David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Gary Barwin’s Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy published by Random House. Wild, witty, and profoundly moving, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted is a Jewish Western set in Lithuania just as the Nazis invade. It draws on Hitler’s incongruous fascination with Native Americans and the westerns of Karl May to explore the historical connection between the Holocaust and indigenous genocide, colonialism, and intergenerational trauma, storytelling, and masculinity. Publishers Weekly wrote, “This inventive, madcap novel is a stunning testament to Jewish humor and survival.” The Toronto Star notes, “There are few voices in Canadian writing as original as Barwin’s.” Yann Martel described it as “A fierce and funny horse ride through hell, told with brio.” The Globe and Mail says, “This is a novel steeped in history and truths, managing to be darkly funny and packed with wisdom.” Finally, Quill & Quire adds, “This wildly inventive novel plays by its own rules. In Barwin’s world, imagination is freedom, and comedy, courage.” Gary Barwin’s award-winning last novel, Yiddish for Pirates, was a Canadian bestseller, and Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy is available now wherever books are sold. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Jayme Ringleb’s So Tall It Ends in Heaven; a debut collection of poems that explores sexuality, estrangement, and the distances we travel for love. Says Kaveh Akbar, “Ringleb possesses that rarest triumvirate fluency of ear, heart, and mind that you find in the great poets of any era, any place—one poem here ends, ‘We sleep / in a snarl, like lovers found in snow.’ Another, ‘It’s almost a heaven, / neglecting you.’ It’s thrilling to discover a book you know you’ll revisit for the rest of your life.” Adds Carl Phillips, “Ringleb’s poems at once confront and enact how the hurt that haunts us has everything to do with how we grow up to love, if we can at all, someone else: brokenly, tentatively, and as if our lives depended on it – as I believe they do. These poems convince me of that. This is a hard-won, triumphant debut.” So Tall It Ends in Heaven is out on September 20th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m excited for this conversation with Poet Claire Schwartz. Because for a long time now, long before I knew her poetry, I knew Claire as one of my go-to poetry curators and champions of poets; watching the way she helms the poetry section at Jewish Currents the way she did her poetry column at The Paris Review, the many poets she has interviewed, and most importantly, the manner in which she does it all; the politics and poetics behind the choices she makes and the questions she asks have long been an inspiration to me. One of the many things her debut collection Civil Service interrogates beyond notions of civility and service is the notion of the individual “I” in relation to a “you”, to an “other”, to the collective. The first poem of this book opens with the lines: “The original gesture. The umbilical cord. I: two bodies connected.” And later the lines: “I records my absence in you. I records you. Every time I write I, I am trying to get back to you.” I think of this destabilization of the lyric I, this redefining of the I in a relational way, of how the self perhaps can only be understood in a relation in an interdependent way. I think of this when I think of the magazine Jewish Currents as well; where under Claire’s curation of its poetry, you are as likely to find the work of Philip Metres, Evie Shockley, or Carl Phillips, Cathy Park Hong, Fargo Tbakhi, or Adania Shibli as you are the work of Ilya Kaminsky, Gloria Gervitz, Nelly Sachs, or Israel Emiot. This is also true about their long-form journalism; this engagement with identity, the identity of selves but also the identity of a people, in a way that is porous to and in deep engagement with otherness, with the world. Before the pandemic, I only subscribe to two magazines. One—because I’m a film nerd—is Film Comment put out by the Lincoln Center, which I absolutely love but which has stopped issuing print editions since COVID, the other is Jewish Currents, which partially explains why it comes up sometimes on the show. For instance, in my conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen, as we unpack the radical history of the word Asian-American and yet also the ways it has since become an umbrella term that can sometimes advance a regressive representational politics, one that erases many Asian-American demographics and their narratives in the process, and most recently it came up with Daniel Mendelsohn where I quote from one of the most incredible pieces of long-form journalism from the magazine, The Many Oblivions of Babi Yar by Linda Kinstler. I bring this all up mainly because of the resonances between today’s guest and the magazine she is the culture editor of, but also because Jewish Currents sent some stuff to offer to new supporters to celebrate this episode. Among the many things one can choose as a new supporter of the show, one can now also choose a two-issue sampler bundle from Jewish Currents. One issue, the Soviet issue, contains The Many Oblivions of Babi Yar. The other contains, among many other things, the Paul Celan folio, Celan at 100, which is one of the high marks for the magazine in my opinion. With meditations on Celan from everyone from Aria Aber to translator Michael Hoffman, Fanny Howe interviewing Celan’s translator Pierre Joris, and a Celan-centric poetry comic by none other than Anne Carson. Our cup is overflowing this month however as they also sent copies of the book that Claire Schwartz and Nathan Goldman edited called Provisions: Poems Held Close in a Time of Crisis, where they asked various writers to write about poems they were holding close during the pandemic. Writers including Hanif Abdurraqib, Kazim Ali, Wayne Koestenbaum, Lara Mimosa Montes, and Christina Sharpe among many others. This is a great time, maybe the best time to transform yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter because of all this alone. But Claire also contributes to the bonus audio archive a reading from one of her most-beloved poets, who we talk a lot about today, Edmond Jabès. She talks about how in this poetry collection, she wants to preserve loss and absence in the language of her poems; and that translating Jabès helps her to do just that. Then she reads for us from Jabès in French and then in Rosmarie Waldrop’s English. This joins a wealth of ever-growing material in the archive including the iconic Jen Bervin from years ago talking about why Paul Celan is so important to her aesthetics, reading some of his prose, including a letter he wrote about Kraft, then reading one of her favorite poems of his and then a new poem by Jen herself written under his influence. As if that were not enough, and dayenu (it would have been enough), for one lucky new subscriber, Claire is offering a poetry consultation or discussion about writing, and the writing life more broadly. This joins a similar offer by Kaveh Akbar, miracle of miracles, believe it or not, this all just scratches the surface. Check it all out and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, finally, after this epic preamble, let’s talk with today’s guest, Poet Claire Schwartz.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Poet and Editor Claire Schwartz. Schwartz has a PhD in African-American Studies and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies from Yale University and was awarded the 2019 Sylvia Ardyn Boone Prize for the best written work by a Yale student on African or African-American art. A prize jointly administered by the History of Art and the African American Studies departments through nominations by faculty members, given for her doctoral dissertation A Sidelong Glance: Art, Archives, and Visions of Blackness in the Postmodern City. She’s also the culture editor for the award-winning quarterly magazine of politics, culture, and ideas, of which I am an enthusiastic subscriber, Jewish Currents, where she brings poetry from such dynamic poets as Donika Kelly, the Palestinian poet and performance artist Fargo Tbakhi, and the Yiddish poetry of Israel Emiot read hauntingly by Ilya Kaminsky. She brings us to these poems prefacing them with incredible introductory essays, as well as being in conversation and interviewing people for the magazine on topics from the criminalization of abortion, to the collective work of abolition. She has also interviewed many poets for other publications, from The Paris Review to The Nation, from Rita Dove, to Claudia Rankine, to Robin Coste Lewis, written literary criticism and book reviews on the works of Ocean Vuong, Ross Gay, and Kaveh Akbar, and with Kaveh and Sarah Kay wrote a column for The Paris Review from 2018 to 2020 called Poetry Rx where people would write in about their situations, looking for a poetry prescription from either Claire, Kaveh, or Sarah. Claire’s writing prose and poetry has appeared in The Believer, The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, and many other places, and has garnered her a Pushcart Prize. Her limited-edition chapbook Bound was a winner of the 2016 Button Poetry Prize selected by Aziza Barnes, and of which Kaveh Akbar says, “The language here is staggering, the formal ambition and virtuosity obvious even at a glance, but what sets Claire Schwartz’s poems apart is their monumental compassion dealing with subjects—homelands, genealogies, taxonomies, and the violent histories and presents inherent to each—which, in their infinite complexity, defy all but the most earnest and searching poets. Schwartz writes, ‘I have a truth & a family—which do I serve?’ It’s this sort of questioning, this sort of fearless interrogation of inheritance that elevates Bound to a higher plane of art.” Claire Schwartz is also the winner in poetry of the 2022 Whiting Award. In their citation, they speak about Claire’s first full-length collection, Civil Service, just out from Graywolf, and of which we’re talking about today. They say, “‘The poem a geography,’ writes Claire Schwartz in her structurally risky and resonant first book. We do not so much read this collection as walk through it, live in it. The thinking, like the language, is rigorous and urgent. Here is a writer who is unafraid to use the fullest range of her poetic voice – she is probing, lucid, and aphoristic and also poignantly humane. These poem-stories are often closer to nightmare than fairy-tale, but always anchored to the world we live in. An astonishingly achieved debut.” Canisia Lubrin adds, “Claire Schwartz reveals the potent work of language that distills the clutter of the world’s corrupt orders into an urgent wisdom. Here is a poet of astonishing openness, who flees no corner where power lurks unexamined.” Finally, Valzhyna Mort says, “The power of this book is in its uncontrollable private will to imagine against the public failure of imagination. The poet dismembers our political reality into the double-edged lines, into the bare and ashamed symbols and silences. Brutal and coy, Claire Schwartz creates a scream out of irony and a rhythm out of the four corners of the page.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Claire Schwartz.
Claire Schwartz: Thank you. I’m very excited to be here.
DN: When we open Civil Service, the first thing we encounter are two brief epigraphs, one from Edmond Jabès and the other from Dionne Brand. Knowing your work in the poetry and political worlds for some time, I suspect that they aren’t here only because of these specific words that you’ve chosen, that these two writers—who are also important writers to me—feel to me like they represent two vital aspects of you and your presence in the world. I think people can see both of these threads in the introduction I’ve just read, and some of the animating questions and concerns that they each have politically, epistemologically, formally, imaginatively, I think we can follow currents of thought between them and you in this collection. If I’m not overstating this connection, that really it is deeper than loving an epigraph by each of them, I was hoping you could talk to us about these two writer philosophers, these people who you choose to place before your own words as we begin to read.
CS: Thank you so much for that. That feels very resonant that it’s beyond the content of these lines and toward the figures of these writers as they live in the world. Dionne Brand talks about the possibilities of creating a language or creating a grammar where black life is the thought and not the unthought. To me, in that, I hear the possibilities of language to structure our imaginings which have everything to do with how we relate to each other and the world, to think about anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity as structuring conditions of the world we live in that need to be contended with, that our language shores up or departs from whether we want it to or not, and to hold that really consciously at the center of my practice and to follow writers who hold that at the center of their practice. She shows me that. I think there can be something that feels almost frivolous about writing in the context of everything that we’re facing in the world, and to have someone like Dionne Brand who goes out into the world, who’s an activist in her own right and also says that the work on the page is important life work, to insist on that is really something that I try to hold to because I think if we don’t take it that seriously, it’s not worth doing it all so I wanted to put her words first. Then Edmond Jabès is the greatest poet of my heart I would say. I think about him a lot with the Poet Paul Celan. I think I’m oversimplifying a little bit but Rosmarie Waldrop, in her really wonderful book Lavish Absence, talks about expecting to meet someone who’s turned away from the world in some ways or has been harmed by it and doesn’t feel like he has a full living but she encounters this as just this person who entertains his grandkids, who takes long walks, who is so fully alive in the world. I think to think about writing as something that makes place for our living in a really immediate way is something that I really take from his work. He talks about each of his books that he’s just writing one book throughout his life and that each of the books is an attempt at beginning that one long book. I think just the sense of writing and living as so deeply intertwined, that they can’t really be pulled apart, but those are something that both of those writers really showed to me and I wanted to mark that the boundaries of the book are porous.
DN: One thing that leaps out to a reader of Civil Service is that we are reading poems populated by characters much like what you might expect to encounter in a story or fable; characters who are nameless, or more accurately, whose names are their functions. Characters like the Curator, the Archivist, the Censor, the Stenographer, the Dictator, the Old Dictator, and these figures appear throughout the book in this way. We see this use of figures a little bit in Dionne Brand, I think perhaps most notably with The Blue Clerk and the conversations that happened between the clerk and the author. But I’m most reminded of Edmond Jabès, the invented rabbis and sages that appear throughout his work, figures that aren’t really meant to be known as people, that aren’t given a sense of depth, which again, makes me also think of fable and fairy tale a little bit and even of Kafka and his characters. I wondered if you could talk about both why you wanted to populate your collection with figures and why figures like these, figures that seem to serve as almost placeholders within language, not for people, but functions that people might find themselves in.
CS: I’ve been using a little bit the language of characters and figures interchangeably but I really do think of them as figures. I really think of them as configurations of social thought and of the work that we do to be together. I talked about this a little bit in a conversation with Nathan and Chantz but it’s not so much that I see their names as the curator or the dictator, it’s really that I see those as proper noun place names, that those are really coordinates of power and coordinates of upholding the social really. We can talk more about questions of interiority because I think those are questions that I’m turning over and that I have unfinished, unsettled relationships to, but it felt important to me that these are not locatable characters in the sense of if this particular dictator got up and walked away, that that position would no longer be available to be inhabited, that these are positions that we actually can all move into, move through in various ways or choose to make socially unavailable.
DN: I was hoping we could hear one of the early short poems in the collection Perennial, both so people can hear an example of this and also as an entryway into some more questions for you.
[Claire Schwartz reads a poem called Perennial]
DN: This feels like a good example of a quality that runs throughout the book, of naming, on the one hand, not just the Archivist named by his function, but everything else that is named is done vaguely and abstracted from context or specificity. The neighbor misses his wife, neither of which become more than that. The street, the houses, and the neighborhood from a place that could be any place or no place. The neighborhood cat, we don’t get any details what type of cat, what color. Nothing gets specified until the very last line when we get not just flowers but a specific type of flower, and not just a specific type of flower but its color. Until then, it almost feels like it’s enacting the failure of naming which might be by extension the failure of seeing. “The Archivist, mind fast to his research, passes the plundered animal by. Books clutter his seeing,” as if he can’t see past his function as the Archivist. But thinking about this unseen eviscerated cat reminded me of an essay of yours called To Know By Heart: Workshop, Whiteness, and the Rigorous Imagination of Ai, which is about a poetry class you took with Elizabeth Alexander where you were asked to memorize a poem and recite it by heart in the class. At one point, you write this: “In college, I heard Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon read and, during the q & a, a question I no longer remember prompted the answer: ‘I was in the car, and in front of me was a truck with dead animals. I closed my eyes, but then I thought, ‘I’m poet. I have to look.’ I opened my eyes.’” Then you continue by saying, “I am in this class because I want to be a poet. I want to bring that act of difficult looking into the task of learning a poem by heart.” It’s hard for me to believe that this truck of dead animals and the dead cat in this poem are unrelated. But even if they are, it seems like this essay and this poem of yours are both related to what you call difficult looking, or as the poem says, “The knife, a better eye.” I wonder what this brings up for you around looking and naming as a function of looking or not looking.
CS: It’s interesting to think back to that essay because I feel like my relationship to that question has really changed. I think in a lot of ways, my faith that looking, seeing, or witnessing has any direct relationship to care is no longer clear to me in a way that I think it felt clear to me at that moment. This is really something I think I learned from both from black studies but also from starting to think about these questions in light of the murder of Trayvon Martin, in light of just these kinds of loops of black death playing, taking seriously that this is a country that circulated lynching postcards, that the imperial violence, as it takes shape, is readily available and if evidence was what we needed to move toward a constitution of a different kind of we, we’ve had it already. I think in so many ways, I’ve started to think about the spectacle really as something that’s a lot more dangerous that Mariame Kaba talks about for the spectacle to be the threshold of the unfair or what we deem unacceptable means that the ordinary is acceptable, that in fact, where we need to attend is actually the very fabric, the very root of our lives as we know it. It’s not actually the spectacular thing. We don’t really use the language of witnessing or of watching to think about the ordinary in that way, and I think what poetry helps me to do is to recalibrate and to say, in fact, there’s nothing for granted about the very material of our lives’ language. Even that can be turned over and made into a different kind of space, made into a different possibility of relation, that the textures of an otherwise exist within the now. I think the question of spectacle is one that I was wanting to hold at bay in certain ways in this collection that I really wanted to think about, how do you make the ordinary as terrifying as it is? The people who are pulling the levers of power. Yes, there’s the Dictator but there’s also the Intern, there’s also the Curator, and without all of these configurations, the Dictator wouldn’t exist.
DN: Well, I might be reading too much into this poem or too much into a connection between this poem and the essay, so indulge me for another minute and push back if I am, but when I think of the James Baldwin epigraph to the essay, one that goes, “It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within,” that feels like a good description of the neighbor in this poem who, in searching for his wife who years ago “quit the house”, who leaves this neat delimited life of the neighborhood, he doesn’t locate the terror within of whatever he’s feeling, instead, in his search for the evil without, he creates more evil disemboweling the cat, the same cat that the Archivist won’t or can’t see. But when the Archivist lets the scream of the flowers in, he brings the scream of an other inside him and joins them in this noise that’s outside of language and then also outside of naming. It is then that the eyes of the poem finally is able to see the flowers as more than something general as tulips, as red as red tulips. I’d love to hear if this feels at all aligned with how you conceive of this poem. But even if it isn’t, I wanted to stay with it in regards to the essay for another moment because like the Archivist bringing the scream of the flower inside, you’re asked to bring a poem into your body to memorize it, to carry it in you, and then share it. I really love what you do in sharing your deliberation around that. At first, you think of a poem by Gerald Stern called Behaving Like a Jew because it has animal carnage in it, for one, an encounter with a dead opossum by the side of a busy road. At one point, the poem says, “It took me only a few seconds—just seeing him there—with the hole in his back and the wind blowing through his hair to get back again into my animal sorrow.” And then later, “I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything, that joy in death, that philosophical understanding of carnage, that concentration on the species. —I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death. I am going to behave like a Jew and touch his face, and stare into his eyes, and pull him off the road. I am not going to stand in a wet ditch with the Toyotas and the Chevys passing over me at sixty miles an hour and praise the beauty and the balance.” I love this poem. You seem too also, but you feel like it leaves you intact, it comforts you in the notion that the challenge is to be who you already are, a Jew, and that you ultimately want to bring a poem inside you that sits more uneasily there, perhaps like the Archivist and the flower screams that make the Archivist more than the archivist. You choose a poem by the poet, perhaps best known for writing persona poems herself, the poet Ai. I was hoping you would talk to us about this impulse if it still feels relevant to you in this conversation to bring in the other in this exercise, and then ultimately why this other, this poet and the specific poem by this poet.
CS: One kinship that I’m thinking about between Perennial and something that Ai’s work teaches me is the possibility of relation across such difference that there’s almost no common language, like the possibility of taking a flower into one’s perception of the world, the possibility of Ai writing in the voice of J. Edgar Hoover or that it’s not a closeness of affiliation exactly, it’s in some ways a closeness of disaffiliation. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms before but I think there is almost an awareness that this is actually the precondition to being in the world, that it’s not the creation of a shared space, it’s actually just naming the space that already exists and what are the barriers that we put in place to imagining ourselves as so discreet from other beings that we have no shared language between us and what does it look like to think about these more unlikely kinships, what’s the language that emerges from those affiliations, and how else might that reposition us to re-enter the world?
DN: Could we hear Perennial one more time?
CS: Yeah, totally.
[Claire Schwartz reads a poem called Perennial]
DN: We’ve been listening to Claire Schwartz read from her debut poetry collection, Civil Service. When I think of Ai and I think of Dionne Brand and Edmond Jabès, each of their identities and/or biographies, and also their poetics, they trouble notions of the self versus the other, but also the self in relation to nation. Jabès, an Egyptian-Jew expelled from his home for being Jewish and living in exile in France; Brand, a queer black poet from Trinidad living in Toronto who refuses country, who refuses a land to light on when she says in one poem, “I don’t want no fucking country, here or there and all the way back, I don’t like it, none of it, easy as that;” and of Ai’s poems who herself had Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche heritage, and whose poems, as you mentioned, assume all these wildly different points of view, including J. Edgar Hoover, but also a 14-year-old boy who murders his parents. You write, “She is a poet for whom the boundaries of the nation, the home, the body, are violable and violated. Her speakers’ acts are intimate and violent, gorgeous and brutal — deep-seated human contradiction cast in unblinking language.” Finally, I’m thinking also of an exchange you had recently with the poet Danez Smith on Twitter where they say about your collection, “I was reminded of the prophet in two ways, one, the naming that built a world, and two, more importantly, I think if one keeps reading this book, you become a better person, poet, and citizen.” And you respond, “Danez, may each poem move against citizenship,” and they ask, “What’s the word for the kind of belonging your book calls for?” and you say, “Love, I hope. Thinking of bell hooks and also of Solmaz.” This is my long way to ask you to talk about the title Civil Service in light of the project as a whole and in relation to your thoughts on nations and citizens, perhaps in particular, because most of the figures, not all of them, in your book are civil servants or government administrators in some sense, I think.
CS: Again, I think it gets back to the question of the spectacular. It’s easy to locate the violence of nationalism. Well, let me just say Ruth Wilson Gilmore talks about the kind of fetishization of the state as something that’s shared between fascists and leftists, that there’s a way to really think about the state as something outside of us that acts on the rest of us for which we have. It’s a way of giving up power in relation to the possibilities of change. I think part of the project of this book is really to think about what do we mean when we talk about the state, what’s the lived texture of state violence, and to say that doesn’t always look like murder, sometimes it looks like a board meeting. Really to take seriously what do we need to turn away from in order to think that that’s innocuous or in order to allow our lives to be made up by these configurations that may feel comfortable enough from with inside of them, for those of us who are closer to pulling the levers of power than on the receiving end. I think a lot about, in his book Freedom Time, Anthony Reid talks about refusing to conceive the definition of freedom to nationalists, to fascists, that this is really a word that’s worth fighting for. There’s no other word that can mean what freedom means. I feel that way about love. To me, love feels like a word worth fighting for and worth trying to inhabit and trying to agitate sufficiently, to shake it free at least for a brief time or at least enough to allow us to inhabit it, to turn toward each other differently, to recognize these unacceptable configurations as unacceptable, and to orient or to suggest to a kind of other social arrangement. To me, love and civility are incompatible. Civility is the comfortable assimilation into the forms the state dictates. June Jordan talks about, I’m going to misquote, but something like in conditions of tragedy, polite behavior is a form of denial, that actually what the world demands of us is something profoundly uncivil, that we can’t keep going on in reconciling ourselves to these forms, that that’s actually a brutal accommodation.
DN: One thing I think of also around this question of civility, it reminds me of you talking about the circumstances under which you began writing this collection. You’ve talked about how Yale has a profoundly extractive relationship to its surrounding communities and yet they would provide the “civil service” of sending emails to you and other students when someone had been mugged on campus. I was wondering if you could speak into this, both the extractive relationship and what you mean by the way the university renders structures of violence as humane as if in service of some greater good.
CS: I think if you visit New Haven, you can see exactly what it means, that there’s a cordoned off, deeply luxurious lush campus and a profoundly under-resourced community because of the ways that the campus and the university have extracted resources in the form of not paying taxes, in the form of who they hire, who they exclude, then this starts to authorize all kinds of policing that we got these emails, which do produce a lot of fear. It’s also about the affective dimension of keeping us tethered to these forms. They produce a lot of fear. There’s no language to think about the fear that the university produces for the surrounding communities or the intergenerational theft that these forms have authorized. Then at the same time, we’re constantly told that the study that we’re doing within the university somehow justifies the maintenance of these forms, that this is ultimately a good thing. It’s a pretty direct enlightenment descendant of an idea that there’s a life of the mind that justifies the arrangements of the world around its maintenance. At the same time, I think I was reading Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic where he talks about the Zong massacre, that I think probably a lot of people have come through M. NourbeSe Philip’s work, the mass killing of more than 130 African enslaved people by the crew of the British slave ship, the Zong, when they were thrown overboard to collect insurance money. Baucom really talks about what he calls the minutiae of imperial management. I think he says something like “The Lord Commissioners do not emerge from these records as the architects of history but as its petty clerks, accountants, and small claims adjusters.” To really go into the archive and think about violence that we can recognize as tremendous violence, and to think about what are the kind of calculations but also who is actually responsible, who are the accountants doing this carrying out this work of calculation that authorizes the substitution of a body for a sum of money, what does that actually mean for the way that we’re set up?
DN: You also talk about how at this time in your life as you were starting writing this book, you were expected to do a certain type of performance of mastery in your oral exams, a performance of knowing; and that your poems became for you a record of your discomfort with this. I was hoping you could speak more about how your poems become a counter move against this performance.
CS: The third year of the PhD, we had these oral exams and the project is that you have these kinds of fields that you want to become proficient over and you have to compile these reading lists that are somehow supposed to speak to the shape of the field without having read them. Already, it’s a strange exercise that asks you to chart a perimeter of something that you’ve never moved through. There’s already this discomfort or disjuncture between what it means to find something from the inside to wander around something and to get the texture of it, and to find the connections and the citational practices that are actually building out this constellation of thought. But that’s not what you’re asked to do, you’re asked to chart the perimeter from the outside. There’s an uncomfortable relationship between a kind of growing awareness of what you know you don’t know and having to bridge that gap by performing knowing. This is really directly what we were told, is if you don’t know the answer to a question, answer an adjacent question that you do know. There’s no language to think about the shape of what you don’t know or why that shape might not just be a failure of your own reading but maybe an archival absence, or to think about what does it mean to be alongside something that you don’t know and maybe that you can’t know, or that a particular register of knowledge isn’t available to you. I think poetry is a place where I can build out my own questions without having to resolve them into an answer very directly because if I knew what I wanted to say in a poem, I would never begin it, then it might be an essay, although even then, I don’t write that way. But to be able to allow language, and all of its various textures, the thought to move up from being inside language in a way that is unfamiliar to my practices of daily living and to allow all those other kinds of sensory registers to seep in feels like the place that I wanted to be. It also felt like the only way to get out from the familiar forms that were structuring both the pedagogy that I was facing and also, by extension, the university as a kind of space of enclosure.
DN: You’ve talked about civility decoupled from service and I was wondering if we could do the reverse too, and talk about service on its own. I won’t use the word citizen by calling you a great literary citizen, though I think you are a person very beholden to the community you write within and help shape. I wondered how you would articulate this, if not literary citizenship, do you see your art making and your embodied actions as an artist in the world as service, and what are your thoughts on that half of the title of the book, Service?
CS: I think I really just see myself as a reader and all of these other forms are ways of bringing readership into a social space because there’s no record of my reading practice outside these written forms or outside these spoken forms, so I need to put it back into language in order to have my own reading re-enter the social space. To me, the service in the title, it really is tethered to civility, it really is asking what kinds of forms civility is mobilized in favor of. I need to think more about the word service, but service does feel like a Christian word to me in the sense that—and I’m sorry if I’m misunderstanding what Christianity is—but it feels like a way of offering where the self is not changed in the encounter; the sense that the self gives something to the collective or to the person in need without actually reckoning with why these kinds of discrepant needs exist.
DN: Well, in the spirit of this question, we have a question from Kaveh Akbar for you.
Kaveh Akbar: Claire, it’s Kaveh. I’m so excited about this book. I think it’s one of the great new books of poetry I’ve read in years. To say nothing of being one of the great first books of poetry, it’s absolutely bananas and I’m so excited about it. My question is for years, you’ve been moving your hands behind the curtains on behalf of poets in quiet and loud ways, and public and private ways. When I think about being a joyful steward of this thing that we’ve all organized around and believe in so much, I think of you as one of the great champions of non-you of other people’s work, again, in loud and quiet ways and mentoring, teaching, reviewing, interviewing, editing, curating, and just doing all of those quiet unsexy things that make poems happen in the world but not everybody does. I’m interested in your sense of, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but maybe some kind of vertigo or the feeling of now ushering your book into the world, is that dizzying to you to be stewarding your own work in the way that you have so generously stewarded other peoples over these years? That shepherding, how does it feel different and how are you taking care to make sure that you’re giving yourself all that you would give to a beloved in this position? Thanks.
CS: Thanks, Kaveh. It’s nice to hear your voice. I think there are two things that I’ll say to that. The first is that it’s actually way less disorienting than I’d imagined it might be, but I think it’s really because of what we were just talking about in the sense of I really think about writing as a register of reading. I think that Jabès, who we’ve talked about, says, “Maybe a bad book is just a book read badly by its author.” I think of writing as the form of reading where the impact of my reading is most visible. To me, having sat with this text as a text that I’ve been I guess writing for almost a decade, but really that I’ve been reading for that long or reading for for much longer actually feels beautiful I guess just to be like a reader among readers of it actually. I’ve been really lucky in the conversations that I’ve had so far with Kamran Javadizadeh, Chantz, Nathan, and you, people who just create the conditions to be present alongside the questions that animate the text. These questions I think will persist for me forever. The text is just one record of them. In that way, it feels really nice, it feels like a different company and a company that I feel really ready for and so I feel lucky for it. I think the other thing I’ll say is it’s hard to find language to put alongside or next to, I don’t want to say around because that feels a little too over determining, but to move into that social space and to make these questions legible in a way that I’ve really been sitting privately with for so long. I feel very much in the floundering part of finding language around these, but I also feel like that’s the most generative place from which to think, and I hope the language and the thought doesn’t solidify too quickly.
DN: I liked when Kaveh said, he was thinking of you as someone championing the not you. Thinking of his question of you in relation to we, and I in relation to you, I was hoping you would read the unnamed opening poem or poems for us. It’s an electrifying opening which has so much going on that I think we could talk about just these pages for a long time and we’re going to talk about them for a little bit. Could we hear the first several pages?
[Claire Schwartz reads from her debut poetry collection, Civil Service]
DN: You’ve been listening to Claire Schwartz read from her debut collection of poetry, Civil Service. Before we talk about Amira who is crucial to this work, I want to unpack some of the other things you set up in these opening pages. One is this interdependence of I and you, but also the way language might be related to silence and absence. Those opening lines of “The original gesture. The umbilical cord. I: two bodies connected,” it makes me think of one of the two versions of the Garden of Eden story, the one where Adam and Eve are created simultaneously, and the other, the one that’s more often told, that Adam is created first and then Eve from his rib, and then how the midrash reconciles the contradiction in the Torah by saying that Adam was created originally as hermaphrodite, equally male and female or neither male or female until Adam and Eve are cleaved from each other to become so. Immediately, I might think that the garden is the womb, the host, and an I-you sort of paradise. But I feel like you trouble this when you say, “My language can’t other than host you. Hosting is not always a posture of generosity. Sometimes it is a posture of control.” I feel like this tension that perhaps relates to the not knowing of your poems versus the performance of mastery of your thesis as these opening pages are equally full of open-ended questions, like do you consider yourself a part or apart from, but also they’re full of these declarative, I would say almost coercive statements, statements that speak for us, the readers. “You are responsible for Amira.” This does not feel open for discussion. By the end of this opening, I’m not sure I trust the voice directing me even as I move forward under the voice’s guidance following directions. But I also trust the voice for telling me not to trust hosting and not to trust language. I guess I was hoping you talk more about what you’re doing here, about how you want to position us to the text as readers from page one.
CS: Well, I’m really heartened to hear that was your response. I think this sense of consenting feels like the wrong word, but I don’t know, maybe I’ll say that, consenting to be alongside without relinquishing thought to the sense that Gwendolyn Brooks says in the Song of Winnie, that amazing poem, “I pass you my Poem. A poem doesn’t do everything for you. You are supposed to go on with your thinking.” [laughter] I think that’s really the sense that I want from the beginning is that this isn’t a book that will do the thinking for you, this is a record of my thought that I want to put next to your active thought and to see the meaning that comes from the intersection. It felt important to me that as I was moving through these forms, like the form of the lecture, even though that’s actually I think where that voice starts to come apart the most, but through these kinds of nearly allegorical but not quite allegorical, and that I don’t think the meaning or the moral can be cleanly extracted from them in a way that the allegory implies, that there was enough unsettling the reader’s relationship to those forms that the thought on the part of the reader needs to remain active.
DN: In your conversation with Kamran, you discuss the way you undermine the stability of the lyric I; the way the I and the you are inseparable, and the question of who has the luxury to have a stable I, a stable subject position, and who doesn’t have that luxury. Connecting this back to Kaveh and this question of the individual, I won’t say it in a life of service but in the life of stewardship, in his words, I feel like this ethos of the unstable I extends to Jewish Currents, your work there, and I think the magazine as a whole which very much troubles a stable subject position and I think discovers Jewishness in relation and finds otherness in that identity as well. I guess I wonder if that brings up anything for you because it feels like that project, the way you engage with that project and this question of who has the luxury of having a stable subject position, are somehow connected.
CS: I think a lot about the curatorial possibilities of that space, and about the poetry in that space in particular, because it’s not a poetry magazine. We publish one poem every two weeks and so I think a lot about what that can do and what it means to think about that as a Jewish space. Ultimately, what I’ve come to is that I understand Judaism to have given me the sense that writing and reading are world-building practices. I don’t think that Judaism is the only way to get to that but it’s how it’s come to me historically and intergenerationally, and the particular contingencies of my own life, that’s the root toward it. Paul Celan said in Microliths, that really amazing book of Pierre Joris the prose fragments, “Mon judaïsme: ce que je / reconnais encore dans / les débris de mon existence.” “My Judaism: what I still recognise among the ruins of my existence,” that it’s this indelible thing that actually can’t be named even though it might be named Judaism but it’s what, when everything else fails, still exists. I find so much possibility in that definition because it doesn’t require any defense, it doesn’t require a nation, it doesn’t require boundaries, it’s not something that can be taken and therefore something that needs to be policed, guarded, or authorized as any of those forms. It’s just the is-ness of my life. I think that permits an unwieldy affiliation or a freedom of affiliation because it is what I am no matter who I put myself next to.
DN: Thinking of this, what you just said about reading and writing as world-building practices, you also bring this up, or something perhaps related to it in your conversation with Kamran, you said that this project Civil Service is interested in collapsing the distance between writing and reading, which makes me think of the Jabès epigraph, “The writer steps aside for the work, and the work depends on the reader,” and perhaps related to this in your discussion of Paul Celan on the recent episode of Jewish Currents podcast On the Nose about your collection, when you’re talking about the way Celan revises his work in response to a dissatisfaction with the way it’s being read and being framed, you ask, “What does it mean to revise with the world’s reading in mind?” But I’m curious to hear more about what you mean by the project this book is being interested in collapsing the distance between writing and reading or how you see this project connected to that notion.
CS: I think in a way, it loops back to what we were just talking about in terms of meaning as a kind of co-creation between the writer and the reader, that there’s nothing that if I’m the author of the text in some stable sense, there’s nothing actually that I can stabilize fully about the meaning because every time a different person picks up the book or if a person picks up a book differently throughout time, the meanings will have shifted. I think we all know that by re-reading texts at different points in our lives and finding different things in them or feeling various levels of affiliation or disaffiliation with the same text at different moments as it meets us and as we’re meeting the world. But I also think, I guess just to be really basic, like you don’t write from nowhere. Writing is the way that I have taken in the world and attempted to make something of it. It’s that record of my own process that passes through a kind of wordless space but then needs to be translated back into a kind of language, whether written or another kind of languaging, whatever it is that gets from me to the next person or to the next being. I think I really just see that all as a continuous practice and I think that’s the Talmudic practice that the idea that what’s come down to us really is a record of commentaries, really is a record of people reading and changing the meanings with their reading. There’s nothing fixed about the original text; when we read, we pass through all of the conversations about a given text and all of the kinds of contingent relationships that text has had to the world into various configurations of readers.
DN: One of the most powerful ways the opening of Civil Service functions is not something that’s apparent to listeners but the way the words are interplaying with an ever-shifting image at the top of each page; an image that starts as a line that becomes a square on the next page, then a square that partially rotates, then a three-dimensional cube-like structure, and then a milk carton which also looks like a house page-by-page-by-page. I want to ask you about this in relation to architecture more broadly in this collection. As the Whiting Award committee said, “‘The poem a geography,’ writes Claire Schwartz in her structurally risky and resonant first book. We do not so much read this collection as walk through it, live in it,” and Valzhyna Mort saying that you create a rhythm out of the four corners of the page, or the Dionne Brand epigraph, “What is possible, and where’s the doorway of this room,” or the line later in the collection, “Poetry is a door without a house.” This spatial concern predates this collection I think as your chapbook Bound has a poem Shards with Diffuse Light that has the lines, “Once, my people ensured safety by marking our doorposts with the blood of a lamb, every year we tell the story. When I say safety, I mean we were spared. When I say we, I mean not counting the ones not spared.” Unfairly, my question is an accordion of questions. I’m curious about the images that open the book, but even more so, I’m curious about this spatial dimension, your interest in dimensional spaces as places to be held both in the tender meaning of held and in the carceral meaning of held. I even wonder if it connects in any way to your doctoral thesis which is about art archives and visions of blackness but looks at urban space as an alternative to figuration. What’s going on, Claire Schwartz?
CS: What is going on. [laughs] The images, as you mentioned, begin with just a line, an I, an umbilical cord, and then they accumulate to a square, to a book, to a house, but they’re nested images so each form holds all of the ones before it. It felt important to me to open the book with an encounter with a kind of graphic form that both precedes and exceeds language. I really didn’t want the word to be the limit or the boundary of the ways that the reader encountered the charge to read really. I actually see the graphic elements of the book as having a kinship with the attention to screaming throughout the book with the way that some of the letters overlap. There’s a stuttering I think that encourages when one goes to actually read the book out loud. I never really know what to do with those or I feel aware of the fact that something is being lost in the translation of that form and it felt important to me to think about how to offer the reader a sense that something is lost in the social encounter as well and that we always need to be attentive to the fact of the lostness of something. I think the graphic felt like one way for me to make that live space. Yes, good question. I feel obligated to point out the obvious thing that poiesis comes from the root of to build, and that stanza means a little room, and that there are all kinds of spatial metaphors built into the way that we’re talking about poetry at all. But I’m thinking of Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1968 book In the Mecca, which she wrote after coming back from the 1967 writer’s conference where Robert Hayden and Amiri Baraka had this standoff—that’s a little bit too strong—but had this conversation about is one a poet who is black or a black poet, and what does that mean? Brooks, who was already this lauded poet, had already won a Pulitzer—and I think it would have been easy to continue to write in the way that she was writing—said, “I have hopes for myself.” Then In the Mecca was the last book that she published with Harper & Row, the white publisher, before moving to Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press. She really made some material and artistic shifts in reorienting toward black communities. In the Mecca is this book that reimagines the relationship to the Mecca apartments which had been demolished 14 years earlier. I think about the possibilities of poetry to offer a kind of, I want to say a counter factual but that’s not right exactly, it’s a possibility of living in the afterlife of forms that have been made impossible or demolished in some literal sense in the world that we live in. But it’s a way of keeping the social space of those forms alive. I think in your conversation with Solmaz Sharif, she talked about the poet as the person who accepts only the briefest awning. I think that a poem can be also, that sense of the briefest awning, a way of gathering and facing each other in forms that are actually difficult or entirely foreclosed by the spatial orders and by the social orders which are intimately related to the spatial orders of the world as it exists.
DN: I wondered about this in relation to the cover too, which is from an installation by Colombian visual artist and sculptor Doris Salcedo. On your cover, it looks like two ghostly disembodied shrouds perhaps waiting to be inhabited or perhaps already having been so, but the installation is called Disremembered and comes from Salcedo’s perception that society seems unable to mourn. While the sculptures are made out of woven silk, what we can see on your cover is that they are also made up of nearly 12,000 needles and the description for it says, “When viewed from different angles, the details of the sculpture oscillate between visible and invisible: the glint of the nickel and the sheen of the silk appear and disappear simultaneously like a fading memory. The work thus embodies a sense of paradox. Beautiful yet dangerous, it is unclear whether these sculptures, with their thousands of needles, are intended to protect or to harm.” Perhaps similarly, a quote from her, “When a person disappears, everything becomes impregnated with that person’s presence. Every single object as well as every space becomes a reminder of absence, as if absence were more important than presence.” I have no idea if any of this plays into your choice; to put these shrouds on the cover, but it’s interesting that they seem to bring up that same question of whether hosting is hospitality, whether hosting is an act of control, or if tenderness or pain. But tell us your relationship to this installation.
CS: Yeah. All of that feels very live in my relationship. I think as you said, this ambivalence between whether or not these are garments that have been inhabited or garments that are open to be inhabited, whether they’re past facing or future facing or the kind of vex temporality of the neither and bothness of that, which really is remembrance, which really is grief, which really is what it means to hold a lost loved one, or really any loss I think, and to understand that to carry that forward doesn’t actually fit into the same form that, as you said, loss amplifies, admits itself into everything really, especially in the most live stages of grief, I can look out the window or hear any song and that reminds me of a lost loved one. When I feel closest to that loss, the whole world demands to be arranged around that and it also demands to rearrange the whole world in order to imagine a kind of closeness to what no longer exists in its current form. This sense of total rearrangement that has a really uncomfortable and almost impossible relationship to what it would mean to inhabit those forms or to live inside these garments and it keeps that question live I think, as you said, the sculptural dimension of you have to walk around something in order to see it differently; that your perception, it won’t settle, there’s no single vantage point from which the total can be apprehended. I think that keeps you alive to the loss of what you’re not seeing. It requires a kind of social form too, because partialness or because ambivalence or ambiguity really always does that. It requires that we ask each other “What do you see from over there?” and begin to stitch something together.
DN: I love that. I want to ask you about Amira in light of this notion of when a person disappears, everything becomes impregnated with that person’s presence. Because I think that is a phenomenon that you enact. She has this spectral presence in this collection but I’m going to delay it a little bit longer. I was hoping you would read a couple poems that could set up a question by Nathan for you. Could we hear Apples, Preferential Treatment, and Graveyard Shift?
CS: Yes. You have some cute people for questions. This is so nice.
[Claire Schwartz reads from her debut poetry collection, Civil Service]
DN: We’ve been listening to Claire Schwartz read from Civil Service. This is a question from the managing editor of Jewish Currents, the writer and one of my go-to literary critics, Nathan Goldman.
Nathan Goldman: Hi Claire. It has been such a pleasure to live with Civil Service over the past few months. Perhaps because I recently became a dad, I found myself very interested in the role that children and parents would play in the book. In the poem Meaning Well, during a board meeting at an organization that seems to be funded with cash, that is embossed with the dictator’s face, we find the Curator staring blankly at the toddler whose face wallpapers his phone. In Preferential Treatment, the Censor dutifully cares for his son, taking him to Shake Shack, and singing to him to time his tooth brushing, while he, the Censor, uses the black crayon to eradicate sex. That poem ends with the chilling line, “The children’s nails are clogged with black wax.” While kids are often icons of unblemished innocence and abstract hope for the future, I wondered if these tender and haunting glimpses evoke something else. They put me in mind of the way children are used as a pretext for everyday violence and the processes by which they’re assimilated into that violence and tasked with carrying it forward. How do you understand these children and the role they play in the poems? Do they have something to do with the book’s vision of futurity?
CS: Oh, this is so nice. Yeah, thanks, Nathan, for that question. It’s really beautiful to hear from you in this space of new life. I’m thinking of a line from Solmaz Sharif’s poem, Every nation hates its children, and as you said, the kind of pretext of a cruel futurity that’s put, in the words of Lidia Yuknavitch, on the backs of children, what are children asked to stand in for that really authorizes the continuation of brutalities really, that really forecloses the possibilities of a future flourishing. I don’t know. I think it really feels related to the question of kinship that we were thinking through a little bit earlier and the ways that children become this bottom line incontrovertible excuse for, hoarding for, violence for, yeah, I guess just continuing the brutalities of the present in the name of the defense of children even though we know it’s only a few children, and the question of whether or not they even benefit from this is really up for grabs to me. But then I think of someone like June Jordan, who I turn to all the time, who insisted that taking seriously the knowledges of children, the intelligences of children as people who are estranged from these social forms, as people who can see the possibilities of an otherwise inside our now who are just coming to language and have a kind of tenuous relationship between language and between social forms, who recognize kinship or affiliation everywhere, that feels like such a site of profound possibility to me and what would it mean to actually take that seriously. It feels actually very related to the question of what it means to take poetry seriously.
DN: Nathan mentions the poem Meaning Well which reminded me of something you said in an interview about your chapbook in reference to a poem that is an erasure poem of one of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speeches where you say, “I have been thinking about the phrase ‘well-meaning’—how it so often cloaks power and coats violence with something slippery. ‘Oh, you [person of color] shouldn’t worry about when that white woman touched your hair/asked where you’re really from/[insert white violence here]. She meant well.’ ‘Well-meaning’ strips the traction from grievances so they are difficult to address. ‘Well-meaning,’ its own catchall alibi.” Which somehow I also connect to another part of your essay on memorizing poems where you say, “‘I can’t imagine,’ my white family and friends tell each other so many times it sounds like a plea, or an incantation. ‘I just cannot imagine,’ they say, meaning they cannot imagine how the massacre happened; how, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, entered Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston and murdered Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Daniel Simmons, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson — nine black people, who had made a space sacred and welcomed him in. ‘We,’ my family and friends insist, ‘cannot imagine.’” “But.” you continue in the essay, “Can you imagine hearing and not intervening in a racist joke? Can you imagine attending a university that invests in private prisons? Can you imagine being an American and never learning black history? Can you imagine studying the Holocaust without talking about Japanese internment? Can you imagine teaching a science class without Henrietta Lax, without the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, without any thought at all to whose bodies have produced your knowledge? Can you imagine living on land stolen from native peoples? Can you imagine buying something, ignorant to the conditions of its production? Can you imagine crossing the street at night so as not to be within arms length of a black man who threatens to share the sidewalk with you? No, maybe you’re saying. I don’t do that. But can you imagine?” Somehow this well-meaningness or meaning well, it feels connected to me to what we’re willing to see, again, to go back to the first poem we were talking about, Perennial, and maybe it has to do with reading, not just reading text but reading the world, or perhaps most obviously, when you talk about the spectacular and you’re wanting to talk about the terror and the ordinary. But I wondered if this brings up any thoughts for you around meaning well in relationship to not specifically the poem Meaning Well but to Civil Service, and what you’re doing.
CS: I think wellness and that configuration of meaning well feels related to civility. I’m having a very strong image of people just showing up to class and not doing the reading and talking a lot, that there’s actually a space between having studied in the sense of how Moten talks about a commitment to the idea that study is what we do together, having not really taken seriously that space, having not taken seriously what comes before and still feeling the entitlement, to hold forth as though it’s somehow responsive to the thing that you haven’t attended to. In some way, it feels like the gap between reading and expression. Again, I’m using these not in the sense of spending time with a written text but in the sense of taking seriously the world that you live in and expression as the forms of your living that are responsive to the world that we live in. The gap between those feels, in so many ways, like the form of whiteness actually and that understanding that gap as benign or meaningless and just an annoyance is actually an incredibly dangerous thing, that that benefit of the doubt that has other people having to consistently respond to it or ask the question of whether or not it was even harmful and the kind of work and psychic toll that goes into negotiating that space, it feels responsible for the maintenance of so much of what is. I think the thing about this idea of meaning well is that it asks one configuration of people to be able to absorb the carelessness of another. I think to take seriously the directions of who has to absorb that carelessness and who is permitted to exist that carelessly in the world really shows us something about how things are set up and that those really aren’t benign interactions.
DN: Let’s talk about Amira since we’re talking now about the ordinary everyday things that maintain the status quo and Amira as this disruptive element in Civil Service. It’s fitting that the On the Nose podcast titled their episode talking to you, The Scream Clarifies An Elsewhere, which references the first poem we talked about today, because Amira feels like an embodiment of an elsewhere and an otherwise. She’s a fugitive voice that is running down the margins of the book in grayscale who feels both like the present absence at the heart of the book, to borrow Doris Salcedo’s language, and seems to be outside of the book also as much as the civil servants in the book are trying to pin her down. For instance, in one of your lecture poems, lecture on confessional poetry, it has the line, “To confess is to offer the territory of your elsewhere to the Dictator’s compass.” In Amira’s own language in contrast, at one point says, “What dazzling otherwise do I name when I address you.” In a way she seems outside of language too, or on its outer limits. She even unpins names from their things at one point. I thought a little of Yasmine in Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries, who’s also a fugitive and unpinned so I wasn’t surprised that for your launch event for this book that you opened it with a reading from Ossuaries, but talk to us about Amira, her presence absence feels really vital to this collection which I think otherwise could risk feeling very well-built, but instead feels in flux and in motion.
CS: I think all of the enclosures that structure our social space as it is and the fact that we clearly need some kind of totalizing catalytic action, that I think is often called revolution in order to move us from this world to a different kind of world, can mean that that action is the narrative climax really, is where the story can end, but it felt important to me to signpost that there’s something on the other side that’s not wholly knowable from where we stand but that we have glimpses of in the world that exists as it exists now. But I think going back to the unnamed prologue poems that end, “You are responsible for Amira. She’s in your hands now,” borrowing from Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture where she makes that proclamation really about language itself by way of an image of a bird, and really to think about what does it mean to move toward, I guess really in some ways, it’s just what Natalie Diaz says, I’m probably misquoting a little bit, but “Why not now move toward what I love? Why not move toward the possibility of a different kind of relation?” I think she’s not wholly visible but the proximity to her is really up to the reader. It really is there are ways of engaging with that language that I think put you closer or further away from her. That kind of calibration felt important. As you’re saying, it felt important to making the book feel porous to the world because I didn’t want it to be a kind of knowable community, as Raymond Williams talks about the novel, I really wanted it to be actually a question of what does it mean to be in an unknowable community? What does it mean to fight for something whose forms we can never really wholly know? Which describes the future but it also describes our relationships to each other.
DN: I really loved, in the Jewish Currents episode with you, you responding to Nathan calling the collection melancholy by saying that you liked that framing because Freud characterized melancholy as an unhealthy response to not being able to assimilate grief. You wanted to unpack the political possibilities of what it would mean to refuse to assimilate grief. Somehow, I connect this to Amira. I don’t know if you would, but Amira feels like an embodiment of a refusal to assimilate and a refusal to assimilate grief.
CS: I hadn’t really thought about it in that way before but now it’s making me think again about the cover and the way that we were talking about the vex temporality of grief, that in fact—and maybe this is partly because I’m sitting with Customs right now, Solmaz Sharif’s collection, so closely—but the forms of the future that I hope to be a part of bringing about have everything to do with the foreclosures of the past, that there’s always a kind of counterfactual element against which to calibrate what we hope to become, but I think there’s no way to imagine that without taking seriously that those losses persist and that those losses will persist in the future even if they’re not being renewed under the same conditions, that what’s happened continues to happen in various forms, because the losses continue to mutate.
DN: I wondered if it was accidental or intentional that Amira’s name doesn’t signify a stable ethnic or national identity; that it could be Hebrew, it could be Arabic, it could even be Hindi. Talk to us about the process of choosing the name of Amira, which in a way is the most important name to choose and the only person who has a name in this book that isn’t a function, I think.
CS: I think it goes back a little bit to what I was talking about earlier in terms of thinking about these kind of currents by which my life feels directed which could not come only through Judaism. That’s just how they happen to have come to me, but they might come in a form that would be indistinguishable actually to someone else. It did feel important to me to think about a name that, I don’t know, maybe we can talk a little bit about like diaspora, but I feel a little bit of, allergy is too strong, but a little bit of a resistance to that framework and thinking a little bit instead about the framework of multi-rootedness which is more of a Mizrahi framework. But the idea that there’s not one origin from which everything else was cast out but there are a whole host of spaces where roots are grown and where relationships are cultivated and so it felt important to me that her name has multiple roots, that other people may enter differently and whose significations may therefore be very different. For me, it comes from the Hebrew in my own knowing so I loved that it means like a tree top which made me think of the Kabbalistic sense of the Tree of Life and Celan’s Breathturn, this sense of where knowledge becomes incompatible with human life, the very pinnacle of something that we can only hope to move toward, it’s a horizon that they can never be fully embodied, but then also means saying that it’s a deeply embodied way of trying to reach toward another with language that requires the body, that requires imagining another body on the other side. That’s my origin. But I hope others have others.
DN: Yeah. I love that. Speaking of the notion of elsewhere and otherwise, you curated an incredible series at Jewish Currents that was a really amazing re-reading of Toni Morrison’s only short story, the one where she does not signal which of the two girls is black and which is white, though we know that one is one and one is the other, or rather, the reader finds themselves presuming one or the other at various moments based on details in the text but it’s never clear. Everyone from past Between the Covers guest, Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli wrote about the story, Dionne Brand wrote about the story, and your writing about it is called Reading Otherwise. On kinship, racial pedagogy, and reading as revision. Reading from your essay, you say, “In Specters of the Atlantic, Ian Baucom posits the novel as the genre that conditioned thought in line with the speculative finance system that underwrote the transatlantic slave trade. The novel, Baucom explains, honed the idea of ‘types’ that tethered the present to a fixed set of futures—if a person is x, then they will be y—a mode of thinking required for the brutal calculations by which a person, kidnapped from their home, could be sold as a commodity in a place far away. The reading practice that corresponds to ‘types’ is skimming—a process of extraction carried out in accordance with prefigured ideas about what one will find, and then fastening those findings to a limited set of meanings. Or, as Baucom puts it, the novel ‘altered the knowable by indexing it to the imaginable.’ This story, which Morrison called ‘an experiment,’ exposes the extractive practice of skimming—what often passes for ordinary reading—as itself a set of brutal experiments, racial propositions, and hypotheses that constrict meaning to marshal the present toward a fixed future.” Then I love that you bring in the Talmud here which I also think of with Amira because the way that Amira, running down the margins of your book, makes me think of the way the Talmud is text surrounding text from different eras, text running down the margins around other texts. You say, “The Talmud is a living record of reading. It is also a theory of reading: To read is to revise. Texts are sites of return, not because their certainty calcifies ways to be, but because their uncertainty is infinite, and to commune with that uncertainty is to enlarge the possibilities of becoming. In the world of modern finance capital, the future is speculative. When we read the Talmud, we recall that the past is speculative. When we skim, we extract meaning. When we read, we endow meaning; that is the logic of interpretation. In Hebrew, teacher and parent share a root; put differently, they are split at the root. In the absence of the mothers as the primary instructors of sociality, a space for mothering is opened up—and one answer to that space is readership. Bound by disagreement as much as consensus, in the kinship readership extends, likeness is not the prerequisite for belonging. I bring the Talmud to this reading not because it belongs here, but because it is what I have to bring. The great possibility in tradition is not the smooth fiction of continuity but the jagged edge of unfinishedness, the infinite invitation to reread and thus revise, a way out from the real of the now: What, otherwise, might we mean for each other?” I read this mostly so we can all hear it because it’s so amazing, but I also think of your class, a six-week class, The Art of Attention, where week five is Imagining Otherwise, and I wondered, is this part of Imagining Otherwise by learning to read otherwise, by learning to read in a non-extractive way as you describe here, is that a part of the process of Imagining Otherwise?
CS: I think it is. I’m thinking about Jabès again, I’m not sure if this will get us anywhere but it’s just what’s coming to mind, he says, “The word is on the side of death.” There’s this idea that the blank field of the page and the kind of god really that it stands for, the nothingness that it stands for, is disrupted by the mark, is disrupted by language, which you talked about this really beautifully in your conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop. I think she used the example of a bird, but the idea that you write bird because the bird isn’t there and it’s actually a really cruel consolidation of everything that a bird is, to have this little word that stands in for it. But I think what gives me, I don’t know, actually hope, I’ll say, is that there’s the possibility of them re-enlivening that by encountering it as a reader, by bringing all of these other meanings, by fleshing the word with the imagination and with the forms of living that the imagination makes possible or believable or fortifies us to move into. To me, it is always this encounter with death, encounter with loss that makes life precious, but that also is a kind of disruption of the fullness of living that the reader then moves in to meet the word and to bring it back into the world.
DN: I really love this idea of extractive reading and skimming, and this other notion of attending to text as a connection to attending to the world. Maybe in that spirit, could we hear Death Revises Badly? Which I do think it tends to the poor way we read our own histories as we live them.
[Claire Schwartz reads a poem called Death Revises Badly]
DN: We’ve been listening to Claire Schwartz read from Civil Service. It feels like this poem, Death Revises Badly, is one place in the book where the types don’t remain types, where real people are poking through the figures. The Old Dictator who now paints, who suddenly we now look back to with fondness, forgetting all of his monstrosities, given how terrible the current dictator is. Even though this I think could apply to many past leaders, I feel like I’m invited to see George W. Bush here. I think of your review of his book of paintings that you call Portraits of Empire with the subtitle “George W. Bush’s recent book of paintings betrays liberal empire’s role not as fascism’s alternative but as its co-conspirator;” an essay that is nonpartisan in its disdain for American liberalism where you also say of Biden, “Biden, who, months into a global uprising against the brutality that is policing, suggested that instead of aiming to kill targeted people, cops should ‘shoot them in the leg’—a pithy expression of liberalism. The warped lens through which Biden’s presidency appears as anything other than an extension of the ongoing catastrophe of US empire is the result of a long history of nationalist distortion, in which carcerality masquerades as care, civility as justice.” But you go on to talk about the swift and substantial rehabilitation of George Bush’s image now that Trump has arrived, no longer the founder of ICE, the torturer-in-chief, or the invader of Iraq, but rather the guy who, as you mentioned, was the recipient of a warm hug from Michelle Obama at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, who’s an affable friend of Ellen DeGeneres, and an amateur painter. Your description of his book says, “Presenting images of diverse immigrants, united only by their gratitude to the United States, Out of Many, One creates a composite sketch of a ‘good immigrant’ to authorize the very imperial aggressions which, by creating conditions of global unsafety, coerce people to leave their homes. Under the guise of hospitality, the book patrols the always unevenly porous border of the nation that has little relationship to its geographic perimeter—where dominant ideas of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ look like are reproduced, where routes of appeal are fortified, and the addressee is always the imperial center.” This feels like it could be a description of what your civil servants are trying to create in your book, in my opinion; that Amira is actively trying to subvert in your book, that there is an imagination battle happening in your book. But I wondered, am I reading too much of real history into this poem the real way we are reading our histories? Is it wrong to have this real figure poking through this more vague figure that we find mostly throughout the book?
CS: No. I don’t think it’s wrong. I think it’s actually very much the point. You mentioned that this is the one poem oriented around these figures where something like real people or people who are a little bit more can’t be only figured in terms of these types are poking through. It felt important to me to begin the book with that sense; that there’s something that’s being consolidated through these types that is porous to another kind of way of being. It’s obviously no coincidence that Bush is legible here. But I think he’s not the only person who’s legible in these kinds of imperial revisions really. The fact that these types really are configurations of power that map on to the world as we’ve known it, and may or may not map onto the world as we continue to know it, is really the open question that the book sits inside.
DN: You relayed in one of your pieces about being eight-years old when a Holocaust survivor came to your Hebrew school to tell his story; a story that you loved to tell yourself for a really long time, that his family was sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered. But an SS officer took note of this survivor when he was a boy, took note of his painting skills and kept him alive as a person to paint portrait for him. At that time, this story was a powerful example to you of the real manifestation of arts’ vitality and power. But later you began to see it differently; that the capacity for beauty is not the capacity for good. This makes me think of your poem Minuet, which, I think for a large part, is one of the more beautiful poems but then undercuts itself in a way or undercuts the truth effect of beauty, maybe it would be one way to say it. I don’t know if you have any thoughts about what I just said but then I was thinking after you do, if we could go out with a reading of Minuet.
CS: Well, Minuet in particular, I don’t know that I was thinking of this at the time but when I read it now, I think of Celan and Todesfuge; the way that poem, which is really so frontally about the death camps, was taken up as a poem of reconciliation, was extracted of its content and taught for its form in German schools as the German state was reconstituting its own fascisms after World War II, as Nazis were being really reinstated in positions of civil service. After that really horrendous misreading by agents of the German state, Celan said that he didn’t want to musicalize in that way anymore and he turned away from that kind of poetics. I wanted to think about the dangers of music to lull us into forms and contents—I don’t mean to distinguish in that way exactly—but really into meanings that we may not be fully awake to. I think it’s a very common thing to be singing along to a song without fully internalizing its lyrics, but I think there’s a way that its meaning still enter you and the music can be kind of a lubrication for meanings that you may not otherwise want to take in or otherwise want to be reproducing to enter. I was trying to hold that, but I can read.
[Claire Schwartz reads a poem called Minuet]
DN: Thank you for being on the show today, Claire.
CS: Thank you so much for having me. It’s long been a dream to talk with you so this is a very nice excuse.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Claire Schwartz, the author of the debut poetry collection, Civil Service from Graywolf. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Claire Schwartz’s work can be found at claireschwartz.net. For the bonus audio archive, Claire contributes a reading in both French and English of Edmond Jabès. This joins Jen Bervin reading from, and under the influence of, Paul Celan, long form interviews with many translators and much more. Claire also offers a poetry or writing consultation/conversation. There’s a ton of other things available including having books handpicked by me and sent to you, the new Jewish Currents bundle, becoming an early reader for Tin House, but maybe you just simply find these conversations substantive, meaningful, even life affirming. If so, if you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the community of Between the Covers listener-supporters who are ensuring the future of in-depth conversations like these. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Alice Evelyn Yang in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.