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Between the Covers Joyelle McSweeney Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by World Poetry. World Poetry is a nonprofit publisher of poetry in translation, founded in 2017 and based in New York City. World Poetry publishes from a broad range of languages and traditions, bringing the work of modern masters, emerging voices, and pioneering innovators from around the world to English-language readers in affordable high quality poetry editions. Recent authors have included the Swiss surrealist and visual artist Méret Oppenheim, legendary French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, and Zuzanna Ginczanka, a visionary Polish-Ukrainian Jewish poet of the interwar period, as well as authors from Chile, Germany, Mexico, Palestine, and beyond. This month, World Poetry is publishing translations from French, Hindi, and Indonesian including the first English-language publications of Leeladhar Jagoori and Afrizal Malna. For more information and to subscribe to their newsletter, you can visit worldpoetrybooks.com or find them on Instagram @worldpoetrybooks or on X, formerly known as Twitter @worldpoetrybook. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Fiona Warnick’s transformative novel The Skunks. Following Isabel, as she returns to her hometown after graduating from college, this coming-of-age story ponders the complexities of crushes, desire, friendship, and modern life, all a backdrop to Isabel’s preoccupation with three baby skunks. Says Annie Hartnett, “The Skunks is a gleaming, zany little gem—a novel that perfectly captures the weirdness of being young and just out of college, and not sure what comes next.” Adds Allegra Hyde, “This is a novel that asks big questions of friendship, romance, firsts, and finding one’s way in the world.” The Skunks is out now from Tin House. Today is an exciting day for me because I’ve had a long-standing interest in having Joyelle McSweeney on the show and for many different reasons: her poetry, her criticism, the way she performs, the crucial space her and her partner, Johannes Göransson, hold with regards to poetics, aesthetics, and translation in the poetry world, how alive her poetry is in spite of or perhaps because of its deep engagement with death, personal and global, personal catastrophe, environmental calamity, and more. I was extra delighted by what Joyelle has contributed to the bonus audio archive. At one point early in the conversation today, I bring up her libretto Pistorius Rex, which was inspired by the murder trial of the double-amputee Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, a libretto of which only excerpts have been published. Joyelle not only decided to contribute a nearly 20-minute performance from it but did so by performing on video, the first ever video contribution, so you can see her gestures, gesticulations, and facial expressions as well as the strange artificial background she used, the same one I was looking at as we talk today for the main conversation. This joins many other contributions by great performance artist poets. For instance, CA Conrad performing their piece Memories Of Why I Stopped Being A Man, which was written as part of the 50th-anniversary celebration of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness where each of the three parts begins with a Le Guin quote, then autobiographical prose by Conrad, then a poem. But also a late night whispered reading by Bhanu Kapil, two performed poems by Douglas Kearney, and Johanna Hedva’s performance The Saddest Thing of All Is When a Lone Astronaut Falls in Her Suit—Who Is There to Help Her Up? which was created just for us, from moans, groans, screams, and written text recorded city to city while they were on tour and performed alongside, and within the sounds of the universe itself, the sonifications of a black hole or field recordings of the aurora borealis. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resources corresponding to each episode sent to them of what I discovered while preparing or what I referenced during the conversation, where to go after you’re done listening. Every listener-supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests, then there are everything from rare collectibles from Karen Joy Fowler to Rae Armantrout to the Tin House Early Reader Subscription. You can find out about all of this and much more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Joyelle McSweeney.

[Music]

David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, poet, playwright, novelist, translator, publisher, editor, and critic Joyelle McSweeney has a BA in English from Harvard University, an M.Phil. in English Studies from Oxford, and an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and she’s a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. With Johannes Göransson, she co-edits the international press Action Books who have published everyone from Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon to Raúl Zurita, and Daniel Borzutzky to past Between the Cover’s guest Valerie Mejer Caso. McSweeney was guest editor with Carmen Maria Machado of Best American Experimental Writing 2020 and co-translated with Don Mee Choi several of the pieces in Hyesoon’s selected works. She is one of our great contemporary critics and her book The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults is a vital work of literary and eco-criticism. In 2022, McSweeney was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and recognized with the Arts, and Letters award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She’s the author of 10 books of poetry, drama, and prose, including The Red Bird, which inaugurated the Fence Modern Poets Series in 2001, and her verse play Dead Youth, Or, The Leaks, which inaugurated the Leslie Scalapino prize for Innovative Women Performance Artists in 2014. She’s the author, among many other things, of the novels Nylund, the Sarcophager and Flet, and most recently, the 2020 Poetry Collection Toxicon & Arachne, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award and for which she was awarded the Shelley Memorial Prize by the Poetry Society of America, whose past winners include Elizabeth Bishop, E. E. Cummings, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Bernadette Mayer. Publishers Weekly in its starred reviews said of Toxicon & Arachne, “Formally brilliant, emotionally heartbreaking, and considerably terrifying, this is a stunning work from one of poetry’s most versatile experimentalists.” Dan Chiasson at The New Yorker adds, “The power of McSweeney’s work cannot be separated from its association with forms of oracle and soothsaying, and so it is uncanny that it should arrive in the middle of a global pandemic… The kamikaze fantasy arises, like everything in this frightening and brilliant book, not from a pleasant ‘brainstorm’ but from the animal reflexes of the ‘brainstem.’ The defeat is total: a rout, a blowout.” Joyelle McSweeney is here today to talk about her next book, her follow-up to Toxicon & Arachne, her latest poetry collection Death Styles. The New York Times Book Review says of Death Styles, “After McSweeney’s infant daughter died, she found herself unable to write for two years. She made her way back via the torrent of poems in this collection; the result is like a volcano, spewing details of pop culture and regular life amid waves of grief and perseverance.” David Woo for Lit Hub adds, “If to style—from stilus, a stake or pale, pointed instrument for writing—is to impale a thought with one’s pen, Joyelle McSweeney’s new book styles the aftermath of an infant daughter’s death as anguished, living consciousness pinned and vivisected, still squirming, onto the pages of an outré thought diary: ‘a periphery perforated by / absurdity and calamity / like funeral games performed for a slain infant,’ she says, alluding to Euripides. In Death Styles, style may be, like the progression of a life, something narrow and transitory, what Schopenhauer termed ‘the physiognomy of the mind,’ the flickers of an expressive face suggesting a vaster interiority: the permanent tear in a surviving mother’s eye, the morbid yet healing grin, the frail gaze ahead.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Joyelle McSweeney. 

Joyelle McSweeney: Thank you for making me feel so welcome. That is really expansive and slightly terrifying, and a really vital introduction. [laughter] Thank you. 

DN: Before we talk about Death Styles in particular, I wanted to spend a little time with your aesthetics and poetics that long predate this new book. Nine years ago at Harvard, at an event called In Extremis: On Poetry, Subversion & Violence, the literary critic and poet Stephanie Burt interviewed both you and your partner and co-editor at Action Books, poet and translator Johannes Göransson, someone I hope to also someday have on the show. I was charmed by Stephanie’s introduction, both what she said and how she delivered it. How, even though your writing and Johannes’ writing is very different in mode and style and often in theme and content, that she felt like your work not only spoke to each other but toward similar questions around poetry. She opens up by talking about how she has followed your work in the world as well as the people you’ve published and equally, the arguments you’ve been having with others in the literary world with fascination, occasionally appalled but always interested. She said that when she read you together, that you both raised questions about extremes, about where and when we want our poetry to violate boundaries of decency, propriety, and expectation and what you gain, and what you lose by having blood all over the page and how these are not just questions in your own work but in your work as critics, and your work within your publishing universe where Stephanie quotes an Action Books statement which I’ll read a little more of than she did at the time, “Action Books believes in historical avant-gardes & unknowable dys-contemporary discontinuous occultly continuous anachronistic avant-gardes. Art, Genre, Voice, Prophecy, Theatricality, Materials, the Bodies, Foreign Tongues, and Other Foreign Objects and Substances, if taken internally, may break apart societal forms. ‘In an Emergency, Break Forms.’” Stephanie continues by talking about your shared esthetic of excess, of discomfort, of the abject, of taking not a scalpel but a bazooka to things as they are. I bring this up also because there’s a certain exuberance and delight to the way she delivers her introduction that I’ve also noted in other people introducing you over the years as if your own mode of being, of excess and exuberance, is contagious or infectious, and that people discover a certain joy in being perhaps possessed by it as a result. In a more recent interview at EcoTheo where they ask you if you have any words of wisdom or advice for those attempting to resist the mundane, you say, “Well the problem is this world. The solution must be underworlds, otherworlds, antiworlds, paraworlds and afterworlds  (which may be foreworlds). Luckily there’s such a preponderance of artists, poets, activists, and dreamers—alive, not-yet-conceived, and  posthumous– working in anachronistic confluence, fed by so many streams of speculation and inheritance, to manifest a multiverse. For my part, I am a devout Decadent, so I firmly believe in anachronism, inversion, reversals, paradox, metaphor, error, hyperdiction, ornament, odes, Frank Ocean, the Sublime, immodesty, immoderateness, and going all the way.  My aim is to exhaust my star.” Like I imagine Stephanie and the other introducers felt, I feel in my body a certain type of joy or feeling a certain type of aliveness reading your words back to you as if your mode has spilled into me, [laughter] borrowing a phrase from your press, Action Books, art, and other fluids, talk to us about art as a fluid, perhaps as a fluid with transmissible substances or about what hyperdiction is or anything else that this might inspire you to talk about. 

JM: Well, I think that is a pretty comprehensive mapping of the ways that I’ve been thinking about art for a really long time for decades. I had a very canonical poetry education, the most canonical because it started in my high school where I started out by learning Latin and it just so happened it’s public high school but they offered Latin. This was in the golden age of the SATs when they still had Latin on the books. This was supposedly going to help you with the SAT, so I got to take Latin and when you take Latin, you get to read poetry. You have to, you translate poetry. They just give you some vocab, then set you right up with the Aeneid, with Catullus, or with Horace. The amazing part about that for me meant that I got to study poetry in depth. Poetry mattered. I don’t think there was any other part of that curriculum, including AP English or what have you that included poetry. Certainly not in that level of depth where you were required to think about how it was made, its sonics, its beats, its metaphors, its indulgence, its strips to the underworld. It’s being covered in blood, being noticed by the gods, going out of your way to get the gods noticed, bringing your complaints right to the gods. Hell yeah. [laughter] That’s how big poetry can be. Because in a way, I had such a canonical education, I also had a huge model of what poetry should be. Then I did go to Harvard as you mentioned and I went to another golden age I suppose because Helen Vendler was very much there, so poetry was right at the center of the curriculum again. It was considered one of the most important things that you could train your vision on and she marched us right through her canon in these medium-sized lecture courses of what American poetry was to her, and that meant we just read a ton of 20th-century American poetry and armed with this double canon, this classical canon, then this very much like American grain canon. I went off to Oxford and added in Irish modernism, just to rumple things a bit, then that was the model of poetry that I had that my brain was steeped in. Then an interesting thing happened. I got my MFA, I fell in love with a guy called Johannes Göransson and suddenly, translation was opened up to me. Just that beginning of translation, just that beginning of the idea that other contemporary poets had totally separate reference points, lineages, urgencies, reasons for making art made me take a second glance at everything I had read and recontextualized everything I had read in this spangled war ages that was as big as the cosmos itself, that involved all the fighting and tussling of the gods, all the fighting and tussling of all the chemicals, irons, metals, and things that were thrown out by the Big Bang, all of it rummaging together in the firmaments. Suddenly, that was as big as poetry was. That was as full of conflict, refulgence, discovery and ecstasies, and theophanies, catabasis, and huge struggles. All of these things were poetry. After that, there was really no going back. For the last few decades, basically all the poetry I think I had the good luck to encounter, I have just made room for this cosmology. It is a poetry that’s alive and on fire at all times, and absolutely in crisis and coming from crisis, and casting out unexpected spectacles, and effulgences.

DN: Well, thinking of art and other fluids, I think of the libretto Pistorius Rex you were working on at the time of your interview with Stephanie, your interest in this athlete Paralympic champion and the first double leg amputee participant to win a world track medal, someone with supreme control over his body and how, after he murdered his girlfriend, at trial, how he lost all control over it, not just tears and mucus but multiple episodes of vomiting during the proceedings. This might seem like a weird preface to wanting to spend a moment with the notion of The Necropastoral. But in your book of ecocriticism, you talk about the manifestation of the infectious anxiety and contagion being occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral, that we shouldn’t forget that the premier celebrity resident of Arcadia is death. You say quote, “The charnel field of the necropastoral entail a decomposing, mucoid substance that hosts strange meetings: the living and the dead, the not-quite living and the not-quite dead, the wounded, the bleeding, the moan, the worm, death, the poet. Chlorine gas and petroleum can meet, eat, shit, interpenetrate, shred and shed, goo, make apertures, struggle with each other, shove their faces in and through each other’s mouths or chest walls, generating more slime, puke, language, and goo, charnel and necrotizing material, i.e., art, and never arrive at a final configuration. Once the contemporary poet slips out of the carefully delineated and Cartesian axes of historical time and national space to enter in this necropastoral, art’s residue can never be removed.” It feels important to bring this up as I feel like this is an important throughline in your work and I guess I’d love to hear more about or have you expand a little bit more on The Necropastoral, especially because as I read this back to you now after hearing your last answer, this moving from the Cartesian axes of historical time also seems to mimic what you’re describing around how you begin in the most canonical and normatively recognizable realm of poetry, and what I just read back as another way to conceive of art feels like an entirely different mode or relationship to it. 

JM: Yes, I think in some ways, this goes back to your original point about energy and the release of energy, even in most decadent precincts or the things that are most often perjured or are seen as very negative in both American culture and American aesthetics, like mold and bugs, and certainly viruses, graves, wastelands, even very unfashionable places such as where I live in northwestern Indiana and the post-industrial Rust Belt. I do think that living here in the Rust Belt has been foundational for rethinking a model of art that comes from someplace that is very low down, that is not seen as valuable, beautiful, hygienic, or even particularly safe on an environmental level, and wondering what does a map of the cosmos look like from here? What does a map of the cosmos look like if you’re starting out from South Bend, Indiana? It looks like the necropastoral. It looks like a place where both the high and the low are melted down, touched, interwoven with each other, in communication with each other, things from different periods, things in different languages, different models, and that this is a place of lawless exchange, like the grave itself. It’s also in a way true to my experience of poetry that things from different periods suddenly speak very loudly and directly to me one day along with whatever earworm is in my head that day. Some new order hook and some fragments of Sappho, and some little bit of lull that’s hanging around and some little image from Kim Hyesoon, suddenly, those four things are in some kind of clot of my brain and I decided to go live there for a while, and that’s where the enjoyment and the threat of poetry lives and comes from. Attaching the word necro to pastoral allows me to name and recognize a kind of activity and a kind of potentiality that comes when we reverse the telescope and look the other way. I am using an intentionally Looney Tunes type imagery there. You reverse your telescope and you see some cartoonishly small thing that suddenly seems very big. A flea walking across a hair and you take it to be the equator, that kind of thing from Looney Tunes. That’s another very important lens of all of this for me, a real American lunatic war-laden, probably 20th-century way of looking at the world and all of its exaltations, disappointments, and dismays.

DN: You write a lot about prophecy, whether Rimbaud’s idea of the poet becoming a seer through the derangement of the senses or your reference to the leaves spilling out of the mouth of the Sibyl’s Cave in the afterword to Death Styles and many people found the arrival of Toxicon & Arachne during the worst of the pandemic as uncannily prescient since it was written before the pandemic, and yet speaks to it. Eventually, I want to talk about how Death Styles does and doesn’t relate to the book before it, given that they both engage with the death of your daughter. But for now as a preface to hearing the opening poem of Death Styles, I wanted to mention the ways your last book was prophetic. Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker again said, “Toxicon and Arachne is actually two books, bound as one and yoked together by disaster. In ‘Toxicon,’ written while carrying her third child, McSweeney imagines her body as a poisonous, dangerous host, a ‘nest of scum’ or a ‘jet engine’ with a ‘stork torso’ caught inside it. The world that awaits the child is equally, extravagantly lethal: ‘factory hens’ carry ‘their viral load’ while the ‘zika mosquito’ dips its ‘improbable proboscis / into the human layer / and vomits an inky toxin.’” You say in your essay How I Became a Prophetess, “My first act of prophecy was to predict my own child’s death. Uncannily, in the years and months leading up to her ill-starred birth, I had written a book called Toxicon, obsessed with the themes of toxins, contamination, gestation, mutation, a smashed delivery suite, and a ‘pulseless fontanel.’ Arachne’s birth converted Toxicon from a book of obsessions into one of prophecies—and me into a prophetess.” Death Styles opens again with Arachne and I was hoping we could hear the opening poem to Death Styles.

JM: I’d be delighted to read this poem because it is a big poem. It’s set in South Bend. It involves one of my antagonists, Dawn, both the dawn and the goddess Dawn, and Dawn as a pretty blonde in the sky, so I’m very pleased to take her on with this first poem. Okay, so this is the Death Style for August 11, 2020, and when I was writing these, they’re all named for the style inspiration that kicked the poem off, so my style in spoken for this poem is a skunk.

[Joyelle McSweeney read from Death Styles]

DN: We’ve been listening to Joyelle McSweeney read from Death Styles. I feel like we should just end here and just be in our feelings about it. [laughter] But before we talk about the specifics of Death Styles as a book, maybe we could spend a moment with how you see this as an extension of or departure from Toxicon & Arachne as a book.

JM: Well, one thing I’ll say is as you alluded to in the preface, it’s a real departure because when I finished writing the last poem in Arachne, the story goes I had written Toxicon and that is the book that I sent to Nightboat, and that they were excited to publish. I was rushing and rushing to finish it because the baby was going to be born, then the baby was born and she was born with an unexpected birth defect, and she lived just 13 days. This happened in September and October, then that spring, when spring returned and the baby did not return, I was full with fury, anger at spring, and I wrote this second book Arachne, just in a turn of anger, anger at spring, anger at poetry, anger at myself of course, anger at everything that led to the loss of this child, including the Big Bang, anger at everything. Nothing was exempt. But when I wrote the last poem in Arachne, I was so angry at myself, I could not go on and I slammed my laptop shut, and I said, “That’s it. No more poetry for you.” It was really an act of self-harm as well. Like many poets’ curses, this one held. I could not write again. Even when a year passed, things started to get a little bit better, maybe I could have written but I couldn’t write at all because I had thrust my poetry away. More time passed and I realized I was not going to survive unless I found a way to also survive with poetry. So I needed to come up with some way to survive. I needed to come up with some way to write poetry. They turned out to be the same way, which was the following, I set myself these three rules, I was going to write everyday, I was going to accept any inspiration that came to me no matter how peripheral or accidental, like the skunk for example or later it’s Leonard Cohen and frequently, it’s River Phoenix. Any kind of person, animal, image, being that walked through my brain became my companion for that poem and my style icon for that poem. The third rule was I had to write until I had totally exhausted that topic. With those three rules in mind, I just started writing again and that is the Death Styles.

DN: Do you have an idea why you landed on those three constraints in particular? 

JM: Well, they are the simplest rules of all. I mean something that you would easily say to a friend or student, “Write every day,” [laughter] something I frequently have to remind myself even as, “Don’t edit before there’s text there. Don’t edit your thoughts before they happen or the line before it’s written down.” I think for me, I just had to make it conscious again. I had to make it temporal. It produced some writing that is unlike anything I’ve written in my career, these are very lengthy legato poems. In some ways, they do seem of a piece with the variousness of the terrain that they cover that is just my brain I think. But I think that the phrasal progress, phrase by phrase by phrase by phrase, you can see that this was a kind of getting through the day.

DN: Well, we have a question for you from another, one that takes a general curiosity I had earlier today and asks it more specifically about how it’s embodied in this particular book Death Styles. I think of this question in relation to how you say in the afterword that these poems were written largely in your Rust Belt backyards, narrow lot braced by chain link and weeds. Ryan Ruby and you are two of my favorite critics. Your recent review of Fady Joudah’s new book was revelatory, your review of Monica Youn’s From From and perhaps most notably your writings on Douglas Kearney, which were essential for me in preparing to talk with him. In a similar way, Ryan Ruby’s writings on Rosmarie Waldrop were essential for me in talking to Waldrop. Ryan is a writer and translator and is the author of the upcoming book Context Collapse, which is a critical essay in verse or a mock academic verse essay that uncovers the secret history of poetry of which Don Mee Choi says, “Ryan Ruby has written a daring essay. The verse text and verse footnotes conflate and flail, destabilizing and stylizing one another like conjoined twins.” Here’s a question for you from Ryan.

Ryan Ruby: Hello, Joyelle. My first encounter with your work was The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, an absolutely transformative work of criticism for me in my understanding of poetry. In it, you describe, among other things, the way poetry is a medium and the way it interacts with media with a long consideration of a particular kind of contaminated and decaying landscape as a primal scene for poiesis. I wonder if you could tell us a little more about the necropastoral spaces of Death Styles from the alpha palm, a skunk in which you write, “I crossed the field beside the tennis courts where the high school boys meet for trust exercises. Wet grass, knots at my feet. I hid it. No, I like it. No, I like it as I kick my way to the sidewalk. Sneakers soaked above their trademarked rubber soles, a loneliness American as a kick in the teeth. To the Omega poem, Agony in the Garden, which is bookended by an image of raw sewage running down to Coney Island Creek in New York.”

JM: Well, first of all, I’m just so delighted to hear these kind remarks from Ryan and also to think about how he’s linking these two poems is just putting a total smile on my face because yes, everything touches, I mean as that poem I just read says, everything is laced together and nothing drains away. Nothing drains away. As I was reading this poem right now, I was laughing because I forgot that I had quoted dialogue from the John Candy film Planes, Trains and Automobiles in this big monumental poem that I think was being very visionary and very massive, I forgot that I had written in this gag dialogue that is an earworm from my youth. [laughter] I’m bringing this up now both to laugh a bit at myself but also to speak to what Ryan’s talking about, then we have this very immediate of walking in wet grass through your sneakers, feeling it come in and that shock of coldness, and looking down and seeing the white tip of sneakers like teeth, and the American obsession with white teeth and all those things coming together. What starts with a very bodily and even what passes for natural experience in a liminal space becomes this site of interconnection that laces everything together. In the poem at the end of the book that Ryan is talking about, that poem began because I did see a tweet which was from New York City’s combined sewers account. The tweet was, “Raw sewage runs down to Coney Island Creek.” The rhythm of that tweet just captivated me and set off this whole poem, which is itself a kind of orbital that moves in a whole circle away and back to that tweet. I guess to speak to Ryan’s question, there’s this way that language itself and the media by which language is delivered into the ear, and sticks around in the neural foci of brain matter, it touches everything and it’s laced together, and there’s stops being a distinction between having this experience of being out in wet grass in the dawn and seeing a tweet, and feeling the flow and jolt of neural activity that leaps off the tweet. These things are all linked together, to the extent that as I just remarked, I even think of my brain as working this way, as being this wet and spongy, fussy marsh lands, wetlands place where it’s kind of wrecked, it’s kind of contaminated, and it’s kind of smelly, then there’s interesting things happening there. I think of my brain anatomy, especially my hearing anatomy as being like that.

DN: Well, later I want to talk to you about your hearing anatomy but I want to spend a moment with the second half of the title. First, I think about how you just mentioned bringing together necro and pastoral but here you’re bringing together death and styles, so I wanted to talk about styles. My impression reading Toxicon & Arachne, then Death Styles is that the Arachne section of your last book and most of Death Styles feel more prose-y or more narrative than either Toxicon or the section that ends Death Styles that’s bookended by the sewage quote Agony in the Garden. I wondered both if you felt that were true and also how you relate this in some way, if you do, to writing about the death of a child or about trauma in any way versus Toxicon, which is written while you’re pregnant or Agony in the Garden written in dedication to a living son.

JM: Yes, that poem Agony in the Garden is sitting up with an infant and having those circular insomniac thoughts of infant care.

DN: Yeah. I’d also like to hear more about your philosophy on style in general. In your Nightboat interview, you talk about how style is often viewed as something superficial but that paired with the word death, it “Actually opens up this flexing, vertiginous, quasi-depth which in turn makes me think of the seam through which Persephone falls into the depths of Hades, with her hands full of flowers. This chain of flexing, now flat, now deep images, all touching at a seam, opened up my pondering. The phrase ‘Death Styles’ seemed to mark the seam between life and death. The metaphor of a seam conjures fashion, mourning dress, and an ambivalence, as you say, about survival—such a taboo in American literary and grief therapy culture. I think it’s very American to see style as somehow separate from (and secondary to) survival, resistance, politics, etc. Reading Dolores Dorantes’ Estilo, translated by Jen Hofer, immediately disabused me of this provincialism. Style is survival and survival may itself be posthumous—it may be what survives the individual. It might be what plants have, old ladies, communities, sundials. Style is not a what but a way—a way to dress, to move, to signal, to sing, to gesture, to speak, to refuse to speak, to live and to die, to show and to hide and to survive.” You echo this in your Lit Hub essay Style As Survival: On Writing After Death where you say, “Style is the robe in which we wrap ourselves so we can stay on our feet, style is gleaming shears to cut the unbearably lovely fabric of the sky, style is the gust and the hush, with style we bear the glare of the duck, go sideways like the skunk, glide on the thinnest of skeins to the next hour, the next day. Style is a recognition of things which are like us, and which we would like to be like. In this sense, style is simulacra—the copy, the double, that allows art to be made, that is Art, both a display and self-encryption that allows us to survive life’s plot.” Talk to us more about style, the styles in Death Styles in specific perhaps and/or your thoughts about the style of Toxicon versus the style of Arachne and the style of Death Styles in terms of style.

JM: My work may be up to Arachne frenetically concerned with diction and sound, frenetically confident that just putting words together based on sound would release light and that light would be an instructive, powerful, possibly annihilating, certainly transmogrifying light. That light of recognition, dismay, ecstasy all happening in basically what sound can do, the instinctive sound. I think that the electricness of my work up until the book Arachne, whether it was first place, lyric prose, even The Necropastoral, I mean that vision came about from the word first, the word necropastoral. The word necropastoral appeared to me and I was like, “What could this mean? What is the prefix necro doing to the pastoral? What is it revealing? What is it insisting on? What kind of temporal drag does it create in that neologism?” I’m so willing to learn from language and to be in its role, and let it move through me. I could make all these different models of the world that way thrilling to me. I always thought I was writing about the world. I did not feel like I was writing in some Parnassian place that had nothing to do with the world. I felt like all this language, this English that carried its own imperial past, present, and future, it carried Greek and Roman imperial histories, all kinds of things like that. I’ve mentioned Looney Tunes before. I feel like that’s foundational for me for thinking about automata, poesis and violence, pauses and stunts, and stutters and all kinds of things, and even beats, dramatic beats from Looney Tunes. I did not think my work was apart from the world. I just thought it was moving in the world, and making models of it, and hurling those models out, and that kind of thing. Then my baby died. There’s no one doing it. I was beset by two questions. One was the great question from the Aeneid like, “Was it for this? Did I live my whole life just to come up to this crushing, crushing blow? Where does catastrophe begin? Where is its first grain?” The only thing that really provided any relief for me from that question was thinking it was the Big Bang. Like all the way back at the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang happens and all of the molecules go flying outwards, and create time as they move and all of those particles moved outwards, and outwards and forwards, and forwards and came into this moment. That was the only blameless story I could tell myself. I guess I became more interested in both cause and effect, and the harrowing unlatching of cause and effect. Her specific birth defect is an effect for which there is no known cause. They don’t know what causes it. Here’s this defect that blew my life apart. It blew her own life apart that had no cause, just effect. Just radically reorienting your ideas of plot, of cause and effect, why motivation. There are big models in Western culture to help you think about it. There are the Greek tragedies and those fit pretty well. Pettiness of the gods, the habit of reversal, the habit of divine intervention and only the silliest, and most fickle ways, the habit of complaint. I guess I had some narratives that would then fail me, then I would patch other ones in, like for example, Planes, Trains and Automobiles or whatever I had on hand, patch it in, patch it in. Or deaths that I went back and thought about obsessively like River Phoenix’s death, his youth and his death outside the viper room and he comes again and again. He never talks to me in this book. He just passes by and he dies again, and he dies again and he dies again. On a more technical level, I think just the fact that I had this little program for writing where I would start with an icon and write till it was done meant that there was a beginning and an end to every day’s writing. Actually, I don’t think I ever changed those. I did edit these poems. I don’t want to suggest that what’s in the book is exactly how it was written. That was not the case. But actually, going from the dedication in the first line to the end, I think is in almost every case how it was conceived, how it arrived, I should say more than conceived, how it arrived. I haven’t had this thought before this moment but maybe there was a beginning, middle, end, beginning, middle, end, beginning, middle, end that I just made myself right again and again. Maybe with Agony in the Garden, I finally permitted myself to imagine out of that space because that was written as the very last thing I wrote and while I was well outside the space of the Death Styles.

DN: Well, I wonder if your answer to this question might also be the answer to the one I’m about to ask you too. But I wanted to ask you about the trauma of this material in two ways. One is around time where you say in the afterword, “Repetition, I have come to understand, is the shape trauma makes of time. After we lost our daughter, I wanted time to not just stop but to repeat. Even if I couldn’t have a different ending, I wanted to have those 13 days with her again. I was caught in a problem impossible to solve. How could I reconcile grief’s desire to look backwards and survival’s command to move forward in time towards a future where I didn’t want to go?” In Toxicon & Arachne, this problem with time is perhaps enacted in a line:  “The day you were born was the worst day of my life.” I’d like to hear more about how you engage with this problem, with time within the art making itself, whether being open to the “artifacts of the present tense”, one of your rules, like this skunk walking through your poem, is part of this and perhaps also your interest in the Gothic because of the Gothic being outmoded and not forward-looking. That it’s, in your words, passionately and fraudulently antique. But I’m also curious what it’s like for you to perform this material. I think of Douglas Kearney’s incredible essay and performance I Killed, I Died: Banter, Self-Destruction and the poetry reading, which is this brilliant unpacking of what poetry readings are and the expectation that they be entertaining but it’s also about reading poems about his and his wife’s years-long difficulty conceiving a child and the miscarriage they had. Thinking about trauma and what it does to time, I wondered about your relationship to performing this specific material. Is there dread to be overcome? If so, how do you do that? Is the revisiting of the trauma in performance re-traumatizing and thus creates a need for some sort of ritual before or after the space of performance? Or is something about performing or the style that you bring to performing, I don’t want to suggest it as therapeutic but perhaps possibly temporarily liberating a way through the knot of time, something one might even look forward to enacting because of its effects on you? I think of the lines from Toxicon & Arachne, “I want to text my friend to come to the graveyard with me so she can watch my back while I press my face in the mud in front of my baby’s grave. The whole town is flooding and black mudding. I go alone. But I want an audience. But if I cried out, who would hear me among the angelic company?” Talk to us about trauma and time or trauma and the performance of it. 

JM: Yeah, I do think this has changed for me. When I was reading the poems from Arachne and that was the new book, I just loved reading them. I just loved reading them because I wanted to spend time with her. I don’t want to move on from that moment at all so I would love to read them. It was a bit tough, I mean it’s to figure out how to set that up for an audience. I’d read some real jazzy stuff from Toxicon and would be almost literally a record scratch, and be like [inaudible] other stuff but I loved them. I loved reading them. I do, now that you’re asking me this, realize that I feel a bit away from that now. I don’t feel like I would have that same access, like I’m using this poem to access that part of my brain that feels in her presence. Instead, reading these Death Styles, I actually love to read them for a different reason like I love the sound. I love to be the place the sound moves through and I love to ride the sinuousness of the sound, and the [cerebending] of the sound, the assonance, the places where the short beat lines pick up and pick up, and pick up. When they split again into some kind of assonantal spill, I just love to ride that sound. I’m glad I wrote long poems for me because I want to spend my time on that sound. I suppose there is a little satisfaction too in just standing that naked. In the passage you read before about the seam, like these poems are right at the seam. They’re right at the seam of this ambivalence about surviving. Even the V in surviving, the V of survival, it’s like you hit the second V, survive and it’s over. You’re just going to have to survive now. That kind of sucks. That long I between the two Vs, that’s where the poems happen. [laughs]

DN: Well, could we hear another long poem? I was hoping we could hear Hospital Planters. 

JM: Yeah, I’d love to read Hospital Planters. This is an interesting poem too for the folks in the listenership who are well versed in poetry, American poetry because this comes in a run of poems where I was thinking a lot about the visionary poet Hannah Weiner, just her assemblage of sacred items around her and the need to get rid of these items to cleanse a space for sacred revelation. It’s her I’m talking to in the first few lines, then from then on, I think it’s clear what it’s about. This is largely set also at the Children’s Hospital at Riley, the James Whitcomb Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana. This is the Death Style for August 25th, 2020, Hospital Planters.

[Joyelle McSweeney reads from Death Styles]

DN: We’ve been listening to Joyelle McSweeney read from Death Styles. Thinking of how you were saying that these poems live in the long “I” of the word survival, I wanted to return to questions of prophecy, oracles, or of being a seer, and by extension, questions of eyes. The lines from this poem you just read, “Knit booties and the eyedropper of a kitten you revolved in a catball eye till the skin of the water burst” are just one of innumerable references to eyes in this book including, “I have to jerk my head to one side. I have to slit my eyes. I have to look at it sideways,” and “To point to the eye to punctuate,” and “Lies half-in, half-out of the eye,” and, “A huge eye of wheel in the mud in my mind’s black eye,” and “[Like Keith’s indolence owed when he had taken a cricket ball to the eye], and “When the image cycles by, it rips my brain out through the eyes,” or “Bust patechia on the eye walls, eye level cuts in styro, eye in the hand bone,” and perhaps most notably, “I refuse to shut my eyes because I was robbed of something by a god and I’m going to keep looking till I find it.” These just scratch the surface of your Death Style eyes. But you have a chapter in Necropastoral from a decade ago called Eye Wound Media, which also has these lines, “To wound the eye is to pluck it from its niche at the top of the humanist hierarchy (seat of vision, insight, understanding, rationality) and reinsert it in a horizontal position of occult and limitless contact.” And also, “Art’s evil eye is evil because it never performs perception. It never establishes the stable depth of field that allows the self to construct a mirroring interior depth, thus shoring up the self. This evil eye is instead an aperture through which material contaminates and super saturates the scene, art spills from these eyes.” Talk to us about eyes and the art spilling out of the eyes in Death Styles.

JM: Yeah and I would add one more to your list in the poem I just read where it says, “[It’s just now I want to live inside the eye inside the money,]” “[The eye and the pyramid on the money, like in the dollar bill.]” There are at least two things to say about the eye as an emblem in Western culture. One is the idea of the great chain of being and that the eye is in the head, the head is on the top of the body, the man is on the top of the pyramid of being, this enlightenment, eugenicist, ready model of humanity, then all the races can also be lined up on that as well. But so this human-centric and sinister way of looking at the world that the prize is eyesight. Then two things that are written into that are the idea that sometimes held that there must be a creator because only a creator could have created something as precise and improbable as the human eye. Or on the other side, we didn’t need a creator because evolution is what works towards this eye with all these different models of eye spots and places light registers, and bird eye, like in the passage that you read, the bird that moves their whole head to get the 180 view. All these different models of eyes with their valorization and their models of time, the idea of a creator, the idea of not a creator, the idea of a maleficent human at the top of all food chains, all of these are written into the eye, which is why the eye for me is this site of so much dubiousness. It is not neutral, it is not a neutral instrument that records, observes, and allows us to negotiate Cartesian space. Cartesian space is itself this illusion of rationality and the idea of sight lines. I’m obsessed with vanishing points as well, site lines and vanishing points as fiction. I guess all these things have to go into why I think of the eye as such an active site, a site where things flow in and out of the eye. It is not just like this place where reality is registered, then somehow caught in an image and instead it’s very active at all times. Then we know our eyes are weird fluids. [laughter] The aqueous humor that the surface of them is full of germs that we need to have there. I mean it’s so bizarre what the eye actually is. I think all of these ways to think about the eye make it a very active and fertile site for thinking about humanity in all of our hallucinations and fantasies that we have about ourselves.

DN: Well, I’d like to also spend a little bit of time with you in the underworld or in Hades or hell, returning to your meditation on the title of the words death and styles together where you talk about how the two words open a seam through which Persephone falls into the depths of Hades. I also think of how Persephone is one of the rare figures who can travel into the underworld and back out again with the seasons, so she becomes herself a marker of time and also a marker of repetition. I think of one of your essays about this new book where you say, “After the baby died, it was not the case that I could not write. Spring pushed me to a rage, I wrote in counter-torrent, but nothing could make the currents reverse, bring my lost coin back up the drain. So I slammed shut my laptop, right there in the dumb cafe. I forbade myself to write.” It feels like you instead follow the lost coin down the drain, exemplified in the line from Toxicon, “I summon all mine vanity virility and fertility and crash my plane into the abandoned nursery.” In one essay, you quote Bolaño when he says, “That’s what it all comes down to. Getting closer to Hell or farther away.” You also say, “Art comes not from on high but from Hell. Is not orderly but counterproductive, that it seeps, that it influences, that it pollutes, contaminates, exhilarates, intoxicates, that it fluctuates a dubious sublime.” In another place, “Could the Present itself be a Mouth of Hell–a site, a stoma, a membrane where absence and presence of the Past is painfully mediated? Do we poets stand at the Great Hole of History, a grave-like pit where the Dead can be ‘heard’ into presence?” Similarly, “Since Poetry is (like History) made of paradox, it is an apt and very excellent mode (for the Poet who can endure it) for entering into Hell, for returning from Hell, for undoing erasure, for Hearing into Presence the dead and their inverted (because posthumous) survival strategies. Such work entails a new kind of history poem—one that does not build up monuments to, rhetorical stances towards, or Cartesian sightlines on the Past but rather exists as a wound, a vexed summonsing, a charged co-bodying.” Talk to us about this underworld element which feels strong in Death Styles. Talk to us a little bit more about hell and writing into the underworld.

JM: Well, one thing I’ll say about it is that it’s a hell that looks just like this one. It has our weather and our calamities, our failings and our earworms, our media and our broken media, and our high school tennis teams. [laughter] It is a hell that doubles for this one and jostles with this one. Another thing I would say is, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because in lyric poetry, the signature poet who is the Underworld of course is Orpheus who goes down after a [inaudible] but looks behind and she vanishes, comes up onto the surface and from there on stumbles about, then eventually pulled apart. But the one who pulls off the trick is Demeter, Persephone’s mother. She’s the one that goes down and she’s a little late. Persephone is already in the pomegranate seeds but she’s able to somehow negotiate this deal where Persephone is up on Earth side as they say six months to the year and the underground six months to the year. I feel like obviously, this wasn’t true in ancient culture. We’re serious in Demeter where the chief goddess is but I think she’s left out the story of poetry. Orpheus is the person who stands for poets and his liar but Demeter is the one who pulled it off. I’ve been thinking about that lately as they say mid-career poet, [laughter] a mother of teenagers and a five-year-old, and somebody with some living under my belt at this point, why the figure of Demeter is just a non-story to us and what it took for her to do this. She was not a human. So to say she came back up doesn’t seem quite right but she also lived to tell the tale, so to speak.  All the coming and going, the transiting, the duration of it all, the endurance, the fact that it’s debilitating, all those things seem built into the story for Demeter, although that’s not usually. I’m a [inaudible] version that has those qualities but when I think about Demeter, I think about those things, all to get her girl back up on Earth again for even half the time, and that was okay, half the time. Our whole world, our whole climate, everything we understand about an abundant and fructifying Earth, that mythology is tied to this rescue mission.

DN: Yeah. Well, thinking of this question of hearing into presence the dead and their inverted survival strategies, and this idea of a poem that exists as a wound, I wanted to move from the eye to the ear. I’ve gravitated to your essays about your hearing loss with a particular interest because it’s the sight of my wounds, is my ears. For a long time, I wrote directly about this or only about this in many ways. But even now, I find when I’m writing about something else entirely, it often can still become about ears. You also return outside of your poetry to ears and hearing often. For instance, in your essay Hearing and Hell, you look at Kim Hyesoon’s essay called Poetry of Hearing, on how her performer of the abandoned sojourns into the underworld to become a medium for poetry and for the dead, the unheard. You call her book a prosthesis for hearing these voices, a hearing aid. In another essay called The Silence at Darien, you say, “Per my audiogram, I’m only moderately hearing impaired. Yet I have lost the contours of conversation, whole registers of volume, tone and pitch, dire alerts, friendly asides and quiet confidences. The experience is decidedly benthic. I feel I’m alone on the bottom of the sea. The silence in my ears feels full and fluid, a total regime. Like old telephones in a landfill, my audial nerves ring and ring. The ringing feels wiry, tinselly, and communicative, like my nerves are firing of their own accord, rather than relaying a signal. After years of being mediums, now they are trying to tell me something of their own. I lean into the private sound. I close my eyes. I picture the canals of my ears, the broken hairs like broken reeds, that refuse to carry godly or mortal sound, the silent fosses and plata of the brain, above me, the little seams where the skull plates fused in infancy, a fused sky, this enclosed and interior landscape like classical models of the Underworld, its meadows, rivers, and fields. Its locked hydraulics. I picture every channel so stilled, so locked with fluid that no noise can travel there. The reeds are broken, all the little hairs. And yet it does sound, this silence. A stopped clock that includes all the times and all the crimes, all the mortal sins and venalities (which are, after all, adjacent), it is saturated with fatality, and I am forever listening, forever listing through its signs.” Finally, in a piece you wrote for the Johns Hopkins Medical Center called The Rose of Sound, you say, “This was when I experienced a breakage between biological hearing and sound,” then later, “I sense that if I am to find a writing practice that can exist in this new zone of grief and trauma, I must re-dedicate myself to sound. Under the influence of sound. I will call up the sum of my influences, and I will be a place of confluence. I will haunt the dead landscapes of my ear canals, which mimic in form both the deadzones of Anthropocenic destruction and the classical rivers of the dead. I will stand in the rush of Sound.” I guess my question is, whereas eyes are explicitly all over your poetry, ears are less obviously so. But I get the sense that ears are a big part of your poems. I’m wondering if they are, how they are. 

JM: Yeah, I think that sound is the total terrain of these poems. I think that’s one of the reasons why I do love to read them regardless of the content because again, to be in the presence of that sound, I’m just incredibly drawn to it. I think that it is a fluid sense of sound. There’s a lot of fluid imagery in the passages that you just read and I think this idea of sound arriving and moving through me to form the poems, then I get to experience that again when I read them and the sound moves through the poems, through my voice and vocal apparatus, and all that, I’m just incredibly drawn to it, like a dog to scent. That’s how I feel about sound. I’m just incredibly drawn to it. I want to bury my snout in it. I do think it’s the total terrain of these poems. I do think that losing a good deal of my biological hearing, the nature of my hearing loss is like there are sounds and pitches I can’t hear but often I hear the sound but I can’t pick out the words. Now I have these extremely expensive hearing aids, so now I’m much better off. I have the sounds, then my brain shapes them into words at a little bit of a delay, and in that interval is a great mystery to me, and that’s where I want to dwell and it’s where I feel like poems are coming from and where they’re going.

DN: Can you articulate or do you have a sense of how, with the hearing loss, your relationship to the sounds of your syntax have changed? 

JM: I started losing my hearing in my late 20s. Growing into myself as a poet and losing my hearing happened at the same time. I think that this idea of leaning into the mystery of sound but also to the eventfulness of sound, recognizing that there’s temporality built into sound, which we know even from high school science that sound is slower than light, right? There’s an interval in sound. There’s an unsteadiness in sound. There’s a mystery in sound that is detectable even to humans with our dumb ears. In that interval is possibility and mystery, and maybe the decoupling of cause and effect, and maybe the world will end or start again in that little break in the sound. The time it takes the sound to come across the football field, that was always the example in high school. To speak even more technically, sound became an event even in the process of having one sound evaluated and being in the audiology booth, and sitting there and the audiologist is in a light booth, and you’re in the dark and she plays tones, and you’re supposed to raise your hand when you hear a tone, you get into this rhythm of sound being there, sound not being there. Sometimes, I was in a situation in those hearing tests where my brain knew there was sound there but it wasn’t turning it into sound in my ear so I wasn’t sure whether to raise my hand or not. On some level, I knew a sound was being played but my brain was not choosing to play it back as a tone. All of those issues of all of these gaps and delays, mistakes, echoes, and earworms and tinnitus, and all the special effects of sound, just like a ravishing theater and a ravishing alternative cosmos really where eventfulness was everything. Then in performance, I really lean into the sonics of my performance for that reason to make it feel hopefully as captivating to a listener as it is to me, the event of sound coming into the space that we’re sharing. In this case, the digital space and both naming an instance, the instance of that sound, then to feel it elapsed together, which is crushing too.

DN: You made me think of or remember my own sense of grief in the audiogram testing studio when you think that there should be a sound and you don’t hear it or you wonder whether there’s the sound, and it’s happened and you didn’t register it. But I also love the delay you’re talking about between sight and sound, how our brains actually hold the information we get from our eyes until the sound arrives, then synchronizes them together so that there’s actually a lot of manipulation of so-called reality that’s happening before we have a perception.

JM: Absolutely. Also in hearing tests, for the hearing test crowd out there, the audiologist reads the set of words that you have to say back. It is the most improbable set of words. You’re just hearing this vocab list cycle and your brain is trying to sort out what she could be saying, and it has a ritual feeling to it that is so suspenseful, almost ritual-like in the spiritual sense too, like the god might come into the room if the words are set in the right order. Yeah, it’s a ravishing experience and full of grief, tragic, and absurd.

DN: Well, could we hear the final poem of the Death Style section, Conclusive Death Style, Catabasis for River Phoenix?

JM: Yeah, this probably gets at a lot of the images we’ve been talking about today, including the strange way that this book comes out of and drains back into River Phoenix. The book itself is all about rivers, the rivers of the dead, and the rivers here in Saint Joseph River, here in South Bend, and now the name River. Okay, so this is the Conclusive Death Style and it’s Catabasis for River Phoenix.

[Joyelle McSweeney reads from Death Styles]

DN: We’ve been listening to Joyelle McSweeney read from Death Styles. Thinking of you saying earlier, “Under the influences of Sound. I will call up the sum of my influences, and I will be a place of confluence.” I want to talk about influences but before we do, we have two questions for you that hinted in that direction. The first is from one of your influences, Dolores Dorantes, who wrote the book Style or Estilo that you cite as an influence, a book that Valeria Luiselli called “A compact epic-elegy about violence against women,” that Valeria considers without a doubt one of the best books of poetry written in the century. Dolores has since published with Wave Books translated by Robin Myers the book Copy and she has a super quick question for you, so here’s Dolores.

JM: Okay.

Dolores Dorantes: Do your academic studies influence your creative writing? 

JM: Well, how flattering, first of all, to even have a tiny amount of Dolores Dorante’s time, I mean le maestra, amazing. This poem is completely amazing. Everyone should look and look to find a copy of it. It’s out from Kenning Editions in the bilingual translation and it’s incredible. A real guide to posthumous existence with a touch of vengeance thrown in. I will just say that I am one of these people that is always reading, always greedy for more, always learning, always thinking about things, always trying to put two things next to each other and see what kind of light they cast on each other, so that totally improbable confluences can come about. Like in the poem I just read, the movie, the movie My Own Private Idaho, the fact of River Phoenix’s beauty, an experience I had as a teenager where all my friends were going to do something super dangerous that we were all really worked up to do, jump off this bridge and I did lose a contact lens back in the day when contact lenses were expensive, and I don’t even know where that memory came from. It just came back as I was writing. I guess it was a moment of youth, risk, sacrifice, beauty, and all of that expense, and my contact lenses also were dyed blue, so I could find them. My eyes are definitely not blue, so they look like a little firmament. They look like a little map, like a little orrery or a medieval model of the universe. I think that confluence for me—and also, there’s a story there in that poem. There’s a little bit of the Romanovs and even a little bit of Yeats I realized, to start with. I’m speaking now of the tower in a super silliest way but also in a serious way like, “I’m going to make a comment now about how I think the cosmos is shaped and I have a right to it.” I think maybe it’s the schoolgirl in me to go to Dolores’ coach. She might have been very incisive there with that question because I did make a big study of Yeats, both at Harvard and Oxford. He is everywhere in my thinking. But I didn’t just start writing about a tower. The first line is from [inaudible] to say, “I am speaking now of the tower.” So, all these decades later, it’s I am. This is my tower poem. This is where I map the universe from as a poet mage. In some ways, I think I will never stop being the precocious school child because that is just so part of who I am. But I think I also seized hold of all that learning and maybe some unexpected ways.

DN: Yeah, I think you do. Well, our second question is from the past Between the Covers guest Douglas Kearney who was on the show for his book Sho which since Douglas and I talked went on to win the International Griffin Poetry Prize. I’ll also point people to your essay Nobody Here But Us Ghosts which is about the book we talked about and also his live record, part of which we play during the conversation between Douglas and I. Here’s a question for you from Douglas Kearney. 

Douglas Kearney: Hey there, Joyelle. It’s Douglas Kearney contacting you from the middle of the night in Saint Paul, Minnesota. First, congratulations on Death Styles. I just love your work. One of the things that I love about it actually is how much you push yourself, your work, and the reader beyond what we expect our capacities or the capacities of the work or the capacity of the writer might be. In praise of Death Styles, Edgar Garcia says that your mantic ear reminds us that the Baroque is not an aesthetic of bewilderment, so much as it is a reckoning with those conditions of lost authority, endangered offerings, the sovereignty of exception, and the debts of death that bewilder our searches for the ancient dawn. My question for you is, what lies beyond authority? Thank you.

JM: Well, it’s amazing, first of all, to be in the presence of a radio broadcast from Douglas Kearney himself, the cosmic and eternal FM broadcast, [laughter] and it’s always coming from the middle of the night, coming at you live from the middle of the night. [laughter] I think what is after authority is the relief from authority, their posthumously, collectivity, and what can’t be predicted. It would be such a relief to lie down in that space, to go photosynthetic, to be like phytoplankton, grave fauna, grave flora. It’s to break down. I think that’s a model for the future that we don’t know everything about and that is its saving grace.

DN: I love that. Well, staying with influences, not just the influences of the artifacts of the present tense from your three constraints or Dolores’ curiosity about how your academic life influences your poetry but other influences, I first want to read a couple things you say about influence from Necropastoral, “I’m for thinking of influence in terms of the dead metaphors of flow, flux, fluidity, and fluctuation, saturation, and suppuration inherent in the term influence itself. Influence as total inundation with art, inundation with a fluctuating, oscillating, unbearable, sublime, inconsistent and forceful fluid,” then later, “I’m talking of art’s influence, art itself, inhuman, non-humanist, which flows toxically through media, through images, yes, through the works of specific artists, that engenders clones, contamination, and anachronism, has retroactive and special effects, unearned effects, trick effects, trick lighting, trick shots. Hosts ghost conversations. Repeats itself (beware, beware). Doppelgangs up upon. I find it so liberating to be free of linear time, of linear literary genres, of forward thinking, of progress, founders, and heirs, and instead enter into variegated zone of alteration, mutation, change, generation, replication, which draws little distinction among me, my body, my laptop, my output, my outfit, my input. Output is just a chance for me to counterfeit or imitate or amplify my input, albeit with dolled-up, mutagenic effects.” Thinking of this variegated zone of influence, I know this book takes its title from an unfinished trilogy that Ingeborg Bachman’s Malina was supposed to be a part of. Within Malina, the main character is writing a book called Death Styles as well. When I think of Rachel Kushner’s meditation on this book in The New Yorker, I think she wrote the introduction for the reissue of this book where she says, “The narrative voice, first person and female, is concerned with what she calls ‘today,’ a word ‘only suicides ought to be allowed to use, it has no meaning for other people.’ Today is time as emergency, a present overtaken by what elsewhere she calls a virus by which I suspect she means what someone else might call love or being in love. If by saying love, they meant a condition that suddenly renders a person incomplete.” Later, Rachel says, “She talks about a hobo in Paris who was given a shower that spiritually undid him. No one should be made clean, she says, for a new life ‘that does not exist.’” So Rachel’s take on the book definitely makes me think of your work and your afterword has shout-outs to many other people from Alice Notley to Mary Shelley. Talk to us about explicit literary influences on Death Styles, whether that be Malina, Notley, Shelley, or other people.

JM: I mean with the Malina, it was a real contact high from the phrase death styles, which as is mentioned, the book is called Malina, you can see the word death styles as you work through the front matter in the back matter. The protagonist, you see it written on papers that she leaves on dress lying around that her lover then reads. It’s like, “Why are you writing something that’s depressing?” There are all these concentric circles to find the death styles. It’s fabulous that way. But it was just the phrase there for death styles and thinking about like, “Well, what does this mean within the regime of control and pressing back against control that I feel like is at stake in Bachmann’s work?” For me, that regime was survival. It was this requirement to survive, this requirement to heal, this requirement to go on. I didn’t really want to do all those things. At least, I felt extremely ambivalent with that big V again in ambivalent about doing them. But I have other children, living children, and responsibilities, and I’m going to stay on the planet, so that means I’m surviving. That means I had to invent the style to survive in. The phrase death styles gave me the kind of invitation to do it. I didn’t necessarily realize I was doing this at the time. But when I look back on the work, I realize that I had all of these models and Bernadette Mayer’s [inaudible], Kim Hyesoon’s autobiography of death, Mary Shelley’s journals, just these models of dailiness and survival that on the one hand seems mundane but on the other hand, seems superhuman, they did seem to be almost exclusively women writers as well. Not all mothers but all women writers or not all mothers whose children have survived for that matter. I guess that is how I would formulate those influences. Then I think phrase by phrase, like I said, it’s a total grab bag between the named influences, like River Phoenix, the skunk, or whomever it may be, then the incidental ones, like I was saying, like John Kennedy or some little jingle or the Hospital Planters, which is just like an aroma, a memory of an aroma was the style of that. Hannah Wiener and her clairvoyant journals, they keep coming up. Even with Alice Notley, the syntagmatic, the kind of piece-by-pieceness of her work, especially as the model of the female, she calls it feminine catabasis, those were the styles. Those were the gestures. Also, I would add to that the idea of style, like mourning style, like mourning dress and the elaborate, and the extravagance of mourning dress for women across cultures is one of the most extravagant aside from wedding or even more than wedding dress because you wear your wedding dress for a day but you can wear mourning dress for a year or forever. This amazing dispensation and this amazing requirement of style that is placed on women does not seem as frivolous when it’s related to mourning so that mourning is like this luxury excess battalion display. It’s not based on mating. It’s anti-mating. It’s not based on reproduction. It’s an anti-reproductive extravagant black made of fabrics. It’s women’s work. You take up a shit ton of space. Those are my influences. 

DN: Oh, that’s great. Well, to invert this question you and Johannes both push back against notions of taste and tastefulness of economy, of mastery, and more in your criticism, talk to us more about the poetries that you identify yourself over and against or the biases baked into the discourse you most refuse.

JM: Well, I mean any angel is terrifying and any poetry is interesting. It still doesn’t really have to do with the poetry but with making some room, making some fucking room to talk about poetry as something that moves through poems, through poets, and across bodies of work, across languages, across communities, across improbable likenesses, opening up those spaces. The rhetoric of reading the individual poem for everything, you can find out about it, then doing the most virtuosic reading of it, then that’s a specimen of greatness on the person who crafted it, that is just so cosseting for me although I do read with great attention in my criticism and I do very close line readings but I’m driven to connect the works that I read, to always be moving outwards and to always be following poetry’s path, and the biggest possible models of the ones that I’m after.

DN: Well, thinking of influence, I wanted to ask you about voice, persona, and identity. You quote in Necropastoral Homi Bhabha saying, “The mask does not conceal an authenticity but insists on a doubleness.” In your meditation on the Palestinian writer Hussein Barghouthi’s book The Blue Light, you quote a passage translated by Fady Joudah that goes, “I will pile mask after mask on my face. Under all of those masks I will ascend naked to the blue light, naked and alone. And from a distance I will know in my heart for sure that other birds are headed to the same ascension, birds that I will greet from afar as I kill every sorrow inside me that breaks my soul and complains of the journey’s loneliness, and I will dance. Give me, please. What? Another mask, a sixth mask.” Thinking about a mask as not a concealment of self but an insistence on doubleness, I think of the way you yourself seek out doubles. In your essay A Shocking December Red, you engage with the death of a child and the movie Don’t Look Now, of which you say about the death in its early moments of the film, “And the only solution is to be a solution: to dissolve; to go down the drain. Rise on the gorge of the eye of the drain.” You also meditate on the Nick Cave album recorded after the death of his 15-year-old son. Even in your essay that came out last week, looking at the work of Alice Notley called On Being Warlike, speaking of the death of her brother 50 years ago, you say, “The pain and loss of her brother is the instantiating event in Notley’s career, in all its rage, generosity, and dazzling range.” These various doubles you seek out, then double yourself makes me curious about your notion of voice and persona, and even selfhood as you write about a very personal and particular ongoing wound in your own life but also one that you connect with all these other ones at the same time.

JM: Well, I just strongly conceive of myself as a sight that sound comes to and goes out from, and that poetry comes to and goes out from, and maybe pain comes to and goes out from, calamity, catastrophe. I have thought to myself thinking about these two books like, “Are these very concerned with my own individual story? Are they individualistic?” I think they are frank about their location. They’re frank about all their influences. I’m always extremely frank with myself about my American-ness, my American-era, my mid-Atlantic American accent, my fluency in American violence, my role in the American empire, my site as a place American violence goes away and comes back to, all of those things. But I don’t think of myself as expressing myself so much as being this site where things arrive and go out again. I’m saturating and draining, saturating and desaturating, or calling out in transit as the sun goes. That’s how we think about how I fit into this model.

DN: Well, I feel like we should talk about the last long poem, which is a short section called The Agony in the Garden dedicated to your son but also a section that shares the title with a famous 15th-century painting. As we’ve already alluded to, it’s a radical departure from the rest of the book in terms of form. I was wondering, maybe you could spend a moment and talk to us about some of the considerations, and circumstances or the variegated zone from which the Agony in the Garden comes into being or how and why you change into this mode? Is it in conversation with the painting? If so, how? Then maybe you could just pick an excerpt of your choosing that we could hear this different mode in which you’re a site for poetry in Death Styles.

JM: Well, I will say this is a circular poem. I was saying before that first, I saw this tweet “Raw sewage runs down from Coney Island Creek,” and there was something about the fluidity and the bumptiousness of that felt like such a classic line of lyric poetry, yet it’s an anti garden, right? Like, “Raw sewage runs down to Coney Island Creek.” This is the opposite of what should be happening in our garden of poetry. It’s the opposite of the contract, the contents of Coney Island, the contents of sewage, all that’s wrong, yet it might as well be like sweet [inaudible] runs softly, like it’s got the move but it’s the wrong content. I was just obsessed with that. It kept turning over in my mind as I did sit up with a baby, with our little son. I couldn’t say exactly why it ended up accruing an Agony in the Garden, except there’s something about that phrase, agony in the garden, that it almost unwrites itself, the N’s and the G’s, and the A’s. You also have this circular phrase there, just in the sonics Agony in the Garden where it stops and starts itself again, and again and again, this kind of circular sound, this kind of circular action of flowing and draining, being collected and starting again, the circular model of time as opposed to time that something that begins and ends which is something that I have been so stuck in for years and years. I think that is maybe how I’m connecting this moment, that’s how I was connecting these very unlike things, this tweet and this Renaissance painting which shows Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s after the Last Supper but before he’s arrested and he’s praying in the Olive Garden as it were, and he tells his apostles to stay up and watch his back while he prays for God to let him out of the contract, and they don’t. They go to sleep. It’s a famous convention in Renaissance painting, these sleeping humans. While something incredibly cosmic is going on in the background, the humans are just clumped up to sleep. Okay, I’ll just read a couple of different things.

[Joyelle McSweeney reads from Death Styles]

DN: We’ve been listening to Joyelle McSweeney read from Death Styles. As a way to end, I want to start with where we began, not with a question, but with the joy of reading your language. This is a passage I particularly love from The Necropastoral from a section called Bug Time that might be a provocative thought to leave people with, “I think so-called progressives and innovators need to think carefully about how their ideologies of experimentation, innovation, newness, progress, and improvement remap or offer support to these ideologies of capitalist, corporate, historical, patrilinear time. The true experimenters, it seems to me, are the bugs that fail, that die 6 times a summer, 450 times in a normal human life, that are mutant and nondurable, that are the repositories of anthropogenic forces. The mutations, the hyperdeath, the evolution and failed evolution of these bodies write an antihistory, a nonhistory of failed adaptation and spectral, miraculous, nonfunctional mutation, something winking and winged, chirping and failing in the dark.” Thanks for being on the show, Joyelle. 

JM: I have really cherished this time speaking and discovering things about my own poems, and hearing such kind things from people I respect so much, including your dear self, David. Thank you for this time. 

DN: Yeah. We’ve been listening to Joyelle McSweeney reading from her latest book from Nightboat, Death Styles. 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. You can find more of Joyelle McSweeney’s work at joyellemcsweeney.com. For the bonus audio, Joyelle contributes a nearly 20-minute video performance from her libretto Pistorius Rex, which joins supplemental material from everyone from CA Conrad to Douglas Kearney to Bhanu Kapil. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things I discovered while preparing, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, including the Tin House Early Readership Subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year, months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more 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, Beth Steidle 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 past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.