s no doubt that Stella is whip smart—a real intellectual and a keen observer of social life. Her character and its freshness are one of the book’s greatest strengths. How did you come up with her voice?

I was trying very hard to do something else when I started this novel. I was supposed to be working on an academic task—I was a PhD student at the time. I was probably formatting my footnotes or lurking on JSTOR when the novel’s first scene popped into my head. The five-hundred-odd words I wrote at this time subsequently became the first pages of the book. Given these events, I’m not sure if I can take all the credit for the creation of the character or her “freshness”! Though I am the one who wrote this book, I was not intending to write it. It remained insistent over about six years, and while, as I say, I am not always sure if I wrote it or just tried to avoid writing it and failed, I also could not seem not to write it. Stella is quite different from me, yet she seems to be part of who I am in some strange, unconscious, and perhaps uncontrollable way. I don’t know where she comes from.

Stella spends a lot of time devising a hierarchy of the art world: the elegant established curators; the gallerists, who “age magnificently and make a ton of bank” at the same time; the questing youngs who dress too well given their poor salaries and survive on their youth; the corporate types who hang around art events to garner status. There’s an overabundance of enthusiastic women occasionally interspersed by the solitary dashing man who ends up being the one to succeed. Are things really so mercenary and sexist? How or why does Stella feel bound to—or resigned to—her role?

Though many people reading this interview may have already guessed this, I am not a curator, nor am I a gallerist, visual artist, consultant, art handler, professional fundraiser, or any other sort of art worker, though I do occasionally write art criticism. In addition to these limitations, as far as truth is concerned, it’s also very difficult for me to make claims about how things transpire in real life in general; I think this is why I write novels and poems rather than something else. All the same, I am, to some extent, with you on this one, because I, too, often wonder what Stella would do “in real life,” or what would happen if I were to cross paths with her on the street one day or on the subway. It’s likely enough to happen, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t live just the littlest bit in fear of it. I have no idea if she would have read the novel, and, moreover, I would not like to think that the world she lives in actually exists. All the same, it might exist. Or, the world we live in might contain mercenary and sexist features and/or milieus and maybe Stella Krakus is somewhere out there dealing with them.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m not sure that Stella really does feel so resigned to her role. When the novel opens, she is aware that things are not going well, and during the course of the novel certain events transpire that make it impossible for her to continue thinking and living as she has previously been thinking and living. To the extent that the novel has a plot, one of its major points or threads is the act of deciding to decide. That sounds a bit meta, but I think it’s one of the hardest things for people to do: to decide to act differently and then continue to decide to act differently, to act as they have never acted before in their lives.

Much of the book indulges in the enjoyments of an obscure, literary mystery. What was your research process like to concoct this crumb trail through historical Americana? I read somewhere that all the works in the book are fictional. How did you come up with all the charming details?

As a scholar, you are supposed to use objects and events of the past as examples to support a story you want to tell or argument you want to make. When the project of the researching professor is described in this simplified way, it’s easier to see some of the difficulties with it. Would you treat something that happened to you yesterday as an event typical of a broader historical trend? Are the objects in your home mere examples of the sorts of things a person like you (for there are many yous, historically speaking) would own? If you are answering “yes” to these questions, then perhaps you have a graduate degree or take a dispirited view of life more generally. But if you are neither of these things, and even if you do have a graduate degree, I think it’s clear how alienating the scholarly construction of reality can be. Having a strong sense of this alienating quality, along with the perhaps even more alienating process of creating texts that organize said research, I wanted to write a novel in which all the facts, as such, were fake. I wanted all these facts to be at once patently fake and very convincing. By proceeding in this way, it was possible for me to comment on the way in which historical and other kinds of facts “look” and “feel,” on how they relate to one another. The details in the novel, in all the imaginary works of art, emerge out of a desire, on my part, to think about how objects and texts from the past are presented to us in ways that convince us of their pastness. I am describing the distance between the past and the present by fictionalizing in this way and also describing the ways in which this distance is formed and mediated by contingent scholarly practices in the present.

Stella seems to approach artworks and historical research with much more vim and vigor than she does in her job’s requisite socializing. Indeed, compared to Stella’s views on her colleagues, her love of research and intellectual play is positively idealistic. Can you say more about that?

I think research is very safe. It is, in a sense, a highly mediated form of social life. It’s a little bit like email, which is a format Stella also loves. If I had to guess, I’d say that Stella is able to have relatively satisfying relationships with other people, not all of whom are alive, through the historical artworks and texts she encounters in her research. This research also gives her agency and a modicum of control over her fate: What she lacks in networking ability, Stella makes up for in information. She may be something of a misanthrope, but she is not a fool, and she realizes that she can get away with being a wallflower if she specializes correctly. Of course, this still leaves Stella at the mercy of the institution she works for, a problem our heroine must tackle before the novel’s close.

One of the pleasures of the book is getting a view into the interior world of an institution that resembles the Met. Some of this is mundane if accurate—Stella coming in late, not doing her actual work—but we also get a bit of the feeling of being in a museum after hours. There are moments when you have some of the world's great art all to yourself, or the privilege to rummage among the enormous collections that never even get displayed. I know your mom worked at the Met for a long time so I’m sure this gave you some insight, but there’s more to it than that. Can you say more about your personal experience of peeking behind the curtains of the art world, including those of its illustrious institutions?

There’s a lot of paperwork in there! More seriously, I think that jobs at art institutions are like many other jobs, although the scenery can be prettier. The present of art institutions interests me less than their pasts, which are inevitably more revealing and also strange. Part of what I hoped to do with Impossible Views of the World was to open up the institutional history of a fictional museum for (mostly gentle, fictional) scrutiny. In my fictional museum, the history of the acquisition of artworks both mirrors and becomes entwined with fictional present-day office haps. Which is to say, there’s a meaningful connection between the past and present in the novel; maybe the novel is even designed to allow that to occur. My own real-life observations of “illustrious institutions” are probably more banal, and don’t include plot twists or dramatic irony—or, for that matter, profound realizations about the meaning of institutional histories! I wish they did. I would probably have to start working at one of them for that to happen.

Stella doesn't seem to see herself as having many choices: she feels stuck at her job at CeMArt, in part because of her ill-conceived romance with one of her ascendant colleagues. That relationship and the end of her marriage occupy most of her social life. Otherwise, the person she appears closest to is her mother, whom she finds competitive and cagey. In fact, Stella feels that the biggest impact she makes is in a violent act that gets passed around YouTube. Why does Stella think her prospects are so grim? Are they really?

Stella spent six or seven years getting a degree and became a specialist in print ephemera. She’s a scholar of caricatures and political cartoons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She’s highly educated and in theory could do whatever she wants, and I think what you’re picking up on is her disappointment that her commitment to expertise doesn’t give her much of an edge in the institution where she works or, really, anywhere else. If she wants to do what she’s been trained to do in the context of the museum, she’s going to have to deal with the indignities of the pecking order and bide her time, for what might be a very long time. Perhaps unrealistically, Stella believed that being an expert in something esoteric would give her an interesting life and some small supply of power. She also thought that her friends and family would magically understand her commitment to weird, old things. But her life, if not uninteresting, isn’t what she thought it would be, nor does she have the sort of power that she had hoped she would have (what this power is, exactly, I am unsure). And no one around her, with the exception of her now-missing colleague Paul, has had much interest in her research. So, this is where things have gone wrong or askew—though I don’t think they’re grim, exactly, or Stella doesn’t see these things as grim so much as annoying. However, I do think we’d have to describe some of the novel’s characters’ actions as grim and reprehensible, and that’s a grimness that Stella can’t escape, no matter how amused YouTube users are by her antics or how well her latest microfiche foray goes. This is not a novel about revenge or redemptive, flamboyant success. The message is slighter than that. It’s about deciding not to look away from events, about confronting the simple grimness of apathy and deception in everyday life and realizing that one can choose to be different.

Anna Altman has written from the New Yorker, n+1, the New York Times, and other publications.


Date: September 13, 2017

Publisher: Bookforum

Format: Web

Link to the interview at Bookforum.

LARB Radio Hour on "Impossible Views ... "

Author Lucy Ives joins co-hosts Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher to discuss Impossible Views of the World, her first novel, which centers on the life of a curator working in New York’s greatest museum. The ensuing conversation revolves around the Ives’ inspiration for writing such a multi-faceted work: part character-driven social satire, part literary pastiche, it’s also an intellectual mystery novel rife with artistic and philosophical resonance. Plus, poet Imani Tolliver, author of Runaway: A Memoir in Verse, returns to recommend Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.


Date: September 7, 2017

Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books

Format: Audio

Link to the podcast at LARB.
Podcast at Soundcloud.

Interview in Vogue

Impossible Views of the World Is a Perfect Summer Pleasure

Lucy Ives’s cool and bracing new novel, Impossible Views of the World, is a perfect summer pleasure. Set at the fictional CeMArt, a museum on the Upper East Side that’s remarkably similar to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—where the author’s mother ran a department for many years, and about which Ives wrote an essay for Vogue—the book offers access to one of the world’s most well-oiled cultural institutions, functioning as something of a From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for grown-ups. An accomplished poet, Ives also knows how to delight sentence by sentence, with turns of phrase that cry to be underlined or Tweeted (hors d’oeuvres at a museum fundraiser are “micro-tizers”; the denizens of Williamsburg are “proofreaders dressed as majorettes, anorexics in suspenders, rich women in artisanal clogs”).

The narrative spans a single week, during which the cleverly named 30-something Stella Krakus (whose life is cracking up—get it?) contends with a harassing soon-to-be ex-husband, an ill-fated affair with one show pony of a colleague, and the mysterious death of another. Part send-up of the Manhattan art world, part elaborate literary mystery, the novel is bound together by a voice that is at turns deadpan and warm, shot through with a crisp irony that makes it tempting to declare it the literary equivalent of an Alex Katz painting. “I am not tall. In fact I am short, with highly regular features,” our narrator relays in the opening pages. “I despise makeup, though I wear lipstick, and, to further frustrate my appearance, I smoke.” It’s a singular work, worthy of a place in any world-class collection. Below, an interview with Ives, 37, a poet and academic who teaches writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Why isn’t the book set at the Met? Did it start out there and then you changed the name for legal reasons?

It was never the Met. It’s really important that it’s not the Met. All unhappy families are different, and so are all unhappy institutions. This way the museum has its own concerns. Everything in the novel that is an artwork or text is completely made up. Dreaming up artworks and satirizing the discipline of research was fun for me; they’re two of the greatest pleasures I can think of.

What was the spark of the book?

I was supposed to be finishing my dissertation at NYU when this strange scenario popped into my head. It was the idea of a woman going up the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew she was having difficulty in her romantic life and there were men who were not treating her with respect. The voice of the narrator was just there, and just available to me. So I started writing things down about her and her life, trying to see the humor in the ridiculousness in the men’s behavior that contrasted with her determination, and it became this world.

What was your mother’s job at the Metropolitan Museum?

My mother was the illustrious director of a department whose purview has changed over time. It focused on works on paper—handmade things like drawings and prints and photographs. She is an expert in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist prints and drawings.

What was it like to be a pet of the Met as a child?

[Laughs.] A lot of the objects of the museum were like members of the family. We would go to visit them regularly. I spent a lot of time in museums and in galleries as a child. Over time it’s become clear to me how much I’ve learned from this. I don’t have the training but I learned a lot about how to think about and relate to art. And for that I am eternally grateful.

You write about your mother in your Vogue Nostalgia. Stella’s mother, Caro, is also a less-than-snuggly art-world professional. How would you compare the experiences of writing about your mother in fiction and nonfiction?

Stella’s mother, Caro, is probably a way I am dealing with some of the challenges in relating to a parent who you respect but is quite capable of tough love. Writing about my mother for Vogue was easier because I know who my mother is and I know what my experience being her daughter is like. The part that was difficult was I felt I needed to come to some kind of conclusion. My relationship with my mother is not going to end. Even after death we keep having relationships with our parents. In a novel you get to create endings that have meaning. In real life you don’t. That’s one of the hardest things about being a human.

Have you ever worked at a museum?

Not apart from one summer as a teenager when I was a tour guide at the Met. I learned that small children really like to touch art.

The book is extremely funny about the cohort of young women who work in the art world and wear high heels and excel at writing thank-you notes. This bit reminded me of that wonderful short-lived reality show Gallery Girls: “The ‘girl’ who works at the museum is very pretty and exceedingly neat. She is a fan of social networking in all its protean forms, and not in an ironic way.” Did you have real-life exposure to what they call “gallery girls”?

For five years I was an editor at Triple Canopy, an interdisciplinary magazine with a lovely website. One of our aims was to bring artwork into a digital realm in a more innovative way than simply presenting a JPEG. During that time I encountered curators and gallerists and gallery managers and interns and desk workers and fact checkers. So I’m going to say yes, I did.

The novel grapples with the seemingly impossible lot of being a woman, and balancing professional ambition and dreams of romantic love. Is this a tension you struggle with? Are you more of a worker or a lover?

I am a worker [laughs]. But I think I’m curious about this quandary because the workplace that I came to in my late 20s and early 30s—academia and publishing—was not the workplace I was promised when I was a child. It was a place that didn’t just see me as an intellect or a creative but saw me first as a woman, and then those things later. This was a huge surprise to me and I’m still reeling about that. I was at an art book fair a few years ago and I met a powerful man in the art world. We shook hands. When my companion, an older influential woman, looked away, he reached out and took my breast in his hand. I don’t know where we find ourselves—are women’s lives better than they once were? Or are they not?


Date: July 24, 2017

Publisher: Vogue

Format: Web

Link to interview.


A portrait of the author as Alex Katz portrait.

Interview w. Dodie Bellamy in The White Review


THE SUMMER OF 2016 WAS FOR ME THE SUMMER OF DODIE BELLAMY. I am a New York resident, but by strange coincidence, when this interview was proposed to me by a WHITE REVIEW editor I happened to be living temporarily just outside San Francisco, Bellamy’s longtime purlieu. I also happened to be headed over to her house for a party later on that week. Thus I was able to secure a verbal ‘yes’ to the interview plan. Bellamy and I subsequently sat down mid-August in her SOMA apartment to discuss her work, particularly her recent essay collection, WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD (2015).

For those less familiar with San Francisco, SOMA stands for ‘South of Market.’ The area contains industrial structures and a few modest wood-clad apartment buildings, but has recently received liberal architectural additions in the form of luxury condominiums and corporate monoliths. Bellamy describes the ongoing gentrification of the neighbourhood where she has lived since 1990 with her partner, the poet Kevin Killian, in her essay ‘In the Shadow of the Twitter Towers’. The essay’s treatment of the present as a confluence of economic and cultural pressures, personal desire, paranoia, ambition, and, oh yes, real estate, is heady and affecting. It exemplifies Bellamy’s skilful attention to the welter of forces and dynamics shaping contemporary life and carries a trace of her schooling in the New Narrative literary movement of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. New Narrative writing, often associated with the writer Robert Glück, usually includes the author’s forthright acknowledgement of her or his own body and sexuality, as well as that of the reader, along with the actual time and place of writing. The author of at least eleven books of prose and poetry, including CUNT-UPS (2001) and THE TV SUTRAS (2014), Bellamy is additionally concerned with affect and precarity, and where desire can lead us once we forgive false notions of what humans need and deserve. Whether or not you find Bellamy’s work ‘experimental’ – in the interview she herself takes issue with this term – it seems clear that her work is engaged with questions about what and where daily life is, not to mention who is experiencing this life, so called. Bellamy doesn’t so much rail against traditional literary forms and genre as ignore them in favour of more exciting and enticing ways of proceeding.

On the afternoon of our August meeting, Bellamy fed me homemade date cookies and green tea. I met Sylvia the cat, one of two felines – the other is Ted, as in Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – with whom Bellamy and Killian share their home. Sylvia displayed a distinct lack of shyness, while Bellamy patiently and generously satisfied my curiosity about her life and writing. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

— Lucy Ives

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I was reading the essay ‘Phone Home’ from WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD, in which you write about your return to Indiana just before your mother passes away. In the hospital you’re with her; she’s not really conscious and you describe her mouth, her face. Reading it, I had a strange thought: ‘Now Dodie’s mother will get better, so that Dodie can be with her again before she dies.’

A DODIE BELLAMY — That fantasy actually makes an appearance elsewhere in that essay with E. T., because he does come back to life in the movie. That’s what Steven King is all about – in horror, people do come back, but they’re never the same. It’s a deep human fantasy. I sometimes want to squeeze my eyes shut and open them again, and find that my mother isn’t dead, though she’s been dead for eight or nine years now. In poetry classes in the 1980s I was taught Lacan’s theory that the separation from your mother marks your entry into the Symbolic Order. Language acts are about this tragic separation. Writing is always equally about loss and gaining. It gives you the world while you’re writing, but you’re writing about things that aren’t there. So it’s always about loss. I’m writing about my childhood now, and it’s like writing about death in the other direction, because that world is so unavailable.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It seems like we’re supposed to go back to childhood to figure out why we make errors, no?

A DODIE BELLAMY — That’s why I started writing about it, but now I’m more interested in class issues than personal error. Now I live a basically middle-class life, after having had a working-class childhood, so it’s like I grew up in another world, a foreign world I couldn’t survive in now. If I’d stayed in that world I would be married to a butcher. One of my girlfriends did marry a butcher. By the time I was 15 it was clear I wanted to be a writer – some people don’t totally have to change class to do it, such a hard thing to do – but I always knew I’d have to leave. I’m kind of judgemental about my inability to appreciate working-class life as a child, but there was no place of understanding. It was brutal. Most people I know now feel so uncertain because they don’t know where they stand with the people they know. My experience of the working-class Midwest was that you knew where you stood with everybody. It might not have been pleasant, but you knew. People were very clear about whether they liked you or not. I was kind of a freak, and I was teased a lot. I guess you’d call it bullying now. But a sense of otherness is not necessarily a bad thing. My sense of otherness – which I will try to create in any situation, no matter what the other person is trying to do – has been valuable in writing. You kind of step outside and look.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD deals with things that are quite painful. There’s a description of the hanging of a witch in ‘The Bandaged Lady’. The detail is horrifying, visceral; you write about how it takes fifteen minutes to die if you’re hanged. Unless, of course, you jump first in order to break your own neck.

A DODIE BELLAMY — Who knew, right? I took all this stuff from Silvia Federici’s CALIBAN AND THE WITCH (2004). I put in the idea of a ‘clever witch’ who jumps mostly for sarcasm, though Federici does say that some witches would jump before being hanged to break their own necks and die faster.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It seems like a fantasy on the part of the historian, that clever witch. As if someone could retrieve dignity from the experience of being executed.

A DODIE BELLAMY — That piece was commissioned as a catalogue essay for Tariq Alvi’s show at the gallery 2nd Floor Projects. Tariq sent these Xeroxed mockups that looked very different from the actual pieces in the show, but still they included the image of the hanged boys. It was challenging and exciting working with someone else’s imagery. On my own, I would never have thought to write about those hanged boys. I spent a lot of time looking at photos of them. I tried to open my heart to them, even though there was no way I could truly enter that experience. I keep coming across the theory that mirror neurons are the source of human empathy. For me, it’s about getting rid of the ego and just looking and seeing what happens. A lot of my writing is about looking. In my book THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER (1998) there’s a long letter about the death of Sam D’Allesandro in which I conclude that the act of looking is an expression of love. To really look at someone is how you love them.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Speaking of witches, I wanted to ask you about the ‘Rascal Guru’ essay in WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. There were some details that I thought were so precise, shocking and eerie. How was that essay written?

A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s an outtake from THE TV SUTRAS. It’s all Google-search collage. I researched a zillion different gurus and some of them were Christian. It was unbelievable, what some of them were doing. And then the language! The gurus did the same dastardly deeds over and over until it started to feel redundant, and the language of the followers, to rationalise it, became much more interesting than the acts themselves. I included a lot of the rationalisations. At some point I decided to make it one guru. So he’s the Ur-guru.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I like accretion as a compositional principle. You organise facts rather than invent a plot.

A DODIE BELLAMY — Well, it does have a little arc, because he dies at the end. He has all these problems! And then he dies. So it has a narrative.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — How do you know if something is interesting?

A DODIE BELLAMY — That’s hard to tell. This issue’s coming up a lot now that I’m writing about my working-class childhood. I’m like, ‘Who the fuck is going to care about this?’ I’ve just had to presume that maybe nobody will. Usually, if I’m compelled by something, that means it’s interesting. Assignments usually aren’t interesting, so you have to sit with one until some kind of opening occurs and creates excitement. If I can generate excitement, the writing seems to be interesting. I don’t think about it in terms of subject matter. Anything can be interesting, and you can take the most interesting thing in the world and end up with the dullest piece of writing. It’s about engagement.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I’m interested that you say ‘engagement’ because other people who have spoken to you about your work often want to know why you use collage techniques. They seem a bit surprised.

A DODIE BELLAMY — I don’t understand that. I’m doing something that has a long history, going back to the likes of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. But also I was raised on Kathy Acker’s writing and the whole notion of appropriation. That these things are being questioned now is beyond me.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It might trouble people that something coded as ‘weird’ could be exciting across generations.

A DODIE BELLAMY — There’s a weird hatred of conceptual writing. And people get suspicious of people who do anything procedural. My precedents have little to do with conceptual writing, but still, it’s like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I’m curious about your connection to nineteenth-century writing. In THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER Mina says, and I paraphrase, ‘Dodie’s always reading these books where people don’t do anything. But I don’t want writing to be a consolation for a life of inaction.’

A DODIE BELLAMY — I love nineteenth-century novels. They’re a wonderful antidote to the Internet. I’ve been reading Henry James’s THE AMBASSADORS. At first I couldn’t understand its wild syntax, but I found that when I stop trying with James, the text eventually opens and I’m there with it in all its glory. In the passage from MINA you refer to, I was talking about reading Barbara Pym, whose novels are so much about small, marginal lives. THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER is a tribute to DRACULA, it’s totally founded in the nineteenth-century. The romance novel ends when the protagonist couple gets together. So this is post-romance, in that the book begins with Dodie’s marriage to KK. But Mina never stops being in a romance novel even though she’s married. I was writing that novel when I was being schooled in New Narrative writing. Daily life was very important in New Narrative, breaking down the fourth wall between the writer and the work – without getting horribly meta about it, which I can’t suffer – questioning the boundary between the personal and the cultural. I’m this walking bag of culture. There’s no ‘me’ outside of culture. The boundaries get really messed up.

In my high school journal, which I’m rereading right now, I’m fascinated with the CHARLIE BROWN character Pig-Pen. Pig-Pen, with the swirl of dirt that surrounds him, has all this culture sort of stuck to him. In one cartoon strip, Charlie Brown asks Lucy, ‘Did it ever occur to you that Pig-Pen might be carrying the dirt and dust of some past civilisations?’ He goes on to muse, ‘He could have on him some of the soil of ancient Babylon.’ While my adult self is excited by the metaphorical possibilities of Pig-Pen, I have no idea what he meant to me in high school. At one point in my journal I’m reading Sartre and exchanging my Charlie Brown sweatshirt for a Pig-Pen sweatshirt – both in the same entry.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Is being a writer for you always about being with other people? When you narrate your youth it seems like your orientation to writing is often formed in relation to others.

A DODIE BELLAMY — When there’s another person to focus on, it’s easier to write about that than when there’s not another person. When I was writing THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER, I noticed that the only time Mina is sexual is when she’s with another person. At the time, I was reading Dennis Cooper and I saw that his characters never stopped being sexual. I came to the conclusion that Mina’s passive sexuality was sexist. She needs someone else to turn it on. So I started writing sexual passages where there wasn’t another person actively involved, to create a sense that this woman has a continuous sexuality that doesn’t have to be turned on by someone else. Is that what you’re asking about?

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Kevin Killian appears in your writing a lot, in different ways and guises. Is it ever hard to live with another writer?

A DODIE BELLAMY — Our writing is so different, so no. Including him when he’s commenting on my life is a part of New Narrative’s focus on community experience. He does critique my work though – I ask him to read everything I write because he’s such a good editor.

The question is, when does Kevin’s editing become a rewriting of the work into the way he would do it himself? Sometimes it’s a hard call. I do end up taking most of his edits. Kevin is in the writing workshop I teach in my living room during the summers and at times I disagree with his critiques of other students, and then I start to think, ‘But you take all his advice yourself!’ I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s got a great sense of comedy. He’s taught me how to rearrange sentences so you get your laugh. He’s also sharp about stripping those red flags of narcissism where people read the writing and groan, ‘Oh, she’s really bragging about herself.’ In terms of the writing, I think it’s wonderful to be with a writer. I’m Kevin’s biggest fan. I think he’s brilliant.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Often in your writing the narrator says she’s sick. She becomes ill or throws up. My immediate thought is that health is a tyrannical regime. And the term ‘sickness’ has at least two meanings: ‘illness’ and ‘perversion.’ Also, ‘very impressive,’ in slang, like, ‘That’s sick!’

A DODIE BELLAMY — The meaning I had in mind was cultural sickness. Take Trump, for example, but he’s just the start. I hate the word capitalism. I’m so tired of people using the word ‘capitalism’. Modern America, global capitalism, is sick. I watched this video last night called ‘Decolonising the Mind’, by Dr Michael Yellow Bird who teaches at Humboldt State University. He was talking about colonialism, saying that the only way anyone could engage in its horrors is through a lack of empathy. He was seeing colonialism as a state of mental illness. It’s obvious that we live in a sick culture.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Is there such a thing as resistant sickness, forms of sickness that allow you to escape or enter into altered states that might paradoxically turn out to be forms of health?

A DODIE BELLAMY — I’m reminded of Marion Woodman’s ADDICTION TO PERFECTION (1982), which I read in the late ’80s, when I still was into Jungian stuff. It was about these hyper-functioning women who would just fall apart, because they’re missing their souls or something. I didn’t realise there was a lot sickness in my writing. I have food sensitivities that are troublesome. Before my gluten sensitivity was discovered I worried I had some awful auto-immune disorder. I used to have a couple of days each week when I was stay-in-bed sick.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I thought about the title of WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD for months before I got round to reading the book.

A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s a good title, right? The sick could also be the underdog, so it’s about revolution. The way things have been going lately, perhaps we should just remove the ‘when’.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — This makes me think about E. T. again, the part in ‘Phone Home’ where you talk about all the actors necessary to the production of the character E. T. I was very overwhelmed by those facts. How did you find that out?

A DODIE BELLAMY — That was all googling. The information is taken from a number of sources. I loved that I was even able to find the grave plots of the people who died. It’s amazing.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — You mean the people who died while portraying E. T.? You suggest that some people succumbed because of psychological or physical stress.

A DODIE BELLAMY — Or they were doomed. It was a kind of sickness, how oppressive the creation of E. T. was to all these different people. Using some woman who has a cancerous voice because it’s so gravelly, for example.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — E. T. was literally made of parts of people whom society marks as being insufficient or abnormal. And then that alien entity being becomes a perfect love-object in suburbia.

A DODIE BELLAMY — Drew Barrymore says E. T. was totally real to her, even though she knew about all the component parts. That’s a metaphor for what’s real to us in general. Things don’t have to be believable for them to be real to us, for them to move us. Something can be very abstracted and still have the power to movem, like an Eva Hesse sculpture. You look at those things and have such a strong response, with no idea why you’re feeling it.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — This is also a compelling aspect of your work, which I see as being a kind of research into affect. You show what’s behind E. T., all the different agents, subjectivities, positions.

A DODIE BELLAMY — I was surprised by how traumatic that movie was. I asked my students, and they were all traumatised as children watching that movie. Now it would have to come with a trigger warning!

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Do you often think about ways of getting at certain identifications and experiences that escape us, that slip away, maybe because they are traumatic?

A DODIE BELLAMY — There’s a real openness when I’m writing. I try to stay in a libidinal state. It’s like, ‘Wow this is interesting,’ or ‘Wow this connects.’ I try not to get too analytical with it. The way you’re talking about it is really beautiful, but if I were thinking about it that way it wouldn’t get written.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — What’s that libidinal state like?

A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s encountering surprising connections, and the world starts feeling like a matrix. Everything starts feeling like it’s connecting, and I see this and I see that. I pull things in and move them around and see connections. It’s this fluid craziness and I feel like a wizard with a pot that I’m stirring. That’s what allows those surprising connections.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — When you begin to work on something, do you always know what you’re beginning?

A DODIE BELLAMY — Not necessarily. I mean, I do if I take something on as an assignment, which sometimes I do just to get myself to work on something. I just started a new book and I wasn’t planning to write it. And I wasn’t planning to write THE TV SUTRAS. And I wasn’t planning to write ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’ in WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. I don’t know how I started writing that, but I could not stop writing it. I liked the idea of having something in the book that was substantial and hadn’t been published elsewhere.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I was really interested in the character Trey in ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’, his insane love of gentrification.

A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s hard to tell with Trey. He’s a composite of several real people in my neighbourhood. There’s one guy who’s always calling the cops on some homeless person on his cell phone. And someone else in the building wrote me those crazy letters. I don’t know how I found his Yelp reviews. I eventually cut them down and did a collage because he says the same things over and over again. Discovering those Yelp reviews was one of those gifts from the universe.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Certain structures related to traditional literary genres seem to be disappearing from contemporary life. Examples might be job security or reliable forms of intimacy, and how people struggle to approach both work and intimacy with trust. Critics like Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai have written about this. Do you see this instability as related to your own work with narrative?

A DODIE BELLAMY — The conventional, midlist novel that’s taught in MFA programmes doesn’t reflect the current reality at all. It’s not even a very satisfying fantasy. I have no problem with conventional narratives. They create this wonderful fantasy of everything resolving at the end. That’s what’s so frustrating in real life – there are so many things where you never know the end of the story. It can fucking drive you crazy. Like the story of this very handsome, vain guy downstairs who was here when we moved in that I mention in ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’.

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — He was a musician, right?

A DODIE BELLAMY — Yes, and he became a junkie. It was shocking how quickly somebody can disintegrate if they’re into heroin. He was very frail, walking with a cane, and he quit paying his rent. Creepy, creepy people started coming over – he eventually got evicted. And then somebody said he went back to L.A., but I cannot tell you how much over the years I’ve wanted to know what happened to this guy. I’m never going to know! There are stories you get invested in and then they just end. They’re not resolved.

A big topic of everyone’s conversation is how disjunctive their life is, how fragmented they feel. That’s why I read nineteenth-century novels at night, as a sort of antidote. Now I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels, which have the sweep of a nineteenth-century novel. I’m on volume two. You can have a literary form that exists outside your experience, or you can try to create forms that somehow reflect your current experience. Those are your choices. But I find that a lot of fiction students don’t want to be shown that. I like Lidia Yuknavitch. I watch her videos online. She could get anyone to do anything. And she makes a good case about creating new forms. You know that quote by Audre Lorde, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’? Form is political. It’s not a neutral. It carries baggage, all these assumptions about reality. Whose reality does this form correspond to? That’s what New Narrative addresses. The Language poets had basically thrown out narrative, and the point of New Narrative was that there are people who aren’t entitled enough to throw out narrative. Telling their stories is important to them. So how do we tell a story that honours our experience without falling back on all of this crap? I would say that the way fiction is taught in the MFA context would be like writing poetry and only doing sonnets. Or, as a friend of mine says, it would be like going to art school and only doing landscape painting.

There are other ways to write. The novel used to be an experimental form. Kevin says to me, ‘Dodie, you have to realise that the novel is no longer an experimental form.’ Whereas it was. When I was in high school you read Faulkner and it was just presented as good writing. Now you see grad students complaining that Faulkner is too hard for them. Or it’s taught in experimental writing classes – Faulkner, you know? The novel has become this really conservative form. Books like THE ARGONAUTS (2015) by Maggie Nelson should not have been published according to traditional models. It’s so encouraging that people don’t have any trouble reading it. In fact, I think we’re trained for disjunction. Early movies had inter-titles because people didn’t understand the language of film, or disjunction, but now we live and breathe the language of disjunction and fragmentation. To have writing that reflects that seems like it shouldn’t be a biggie.


Date: November 1, 2017

Publisher: The White Review

Format: Web

Link to the review.


Trying times.

Interview in The Believer


An Interview with Poet Lucy Ives

While Lucy Ives went out for a snack, I lay down on the couch, first checking my phone, then reading the first five pages of Susan Howe’s Sorting Facts: or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, in which she calls poetry “factual telepathy.” Howe sees poetics as a way of conjuring facts, that history isn’t the product of reliable sources, but a process of posing events, batting them around, dressing paper dolls in fact costumes, dragging an information magnet through the streets.

Ives had just finished teaching a companion class to her latest project and installation, Real Allegory, which ran this spring at Flying Object, in which she attempted to call into question commonplace distinctions between historical and literary description and interpretation. Below you’ll find a document of and about a ‘real’ historical event, a conversation between Ives and me on an April evening that became an audio recording, then a transcription, then an edited transcription, in which I chose what I deemed to be the ‘significant’ moments, in which I spruced up all the times I sounded like an idiot. Does this mean the facts are lost? Did I trace over the facts? The historical record inevitably rewrites the world, willingly or unwillingly imitating it, splintering it into fabrications, each one a script for multiple potential reenactments.

— Patrick Gaughan


PATRICK GAUGHAN: I was reading Tropics of Discourse this morning per your recommendation and could see why you were into it: Hayden White’s ideas of historical narrative as being composed of metaphor and other literary tropes, as opposed to successions of facts.

LUCY IVES: I think he’s coming out of a poetics tradition, and that’s a key term in my project: poetics. I wanted to be able to think about poetics outside of literary texts, to see if literary logic could exist in other kinds of environments. “Narrative” and “Description” can be literary, but they don’t have to be. I wanted to understand, “What would a non-literary poetics be?” Because I think when we talk about poetics, that’s actually what we mean. Or when you use that term, you mean something that isn’t exclusively literary. Sure, there’s poetry and there are certain conventions associated with it, but the notion of poetics can exist outside of a literary space.

PG: So you’re saying that literary tropes and styles are linked to not only art but also history?

LI: I think White’s enabled me to find ways to consider this idea. I’ll be in conversation with someone who isn’t a writer, let’s say a photographer, and they’ll be making claims about an image or a brand, they might be interpreting it, and I’ll find myself saying something like, “You’re engaging in literary analysis right now. The way you’re reading this is literary and it’s actually only literary, it’s not like there’s some special mode of interpretation that belongs to photography, it’s that photography is in some sense borrowing certain kinds of rhetorical analysis from literature,” and it’s interesting to see what people make of that, because they often feel excluded from literature!

PG: Who does?

LI: Certain people feel contemporary literature is not “for” them. That literature is a thing happening in another world and that it belongs to other people. And yet they use literary thought. Their suspicion and paranoia about images, for example, or certain modes of design, is a literary kind of suspicion, a literary paranoia.

PG: To whom does description belong? Is it purely a literary thing?

LI: Well, if you believe Levi-Strauss, it belongs to writing, and then there’s the question of to whom writing belongs, but I’m pretty sure on some significant level description has, for a long time, been most obsessed over by literature. I don’t think, for example, that description is the best friend of philosophy, because philosophy hasn’t taken very good care of writing. This is very gossipy sounding, but other disciplines pay lip service to concerns about what writing is or what it does, but inevitably they just want to be able to say the thing.

PG: That writing is just a vessel.

LI: Exactly. One synonym is as good as another.

PG: Or that writing is style-less, just a way of conveying. There’s this Bruce Hainley book I was reading about the artist Sturtevant. It’s two essays, but arranged such that one’s on the left and the other’s on the right. One’s about her reperformance of an Eric Satie piece, the other’s about her version of the store of Claes Oldenburg. Two essays, different subject matter, cross-cut for a hundred pages. It’s nonfiction, but fed through this bouncing back and forth device, which is a literary device.

LI: It also gives you license to think about a lot of things outside of her work, and also maybe to experience her work more fully. Speaking of Sturtevant, imitation is also interesting because literature may be the only space where imitation is basically free to develop as intensely or deeply as it might like to. In other kinds of writing, you’re not supposed to describe something too carefully because the description should always be in service to whatever professional point you’re supposed to be making. But in literature, you can spend all of your time imitating the world. (Of course, I’m not guaranteeing that anyone will read what you write if you do this!)

PG: Imitation not in the sense of imitating someone else’s style, but imitation of the world?

LI: Yeah, the world, so-called or whatever it may be. I’m indicating mimesis here. And in literature we can certainly imagine forms of imitation that might occur without our even defining what the specific objects of imitation are. These objects can be discovered in the process of imitating. This is, for example, what literary experiment sometimes is.


PG: Where’s this image from, US Weekly?

LI: Yes. It’s a bizarre ventriloquizing of Kim.

PG: Right, because it says, “My butt won’t stop growing” exclamation point.

LI: It seems like some kind of horror thing: “My butt won’t stop growing!” There’s some other agency there, apparently. But it’s also totally meaningless. Central to my project is the idea that there is literal speech, but unless we’re convinced of it, we won’t believe it. We can’t believe in the literality of speech unless we already believe it’s literal. And what will convince us that we already believe some speech or writing to be literal? Most often this has to do with genre, like if we read a book that says ‘Nonfiction’ on the back of it.

PG: And to some people, if it’s in a magazine, it’s true. Eh, is it more ‘true’ if it’s in a magazine? Maybe I’m not giving people enough credit.

LI: This image of Kim Kardashian is a totally stupid image, but it’s such a stupid, almost automatic or knee-jerk image that you can’t help but think you’re looking at something real, actual. It seems like an utterance that’s destined to be an index of our time, in some future; it will read as stylized, as symptomatic of our contemporary obsessions and errors. Conversely, I also have the sense that because we know the category of nonfiction exists, we often play with it for other ends. I’m really interested in thinking about how historical texts might, of course, have goals that are similar to literary texts, goals of persuasion, let’s say. And that literary texts might, at base, wish to be informative or critical, but they are troubled by seeming to have no referent.

PG: So, for example, literature is less trustworthy because it doesn’t have sources?

LI: In nonfiction, there’s always a referent. It’s what that genre is founded upon. But if I’m writing endless paragraphs about a cereal bowl that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t serve any particular purpose, and it becomes literature instead of something else.

PG: Since you’re not a Kardashian, no one cares.

LI: Yet I should also say that everybody has become obsessed with this idea that the incidental is where history really is. Because if you try to talk about monumental, huge things, you inevitably fail.


PG: So let’s get into this idea of what constitutes a historical event. I listened to an interview with this NPR reporter, Robert Smith, who’s been doing five-minute radio segments for twenty years, and he said, “There is no news.” There is no such thing as news. The earth is just going around and happening and when he shows up, he creates a story based on who he talks to, what information he gleans, and then he slaps an arbitrary beginning and ending on it, and then it becomes news. To me, history’s the same thing. History only happens when someone stops the world, picks up a few events and points-of-view, does a little Rubik’s cube action on them or polishes them up, and then it’s history.

LI: That certainly makes sense to me, but I also think that’s only one version of what happens when we make claims about what is the case. And as much as he’s saying that there’s no news until he gets there and presents a point of view, there are things that happen. There are crimes, these things really occur, and there are different ways in which they’re relayed. In any case, going back to gossip, people are going to talk no matter what. It’s not within one person’s, or even a government’s, power to determine how that will occur.

PG: I was thinking about events versus documents of events yesterday when a student of mine presented about 9/11 conspiracy theories, fourteen years after the event. She was probably six or so when it happened, so everything she’s ever heard about it could be classified as news, but seemed more like conspiracy or metaphor.

LI: An artist, Francis Alÿs, who is Belgian by birth, emigrated to Mexico and did a project for which he made little metal dogs; they don’t really look like dogs, but these little metal things with wheels and they’re magnetized, and had little cameras on them and the project was that he would walk around Mexico City pulling the dog on wheels by a string, taking video of the route and also collecting pieces of metal. He’d walk around all night.

PG: How big would it get as he’s accumulating these things?

LI: It got bigger, yeah.

PG: So big you couldn’t even pull it? Like this big?

LI: Maybe not that big. I saw an exhibition displaying the dogs on a shelf, as a little portable TV played the videos. And there were other types of ephemera tucked under plexiglass on an accompanying desk; some of them were tabloid pages about people who magnetized themselves, and there were also drawings of the routes he took around the city. He had immigrated to Mexico City.

PG: So it was as if he used the project as a way to familiarize himself with this new place.

LI: I think that’s true. And also to gather things, to learn more than you could learn just by walking around. Walking around wasn’t enough.

PG: It’s funny that he’s literally picking up pieces of everywhere he goes. Instead of me remembering what I do, the world is sticking to me as I move through it.

LI: You’re not always choosing what you take.


Date: July 14, 2015

Publisher: The Believer

Format: Web

Link to the interview.


Author photo.


A poster version of a US Weekly cover featuring Kim K.


The artist Francis Alÿs with one of his magnetized dogs.

Interview w. Srikanth Reddy in Triple Canopy

Srikanth Reddy with Lucy Ives

Poet Srikanth Reddy speaks to Triple Canopy editor Lucy Ives about the possible plurality of worlds, poets as “feeling machines,” and how to make an aesthetic object out of bureaucratic relics of the space race.

Lucy Ives: I want to ask about the talk you did as part of Triple Canopy’s Speculations (“The future is __”) at MoMA PS1 in 2013. You seemed so comfortable in this speculative mode of thinking! I’m curious what role speculative thinking might play in your work.

Srikanth Reddy: My main memory of putting together that talk was actually of its being an intensely uncomfortable mode of thinking! I felt as I was doing it that I was going against the grain of how my mind normally works, if it can be said to work at all these days. It was a useful exercise, however. In the process, I came to feel that there’s a kind of moral obligation to speculate in the way that the Triple Canopy event was inviting people to do. If you don’t think about the distant future of our contemporary historical moment—the longue durée, as it were—then it’s very easy for one’s political or aesthetic practice to be too circumscribed in the “now.” Or even in one’s domestic practice, for that matter. So the project was exciting to me even if it was a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t feel intuitively inclined to think this way. It was definitely work.

LI: In your second collection of poetry, Voyager (2011), there is certainly some interest in speculative thinking, since the book speaks to the possibility of a plurality of worlds. Interestingly, this happens through the erasure, appropriation, and rewriting of a memoir by Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations and, as was revealed during his (successful) run for the Austrian presidency in 1985, intelligence officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht.

SR: In a way, as I worked on Voyager I was interested in some cosmological questions—“How many worlds are there?” or “How many objects are there in the world?” or “Is the world a single object?”—that real philosophers might find somewhat boring. But in the book I’m trying to deal with these problems not so much speculatively as concretely, through a reading of Waldheim’s hopelessly partial and duplicitous account of the world, trying to retrieve other imaginative cosmologies from inside of that falsely totalizing technocratic text. So the cosmological project of Voyager is more about investigative reading than about speculation to a certain extent. When I say “investigative,” though, I don’t mean to imply that I feel there’s some core “Truth” to be excavated from within Waldheim’s language. Rather, I was trying to investigate a spectrum of plural, lowercase “truths” that I sensed resonating within this historical text. I wanted to see if I could make an aesthetic object out of a Cold War geopolitical document—that was the real literary investigation of the project, in retrospect. So I would differentiate what I do in Voyager from “Investigative Poetics,” which is a phrase I’ve heard here and there and which I think may be problematic in some ways.

LI: What is problematic about that phrase?

SR: I may be misunderstanding the project of investigative poetics, but I think one aspect of this sort of work involves foregrounding and manipulating research documents or archival material—civic documents, old periodicals, scientific literature, etc. But working in this mode, one could run the risk of simply reproducing academic forms of thought and methodology that are quite common in English departments today. This represents a limited notion of the full investigative capacity that might actually be available to a poet, I suspect. On the other hand, one could think of an investigative poetics as mirroring the kind of sociopolitical work that is otherwise performed by investigative journalists in our culture. That, too, runs the risk of somehow narrowing the field of effects and modes of inquiry available to the poet. But I say this with the full knowledge that much amazing work has been done under the sign of investigative poetics; it’s a subject I have to learn more about. The important thing is to keep the notion of investigation as open as possible, I think.

LI: What is that investigative capacity? I’d like to know, for example, how you think about the role of the poet or the “creative writer” within the academy. Is poetry ever a kind of knowledge, in an academic sense?

SR: I hear a lot of colleagues in the humanities self-describe as knowledge workers. I don’t think that’s a helpful way of describing what a poet is doing, even within an institutional context. This is an old-fashioned, probably romantic distinction, but I think of the poet more as a “feeling worker,” or an “affective worker.” Not that I’m hoping for a return to sentimentalism in the art. It’s just that I’m skeptical of any knowledge claim people make for poetry. I’ve never seen the art form as one that is epistemological in that sense. I find that it’s more of a technology of feeling than anything else, or at least, I feel that poetry helps me to orient myself affectively in the world—that this is the work it does for me in my experience, though naturally others will invariably find that it does other forms of work for them. It’s a hopelessly rough-hewn way of overstating the case, the way I’m making these distinctions, of course!

LI: And yet there are what one might call philosophic tendencies within your work—an interest in contemplation, for example.

SR: In the first book of Voyager there is a series of propositions about the world that very loosely echoes Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. I wasn’t really trying to do philosophy here; I was trying to feel my way toward a kind of philosophical music that was more “flattened out” than the lyric, tonally speaking. The philosophical premise of Book One of Voyager was just that: a kind of a premise for the construction of poetic language. I’m very drawn to conceptual work, since it has a kind of philosophical inflection. (I’m thinking of writers like Tan Lin or Lisa Robertson here, though they may not self-identify as “conceptualists” in a strict sense). But I think it would be a dangerous mistake to make the claim that my own poem—or, in a sense, any poem—is actually doing philosophy! Rather, one could say that the poem—my own poem, that is—is adopting the rhetorical and tonal, and even narratological, strategies of philosophy in order to achieve aesthetic effects. That’s what I like about conceptual work: how it makes me feel. Not that it gives me a new set of political or epistemological tools to make my way in the world. Rather, it allows me to feel my way to a proper stance toward these tools.

On one level, then, I agree with a critic like Keston Sutherland, who has maintained that conceptualism is essentially a form of antisubjectivist dogma—but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem for conceptualists, because many of them would happily embrace the label of antisubjectivism. What I find even more interesting is the way in which his criticism of conceptualism dovetails with ideological positions that are, on some level, anathema to what I would imagine his own politics to be. Keston’s assault on conceptualism is, obviously, a Marxist critique. He argues, if I’m getting things right, that conceptualism is indifferent toward literary craft; Keston’s defense of craft (or technique, or whatever you want to call it) occurs within a Marxist paradigm of labor. But the word “craft” is one of the most cherished pieties of neoliberal workshop culture that we know! This makes me feel like I don’t want to wholly subscribe to either the antisubjectivist aspect of conceptualism or the critiques of those aspects. For me, I’d like to preserve an individual and affective relationship to conceptual writing that might not be something that can be codified under the terms of the current debate.

LI: I’m confused about what exactly you mean by “feeling,” or an “affective relationship.” Normally these are terms we use to talk about relationships we have with other people, though of course not exclusively. Could you say a bit more about this?

SR: Well, I should begin addressing your confusion by confessing that I’m confused about these matters, too. In fact, I think there’s a certain negative capability, or a cultivated uncertainty, that one must maintain with regard to one’s affective labors as a poet—otherwise the work becomes a kind of emotional connect-the-dots. But to speculate further, I would say that I want to move away from an ideological orientation regarding what a poem or a poetic practice can do. The writers I admire most are involved in a kind of sensitive and sensual labor, rather than a self-consciously political practice. I worry sometimes that affect drops out of the conversation when we focus on the political aspects of the art. Or maybe the affect becomes flattened out into mere outrage, or melancholia. To maintain the full spectrum of feeling in one’s work, I think one has to think of the work of poetry as a kind of affective enterprise first and foremost—and doing that involves preserving one’s subjectivity as a resource for that work, against antisubjectivist or other political claims that would overdetermine one’s emotional cogito.

LI: How does appropriation of text fit in with what you are describing about being an affective worker? Is there a kind of feeling unique to rewriting or writing your way into a preexisting text?

SR: This is a great question, and I think it strikes to the heart of a lot of what we’ve been discussing. I think the interesting thing about working with appropriated texts—the great thing about “uncreative writing,” as it were—is that it offers new possibilities for exploring one’s inwardness and subjectivity, rather than ways of escaping one’s own identity under an antisubjectivist agenda. It’s easy to produce work that is empty of feeling when one is working with appropriation, erasure, collage, or any number of other textual operations. The really difficult—and, I think, important—thing to do is to unearth or excavate registers of feeling from within those textual operations.


Date: May 19, 2015

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Interview in BOMB 2014

Lucy Ives

Generalizing a decade's affect, the insubstantial magic of capital, and Ives's novel nineties.

In the novel nineties by Lucy Ives, three friends come-of-age by committing credit card fraud. Living in Manhattan at the end of the twentieth century, the girls are surrounded by the dark and contractual abundance of capital; by television, sex, celebrity, and consumerism. The plot—their crime and the subsequent police investigation—launches an inquiry into the nature of guilt, debt, credit, privilege, adolescence, feminism, and what these concepts mean to the daughters of the happy few who live on Park Ave.

Alien, canny, and alert, the unnamed narrator indexes her historical present (the 1990s) as she riddles her way through the compromised process of self-actualization in the age of capitalism. At the outset, her circle steals their friend’s (father’s) credit card, goes on a shopping spree at a local department store, and consoles the girl by threatening to “fuck up” the thieves. The secret crime fuels their sense of autonomy, but makes them vulnerable to a higher authority; namely, their parents and the police. The theft almost reads as an unintentional act of political transgression—not a cure but a rupture. The girls almost read as accidental radicals—their subjectivities shift; their actions author that shift. For an instant, they transcend their classification as “child-consumers” by using credit fraud as a means to outfox the mercenary circulation of money and stuff that makes up their world. They spot a loophole, slip through it, and end up in a psychologist’s office.

Ives says: “Oddly, I think they are all in a hurry to preempt any kind of victimhood that might be foisted upon them, by whom I have no idea. I think it’s this fear of becoming victims that makes them as vile and destructive as they are.”

So precise as to sometimes feel punishing, nineties is a brief, formal, forceful book. In it, Ives employs an economy of language that undoes the extreme fecundity of the material culture she describes. As a work of literature, it asks: How can writing be a motor for social revaluation? Neither ethical tale nor enlightenment narrative, there is no moral; there is no reveal. Wrong-doing fails to present the girls (or the reader) with a chance to recover a workable idea of right-action. Instead, their heist produces a highly constructive form of critical anxiety that asks: Is this life? How should I live it? Will I be punished if I live it incorrectly? Lucy and I speak about these issues and more as nineties, published by Tea Party Republicans Press, enters its second print-run.

Kendra Sullivan You have told me you wrote nineties in response to your own desire to read nineties. What does that mean?

Lucy Ives It means that I wanted to read a book that contained clear, almost (to the extent that this is possible) objective description. I wanted to read something that didn’t contain instructions for how anyone should feel, in reading the book—that wouldn’t instruct one as to how the characters “really” feel, or even as to how the reader should react. I wanted that space to be open and ambiguous, as it is in life. So I wanted to read a fundamentally amoral but incredibly visually and perhaps even spatially precise book.

KS Why do the words on your pages feel so much like objects?

LI This is the style I write in in this book. It seems to fit, also, with the plot, which is about consumerism. This is a novel about an actual affective and aesthetic condition standard to the time in which it takes place, roughly 1992 to 1995. If affect can be generalized across a society and a historical time period, then this is the kind of affect I want to generate, depict, play with.

KS Roland Barthes writes, “Every biography is a novel that dares not speak its name.” Is the unnamed narrator of nineties actually called Lucy?

LI The narrator’s name could be Lucy, but her name is certainly not “Lucy Ives,” or at any rate she isn’t me. In nineties a narrator speaks in the present tense. We don’t know if what she describes has only just happened or if it happened in the past. But the narrator doesn’t have a life in the same way that you or I do, which is of course obvious, but all the same I want to say that I don’t intend for this narrator to have a life; I intend for her to tell this story.

KS The girls lie to their parents and lie to each other. They commit a crime. The police arrive. Multiple dialectics develop: between lies and fiction, fiction and truth, truth and fantasy, fantasy and lies.

LI Maybe something to be said here is that these girls may have little in common. Though they all live in New York City, their families have very different histories; this is the American situation, of course, but perhaps it’s in some way intensified in this particular competitive, privileged milieu. What do they share? Being female, being young, attending the same school, being rich. Are they rich enough? Will they stay that rich? You could say something like, these people have everything so what’s wrong with them, and I think that’s also right, but: they are living in an era of generous credit, in a time in which having is not the same as having the means to have. This is not a judgment, it’s just a fact. And I think you see this disconnection reflected in their way of relating to one another, which is, or was always going to be, extremely venal.

KS The girls remind me of a coven. They share a heretical subject-hood, though their bond feels sinister; their allegiances suspect. Do you think the friends in your book were empowered by their alliance with one another?

LI I hesitate to be too optimistic, but I have to say that I think that these characters are better off having committed their crime, having seen the consequences. Not because now they are reformed and won’t be “bad” anymore, but because they are more informed about how the world works. I think that they know more at the end of the novel than they did at its outset, and I can’t object to that. I’m sad that their friendships have to end, but honestly there are more important things in life.

KS nineties is inflected by atmospheric typographies: street signage, store and brand names, graffiti—and the writing of the girls themselves in the form of notes. When, in a novel, I read that someone is writing a letter, the letter is real even if the writer and the recipient are fictional.

LI I’m interested in the difference between the narrator-as-character and the narrator-as-narrator and how the presence of incidental writing in the book makes you think about this—and also think about the possibility that there is a third facet to this narrator, which is to say, the narrator-as-author.

I’ve imagined the narrator of nineties as someone who is, if not exactly a writer, then unusually interested in writing and the ways in which learning to read and write shape and alter our perceptions. I don’t think the narrator knows exactly how writing changes things, but I think she does feel fairly sure that it does. (Certainly she thinks a lot about brand names.) It seems like writing is a device that allegedly repeats or represents the world, yet it repeats or represents the world imperfectly. All the same, it’s a powerful device for representing, reflecting, and perhaps even understanding what is the case.

Then there is the fact, as you point out, that in the context of a novel a letter between two characters is a “real” letter, a real written thing, even if the characters have no corporeal existence. Maybe this matters to the narrator, too. Maybe written things—the notes, letters, and poems authored by the characters of nineties—get included in the novel because they seem like traces or proofs of real events, events that in themselves remain ambiguous and lacking in objectivity. It’s hard—and the narrator almost knows this—to think without writing. The narrator uses writing but is also still in the process of learning or coming to understand what writing is.

Maybe when we learn to write we also acquire a means of engaging privacy in a selective way. I’m pretty sure that the writing undertaken by characters in nineties is about trying to figure out who their allies are and what—or whose—language it is they speak. They really have no idea who they are, what they sound or seem like. Writing is a means to some kind of provisional resolution of these (inevitably unsolvable) quandaries.

KS While re-reading nineties I recall 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Shopping and browsing figure heavily in both. Clothes that freely cross state borders, where populations cannot, stand in as contact relics of sweatshop labor practices consumers never see. nineties dwells in the surface of excess. Without mention of “exploitation,” it is everywhere inferred.

LI There’s a lot of stuff in this novel. Why is all of it here? What should anyone do with it? I think part of the bad behavior you see in this book is an attempt, on the part of these not very moral young people, to manage this enormous quantity of stuff—stuff, recall, that they know very little about (re: its origins) and which they’re supposed to desire. It’s possible that these characters could have moved on to blowing things up or lighting things on fire and so on. Such actions might be a logical (illogical) step; such violence would seem, then, to stem from being overwhelmed by material things, by the nonsensical unmotivated presence of all this expensive and mostly useless stuff.

KS Kristeva writes of “consumerism that swallows up human life.” Consumerism inspires criminality in the girls; their crime initiates a kind of trial. It’s not totally clear if they survive its proceedings.

LI I think they survive in different ways. Which is to say, they manage. Their parents manage. Everyone seems to be on trial, in some sense, since credit fraud is easily in reach of everyone; so, in this sense, the question is not “Did you steal?” but “Will you?” Anyway, what would it mean to behave morally, or not amorally, in this environment? Is using a credit card legally, in one’s own name, a moral act?

We need suffering in order to have knowledge. It’s not just some stupid free-for-all of postmodern floating signifiers in life! I think this is the tragedy I’m trying to point out here. Debt may not be “real,” but other things you think, feel, see, and so forth are real. Other things (and people) supporting the insubstantial magic of capital are real. I know we all know this! Maybe this has something to do with the fact that suffering is never theoretical.

KS Sometimes, the young girls read like drones collaged from ads in sales catalogs. They slip into the apparatus of capitalism through “wanting” and “suffering.” Their “wanting” and “suffering” is different than the wanting and suffering of those laboring to produce all that stuff, but the girls are no more free to escape their affliction than the laborers are to escape theirs.

LI The characters in nineties are attempting to learn a livable idea of freedom. They’re trying to be free, to behave in the way that they believe people who are actually free would behave. However, their idea of freedom is mostly destructive—and false. It’s based on images they’ve gathered from entertainments of the day and is fundamentally apolitical, by which I mean it has zero to say about what it means to live together and share limited resources and so on. In fact, one of the major problems with the idea of freedom the characters in nineties subscribe to—which is to say, the three main characters, who commit the crime—is that it assumes that one lives in a society of literally limitless wealth and abundance, that there will always be more, and that therefore one is an idiot if one does not simply take whatever one wants. Here, freedom is recognition of this purported infinite abundance. It’s the willingness to look this terrifyingly massive abundance dead-on, to realize the implications and possibilities of a supposed infinite fungibility of money and debt. It probably seems strange to some people that adolescents could have such an idea about larger social and/or economic notions and even act accordingly, but I guess that is what this novel is about.


Date: March 13, 2014

Publisher: BOMB

Format: Web

Link to the review.



Interview w. Susan Stewart in Triple Canopy

Susan Stewart with Lucy Ives

Poet and scholar Susan Stewart responds to questions from Triple Canopy editor Lucy Ives on the difference between subjectivity and sensing, thinking for its own sake, and the poem as occurrence, instance, or object.

Lucy Ives: Though I am posing these questions in the context of an issue of Triple Canopy related to objects and objectivity, I want to begin with the notion of the subject and, more specifically, what you have termed, in your early book on nonsense, “our appurtenance to one another.” In reading your criticism, I am often struck by your attention to language as a social event—as well as to the role, or roles, of literature and works of art in the social production of meaning.

I’d like to ask you how notions of intersubjectivity may have changed in your criticism over time. Where did you begin, as a critic and scholar, in your thinking around the connections between ethics and aesthetics, and where are you now? What has the role of conversations within the academy been in shaping such notions? Of conversations held outside the academy?

Susan Stewart: The notions of “subjectivity” and “intersubjectivity” have indeed changed in scholarship during my lifetime, and these changes have had particular consequences. When intellectuals sustain a word like “subjectivity,” or use terms from the secret police and the military—“interrogate” a subject; or “deploy” a method—they produce effects in the “real world.” So far as I can tell, the concept of subjectivity originally had a perspectival and psychological valence, then acquired its political meaning within ideology critique, and later moved into literary study as a strange amalgam of psychological and political determination.

It’s a vivid historical fact that many people have been, and indeed remain, reduced to the status of a subject in nearly every sphere of their lives. But at least in Louis Althusser’s analysis of ideology, science and art are domains that can evade the totalizing determinations of what he calls ideological apparatuses. Here I have always thought Althusser follows Immanuel Kant’s distinction between reflective and determinative judgments. Determinative judgments are those efficient, necessarily unthinking decisions we make all the time in order to get through our days; because they are unthought they are most likely to be “subject” to the powers that be. But not every aspect of our lives and not every possibility of our wills is encompassed by such a “subject position.” In the case of science, reflective judgments are capable of creating new categories of understanding, and in the case of aesthetics, our judgments can move entirely beyond our categories of understanding. These are important openings that enable ideology critique and indicate the possibility of living beyond ideology.

As you mention, I have used the terms “subjective” and “intersubjective” in my own writing: “subjective” when I have felt that I wanted to distinguish, in the earlier sense, between individual and “objective” points of view; “intersubjective,” when I have wanted to underline the mutuality and sociality of being. Yet, influenced by the poetics of Allen Grossman and the philosophy of Derek Parfit, among others, I turn to the word “person” when I am accounting for actions that are intended, volitional, and creative.

My most sustained try at thinking through the relation between aesthetics and ethics is my essay “On the Art of the Future” [included in Stewart’s 2005 collection The Open Studio]. There I take up particularly the aesthetics of Kant and the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. My interest in this relation stems from my sense that both fields of action are prior to other cultural determinations. Because the practice of art involves hypothetical terms and reversible consequences, art can be a tentative, impermanent ground for exploring intersubjective relations. The ethical acknowledgment of the “in and for himself or herself” of other persons is in turn prior to any terms of aesthetic address, or of any other form of address.

The viewer or listener or audience of an artwork is a living, sensing being. The artist is communicating with, not shaping or forming, that being. For this reason I eschew the idea that art is “experimental,” for I do not believe in experimenting upon persons. Nor do I see any reason to seek to replicate the results of our actions as artists. Art forges, creates, moves ahead of the rest of the culture—some of it disappears and some of it “takes” (place, effect).

LI: I’m curious about how your doctoral studies in folklore may have shaped your work. What did this departmental affiliation permit you—as a critic, scholar, and writer—that other ways of proceeding in the humanities might not have? Do you have a sense of how this particular formation may have shaped your understanding of what constitutes a significant “unit of analysis” within literary studies?

SS: As an undergraduate, I was drawn to literature, anthropology, and visual art, and these were fields much influenced at the time by new methods in semiotics and structuralism. At the same time, the New Critics, and especially the tastes and judgments of T. S. Eliot, were also tremendously important. Every English major came to know the metaphysical poets and the Jacobean dramatists very well, and our sense of modernism was heavily dependent upon French Symbolism.

Meanwhile, Claude Levi-Strauss became particularly important to me, for I was drawn to his ideas about phenomena as “good for thinking” (rather than conceiving of thinking as a means to phenomena/reference). In other words, Levi-Strauss seemed to restore the priority of thinking for its own sake.

In graduate school I continued to study various issues in aesthetics and the philosophy of literature, eventually completing an MA in poetics at Johns Hopkins and a PhD in Folklore Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. At Johns Hopkins my studies coincided with the advent of poststructuralism; my teacher Richard Macksey organized and edited The Structuralist Controversy, the important collection of writings addressing this paradigm change. The Folklore Department at Penn was a deeply interdisciplinary program, and I was taken particularly with the microanalyses of the sociologist Erving Goffman and the kinesics of the anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, as well as the Slavic Department’s work in Russian Formalism—especially the methods of the literary and cultural critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

Folklore and the avant-garde were two poles of literary production that became quite close in that period (for example, the interest in folk and fairy tales on the part of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, and my later friend Kathy Acker). As folklorists, my classmates and I were trained as ethnographers, and we became deeply engaged by the connections between everyday aesthetic practices—stories, jokes, riddles, proverbs, mourning rituals, lullabies, ballads, ornaments—and their often archaic origins. A sense of the continuity of all art forms and a radical appreciation of the reach of their histories was an important legacy of that education.

I had written poetry since childhood. In graduate school I began to see how I could use my prose writing as a kind of ongoing notebook to address problems in art and aesthetics that interested me in my creative work. I wrote my dissertation on “nonsense” out of an intuition about the hyperrational systems on the border of rationality, and my study On Longing grew from consequent concerns with issues of scale, memory, and value.

LI: I wonder if you could say a bit about your early theoretical and critical allegiances.

SS: The questions and debates of the time have remained central to my thinking and writing: Is there a poetic language distinct from “ordinary” language? If so, what are its characteristics? If not, what is the role of metaphor in everyday language and the role of the imagination in culture? Are there universals of human consciousness and universal ethical values? Why are we both drawn to binary thinking and compelled to go beyond it? Is there a way to evade the traps of dialectic? What are the alternatives to materialism, to metaphysics? How are human beings the makers or creators of themselves?

LI: I wonder if you would maintain that many or all of your critical works are, at base, about poetics. It’s a category I find myself constantly unpacking and discussing, both in public and with colleagues and in more private moments. Do you have a working definition of this category and/or a sense of its particular significance for contemporary thought? What should one say to a person who understands the terms “poetics” and “poetry” to be synonymous (or who does not care that there might be a difference between the two)?

SS: Since my early studies in anthropology and literature, I’ve been much influenced by Giambattista Vico’s notion of verum factum—that the truth is made and that we can analyze its causes and effects. This is not a matter of relativism or “social construction”; we are bound by those truths, and their consequences are inescapable. Central to Vico’s philosophy is the notion that poetic making, particularly the work of metaphor, is vital to processes of thought and, at a later stage, to the formation of institutions. Metaphor remains a resource both to sustain and transform the world.

It seems to me problems of definition—What is poetry? What is poetics?—arise in specific contexts of translation or intelligibility. In all of the traditions I have come to know even superficially, poetry is characterized by certain formal features having to do with its relation to time and space. It is composed in patterned, often measured, lines that have distinct beginnings and endings; even when written, poetry thus has rhythm. What is measured can be stress, sound, or visual marks. The resulting work has an articulated form; it is an occurrence, an instance, or an object, and it is possible to refer to it. Because of the quality of attention we bring to it, poetry is endowed with intensity and value. Because it can be made or performed well, poetry accrues to individual makers and performers. Because it can be fictional, poetry carries us beyond lived experience. Because it is both governed by internal rules and beyond the force of external law, poetry is a source of speculation and freedom.

“Poetics” is a term that, like “poetry,” is derived from the Greek word for making, poiesis, yet it indicates the study of the production of forms, including the art form of poetry. Many poets, from Horace to Alexander Pope to contemporary L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, have explored poetics within the medium of poetry itself, but poetics is a matter of analyzing and considering the features of any made form and can be expressed just as easily—in fact much more easily!—in prose. Aristotle’s Poetics, with its concern for the defining features of tragedy and their rhetorical and somatic effects, remains the obvious template for all later work in poetics.
I would agree that my prose writing is largely concerned with poetics. Even so, my most concerted effort in this domain can be found in my paired recent books: Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, which addresses the reception of poetry, and The Poet’s Freedom, which addresses its production.

LI: If there exists an ongoing tension between art and philosophy, or art and criticism—if, as you write in The Open Studio, “philosophy’s constantly renewed announcement of the death of art can be read as a response to art’s unstated assertion, by means of its animation of sense particulars, of the limits of philosophy”—how might you, personally and professionally, navigate this détente? Do you consider yourself a philosopher or a literary writer or both—or is the distinction unimportant? Is it possible that you see some significance in a refusal to remain in just one sphere?

SS: This is a question I’ve thought about a great deal, yet I’ve concluded it doesn’t seem especially vital on the level of practice. Philosophy in the United States is largely concerned with problems of the analysis of concepts and sentences—problems already central to every aspect of the poet’s work. My own training was not in this kind of analytical philosophy but rather in what used to be called “literary theory.” (My own children refer to it somewhat ironically as “’70s theory,” and by that they mean Continental philosophy.) Except for my endeavors in poetry as a scholar of the history of the form and as a poet, I often have worked at the margins of disciplines, including aesthetics. But the professional status of my orientation doesn’t preoccupy me so much as the question of whether or not I am “getting somewhere” in my thinking.
That said, it is true that the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy, regardless of Plato’s motives in claiming it, has some genuine basis in the very means of production of each form. Metaphysics particularly must remove itself from the constraints of individual voice if its claims are to be universal, yet the central tenets of metaphysics remain authored and achieve much of their authority from institutional recognition. Even so, the central questions of metaphysics—questions of knowing, the problem of an exterior world, the question of materiality, the nature of life, the relation between the soul and the body, the possibility of liberty, the question of other minds, the origin of Being, the existence of God—have as well been central not only to the themes of poetry, but also to its methods. We could reframe this list readily from the perspective of poets, for poets, too, have been preoccupied with the subject/object problem; the representation of nature; the materiality of language; the organic sources of form; the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a practice of poetry; the bounds of traditions and the possibilities of free creation; the intelligibility of poetry for those who receive it; and a sense of ultimate purpose in creation.

In the end, poets and philosophers alike must take a stance against the mere “drawing of conclusions,” or they will betray what is made possible by their open practices. Creating poems and pursuing truth are human activities that are inseparable from our humanity itself—these actions separate us from other species that can make, but, so far as we know, cannot judge or contemplate their making.

Despite its roots in prophecy, lyric throughout its long history has rarely been written in the future tense or concerned with the future as a theme. Even so, perhaps this persistent absence indicates something deeper about the free practice of lyric; this very openness may indicate that futurity is nowhere in lyric deixis because it is everywhere. What Charles Baudelaire called “the spirit of the lyre” awakens us to our relation to nature, and to our own natures, and calls us to remember and consider and judge. The fact that our imaginations enable us to picture the future, and the future of our species, roots us more particularly in the sources of life and the possibility of its continuity.


Date: December 23, 2013

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Interview w. Renee Gladman in Triple Canopy

Renee Gladman with Lucy Ives

In her suite of essays "Calamities," in Triple Canopy’s fourteenth issue, Renee Gladman asked, “Narrative—is anybody still interested?” Gladman speaks with Triple Canopy editor Lucy Ives about essays, ditties, half words, partial masks, and being a sentence writer.

Lucy Ives: Have more “Calamities” transpired?

Renee Gladman: I’m on page 45 of Calamities, which means there are probably about thirty essays now.

LI: They’re about a page each?

RG: Yes, usually a page or a page and a half. I’m starting with a question or premise, like cleaning the espresso maker, allowing that to relate to a heavy topic, but treating it in a haphazard way, allowing that to change into something else or letting it fall off, because there’s really nothing you can say. I start from the idea of being in the day, then generate an idea from it, let it fall apart, and see what the shape is after that. And for some reason they end up having this ditty shape of a couple pages.

LI: Say a bit more about this “ditty shape”?

RG: I call them ditties because they feel less like they’re trying to travel; there is just one point that gets made in a quick circle. It’s funny to call them essays anyway, because they fail as essays. They don’t sustain an argument, they don’t go anywhere, they don’t conclude anything, and the half-paragraph ones seem even more so, kind of absurd. I mean, the whole thing is to allow me to have fun with some of my stresses, like teaching, being an academic, trying to get tenure, living in a sad, lonely city. It’s a way of getting out of a kind of rut, a question I couldn’t get past, what should I be doing with my writing.

LI: What should you be doing with your writing?

RG: If I were a really good drawer I would give up writing and just make beautiful line drawings, or at least for a while that would suffice, but I don’t draw well enough to abandon writing. Sometimes I go around and talk about the sentence and prose, and for a while I was really stuck on how thoughts exist in a preverbal way. I was thinking about how in our minds we have many things going on simultaneously, as images, half words, gestures, partial marks, and from that multiplicity we go into the single line of articulation, of expression. I kept trying to point back to that threshold moment, that translation or becoming. The linguistic selection process, what you decide to privilege, is fascinating to me, but it’s hard to know what to say about it. It makes writing a very interesting space. Writing is not a map, but something that comes after mapping.

LI: Do you think about a reader in that sense?

RG: It’s bewildering enough trying to grasp “the person” in space and time; imagine trying to think about the reader as you write. For me, writing is a kind of pursuit of company that never comes. That comes, but then leaves or gets taken away; a pursuit that, because I write fiction, is embedded in the narrative. It gets acted out in the events of a narrator and another character or group of characters. I guess it is possible to see something about the reader in here.

LI: In the Ravicka novels, the linguistic gesture is itself a character.

RG: It would be much easier to talk about this if we were talking about poetry. In Turkish, when you bring food out to people, the people who are receiving it say, “Health to your hands,” and the person who brought the food says in return, “Health to you.” An encounter could have a bigger sort of performance behind it, so you’re not just saying, “Thank you,” but, “May birds fly through your hair at night.” I wanted to embed in narrative these other symbolic possibilities. Somehow we get the idea that we can’t say what we want, maybe it will make us cry or be too big for our hearts to contain. So we say, “Hi,” but what we really mean is, “Will you pick me up and carry me across the street?”

LI: Ravic speakers say things like, “But could my body handle the three minutes of deep knee bends that I would have to deliver as my apology?” That seems like an unusual relationship to have with one’s language.

RG: My feeling about English is that the subject-verb-predicate order enforces a pattern. Having the body as an extra means of communication is one way of addressing that limitation, but the body still imposes another kind of order. You age and can’t communicate because you can’t spend three minutes in a backbend or whatever. I really wanted to place the sound of the language in an Eastern European space, that felt important, a heavy consonant presence, I’m really drawn to that. I also started speaking this language, before I called it Ravic, aloud with a friend, so I could only say what my voice would allow me to say. Because of English and because I studied Spanish there was a lot of vowel presence I had to get rid of. With a name like Luswage Amini, syllables get pronounced the way a black Southerner speaks. It’s like Lu-SWAGGE, kind of slow, drawn-out. I wanted that to be there. It’s still this black girl who’s writing about this place that’s far away and not necessarily in conversation with her culture. One of my “Calamity” essays is about how I think black people and Eastern Europeans should have a conversation about possible overlaps between their experience, and what if I were to call myself an African American Eastern European, or is it an Eastern European African American, because I think about that.

LI: How does that “Calamity” fall apart?

RG: It starts, “I began the day considering the possibility that the person I am before I set my eyes upon the page I’m about to read—in this case, page 79 of Herta Müller’s The Appointment—is entirely different than the person I am once I commence reading. I know this because I am not Eastern European in my real life.” That’s the entry point. The distraction is, “I can’t get anyone to understand how the black person is another kind of Eastern European, esp. the Eastern Europeans.… How eventful it would be for the Eastern Europeans to begin calling themselves black, or even black-Asian. How undermining of all that is the case for me to begin writing in my bios, 'Renee Gladman is an Eastern European African American.'” Then it says I would do this only to understand myself better as a reader.

LI: There’s the reader again.

RG: I think the reader is there more, in "Calamities." There’s this feeling that there is a community or interested parties who are reading these essays, because they are also junior faculty or are also living in lonely cities or also have a crazy idea, like that black people could be Eastern Europeans.

LI: It feels a little bit like an advice column that doesn’t have the format of an advice column.

RG: I don’t know how you would regard an advice column called “Calamities.”

LI: That makes it really good!

RG: Ultimately, it’s this performance of self. And this is why I don’t have to end them, because it’s an accumulation. If I wrote 120 pages of these essays, I would hope that through the accumulation of attempts to understand myself in particular experiences, maybe I would be something. That would be the self, an accumulation. We have these tiny moments, and it feels necessary in terms of surviving the day to put them together and see where we are.

LI: Why prose?

RG: I came up through poetry, but I am a sentence writer. I don’t know if it’s so much creating narratives as narrative space. I’m interested in time and experience and the sound of telling a story as opposed to the story itself. I have a love and deep interest in fiction, especially fiction in translation, so I teach that. But often in my workshops now I’ll bring in texts that are hybrid, cross-genre works. It’s useful as a way to get students to take more notice of language. I have students read poetry and then enter it from a sentence space.

LI: So the poem also contains the sentence?

RG: You can’t avoid narrative in any kind of language space. And poetry is interested in experience; time is there, and the day. There are places where it pushes toward documentation and begins to remind me of what you might do in prose. Maybe not fiction. But in prose, how you might build sentences around an abstraction or feeling rather than plot points. I think it can only benefit literature for fiction writers to employ various degrees of compression in their approach to narrative.

LI: At the risk of going backward, what’s the difference between fiction and prose?

RG: Fiction is interested in a certain kind of unfolding or sequence of events. Time is more intact in fiction. Prose, I think, introduces the element of the awareness of yourself in language as you are unfolding things in time and allowing yourself to be distracted or interrupted, allowing yourself to question the difficulty of what you’re doing and be stalled, not to move. I want more fiction to do this, because it changes the way we read and understand story. With fiction that repairs all doubt and interruption and experiment by being fluid, coherent; what we expect doesn’t leave much room for me as a reader. But I think the more you talk about these categories, their distinctions, the quicker they break down. Ultimately, what I want is for there to be a blur over everything.


Date: January 31, 2012

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

Interview in BOMB 2010

Write/Cross-Out: Lucy Ives

Powered by the refrain-directive “write,” and “cross out,” the content of Lucy Ives’s most recent work, Anamnesis, remains under active, sustained deliberation throughout. In this single long poem, her first book, Ives stalls writing at its inception so that a central question—what can be acceptably written here?—hovers over the poem and induces it.

While Anamnesis proceeds, therefore, in a mode of deliberate uncertainty, releasing a content of memory and images in spurts over the course of numerous campaigns, her earlier chapbook, My Thousand Novel, seems to take the opposite approach, presenting instead a collection of poems that are immediate and dense in language and imagery. Overall, Ives displays considerable conceptual drive, but the work of this New York-based poet, who is also a dedicated scholar (she is completing her PhD in Comparative Literature at NYU), is neither dry nor academic. Her poetry, especially in Anamnesis, is dynamic, open and affecting, adhering to a line of inquiry and then moving beyond it.

Claire Wilcox Your most recent published work, your book Anamnesis, deals in part with recollection and memory. Where did you grow up? How was it?

Lucy Ives I grew up in New York City. I was born here. I really like living here now, but to be honest when I was younger I spent a lot of time indoors watching television. I was very superstitious as a child, which I think had to do with being alone a lot. My mother worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sometimes we would walk through it at night. I was an only child and very interested in visual culture, I would say. In looking at things.

CW I just read Hannah Weiner’s Country Girl, from 1971, which you write about in your essay on naming, “SH Where are you bound?” in gutcult. I think Weiner’s poem is very lyrical, but because in her schizophrenia she receives transmissions from an exterior world, there is little sense of introspection, invention and subjectivity. Your poems in My Thousand Novel seem able to observe both what is “real”—“I saw wind press a page to the building”—and elliptically real—“I saw the girl push the looks from her eye”—and then something dream-like or surreal—“I saw the room fold itself in half.” How do you move between these different states of mind and language?

LI I think what you’re picking up on here is just bad writing on my part, what academics sometimes (politely) term catachresis, a kind of a mixed metaphor, like the expression, “the leg of a table.” I will say, in my own defense, that I have often been interested in, or wanted to write, images. The more you work on this, or try to do this, the more you discover how difficult it is to ‘point’ precisely with a word. There is on the one hand the problem of specificity, like if I say, “table,” which or what table will you understand, and, on the other, the problem of trying your reader’s patience, like if I begin, “…the table three feet in length, four feet high, two feet wide, of blondish plywood, with clear varnish, its surface able to reflect a face but not able to reflect printed matter clearly…,” how long am I going to hold your attention?

CW Are there certain contexts that compel you to write more than others?

LI I use writing for some of the same things I might use speaking for but mostly I use it for something else. I value writing for its silence, its weird beyond. I suppose when I think about context I think that I might produce something that would be read, and thinking about a reader might compel me in an exceptional sense, but this destination for what I write, the context of the reader, can always be imagined by me, and probably is often imagined, so it’s tricky.

CW What do you think about being a poet and in academia? Is there a relationship between your graduate work in Comparative Literature and your poetry?

LI There are a lot of practical reasons to want to get an advanced degree. I won’t go into those except to say that I want to teach, or would like to in the future, in order to make a living. This is probably the easiest way for me to make a connection between what I do as a graduate student and what I do with other kinds of writing, though there are certainly other overlaps that would be difficult to point out (at least for me). I have a view of academia that would probably annoy some people in that I don’t see it as incompatible with art. In fact I have difficulty drawing a clear distinction between acts of criticism and what are, I suppose, creative acts. I want to put a question mark at the end of that sentence.

CW What do you think about living in New York City?

LI I think a lot of things about living in New York, some of them include being exhausted by doing it. I spend a lot of time on the subway. I like the cliché about the anonymity of the city, though the actual fact of seeing people everyday, possibly hundreds of people whom you’ll never see again or, even if you do, will not remember having seen…it’s difficult to know what to do with that. I’m probably very loyal to this place, unreasonably so.

CW Do you contemplate moving or traveling?

LI I lived in Paris for four months last year, and two years before that I lived for a year in the northernmost prefecture of Honshu, in Japan. I used to travel a lot when I was in college, but I’ve become more interested in staying in one place these days. When I was 22, I was sure that I would live outside of America for a significant portion of my life. I was kind of a Germanophile for a while and thought that I would move to Berlin after I graduated and probably stay there, but then this never happened. I went to Iowa instead.

CW There are eleven different sections in Anamnesis. How did you come to these divisions? There’s also a lot of physical space between sections; each is divided by a full page marked only by the symbol “+.” Why did you organize the poem this way, and why did you chose this symbol?

LI The poem was written using an Olivetti Praxis 48 (this is a typewriter with really fast action and extra small, raised keys, designed for women I think; they have one in the Centre Pompidou) over the course of two weeks. It was one long typescript, and I had showed it to my husband, Ben, who liked it. As I began typing it up on my computer, it became clear that there were places that contained (if contained is the right word) a pause, and it seemed like it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if I were to put some visual space there. This was when I realized that it might be a complete book on its own.

The section breaks, “+,” are not specifically meant to echo the refrain in the book, “Cross this out,” but that doesn’t mean that they don’t. For me it was just a more attractive mark than an asterisk. And the full page is there to give the reader time, since you have to turn that page. I mean, it’s partially just a convention of books, part of the general book ‘time signature’ you can’t avoid—or that you have at your disposal—the whole page left blank as punctuation.

CW I’m struck by a sense that the anamnesis of Anamnesis, in other words, the recalling or recollection of things past, applies as much to language as to memories. Many of the lines that appear under deliberation in Anamnesis feel close to your writing in My Thousand Novel. But in this case, the poem is not allowed to fully emerge. In the beginning of Anamnesis the reader and writer can’t inhabit the poem, but later there are moments where we are clearly in a poem, and then the imperative is to leave that space. As in:

Wired to adore I lay out across

The snowy field

The green carpet

I picked messages up like

These were leaves

I was good at it

And ok

And in despair

And filled with hate

Cross this out

Write, “walk across the room”

Stop typing

Does your move to frame the process of making a poem mark a shift, or desired shift, in your writing? Are you, in some places, directly recalling language you know yourself to have used, spoken or written, perhaps a kind of writing you find yourself moving away from?

LI It’s probably better not to admit this sort of thing, but one of my main interests in writing, or the act of writing, has to do with the way it mimics, retroactively as it were, more precise recording devices we now have, digital et al. I’m curious about (as I think I suggested in another response) how exact written description can be, or what the powers or limits of written description are. Could I write like a tape recorder? (I know that’s outdated, but I used them so much as a kid, they’re kind of iconic for me.) Could I write a line that’s photographic? I mean, of course I can’t, but it’s difficult, on an intuitive level, to really know that you can’t do this, since it’s logical to feel that you can describe what is in the frame of a photograph, that you could transcribe your own thoughts, etc. So it’s this question of fidelity that is a great concern when it comes to what you call “[being] in a poem.” If I write a line, what exactly will I be repeating or saying? Is the content just the referent of the words, if I attempt to relate or reproduce an event? This is how, in writing Anamnesis, I got to an idea of what a good or appropriate sort of ‘content’ for the poem would be. I wanted to try to ask this kind of question, ‘What is the content of what I write?’ Or, ‘What do I even think I can accurately talk about or show?’

CW You have a lot of animals in your poems, what are they doing there?

LI Ha. Animals are generally thought to have a sort of subjectivity that is different from human subjectivity. I don’t really know if this is true in a biological sense, but it’s certainly true in literature. I think when I include animals in my writing I am thinking of this general tradition of making animals speak in stories, making them walk upright and hold tools, etc., but without doing that. Though it’s a commonplace to speak of the limitedness of animal behavior, I think there is an interesting way in which animals, by virtue of people’s general ignorance about what perception is like for them, point out limits inherent in human perception. I think most of the animals in my poems are sort of on the sidelines, in an illustration that a speaker sees, for example, or sitting at the side of the road.

CW You also make collages. Can you talk about these a bit? Is there a relationship between your collage and your poetry? I know sometimes you’ve published them together.

LI I like looking at images from the recent past, the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s. I like thinking about the mix of earnestness and venality with which some of the commercial images I use were produced. It’s interesting to me that something can look dated that is at such a small remove from us, temporally speaking. But I’m not sure how much the collages have to do with my writing. I should probably stop publishing them together! Actually, recently I did a long collage piece for the journal Triple Canopy. They had asked me to include text, and it was extremely difficult. The writing just sort of asserts itself, like a caption, without your particularly wanting it to, and this makes it challenging to do anything interesting with it (for me this is a challenge, at least).

CW In a recent interview with Charles Bernstein for BOMB, Jay Sanders wrote: “In light of our discussion here, I can see how the emergence of what’s being labeled “conceptual poetry” points to the impatience of some poets for their work to be seen as art. It forces the issue more directly by aping the vernacular associated with appropriation art of the ’70s and ’80s and grafting it upon their poetry practice to see what might still be potent in these tactics.” Do you have anything to say about this comment, and/or the trend Jay Sanders references here?

LI I guess I don’t see conceptualism in contemporary American poetry as deriving exclusively from ’70s and ’80s appropriation art; I’d be interested in reading an essay that made a case for classing Raymond Roussel as a conceptual writer, for example. But there is something more specific Sanders is getting at here, which has to do with the professional contexts in which poetry is sometimes produced and received, and the proximity of the art world (and art market) to these contexts.

CW What about poetry readings? I listened to your recording, “100 Views” on Weird Deer, the Weird Deer Hotline. Your voice is mournful, accented, and coming through the veil of telephone static. I’m interested in this private/public forum, and found this reading much more compelling than many I’ve seen in public. Shouldn’t there be more things like this?

LI I think poetry readings could be more like parties, or more like anything other than poetry readings.

CW Having attended Harvard and Iowa, and currently NYU, do you find that the contemporary work you engage with tends to be from people you have known or know from these places?

LI When I was in college I read a lot of sort of preppy, East Coast poetry: Berryman, Bishop, Merrill, Ashbery, Stevens, among others. I was on the poetry board of a student journal called The Advocate, or sometimes, The Harvard Advocate, to distinguish it from the other magazine of the same name. The Advocate building was this rickety, two-story structure we leased from the university for $1 a year, it reeked of beer, and the people responsible for publishing poetry would meet every Sunday morning to pick through the submissions pile. Although it wasn’t that clear to me that we knew what we were doing, we had a good time, and I learned a lot about how to read—or, how to express what you think about what you’ve read so that other people will like what you like. Iowa was slightly different in that there it’s less about trying to decide what you like or why you like it and more about actually doing some writing and then not freaking out when other people tear it apart. I still see a lot of people I met there, am married to one of them, so I tend to think it was a good experience. Now, in school, I mainly identify as someone “who is interested in poetry.” I’ll just sort of leave it at that.

CW Do you listen to music?

LI Yes, but not while writing. It’s a hold-over from high school, but I’m still scared of this question.

CW When did you find your bearings as a writer. What happened?

LI I’ve just always liked doing this. When I was little, I would make recordings of short ’songs’ (i.e., me, singing) on a cassette player. Then, when I was eight, I wrote this poem for a contest at my school, we had to describe a cover of The New Yorker. It was this Magritte-like image, a man in a bowler hat, dogs and cats falling down through the sky behind him. I’m leaving in my favorite misspelling:

This gentle man must look about himself,

For pets are raining in the sky.

It may just be a change in the weather,

Or a sight for you and I.

But regard his look

For it is carzy.


Date: July 28, 2010

Publisher: BOMB

Format: Web

Link to the review.


A collage.


A collage.


A collage.


A collage.

Impossible Views Of The World


A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A witty, urbane, and sometimes shocking debut novel, set in a hallowed New York museum, in which a co-worker’s disappearance and a mysterious map change a life forever.

Stella Krakus, a curator at Manhattan’s renowned Central Museum of Art, is having the roughest week in approximately ever. Her soon-to-be ex-husband (the perfectly awful Whit Ghiscolmbe) is stalking her, a workplace romance with “a fascinating, hyper-rational narcissist” is in freefall, and a beloved colleague, Paul, has gone missing. Strange things are afoot: CeMArt’s current exhibit is sponsored by a Belgian multinational that wants to take over the world’s water supply, she unwittingly stars in a viral video that’s making the rounds, and her mother—the imperious, impossibly glamorous Caro—wants to have lunch. It’s almost more than she can overanalyze.

But the appearance of a mysterious map, depicting a 19th-century utopian settlement, sends Stella—a dogged expert in American graphics and fluidomanie (don’t ask)—on an all-consuming research mission. As she teases out the links between a haunting poem, several unusual novels, a counterfeiting scheme, and one of the museum’s colorful early benefactors, she discovers the unbearable secret that Paul’s been keeping, and charts a course out of the chaos of her own life. Pulsing with neurotic humor and dagger-sharp prose, Impossible Views of the World is a dazzling debut novel about how to make it through your early thirties with your brain and heart intact.

Excerpt in Granta.

Book page at Penguin Random House.

Recording of reading from the novel.


“[An] intricate, darkly funny debut…There is so much going on in this novel, so many sharp observations packed into sentences as sensual and jarring as a Mardi Gras parade, that it bears a second look…Ives, an accomplished poet, infuses even mundane actions with startling imagery…Read this book on whichever level you choose: young woman coming unglued, art world mystery or museum-based episode of ‘The Office,’ replete with petty workplace drama, aged PCs and the occasional colleague marching ‘up and down the hall, loudly, in quest of a staple remover.’ It’s a smart novel brimming with ideas about love, art, personal agency, a lack thereof.”

The New York Times Book Review

“An archival treasure hunt yields riches for the heart-worn young curator in Lucy Ives’s ultracharming fiction debut, Impossible Views of the World, though it’s the author’s tart observations of present-day social pretensions that sparkle brightest.”


“Cool and bracing…a perfect summer pleasure…An accomplished poet, Ives also knows how to delight sentence by sentence, with turns of phrase that cry to be underlined or Tweeted…Part send-up of the Manhattan art world, part elaborate literary mystery, the novel is bound together by a voice that is at turns deadpan and warm, shot through with a crisp irony that makes it tempting to declare it the literary equivalent of an Alex Katz painting…It’s a singular work, worthy of a place in any world-class collection.”


“Diehard Da Vinci Code fans will find a new heroine in Stella, the code-cracking art curator at the center of this clever mystery.”


“An art historical mystery that will interest fans of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, with a narrator equal parts intellectual, ironic, and cool…Scintillating…A diversion and a pleasure, this novel leaves you feeling smarter and hipper than you were before.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“An original debut ringing with smart prose, engaging humor and cultivated taste…Ives’ genius is apparent in the intricate way she weaves ironic confession, romantic comedy and artful treatise with explorations into the historic art world…Full of intelligence and imagination, this relatable literary mystery will charm even the most apprentice art devotee.”


“Stella is like Hannah Horvath from Girls—smart, with an equal tendency toward snark and introspection—living in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The novel sends up the museum world, with pretentious art folks courting corporate dollars and the usual office politics, but maintains a sense of something larger, even magical, working in the background.”


“The charm and energy of Impossible Views of the World rest in Ives’s uncanny eye for the subtle tells of romance, the idiosyncrasies of the NYC young, and the details of 19th-century furniture and art…A clever curatorial mystery, a love-gone-wrong rom-com or a sharp-witted story of a young New York woman, Impossible Views of the World is way more fun than a rainy afternoon in the American Objects wing of a cavernous museum.”

Shelf Awareness

“[A] smart and singular debut novel…Ives maximizes her story’s humor with subtlety; a line here and there is enough to call attention to the absurdity of, for instance, the museum’s corporate benefactor’s attempt to secure the world’s water rights. She also isn’t afraid to make her heroine unlikable, which works in the novel’s favor…odd and thoroughly satisfying.”

Publishers Weekly

“I first knew Lucy Ives’s work as a poet, and to have her prose is a gift, too. The detailed novel she’s built with such authenticity, wit, and feeling is remarkable for its vitality, insights, and lyrical view of a changing world.”

— Hilton Als

“This book was written by a rampaging, mirthful genius. It stands before me like a runestone, magical, mysterious—an esoteric juggernaut masquerading as a ‘debut novel.’ During the days I spent reading it, I said goodbye to all else.”

— Elizabeth McKenzie

“There are abundant pleasures to be found in Lucy Ives’s debut novel about art curation, corporate control, and utopia (among many other subjects and digressions), but the best is the poetic, elegant intelligence of its narration, vocalized by Stella Krakus, whose every sentence wryly climbs from the ridiculous to the sublime.”

— Teddy Wayne

“Lucy Ives, a deeply smart and painstakingly elegant writer, wins the prize with this intricate, droll, stylish book—at once a mystery novel, a romantic comedy, a tricky essay on aesthetics, an exposé of art-world foibles, and a diary of emotional distress. With sharp phrases, uncanny plot-turns, and mise-en-abymes galore, this mesmerizing tale radiates the haute irreality of Last Year at Marienbad and the dreamy claustrophobia of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, this time for adults only.”

— Wayne Koestenbaum


Date: August 1, 2017

Publisher: Penguin Press

Format: Print

Purchase here.


In hardcover.

The Hermit


The Hermit is a catalog of thoughts concerning art and experience. Layering fragments of dreams, lists, games, conversations, poems, and notebooks, Lucy Ives offers an intimate look into one writer's practice—"The worst is my imagination: lushly underscoring everything."

Excerpt at BOMB.

Excerpts at The Poetry Foundation.


"Readers are invited to an inner conversation as the poet grapples with the idea of writing, the history of it, the creative act itself, and also the text as an object, asking permission to be seen (much as Ives permits herself to feel), to exist in the eyes of others, and to participate in the canon. What saves the book from being merely being a treatise or a personal journal is that the reader is taken along on the creative journey; Ives muses about another author or a technique, such as the idea of description, and the page transforms into an experimental playground where she produces gorgeous passages of lush imagery."

Publisher's Weekly

"'This is a poem about trying to write a novel,' Ives writes, daring us to read her poem The Hermit like a novel, or at least as a poet’s desire to write a novel. 'When I was 13 I swore to myself that I would become a novelist,' she continues. In fact she already has: Her impressive publications credits include both poetry (including her excellent collection Orange Roses) and even a novel, nineties, a bildungsroman focused on a young woman coming of age during that decade. She is an editor for Triple Canopy, a magazine and arts organization committed to 'resisting the atomization of culture' and who assembled an installation as part of the 2015 Whitney Biennial. Earlier this year it was announced she’d sold her second novel to Penguin, titled Impossible Views of the World. Ives hasn’t just fulfilled the promise to made by her 13-year-old self, she has documented what it took to get her there. In clumsier hands, this would come off as diaristic. In Ives’s, it’s art."

The Culture Trip

"Like the paintings of Agnes Martin or the films of Nathaniel Dorsky, the most important character in Ives’s prose is its reader. In the white space underneath these notes my own mind’s wanderings take on what is not exactly an importance, but a space for reading and thinking. I move around in this writing, and become aware of my moving around within it, and consider not only the shape of the writing, but my own shape as its reader. In other words, Ives’s writing encourages its readers to consider their own power and form among the reality they encounter."

MAKE Magazine

"Imagine if all you had was phenomenology, and then that faded, making every legibility left behind look like scare quotes around the word "thought." Lucy Ives is smart in that heart-breaking way that can make a spare, suspicious, elegant work of anti-poetry out of the silent treatment between ideas and those who have them. 'You cannot win,' says The Hermit, in that cognitive territory unoccupied by ease."

— Anne Boyer

"Stray thoughts are the protagonists of The Hermit—they might be the after effects of intense focus, yet come across as decidedly eccentric in their resistance to systems (i.e. genre) that might dull their prismatic luminescence. Here they deliver proof of parataxis's poiesis. Ives's exquisite take on ellipsis as realism is a dream, as both vision and something that fully satisfies a wish."

— Mónica de la Torre


Date: July 1, 2016

Publisher: The Song Cave

Format: Print

Purchase here.


The Hermit.




Reading from The Hermit in fall 2015.

Human Events


Human Events is an essay pamphlet, published by Flying Object in 2016.

The essay concerns human events and how to write about them. It was composed during an iteration of Flying Object's ResidencyX, from January 2nd to January 18th, 2015. The title of the residency was "Real Allegory." The focus of the residency was described in the following way:

What can research contribute to writing not based in fact? How, more specifically, might we imagine the potential of historical documents and artifacts to teach us about what is not the case, what cannot be, what is excluded or merely (and perhaps eternally and enticingly) possible? And how does a literary construction such as narrative or a trope such as metonymy find its place in the writing of history?

Treating historiography as a poetics—as a discipline concerned with fabrication, contingent meaning, and aesthetic power, as much as objective analysis and proof—this iteration of ResidencyX will include a lecture, workshop, and exhibition. These events will address the question of how the writing of history can serve as a model for other kinds of writing, depiction, and creation, around and beyond the discipline of history. Also explored: the relationship between historical modes of American art making and artistic collaboration, and contemporary practice.

Installation views of the related exhibition.

View of related library.

Related workshop.

Related interview in The Believer.


Date: March 1, 2016

Publisher: Flying Object

Format: Print

Currently sold out.


The cover.


Reading from Human Events at The Poetry Project in winter 2017.



nineties is an unforgettable novella about credit-card fraud, the end of the 20th century, and the lives of young girls. A deceptively simple and clear-eyed look at adolescence at the dawn of American hypercapitalism, nineties is a cautionary tale, rendered in riveting, lucid prose; a narrative of innocence and experience and the intoxicating nature of first friendships.

Excerpt at Triple Canopy.


"Alien, canny, and alert... . So precise as to sometimes feel punishing, nineties is a brief, formal, forceful book. In it, Ives employs an economy of language that undoes the extreme fecundity of the material culture she describes. As a work of literature, it asks: How can writing be a motor for social revaluation?"


"I couldn’t help thinking of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers while reading nineties. The adolescent shenanigans of the girls in that movie are definitely higher-stakes. They involve sticking up a restaurant (with fake guns) for money to go on spring break, ending up in jail, then falling in with a local thug, sticking up other spring breakers with him, and climatically using actual guns to take out an entire rival gang. These girls are older than the characters in nineties, but it’s a similar pattern of behavior in that there is no forethought or concern about potential repercussions. They are 'playing with fate' and are turned on by it. I think this is true of every generation, nineties or otherwise. Perhaps it’s just true of youth. The scary thing about this playing with fate is that said fate can be accessed in further and more nuanced ways aside from just credit fraud. The Internet and social media can inspire such cruel, desperate, and depressing behavior (think of all the stories of kids who kill themselves because they are bullied online, because of their sexuality or otherwise), and we are still learning how this behavior will be understood through the eyes of a generation of humans who have never experienced life without it."

The Rumpus


Date: June 1, 2013

Publisher: Tea Party Republicans (Little A, republication)

Format: Print

Currently out of print.


The original cover design.


Reading from nineties in fall 2013.

The Worldkillers


The Worldkillers is a book including poems, a novella, and an essay.


"Ives ... is quickly developing into a poet of sentences on par with the poem-essays of Lisa Roberston and Phil Hall for their sharp blend of lyric, thought and wit."

— Rob McLennan

Poem. Novel. Essay. Here is a literary triptych whose panels swing from one another unfettered by geometry in wide and wild arcs. But there are hinges. Think of the upkeep of the minotaur at the center of what can only be the labyrinthine mind of Lucy Ives. This particular creature feeds on its own enclosure. Who said time is eternity turned into a moving image? How does this work on the page? As soon as Ives allows things focus, she pulls back, revealing a small component of a larger construct, but never anything objective and irreducibly whole. Thus, effectively her subject and obsession is not the demarcation of time, but the inability of time to be properly or comparatively enacted. What if Stein and Paul Éluard were a single poet? What if Wittgenstein, Elaine Scarry, and Charles and Ray Eames collaborated on a novelization of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits? What if Robbe-Grillet and Hélène Cixous were to re-write The Duino Elegies as an essay? Daedalus never built anything quite like this. Good luck getting out.

— Noah Eli Gordon

The Worldkillers is a strange and beautiful novel of numerology written in the course of a day; it is also a brilliant essay on description. But it begins with singing. Lucy Ives ushers us into her newest book via a series of mediations on repetition and transformation. “I saw” unfurls down the page, eventually becoming “I was,” but not before so many things turn in on, and thus into, themselves. This is not some simple reconfiguration of Decartes’ “cogito ergo sum” whereby vision replaces thinking. Neither thinking nor seeing are proof of being. Ives reminds us that language, image, and description are merely operations we perform, beautiful and useful as they may be. Nothing overrides “the physical world[’s]…indomitable reality,” try as we might to kill it. In the face of our love and disregard for this world, Ives gives us a book so unsettling and so stunning that we “either say no words or weep into” the worlds she so generously offers. These are worlds I gratefully receive.

— Sasha Steensen

Lucy Ives's The Worldkillers is so much fun. Like a sick-and-gorgeous dollhouse not-meant-for-kids and come-to-life. Or like a series of Daguerre's Dioramas with lights flickering in windows and pale blue smoke lifting out the chimneys. Anything might happen! Yet only one thing can, because this is a book. But will it be horrible? Gruesome? Grand?

— Danielle Dutton


Date: September 1, 2015

Publisher: SplitLevel Texts

Format: Print

Purchase here.


From the book's interior.

Orange Roses


A The Believer Reader Survey Book of the Year for 2013.

An Entropy Magazine Best Poetry Book of 2014.

One of Flavorwire's 50 Best American Poetry Books of the Decade So Far.

Written over a 10-year timeframe, Orange Roses enacts a poet’s development: the process of her discovering what a poem might be. In this work, there is hardly a difference between dream and reality—the line between that which exists and that which is merely a construction of perspective is blurred in any attempt to portray a given experience. Ives questions not only what we can get away with, in attempting to add to or alter whatever “poetry” or “literature” might officially be—but, too, what will we be able to take away? Writing is less about choosing between worlds, she suggests in this exploratory book, than it is about existing in one where life and our perceptions thereof are complementary.

"Orange Roses" at Conjunctions.

"Beastgardens" at The Poetry Foundation.

"Early Poem" at The Poetry Foundation.

"On Imitation" at Triple Canopy.


“Though lyric in its form, Orange Roses is a coming-of-age narrative that unfolds against the backdrops of college, California, cityscapes, and an American art conference. Explicitly influenced by the work of George Oppen, Ives takes accretion as her lodestar, moving fluidly from analysis to aphorism, concept to sonnet, and paragraph to fragment. . . . Ives is a poet of aporia or lack, seeking to discover what exists by examining what is absent: poetry ‘is not a question of relating language to a person one is but rather of relating it to the exact person one is not.’ Orange Roses is autobiography composed of its omissions.”

Boston Review

"'Mind-blowing' is an overused phrase when describing books, but with Orange Roses, it fits the bill. 'Thought-provoking' would be an understatement."

Coe Review

"Ives’s raw material is the refreshing stuff of life, the mind and the body. The genuine is trickier territory, but I think for all her concerns with imitation and transference, this is a book about the wonder of discovering yourself as writer in language."

Constant Critic

"In which a maturing writer look[s] back on her younger self with a kind of wild surmise, amazing herself by where she has been, and amazing us by where she might go."


“Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses is a thrilling book. It is also brilliant, hard-earned and honest. In the acute materiality of its poems—part diary/travelogue, part theatrical event, part philosophy—fervently anti-chronological—it is an urgent (albeit always witty and wry) inquiry into the aesthetic set of mind and the act of making. One could say it is an undressing of the readerly act, of the eye itself and its habit of ‘tugging incessantly forward.’ In fact, Ives’ work contests that forwardness and, in its numerous sequences (most vividly in the stunning ‘Early Poem’ and ‘Orange Roses’) she undertakes to imagine alternatives to the no-longer-apparently-natural forces of progress and growth. In this it is also an urgently political book—but without a trace of polemic. Its politics are where they do the most work—in its form and in its poetics. Ives’ work is certain in its undoing of certainty; it has an unforgettable voice as it strips itself of voiced identity; it summons a deeply trusted narrator in a work which cunningly challenges that trust. What illusions are to be left standing? That you cannot improvise the truth. That you can go backwards. That you cannot start over. That you must. The erasures and reappearances of figure and ground—that hard drama—have rarely been so movingly undertaken. A heartbreakingly beautiful work.”

— Jorie Graham

“I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Orange Roses. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. Especially do I marvel at ‘Early Poem,’ the prose poem sonnet sequence that counts its one hundred sentences with great delicacy, freshness, wit, surprise, and wisdom. Original in form and expression, it brings us to attention, thereby to the real, and the leap mid-sentence from one page to another is dazzling. I’m serious. Here we have objectivist vivacity and accuracy near the U-Haul headquarters in Emerson’s America. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the poems ‘Orange Roses’ and ‘On Imitation,’ is a sober certainty—read the latter as a prospectus for the new poetry. To quote an earlier work, ‘If one follows one’s understanding rather / than resisting: pleasure.’”

— Paul Hoover


Date: October 15, 2013

Publisher: Ahsahta Press, Boise State University

Format: Print

Purchase here.


The cover.


On the vine.



Novel is a poetry chapbook.


"I wonder at times what a genuinely philosophical poetry might look like; I know it wouldnt look like philosophy. I suspect it might bear real resemblance to the poems that Lucy Ives is writing in Novel. Such poems accept confusion without reveling in it. Such poems trouble themselves by working toward song in the very realm where thought and perception divide and grow quarrelsome. They forsake Truth with its capital T for truthfulness: an attention to consequence, a willingness to become complicated without false reverence thereof, 'the knot so language would have / mention // of what it later did.' These are poems remarkably without idols; and by that I simply mean that these poems seek to 'follow one's understanding rather / than resisting.' It just happens to be the truthful case that one doesn't always understand ones understanding, and the pleasure of the poem is inextricable from its necessity: an accompaniment into the world that refuses to be domesticated by thought, the very world in which one loves what she loves, the very world in which one makes her home."

— Dan Beachy-Quick


Date: February 1, 2012

Publisher: Projective Industries

Format: Print

Out of print.


The cover.



Anamnesis is a long poem. It was the winner of the 2008 Slope Editions Book Prize.

It was also recorded and released as a 12" by Flying Object/Unicorn Evil, in 2011.

"The word 'anamnesis' relates to how a person arrives at knowledge. In the Platonic sense, it suggests the recollection of ideas which the soul knew in a previous life. In a clinical sense, it is the full medical history as told by a patient; in the Christian sense, it is a Eucharistic prayer; and in immunology, it is a strong immune response. All of these meanings relate to the central concept of this fine collection, how a writer 'finds' and/or 'makes' meaning and deals with the temporary nature of the act, how even our most vital life stories are provisional at best, and how erasure becomes part of the process itself. We are asked to reflect on what previous life brought these sentences to the page, what history of illness or wellness caused the words to form this way, what invisible prayer was erased even before meaning was posited."

— Maxine Chernoff, from the Introduction

Excerpt in Typo.

An excerpt included in UPD's 6x6 lent that particular issue of the periodical its title.

Audio at Triple Canopy.


"Powered by the refrain-directive 'write,' and 'cross out,' the content of Lucy Ives’ most recent work, Anamnesis, remains under active, sustained deliberation throughout. In this single long poem, her first book, Ives stalls writing at its inception so that a central question—what can be acceptably written here?—hovers over the poem and induces it."


"This is an important book: I’ll come back to it."

With Hidden Noise

"The simple concept Ives has chosen for her collection of poems is ingenious. Anamnesis belongs not among stacks of experimental poetry, but with the ambitions of conceptual visual artists who sought to replace the object with the assumptions and intentions behind it: Rauschenberg’s erasures of de Kooning or Ceci n’est pas une pipe are closer to the kind of infinite aesthetics of Anamnesis than those of contemporary poetry. Ives has replaced the book with the act of reading and response. The book does not become the book, does not become itself, until we engage with it. For the elegance of its iteration alone, it merits our attention."

Tarpaulin Sky

"By not holding to one thought, Ives triggers many; we become the writer and the reader of multiple poems. Anamnesis is a new reminder of the fluidity of our roles and our memories. The reader’s experience is not passive, and the stylistic choice to expose poems and the writing of them for what they truly are—decisions and regrets and half-truths—is refreshing."

The Colorado Review

"Ives highlights the poetic occupation of establishing comparative structures only to torment the linguistic foundations on which they are based. The text occludes the making of a manageable recollection, since the thing remembered is at once mutable and disposable. This effect both carries and calcifies content: the afterimages of words and meanings appear and disappear in real time, and are reminiscent of the erasures and alterations found in William Kentridge’s animated films. Like Kentridge, Ives performs a kind of mental trickery as the medium allows for the appearance of progressions. Kentridge’s drawings—when captured in succession—create the illusion of movement, much as Ives’ constructions collect meaning—jerking through affirmations and negations, reflecting the false starts and reboots of living."

Lana Turner


Date: December 30, 2009

Publisher: Slope Editions

Format: Print

Purchase here.


The book cover.


The 12" album cover.

My Thousand Novel

My Thousand Novel is a poetry chapbook.

You can download it as a PDF at right.


Date: January 1, 2009

Publisher: Cosa Nostra Editions

Format: Print

Out of print.

"Maybelline" at Hyperallergic


I am clearing my mind again
I mean, “I think”
I am bad
I am good?
I am very very good laughing a lot in delight
As at the same time there are many cameras?
I am good
I try
My head
Is good
I am the one who is bad
Escaping when it is not time
Racing downstairs
I sleep for years
On a lawn
In Melbourne
In Australia
I am good
I am very good rising in greatness
People say my name not even to know me
I light a candle
I am that good
Animals I created during the 17th century
Could be brought back to life
A drowsy octopus blows its nose on my thigh
Ants lick me
I am wrong
I didn’t know this was happening
And that is so far worse
Than being incorrect
Darkening as it does all previously
Known sentiment
Fear is
Good or not good
Fear is the ultimate purview
Of the philosopher
It is the yoke
To harness bad to good
Fear shivering in excellent sunsets
Either I am bad or I am good
Witnesses have known me or
Truth in their
Responses was
Relative, local
And I dwelt
Or was dwelling
I did not share
Their commitment
To any type of certainty
I am good because
It is right here
What happened
A stacked result
That’s tight
And turns
Whatever face
Probably you
Regret my
You knock
Upon the desk
With one long finger
You take the time
That later
Will be needed
You put it
Very very
Not that I see all
But the point is I am looking
My official release
My redemption
Do not really matter
That I
Know always better than
Maybe I knew
Scholars of America
Here is what I want to do
Maybe born with it
As spring approaches
I discover Carl Jung
In a dream
He dips
Below the horizon
Your jealousy
Was less complex
Carl Jung making speeches
A simple sky
He does a lot for weather
A barrel
Pointed at the sky
But I don’t know
As you begin thinking and become one thing
The future is just yellow
How do you feel about gazes
Like an airplane we do not
The nearness of just one actual mile
Is specific
More or less true
An answer would “speak”
You would “turn”
I’d “speak”
I mean, no longer “legion”
I would turn
English is “myriad”
Keats remarked
A recession
In which clouds
Thump the sky
I’ve known this all morning
If someone doesn’t ask you
What you are doing
You shall
Be good
You shall be good for one more day
When I am good I know
What I am doing
I walk on a dais
I swarm ashore
Yes yes
I lie
A lot
This is why
I am not
In the essential
If you were to write something
Topical like
The story of a search
In which, “The Past…”
This would qualify
And I think it’s good
You have your mind
You use it to produce opinion
This is at least partially
The great and famous
You are more rational and therefore
The more
You speak
The more there is
The good
Lastingly I believe
For you whom humans
Imitate are good
Anyone would say
“I saw it beginning”
If I am bad it is because
I know no
Than to be this way
It is because I am wrong in
Not knowing
This is the effect
Much as
I am not good
I can
Only read
Its letter
I am good
If I am good
This sense
Science smiles
Teeth flickering
The infinite divisibility of distances
Does good
To one
Such as me
I am using words to point to other words and it’s
OK with readers
I live
I don’t do a single thing


Date: March 16, 2016

Publisher: Hyperallergic

Format: Web

Link to the poem here.


An image of writing.

"Rue des Écoles" at OPR

Rue des Écoles

Now lighter I took a step somewhere I was going, the streets
parted by a building with a face, and it was 1, noontime, hills
I could remember were definitely in the distance, climbers
you could hear in conversation, the reflected thump of
soccerballs, guides with flags or umbrellas, I remember
that it is moving day, you must meet for lunch, muttering
now, you know, snaps, clapping, it is another
way of saying that what happens next can’t be
seen, whiskers of ironwork form ferns and ivy, cast a complex
shadow over lots of hours: Please say something more, I’m
asking, please tell what comes next, but in a dream it hums and
refuses; dream does nothing, it is either gray
or gleaming nights and someone comes forward in such a
suit, someone is a sparrow or the muse, and I retreat, I mean
in the face of knowledge you can only
feel very sorry. For happiness and unhappiness
are the two proverbial verbs that fly together
and there is such a thing as The Past, so I
may know it, I may be certain of a thing. If someone pretends to hurt
me, I look away into a mirror. “It’s called thinking,” I say and
wash my hands. If ever there were a reason to look up let’s
look down, I’d say. I’d talk into a handheld recording device, yes
that is one way I would do it if … if …
It is late afternoon, I walk where I am meant to go though
it is late, I used to hate being encouraged by others to use what little
talent I had because I thought this would ruin my chances at
being really great at anything, and the person who speaks first at my
appointment is a florist, and she sells
grasses and tulips, she is saying that if she were
a writer, which she is not, she would just speak into a microphone and
later transcribe whatever she felt like saying. She must have
said that, though, “whatever she felt like saying” for I was
glad for her, for I knew she would be a very great writer
but she chose not to be one at all, because of her understanding
that it’s all very well and good, even if all the while you
imagine someone might draw apart the blinds, his expression like a
wave cresting at the mouth, new flesh, and the promise not of
happiness but of attention, adoration, sense, like …
like, not long ago when I felt little or no fear and saw the outline, a
face in profile weirdly twirling on a dangling length of wire, yes, at
this time, not long ago, I became not a singer but someone
who could hear the songs that are misplaced in things, a burden
I guess, but my suburban routes were never good ones, like,
the broken pen in the dirt with its chant about
blue, was I imagining this, was I mad. But the sun was already up, so there
was no denying that time at least was passing, and elsewhere everyone
went on. I did not want to stop them from doing so
Please let me tell you, far be it from me. Thus I stood aside and let
the passerby pass me. I let whoever develop one’s career. This was not
merely right and fitting, it formed an integral part of the larger
story I was telling, an essay titled, NEW EARTH, and there where
you told me I was forgetful, I smiled. What could have led me to react in such
a fashion I don’t know. What I do know is it was summer,
always summer, whenever you felt brave and said a thing to me


Date: December 4, 2017

Publisher: Organism for Poetic Research

Format: Print and web

Link to the poem here.


Magazine containing poem.

"Beastgardens" at The Poetry Foundation


first garden


second garden

Bees go mad on late summer evenings, should
People stray from their jobs towards water


third garden

Who makes the rented red boat's
Oars turn

Who is the younger one always
Turning up

Who professes to be better because
He is just looking

Who says he is worse off as
He cannot look


fourth garden

The unicycle girl, thin
Like one with a sexual problem,
Goes through
The Schlosspark. This follows:
Father rolling his eyes


fifth garden

The man from Manchester
Has my breast in his hand

These are funny
They don't do anything do they

Being burnt by a fire I say


sixth garden

Similarly, if only
You grasped some
Titanic misery or a
Love like an old man's


seventh garden

Where were we

A ballroom competition goes on
A yellow satin bikini
A fuchsia floor-length are
Dancing; an audience is
Drinking, clapping 1 2 3 1 2 3



Date: December 19, 2017

Publisher: The Poetry Foundation

Format: Web

Link to the poem below.

"Early Poem" at the Poetry Foundation

Early Poem

The first sentence is a sentence about writing. The second sentence tells you it's alright to lose interest. You might be one of those people who sits back in his or her chair without interest, and this would have been the third sentence you would have read. The fourth sentence, what does that say, that says something about how I genuinely feel, even if it no longer matters how I genuinely feel, that has not even become the topic of another book. The fifth sentence says that that was left by the wayside because it was such a variable thing. That's what the sixth sentence said, and says, that it sits there still, varying, changing its colors, etc., the army of ancient Rome marches by, they think it is some sort of tomb and display their eagle insignia. The seventh sentence ill conceals its surprise that I should have tried to make it all look so far away. The eight sentence is therefore a meditation on something close at hand. The ninth sentence is a means of approach. In the tenth sentence I discover I am staring at a list of things I have done written in blue pencil on brown paper. In the eleventh sentence I draw a one-eyed duck on the paper beside the list. In the twelfth sentence I circle one of the numbers on the list and I start to feel nervous. In the thirteenth sentence I realize I have chosen something. In the fourteenth sentence I decide I will read my choice aloud. In the fifteenth sentence I stall by saying the words "I don't have a choice." In the sixteenth sentence I stall again by thinking about the obelisk on the Upper East Side in Central Park and how it is called "Cleopatra's Needle," and how around the base of the "needle" there are metal supports in the shape of crustaceans, I think they are crabs in fact but sometimes that word is slightly obscene so I consider not writing it. In the seventeenth sentence I think some more about the kinds of joke that employ that word and whether it is worth thinking about such jokes, as it does alter the genre of what you are writing if such things are allowed to be thought as a part of it. The lawns of the park were very green in summer, and it is early summer right now, right as I think to think this, and this is the first time I have lived in New York City for a full year in ten years, this is what I tell as the nineteenth sentence. In the twentieth sentence I recall the list and resolve again to look at it. In the twentifirst sentence I misspell twenty-first with two "i"s. In the twenty-second sentence I look down at the list, I have circled no. 18759351 on the list. In the twentisecond sentence I misspell twenty-second using an "i" again. In the twenty-third sentence I read what is written next to no. 18759351, it says, "He was sitting on a bench...," but at this moment a breeze enters in through the open window, lifting the page and you begin reading another line, the words, "And you hand in the application and it takes three months and...." In the twenty-fourth sentence you can see me set the page down as another person walks through the door. I turn off the electronic typewriter and scroll out the page and place it facedown on the desk and I cover it with a notebook you weren't aware was also there on the desk. Now you can see it, it is almost the exact same color as the surface of the desk and now you can see it. These were the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth sentences, respectively, it is the lot of the twenty-seventh sentence to have to announce that. In the twenty-eighth sentence a cloud passes over the apartment on its way into space. In the twenty-ninth sentence, I think, next year this will be the number of my age. The thirtieth sentence is all about the speed at which time is passing. In the thirty-first sentence I won't care anymore, I'll see that reality only accrues to itself and does not have to mean something. In the thirty-second sentence I want you to agree with me. Things happen by chance, and what Montaigne pleads with us to believe, in an essay, is that fortune makes herself known in the act of reading, there is much that I could not have intended which is yet here, I forget exactly how this goes, this being the thirty-third sentence. I sit down beside myself in the thirty-fourth sentence and say to myself, smiling, even small numbers are big. This is the working of time, the thirty-fifth sentence joins in saying this, too, once one has crossed the years their number does not matter. But what I was trying to get across was, I think in sentence thirty-six, that maybe you could not have done things earlier, maybe it just was not possible in those days for whichever reasons. You spend the thirty-seventh sentence attempting to spell those reasons out. You fall asleep, and in the thirty-eighth sentence you dream about a room. The room is a classroom in which you are alone, says sentence number thirty-nine, the windows have been left open and a sentence can be read on the blackboard. In the fortieth sentence you have to force yourself to go on. Descartes's dream, you remember, in sentence forty-one, provided a quote supposedly from Ausonius. This is the forty-second sentence, Est et non. Then I think it is safe to say that something begins to happen, sentence forty-three tells us. Sentence forty-four says that you should forgive. Sentence forty-five says that you remember this number as having been particularly beautiful when worn by your mother. Sentence forty-six says the figures move away. Sentence forty-seven is a sentence about what loneliness names itself in the paradoxical presence of others. Sentence forty-eight says it has a name. Sentence forty-nine says that I cannot remember this name. Sentence fifty says that I go back and try and live there in that moment when I was saying the name. I say, "Happiness." This was sentence fifty-one. That was sentence fifty-two. Sentence fifty-four is a sentence about how there is too much of so many things, there is too much of all the words, but the world runs on underneath them and I keep on imagining how you could have heard me, how you could not have heard me. Sentence fifty-five is a sentence about picking up the phone. Sentence fifty-six is a sentence about picking up a small cellular phone but not using it and willing the phone to ring on its own. The gray cotton of the sweatshirt I wear is a warm cotton in sentence fifty-seven. In sentence fifty-eight I decide to keep on saying the numbers. In sentence fifty-nine I hold the page up to the light and see the type on the other side show through. In sentence sixty you start to believe me. In sentence sixty-one I start to go back to the beginning. I wonder if I should worry. The world is full of pauses, the world is full with continuations, says sentence sixty-three. I let sentence sixty-four go. In sentence sixty-five it occurs to me that I concern myself here with something that ought not to be touched. Sentence sixty-six is a guess that this is the mystery of counting, that it goes on and means itself without having a meaning. I count the people in the distance I can see from my window in sentence sixty-seven. In sentence sixty-eight the breeze has a sweet smell. In sentence sixty-nine, it turns the last week of May in the year 2008. Sentence seventy concerns the lack of what I wanted, in my own mind, to be saying. In sentence seventy-one I'm going so far as to ask you if you can see this, how much of what I thought lay before me remained in the distance. In sentence seventy-two there is a hill there. In sentence seventy-three we see flowers open their faces and then black snakes slide down the face of the hill. In sentence seventy-four there is still nothing. In sentence seventy-five the moon changes place with the sun. In sentence seventy-six this takes place again, only now it is day. In sentence seventy-seven it is still day. In sentence seventy-eight it is still day. Why do you think about tragedy, sentence seventy-nine wants to know, since it is the least likely thing to happen. Sentence eighty will eventually come to me and want to know what I am doing with myself. Sentence eighty-one reminds me to expect this question. In sentence eighty-two something changes. I stay up two nights running and in the morning the sidewalk seems to rise up and meet my feet underneath my feet. Sentence eighty-four contains the question, didn't you already know that this would start to happen. Sentence eighty-five agrees. When I start to read sentence eighty-six I discover it contains the words, It is also true that what you said could be. For this reason, sentence eighty-seven is a sentence about why there are certainly points of correspondence between what we expect to be the case and what is. Sentence eighty-eight proclaims it feels the excitement and not the work. Sentence eighty-nine takes action without saying anything first. In sentence ninety I cover my eyes. In sentence ninety-one I uncover my eyes so that I can look again. In sentence ninety-two I cover them again. Now I am speaking to you. Now I am speaking to you. Say the words after me just as I say them. What it means to live is the subject of sentence ninety-six. You are moving out of earshot now. We are not going to miss each other. You have an excellent memory. Please never forget I was the one who told you that


Date: December 20, 2017

Publisher: The Poetry Foundation

Format: Web

Link to the poem below.

45.74 MB - 17:53, 19 February 2018