David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Elissa Washuta’s White Magic, a book Kristen Arnett calls magnificent. In this collection of intertwined essays, Washuta writes about land, heartbreak, and colonization, about life without the escape hatch of intoxication, and about how she became a powerful witch. She interlaces stories from her forebears with cultural artifacts from her own life—Twin Peaks, the Oregon Trail II video game, a Claymation Satan, a YouTube video of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham—to explore questions of cultural inheritance and the particular danger, as a native woman, of relaxing into romantic love under colonial rule. Says Stephen Graham Jones, “White magic, red magic, Stevie Nicks magic—this is Elissa Washuta magic, which is a spell carved from a life, written in blood, and sealed in an honesty I can hardly fathom.” White Magic is out on April 27th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I would have been excited to have Rikki Ducornet back on the show under any circumstances. But I was particularly excited to have her back from the moment I learned the surprising news that her next book would be science fiction. Because given her career-long deep engagement with the animal, vegetable, and mineral wonders of Earth, of the deep zoo of our imaginations, of what she calls the reconstitution of Eden, with the human placed not in dominion over but as just another remarkable species among many remarkable species, I was super curious what a Rikki Ducornet novel would be like, set in a post-Earth, post-human world. What would it be like to follow Rikki out into space? What of what we know of her work would go with her? What would be new and newly discovered? We had to sort out some technical hurdles as part of having this conversation. Hurdles whose only real evidence in what you’ll hear is that the best place for Rikki to record, ended up being a room that has some reverb, some echo. It is something you’ll quickly get used to and forget. But perhaps this is fitting nonetheless that we should imagine us talking to Rikki from her space capsule way out beyond Earth’s gravitational pull, farther out in our galaxy than we ourselves have ever imagined, calling us to follow the surprise of what she herself has dreamed into existence. For the bonus audio archive, Rikki reads two of her poems. A short poem called Bees are the Overseers and a long poem called White Quetzal (from Orlando to Nice). We don’t talk about her long career as a painter and illustrator in this conversation but she’s also offered multiple signed reproductions of her work that illustrated a 1983 book of Jorge Luis Borges’. There are still some of these available. To find out how to subscribe to the bonus audio or how to get yourself a Rikki Ducornet print or about any of the many other possible benefits of reimagining yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers and check it all out. Now, for my conversation with Rikki Ducornet.
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 writer and Painter Rikki Ducornet. A writer of novels, essays, short fiction, and poetry, Ducornet is the winner of the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction and the Literature Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters. Her novel The Jade Cabinet was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other books include the essay collections, The Monstrous and the Marvelous and The Deep Zoo, the poetry collection The Cult of Seizure, and the novels, The Fountains of Neptune, The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition, Netsuke, and Brightfellow for which she first appeared on Between The Covers. Of her writing, William Gass has said, “Rikki Ducornet’s books search for a way to heal the wound in our psyche—our shame and suppression of our nature—which has led not only to denial of this world on behalf of another one, but has repeatedly allowed authority and its agents to blind us to beauty, to make our passions poisonous, and to corral and confine the imagination.” Stephen sparks adds, “Ducornet reminds us that our position in the universe reflects our imagining of it and that as a consequence, we should be wary of those who attempt to cordon this spark.” Rikki Ducornet is also a renowned painter. Her paintings have been exhibited the world over from Costa Rica to Chile, from Prague to Portugal to Massachusetts to Indiana. Her art has also illustrated the writings of Robert Coover, Jorge Luis Borges, Kate Bernheimer, China Miéville, Anne Waldman, and Forrest Gander among many others. Rikki returns to Between The Covers today to talk about her latest novel and her first foray into science fiction entitled Trafik, out now from Coffee House Press. Publishers Weekly says of Trafik, “Ducornet dazzles with this whirlwind jaunt through a far-future universe, told in jargon-studded prose that turns gonzo science into gleeful lyricism.” Brian Evenson adds, “Surrealism meets space opera in Trafik, Rikki Ducornet’s startlingly original look at a post-human and non-human pairing wandering through space while obsessed with the scattered fragments of a world they never knew. At once funny and absurd, Trafik peers at our own time through the lens of the future to reveal what we should regret losing and what would be better gone.” Finally, Kirkus in its starred review calls Trafik, “A surrealist science fiction tour de force. A winsome space picaresque in which surreality piles upon surreality as the ill-matched soul mates navigate the unknown universe in their search for identity, belonging, and the sensual pleasures of the flesh, even if that flesh is actually machine. A longtime master of the extraordinary sentence, Ducornet has outdone herself here, blending scifi’s penchant for invented jargon with her own queer linguistic egalitarianism in which all adjectives describe all nouns in a primordial soup of possibility. This slender book captivates with its ferocious curiosity, quick wit, and ultimately tender generosity. Carried along by the bumptious rollick of its language, this tale is full of sound and fury, signifying literally everything.” Welcome back to Between The Covers, Rikki Ducornet.
Rikki Ducornet: Thank you. What a delight to be back.
DN: Since this book imagines both a post-earth and a post-human future, I thought we could start with how you imagined the future when you were last on the show. Earlier in your life, you had four books that formed a tetralogy, each corresponding to one of the four elements. When you came on the show for Brightfellow, I mentioned that I had seen somewhere that you would consider it part of a loose trilogy. One that started with Netsuke, then followed by Brightfellow, the book we talked about, then to be finished with a future imagined book. You said it was a trilogy looking at betrayal. The first book about the psychoanalyst who had betrayed his patients and his wife and really ultimately was betraying himself. Then Brightfellow which was about the betrayal of childhood. At the time you were thinking the third future book would be about Algeria, a place you lived for several years shortly after Algerian independence, and it would be about the betrayal of a people and the betrayal of a country and its future. But Trafik is definitely not that book. But I wondered if nevertheless, if you see Trafik in its own way connected to Brightfellow and Netsuke as the third piece of a series on betrayal or is it something else entirely? If it’s the latter, how did it seize you and take you in a different direction?
RD: Oh gosh, you’re wonderful at this. That’s such a great question. It’s something else entirely. [laughs] It pounced. The other book is still there. It’s the only book that has not wanted me to finish it. I don’t really understand why. I know why I stopped. I know why at a certain moment, I had to leave it behind. I was doing a lot of investigation into the Algerian War which was, as wars are, incredibly bloody. There was more napalm used by the French at the border between Algeria and Tunisia than we used in Vietnam that was genocide and torture. I was doing all this research which was necessary, and suddenly, Abu Ghraib hit and those photographs. The mysterious remove, a certain distance that I was able to manage that was allowing me to do all this research, not unlike research I had done in the past. Now, suddenly, I lost my muscle. Suddenly, I felt so deeply devastated by the reality that I found myself stopped in my tracks. I still hope at some point perhaps to get back to that book but something has shifted and I think perhaps in part, a deep sadness over all of our losses and this looking to the future in this way, even though I have big concerns about it and a really complex relationship I think with the way I see us going, still, it allowed for a kind of energy and a kind of imagining that I found very solitary that somehow, the sadness that I was feeling and the anger as well was suddenly possible to transform that into another energy or at least extend it out into places where I could be funny and I could experiment with ways of looking and thinking that were new, so that I was entering into really a novel experience.
DN: Yeah. Well, Julio Cortázar’s From the Observatory is a book that appears by name throughout Trafik as a cherished book. I was going to ask you about it later on, but as we were talking back and forth, you had suggested reading a bit from it near the beginning of our conversation because in many ways, the idea for Trafik comes out of this book for you. Could you talk about the relationship between the two books a little bit, then read us a brief section from the ghost book for Trafik?
RD: I would love to. I think in the first place, something about the opening lines of the book really triggered my imagination. There was something about its nature, the rhythms in the language, I think something overall too about his marvelous way of bringing together the migration of sea eels and an exploration of the cosmos as perceived in India in Jaipur in this observatory, 18th Century Observatory, he took pictures as well. That conjunction of events within the book somehow released all this energy, then I found myself wanting to return back. I had no idea that the book would be such an important book in my book and that there would be this thread all the way through but there it was.
DN: Could we hear a little bit?
RD: What I’ll do is just read these opening lines: “This hour that can arrive sometimes outside all hours, hole in the web of time, this way of being between, not above or behind but between, this orifice hour to which we gain access in the lee of other hours, of the immeasurable life with its hours ahead and on the side, its time for each thing, its things at the precise time.”
DN: We’ll have you do a reading later on that will echo back against what you just read for us within your own book. But in reading Trafik, I thought of three moments in our last conversation that I wanted to bring up. One, where you were talking about the collapse of the populations of wild creatures on the planet, you mentioned the difference walking along boulder creek decades ago when there were flocks of innumerable birds and more recently, at the time when you were there and you just saw a bird here or there, and about our shared DNA with non-human creatures and the existential loneliness of losing these other companions on the planet. The second thing I remember was you mentioning, in passing, a scientist who was figuring out how we were going to colonize Mars when we could no longer live here anymore. You said that the scientists envisioned bringing other creatures with us and how we would do so, and just that notional gesture that he would want to even consider bringing others along, non-humans along helped you sleep at night. The third is a passage that we engaged with from your essay collection The Deep Zoo that wondered if we would finally accept or even rejoice in the other and otherness if that otherness was something we ourselves had made. That excerpt goes—and this is from you in your essay collection—“Imagine with me an Absolute Book of Unnatural Nature, fully immersive, polysensory, eloquent, in which everything is reactive, self-replicating; a mutable, complex, and functioning system with which the reader—who is now far more than reader—may interact as she does with the real. Will such an artifice allow us to be more fully alive? More fully human? Will we be less fearful of the palpable dissimulations of our imaginations than we are of the real itself? When we dissolve into and interact with fully embodied avatars, will we cease to fear our own bodies and bodies other than our own when the things of the world are all of our own? When the things of the world are all of our own invention, will we finally allow ourselves to cherish them? Will our worlds be sparked with the Breath of Eros, or will Eros vanish? When our tigers are striped to fit our fancy, and the ruined ocean is replaced by an apparition in which phantom orcas call out to one another in Klingon—will the world finally take on a real significance?” I read this again now because I feel like it’s the exact imagining of yours with all of its animating questions that is now the setting of Trafik. The Earth is gone. Everything we have is made by us. These questions you raise here are the questions of this book. I was hoping you could maybe, just introduce us to and orient us further to the world of your novel and more particularly, introduce us to the two protagonists, Quiver and Mic.
RD: The synchronicity here is extraordinary. I wish I had known this would happen because yesterday, my son sent me a little video of some children, three children in some sort of theme park, sitting on what looked like a bank of ice, looking out on the sea and an orca came out of the sea, just lifted itself out of the water, and approached them and fell back into the water, then another one came, then another. Then the children moved back, then I realized, this was all virtual reality. At some point, the three orcas just plowed the water creating all these waves. One of them came out and approached again as I recall in this little boy who was the most fearless, reached out to touch him, then he went away, then a polar bear showed up. The children were frightened and they were enchanted. Again, it was a little boy who dared reach out. Then some penguins showed up on this bank of false ice and did their thing, danced around the children. It was stunning and it was fascinating, and it was also heartbreaking because there we were and here we are. This is exactly what is happening. So astonishing that you should actually bring that particular moment up. But indeed, I believe your question was the connections here with Trafik. Yeah, Trafik came from immense suffering. I know I’m not alone with this. We’re all more or less dramatically suffering right now because of these losses and I find myself returning again, and again to things similar as to what you described, remembering my childhood in which they were always creatures. I grew up on Bard College campus. It was a very small, wonderful, intimate place then, it’s still wonderful, but we were an intimate community. It was very tribal, very close to the woods along the Hudson River, so my experience of the natural world was constant and rich and I was always near animals. I remember things like the number of earthworms after rain or the number of butterflies in a meadow. I’m feeling those losses. I think we are all feeling them, even those of us who are urban people who do not necessarily have these experiences, still, I think the loneliness is beginning to be extreme. The fact that it is also ongoing, I think it becomes palpable and very, very difficult to overcome as a thing of just immense betrayal and loss. Do we have time to repair? We certainly don’t have time to repair and turn things around if we continue to fight one another. There’s that too. I’m in a sense we have very little time. Indeed, the book was informed by a deep sadness and anger but also, an ongoing interest in science, interest in space, and the extraordinary possibilities ahead.
DN: Hearing you describe the book versus the experience of reading the book which is a book that feels, as you say, there’s a lot of humor, it’s also full of a lot of joy and curiosity, it sounds like what you’d mentioned earlier is you found a way to transform a lot of this pain into something, to transform it into something else or something more.
RD: That’s also the thing about writing fiction because characters appear, I think so many writers say this, one is in their hands and one has no choice but be attentive to their voices, so then they take over. I’m in good company. They’re troubled, they’re funny, and their predicament is interesting. They love one another and they’re crazy annoyed with one another. They’re stuck together interminably. Their job is rough. Then they start dreaming together. I had no idea this would happen and I had no idea that, for example, they would both fall madly in love with virtualities which is what they do. I had no idea that Al Pacino would show up, for example.
DN: [laughs] I’m happy that Al Pacino did. What’s really interesting about our two protagonists, Quiver and Mic, is for me, one of the real intriguing things is the blurring of the human and the non-human because Quiver, the human, is mainly human other than the small detail that she was not gestated in a womb but rather in a hanging envelope, that her umbilical cord is attached to a vitamin sac, and because of the circumstances of her life, a life that’s existed post-earth, she’s never experienced a breeze or eaten chocolate mousse among many other things. She exercises in a virtual place, a virtual woods that is their main exposure to nature. Also, it’s the place of her desire, a mysterious redhead she keeps seeing there. The only real thing for her is really paradoxically her dreams which her robot companion, Mic, scans. But Mic, in contrast, the non-human robot who was designed to keep Quiver from going insane—a robot wired to both solve complex problems and also to philosophize—he’s obsessed with the history of humans on Earth. He loves the 1950s. He loves pressure cookers, Studebakers, and cinema, and Japan. He is completely crushed out on Al Pacino. What’s interesting about this pairing also is that memory and history are not held in the human protagonist in her mind or body but in Mic and the avatars within the virtual world. Part of why I wanted to bring this up is because there are some uncanny connections between some of the questions animating Trafik and the questions animating my last guest, Jorie Graham’s most recent books, even as your books couldn’t be less similar otherwise, but one of the things Jorie’s work and yours are engaging with is this question of post-humanity which was a topic I didn’t get to touch on in my conversation with Jorie but which I want to draw forward into our conversation. I’m going to read something that Jorie said in an interview with Sarah Howe in 2017—which could just as easily been about her new book but could be about any of her most recent books—and see what it sparks in you if anything, and if you think what she says relates in some way to Quiver and Mic. So this is from Jorie Graham, “Feeling connected to the past, for example, is a large way one feels ‘human’. So being ‘post-historical’ and being ‘post-human’ and ‘post-nature’ are interconnected. The hatred and destruction of childhood or innocence is an essential subject. For those who see a cyborg world ahead, doing away with wonder is just as important as doing away with empathy. The human is hard to eradicate, but I must assume it can be done. The sensation of deep past is very different from the sensation of personal past. It goes back to singular versus communal being. Communal memory is a strong force—with ethical power—to bind us to our humanity. It is obvious that it would be one of the first things under attack. It is also one of the wellsprings of poetry—and our long reach into it to keep awake is one of our major tasks.”
RD: There’s so much here. A number of things come to mind. One is that I’ve been so deeply concerned about the idea that AI can somehow replace us. It had me thinking of really seriously doing the research and writing a book about this in an attempt to demonstrate this in possibility. Then I stumbled upon a book by Christof Koch on this subject, a very complex, extraordinary book but it ends with him actually saying that AI can mimic the way our minds work but it can never really replicate the way our minds work. It seems so evident that to be a fully human child or a poet that demands memory, intuition, spontaneity, dreaming, and all of these wondrous things, that at least right now, don’t belong to robots but then again, here’s Mic [mik] who shows up in my life—or Mic [mīk] as you call him. It really should be Mic [mīk] but I always think of him as Mic [mik].
DN: So we should say he’s short for Michelangelo, right?
RD: That’s right, or microphone.
DN: Yes. [laughs]
RD: Irrational on my part. [laughter]
DN: No, I’ll start calling him Mic [mīk] too. [laughter]
RD: So having Mic [mīk], I mean Mic is a product of engineering, yet there is perhaps a possibility that one could somehow manage, I suppose, to—I’m not a scientist or a mathematician and this is way out of my realm—but find ways not to mimic the natural world but manage somehow to recreate that there would be this marriage between mathematics and biology that would make for this possibility. Then everything shifts dramatically. Then of course, we have all these ethical problems that we have to deal with and we already deal so poorly with ethical problems. I’m touched that she mentions childhood because we’ve had a tendency to ignore the child in our culture unless the child is buying things or to have things bought for as you know. It’s devastating, what has happened to our culture. The idea that AI could replace a novelist, why not? In a way, one thing I’ve said recently to people in a workshop was embrace AI because AI will write the books you think you have to write but do not have to write and probably should not write. This frees your imagination, then you’re on the adventure, you’re not thinking about where this belongs on the shelf. Think of it as a liberating force if AI’s writing the books, the symphonies, and all else, then we’re on our own to really enter into a place of deep thinking, dreaming, and imagining. Let them handle the marketplace. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. It felt like a double gesture, what you do around Mic because on the one hand, I feel conflicted around the way we are outsourcing our ability to do things to non-human technological machines in the sense of we no longer have to know how to do math if our computer can do it for us. We no longer have to know certain things because we have a repository and Mic becomes that repository for Quiver, literally becoming Quiver’s memory. But on the other hand, you make this gesture of giving Mic so many qualities of consciousness, also feels like the gesture that’s lacking in what we don’t do to other creatures that are alive in the sense that I’m thinking of, for instance, Kafka, when he looks at the eye of a fish and he can’t see it’s “humanity” but nevertheless decides to become a vegetarian. I’m not saying vegetarianism, I’m not even talking about vegetarianism but acknowledging the agency, the intelligence, and the consciousness of creatures that we can’t see ourselves in seems like something that you’re doing with Mic as a robot, as a gesture that also is something that we could do for the “dead-eyed” fish.
RD: For some time now, I’ve thought I’m sort of joking with this but I think it’s true that everything could be solved with photosynthesis, that we wouldn’t be killing things any longer. It would make things much easier in the galaxy to travel around. [laughter]
DN: Do you mean if we could photosynthesize?
RD: Yeah. As long as we [inaudible 0:34:37], we’re fine. We don’t have to be bringing all these seeds with us, planting potatoes and all of that.
DN: Yeah. I’m going to bring that notion back up a little later because I do want to talk about the Garden of Eden which was the place where we could live both without shame and without harming anything and be fed. But before we do, I want to play the devil’s advocate. I want to propose some questions that I suspect are impossible questions and just hear your thoughts on them nevertheless. Because you, like Jorie, throughout your work, speak in defense of something precious in childhood that should be preserved and you believe the creative imagination is our way out of the mess we’ve made of things. In your conversation with John Madera you said, “Creative imagination is essential both to our humanity and to our survival as a species, that it’s essential to the evolutionary process.” But Jorie Graham doesn’t only say that the hatred and destruction of childhood is an essential subject but also, in our conversation, she talked in contrast to this about how destructive children themselves are. How, in play, they will tear something apart to know it. They will break something open or simply break something to know. I also wonder if likewise, if our imaginations are both essential, yet also the central source of our current problem of disembodiment at the same time, of us imagining ourselves into a world that is just imaginings. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on what seem like paradoxes to me.
RD: I’m thinking of children who are so different from culture to culture as well. I’m thinking of the Yanomami, peoples in the Amazon who I studied years ago and they’re profoundly ingrained sense of the sacred and the sacredness of not just the world around them and the things in the world around them but their own children. How wonderful, within the Yano of around 50 people, the relationships would be with everyone there, every adult considering every child as someone within the family. I suppose that was probably true to a great extent because it was a small tribe of people. What struck me too was the sweetness with which people interacted the elders with the little ones and the little ones with the natural world. I think what she may also be describing is the child who perhaps he has been, not simply curious but perhaps harmed in such a way or made to feel that things can be broken. Then you have a whole world, a broken world and suddenly, the science that world is creating, is a science of the museum of compared anatomy and powers which I loathe and adore simultaneously, which is filled with the objects that have been mutilated by an unthinking science, science without thoughtfulness and without any understanding of ecological systems and their complexities. So you have the penis of an elephant in slices like a sausage in a jar, things like that—a crucified ape—it’s a fascinating place and it’s a heartbreaking place because the damage is simply so apparent. I’m not sure that we are wired to break things. I think we’re more wired to wonder and I do think that something within our culture, it just keeps breaking our hearts and denying the wonder. It’s very interesting to me that science collides there as well. You have the scientists who are telling us everything is interconnected and if we’re going to understand our world, and every single thing within it, we have to understand the relationships that exist that are far-reaching and they’re essential. Otherwise, we do not understand. We take the Pygmy man out of his realm and put him on display. The world is fair. We know nothing about him but we live among his people, learn their language, celebrate life with them, and all of that. [laughs] Then we begin to have maybe, an understanding of who they are, then we find ourselves within them.
DN: Could we hear the chapter Between?
DN: It’s in relationship to the section you read of the Cortázar at the beginning.
RD: With pleasure.
[Rikki Ducornet reads from her latest book, Trafik]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rikki Ducornet read from Trafik. When we talked about Brightfellow, I was also reading your essay collection The Deep Zoo at the same time and I used it as a way-end of the novel when we talked. This time, while reading Trafik, I read your earlier collection of essays, The Monstrous and the Marvelous. In that essay collection, there’s a declaration that seems like an Ars Poetica for you. You say, “All my books investigate the end of Eden and the possibility of its reconstitution.” It’s true that we see the promise of Eden and our fall from it across a lot of your work. In The Complete Butcher’s Tales, you describe the fall with these sentences, “A mature albino ape, its heart pierced by an arrow, falls from a tropical tree. As he falls he attempts to catch the blood ropes spouting from his breast. In truth his wound is fathomless, a mortal fracture in the body of the world.” Similarly, in The Jade Cabinet, a man is trying to discover the original speech of Eden by keeping his firstborn daughter “innocent” of language and the scene in Brightfellow with the child protagonist playing with the light cast on the linoleum floor, where he not only imagines the animals and birds he sees but he names them much like Adam did. There were many things I wandered about in terms of what happens to Rikki Ducornet and her prose when she leaves Earth for space. But the thing I wondered most about as you left Earth for the first time in your career was if we abandon Earth, if Earth is no longer inhabitable or doesn’t exist, does this question of the reconstitution of Eden come to an end or does it continue? It seems like Trafik answers it, at least obliquely, as we do encounter a glass snake and a glass apple. But I wanted to take this question into the question of language, of whether language is a barrier and/or scrim across reality or whether it is or can be a portal where a Shamanic poet might say the words that they speak are words that are speaking through them on behalf of the Earth or the water. On the one hand, we have the main character in Cortázar’s book who wants to get behind and beyond the words to the “pure image, ” a place described by him as beyond metaphor with lines in that book like, “An eel that is a star that is an eel that is a star that is an eel,” and who says—as you quoted in the passage you just read—that only by becoming water himself will he stop feeling thirsty. But you also talk of language as magic of words engendering worlds and I just wondered, is this a paradox for you? Are we still trying to become water to stop being thirsty? Are we still trying to re-enter the Garden of Eden when the snake and the apple are now made of glass rather than made of flesh?
RD: What an interesting question. In Trafik, what happened to my surprise was a Carnegie Library appears and it’s devoid of books. But that’s what it is, it’s the classic earthian library and there are no books in it although the librarian has just begun to get the children to make their own books. But it’s empty but for these other ways of communicating, so there are some crafts people who have come up with these speaking forms that really are not books but that do communicate information under particular circumstances. That’s all that is there. One of the things that has fascinated me about a language again and again, I mean I do return to these things over and over, hopefully, in new ways, I’m always searching them and that is the ways in which language can be so destructive which is why I devoted a book to a French Nazi, for example, or language can be the portal to visionary experience. What happened to me unexpectedly with Trafik was at the beginning, thinking about all that we’re losing and the loneliness therein, I wondered what it would be to take that journey into a book, into space, leaving everything behind? What would that look like? Where would one arrive? What would happen along the way? It’s extraordinarily naive because without Earth and references to Earth, there is nothing, there is no way to travel and go anywhere. Now, we have to somehow bring that with us. That’s where the book took me. But it was language, I don’t know if something happened to the language. For me, it always does, I mean the language takes over, characters take over, their voices take over, and all else around—that inevitably is served by language because I’m writing a book—takes over and things just begin to sing, then I know I’m in good hands even if I haven’t a clue as to where this is going. I haven’t a clue that From the Observatory would be so important to the entire book, that I’d be dreaming with Cortázar the entire time and in conversation with him somehow. I had no idea I’d land up in the suburbs. It was a total surprise, yet it made perfect sense to me because the suburbs is such a place of importance for so many people on our planet. I mean the dream is the green suburb with its lawns and home. These are two beings longing for home, longing for love, and they’re going to find it. Again, I had no idea it was the language that just picked me up by the scruff of the neck as it has one to do and drop me there. I was so surprised when Quiver is exploring this place and there are all these students from intergalactic universities. [laughter] It’s like Mazatlán. What is happening here? This is just like Mazatlán. [laughter] But yeah, it didn’t make perfect sense or that there would be this crazy public park where intergalactic erotic exercises are taking place of all kinds in all manner. [laughs]
DN: Yeah. The picaresque description and one of the blurbs that I read at the beginning I think is really true. The joy of the encounter in this book is really delightful.
RD: David, thank you.
DN: [laughs] You’d said in a way, we can’t leave home without home. That’s part of what this seems to be happening as they do leave home. When I was a teenager, my dad took me to see Carl Sagan speak about humans traveling to Mars. For those who don’t know who Carl Sagan is now, which I’m guessing is a lot of people, he was the Neil deGrasse Tyson of my childhood. He started and hosted Cosmos, and was known for his phrase that opened the show “Billions and billions of stars” and the way that he said it. His talk was structured as a response to those who said, “Why would we want to spend billions and billions of dollars on this when we have so many problems on Earth?” His argument, in my long-distant memory—which for all I know wasn’t his argument since this is decades ago now—but in my memory, was that it was this act of imagining together as a species, that it was out in space where we could collaborate, aspire, dream together, and come together as a planet. At the time, to my young self, that seemed like a beautiful and exciting dream. But I wonder now, if the presumption, that everything is going to be different outside the atmosphere is just a way to pretend our problems away because nothing that we’ve done in space so far has been different from the space trash problem. We’ve created an orbit which is becoming dire. Too much of our exploration being an extension of a given nation’s nationalism and national identity or a projection of military and economic power. It seems right to me that both Quiver and Mic have been grown essentially for the extractive purpose of trace mineral reconnaissance. This is my long way of wanting to talk about the body and our attempts to escape the body. Much like we aren’t talking about our current hunger for trace minerals because we have a current hunger for trace minerals for our cell phones, our laptops, and more and more for our electric cars and our wind turbines. We’re not talking about how that’s connected causally to the pandemic and elevated pandemic risk overall. We all are also pretending that all of this virtual technology doesn’t have a body, that these cordless things—cordless phones, and other cordless devices—magically make things happen in the ether that we haven’t actually laid giant cables across the bottom of the ocean, that we aren’t sinking servers into the ocean to keep them from overheating, that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin which are talked about as if they’re virtual, according to a recent study in nature, the amount of electricity and hardware demands, they alone, with current growth estimates, could push the planet above two degrees of warming on its own, just cryptocurrencies, or that we pretend that there aren’t innumerable humans, children as young as seven years old mining these minerals under the threat of violence and intimidation. But we are tied to all these things. We all have cords. Even these cordless things have cords and Quiver whose cord goes into a vitamin sac has a cord. You’ve written extensively about our hostility to our bodies. I just wondered if you linked that also to this desire to leave the planet as an extension of the desire to leave the body or maybe to pretend that we don’t have a body.
RD: I really want to get into that. I just want to say though quickly ahead of time that one of the things that is happening is all the things that we are investigating to enable our lives on Mars, all the things that we could do to bring an atmosphere to Mars and grow the things we need and so on, all of these things that are happening are also going to enable—if we survive, if we survive the next couple of tens of years—these things will enable us to transform our planet back to Earth.
DN: Transform Earth back to Earth.
RD: Transform Earth back to Earth.
DN: Yeah, that’s so fascinating.
RD: We’re learning how to do that. That is very interesting. We’re also every astronaut who’s been in orbit around our planet. It’s amazing how well these people appear to get along with one another. They all talk about how precious the planet is as seen from space, how precious the relationships, how precious humanity, and so on. Another thing I wanted to say, because I’ve been poking around in all this stuff, I came upon a book recently. Architects, city planners, and so forth have been brought in to propose projects for Mars and they’re all kinds. You have the one that’s absolutely intolerable which looks like a bunch of igloos with a tiny little peephole to look out and you’d go mad. It would be like a story by Brian Evenson. In no time flat you’d be howling in misery. [laughter] But then, there are people who show up with these ideas. One of them is a spiral, looks like a shell. Apparently, this is also one way of dealing with the problems of radiation but now, they’re also developing a glass which deals with that problem. The interior of the spiral was gorgeous.You’d wake up in the morning on top and walk down this spiral staircase which absolutely adored into this large room. There were other rooms, of course, but the main room was downstairs with this amazing view out at the Martian landscape, which is quite extraordinary. There are places that are really amazingly interesting and others that actually look very close to Earth. But in another book, I came upon all these people who have been asked for city planning. Again, they were the plans that were terrifying. They were the plans that interestingly did not have movie theaters or libraries but would have a sports arena. But there was one, I’ve forgotten the name of these places but there are these fissures in Mars that go on for 100 miles or more. They’re very deep and inside, they’re quite wide. It looks like you’re in a mountain world. What was imagined was that this entire space would be covered with this glass, so that there would be sunlight without the danger of radiation and someone came up with an idea that looked like Italy and why not? With cobbled streets and these wonderful buildings up in what looked like the mountain cliffs and charming places to eat outside and shared kitchens but also, a lot of food that would be available for the entire community. [laughter] But if you wanted to cook, you could do that.
DN: I just want to interject this random thing that I learned this last couple of weeks because apparently, the rocks that they’re discovering on Mars have a very similar composition to the rocks in the Southwest of France in Dordogne where my wife is from. They’re naming them all after these really small towns, including the town where my wife, Lucy, grew up. She could really go home, she could go to Mars, and she could hang out in the rocks named after her hometown.
RD: That is so fabulous. [laughs] By the way, NASA has this site up. It’s a friend of mine who created this thing, Erika Blumenfeld. She’s brilliant. She’s an artist photographer passionately interested in science and started working for NASA because of her interest in moon rocks—and all rocks actually. So to Astromaterials, you find her site where you can not only look at rocks from Mars that have fallen to Earth in the form of meteorites but also moon rocks. You can choose the rocks that you want to look at, you can see them in three dimensions, you can turn them around, and you can look inside and see what they look like inside. So Astromaterials from NASA and the other project were started by Erika Blumenfeld. It’s a wondrous thing.
DN: Yeah. I don’t know if I derailed the first part of your answer or not but I’m going to return to the other part of the question. I’m going to ask it in a slightly different way but sort of the same question. The question being around if you feel like there’s a connection between the leaving of the planet and our desire to disembody ourselves from the body. Because there’s an interview that you did with Alexander Laurence for Phosphor in Dreamland. You say something that reminded me both of Ross Gay talking about how we are all entangled with each other and the acknowledgement that we are all going to die, being the portal to joy and connection both. Also, to Jorie Graham who sees collectivity found counter-intuitively through our bodies and the sensorial rather than the psychological. In this interview with Alexander Laurence, you said, “In order to love the other, the stranger, the mysterious aspects of the world; in order to be a free being, an autonomous, fearless and imaginary being; in order to embrace and protect the natural world and to create for oneself and for others the space in which transformation and creation are always possible, one must love the body, the mutable, the fragile, the mortal body.”
RD: I still believe that. I think that’s our problem, is that we left tantra behind us long ago and have gotten into all these ideologies and misunderstandings of what the sacred is all about that really despises the body, and fear the body perhaps because it is fragile and because it is finite. But it’s destroying us with this fear of our own body and the dismissal of the others, the bodies of the others as fear of the other. I often wonder if our fear of the other’s body is a fear of the unknown, so the fear of death. It says unfamiliar human beings are as unfamiliar as our own demise or something or whatever it is, it’s irrational and it’s destroying us. Again, I don’t know how we can persist as a species if we continue to hit our own bodies, bodies of the other, and natural bodies. It’s absurd. If we are going to continue as a species and let’s imagine, come up with ways of living on another planet, will we only bring animals that we eat? What a horrible notion that would be or do we actually bring—
DN: Animals that don’t have a “use”.
RD: Yeah, and because we still don’t understand that it is all useful.
DN: I’m also thinking about the way we always find it interesting and compelling to center ourselves as the problem solvers. There are people who are trying to design these things that will suck carbon out of the atmosphere, that are these tall narrow devices that look suspiciously like tree trunks. But you could just have trees and allow the trees to actually exist on their own term not in tree farms but in complicated ecosystems. But we’re really into funding this notional tree rather than cohabitating with the actual tree, it seems to me.
RD: That seems to be deeply neurotic, I mean very existentially compromised species needing to control everyone and everything. It looks like it’s going to ruin us.
DN: I want to return again to the Garden of Eden in language because it was something I was engaging with Jorie Graham as well with the two trees, the tree of life—the tree representing us perhaps speaking the original Edenic language where we’re in harmony with other creatures of the idea of not being thirsty because we ourselves are water—and the tree of knowledge of good and evil which represents the ability to have abstract thought that may or may not, to a greater or lesser degree, be connected to the “real world” which led to our fall. With Jorie and now you, I just want to bring up briefly Martin Buber, not because either of you are directly naming him in your work—though you do overtly engage with Kabbalistic ideas in your essays and mystical practices in your book—but because his goal also is the reconstitution of Eden. But doing so, somehow mysteriously, while retaining the things that make us human sense eating from the tree of representation. Those things don’t get denied but perhaps they get tethered again to the embodied, to the incarnate, to the beingness, not only of ourselves but to the encounter of the beingness of other beings, even especially ones we can’t understand or comprehend or reduce to something knowable. I just wondered if that sounded like a kindred enterprise to you if you’re familiar with his writings and if this notion of returning to the garden isn’t returning to the way we were before but it’s returning with the things that have changed us.
RD: I think the problem is we need to return to all that we might have been before Yahweh showed up and messed everything up, when the garden was paradise. I’m with the Gnostics with this idea that the first emanation of Christ was a snake saying, “By all means, eat of the tree of knowledge, the tree of knowing.” That if they had been left alone, [laughter] in this marvelous place brimming with the erotic and Jehovah hadn’t shown up, what a different world that would be? These angry reductive nasty.
DN: Yeah. After my conversation with Jorie in anticipation of ours, I Bubered out a little bit from my own curiosity. I was listening to some lectures by a Martin Buber scholar about his encounters with Heidegger post-war in the 1960s. You quite often have these protagonists in your work that are brilliant fallen figures, the way that maybe, I conceive of Heidegger, someone admired and with great influence in the academy who was at the same time totally fine with the removal of Jews and other “degenerate” or unclean influences from German society culturally and economic life of Germany. Unsurprisingly after the war, he was courting Martin Buber’s favor as part of the reclamation of his name. But when talking to other people, he either pretended he didn’t know Buber or didn’t know anything beyond his name. But the thing I found most interesting was that Buber, despite having written scholarly work about the ways Heidegger’s philosophy was problematic and despite his friends saying, “What you have to gain from talking to a past supporter of the Nazis?” Buber considered the questions Heidegger raised as important ones to engage with and was willing to meet, and engage with Heidegger about them in person. The reason I bring this up in my long-winded question is around the nature of language. I’m going to paraphrase here, but Buber refers to Heidegger’s philosophy and more generally, felt that any time we acted as if we could look at language ontologically, as if it were structurally independent and removed from the speaker of it or as if it weren’t at its core, an act of dialogue, a speech act, that the thoughts that come from looking at the language this way will lead us astray. That for Buber, language essentially is dialogic and relational. I thought of that because when Quiver and Mic end up on the planet AM Locus, which is the first planet with seeds of extraterrestrial multi-genesis masterminded by Von Pfeffertitz who is basically a brain without a body suspended in a spoiled soup disembarrassed of all significant events, our narrator then says, “I suppose collapse was inevitable. After all, everything she and her husbands experimented with were isolated from its realms, its tribes, and from itself. Everything they touched was made singular, was made lonely, without roots or context.” I wondered if that for you also applies to language, that language ultimately, like Buber’s, is inter-subjective, is a dialogic thing that shouldn’t be lifted out of its realms, out of itself and made lonely?
RD: Definitely. As for so much else, it’s all relational. Everything, all the way down, right down to protons, it’s all relational. Have you ever stumbled upon a very interesting moral philosopher and philosopher of science, I think he called himself Daniel Schmachtenberger?
DN: No, I don’t know him.
RD: He has all these talks he’s done on YouTube. He’s a very very interesting guy. There’s a very beautiful one, it’s called the talk at Emergence. He’s sitting on the beach somewhere barefoot with his followers around him, [laughs] these young people very interested in his ideas. He’s talking about the beginning of things, this great foam of possibility, everything on the verge of becoming. He describes it really beautifully, that before our universe, there was just this foam of, I don’t think he uses a word foam there, but referring to that idea, this foam of possibility, that there is nothing but energy and the possibilities of all that energy can provide and create. He talks about these forces colliding with one another, even in the chaos of the moment bouncing off one another. He says, “Because ours is a universe of attraction, at some point, things collide and come together and stay together and then the universe begins. This keeps happening, these forces come together, stay together, universe of attraction.” But not only that, it’s a universe of novelty and these things that are now forming because of this attraction, these things that have come together and stayed together are totally unlike anything that has ever been, including the energies that have come together. This is something that is totally novel, so universe of attraction and universe of novelty. As he was speaking, I thought of the surrealists and I thought of Max Ernst, and his collages, I thought, “Yes, I understand this, it’s gorgeous.” Then he mentioned Salvador Dalí, [laughs] I thought, “Wow, I could get into this stuff.” [laughter] There’s a place for me here in quantum physics.
RD: We’re very grateful for Daniel Schmachtenberger. Gorgeous. I suggest everybody look for that. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s only about 35 minutes.
DN: Maybe, that’s a good time to actually talk about surrealism because not so long ago, I discovered that a book just came out called Surrealist Women’s Writing: A Critical Exploration that has a chapter on Unica Zürn, a chapter on Dorothea Tanning, a chapter on Leonora Carrington, and ends with a final wonderful—and for me, eye-opening—chapter on you called Magic Language, Esoteric Nature: Rikki Ducornet’s Surrealist Ecology written by Kristoffer Noheden. I reached out to him to get a copy of the chapter. I was reading it and as you know, a month later, you emailed me a photo of the cover when you received a copy, not knowing that I was reading it. Then we started talking and I learned that he’s your Swedish translator. But I love this chapter on you and how Kristoffer places you in what he says is a little recognized though fundamental ecological tendency in surrealism. He places you actively within the activities of the surrealist movement of the last half century and we learn many fascinating details such as your friendship with Angela Carter when you were living in France. But what I found particularly interesting on a theoretical level is when he says that your writings suggest “that ecological interrelations may emerge from playful analogical associations that reveal the interrelatedness of things kept apart by the logic of identity.” I was thinking about the ecological implications of keeping things apart by the logic of identity. All of a sudden, for me, surrealism as an ecological movement makes sense, not just the decentering of the human but the breaking down of the lines between human and the non-human. Then when I think of that, I think of your interest in alchemy, your interest in dreams, your interest in dream logic, and Kristoffer goes on to say, “Many of the resulting writings, as well as her drawings and paintings of flowers, roots, and seeds metamorphosing and breaking out of botanical categorization call up a surrealist ecology equally attentive to the material world and to the ways in which dream and imagination may uncover new dimensions of the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms.” I’m just going to shoehorn a little bit more in because I just love this chapter so much. Later, he talks about Walter Benjamin who was also fascinated by the conceptions of Edenic language and also argued that language occurs everywhere, that human language is just one particular example of language and Kristoffer says—and this is in relationship to you—”If animals and even other beings and things are ascribed a capacity to detect a deeper meaning in the universe, then the esoteric book of nature is written in a universal language that is constantly read by bacteria, agate stones, and ibises as well as by humans attuned to surrealism’s eco-occultist hermeneutics.” I have no idea how this chapter strikes you or whether this is a long-standing awareness that, around this, may be even obvious to you, this connection between ecological thinking and surrealism. But I’d love to hear more, either about how the chapter struck you or about his thesis that you represent a long-standing little acknowledged strain within the surrealist movement in this regard around what he would call the eco magic of language.
RD: It’s a wonderful chapter. I’m so grateful. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man and a brilliant one. I have to say on the one hand, surrealism has been absolutely essential to my life from very early on and at the same time as active as I’ve been, I’ve always been a bit in what the French surrealists call the [inaudible 1:20:09] sort of on the edge because as any group, there can be aspects that are somewhat churchy. [laughs] I thought that particularly in Paris. I think it may have been particularly a Parisian problem, I’m not sure. When I was eight years old, I’d had a talismanic blue egg that as a very little kid, I think it was four or five robin’s eggs that I treasured and that had been smashed pieces by a drunken friend of my mother’s during a party. [laughs] That was an enormous trauma for me. Maybe, trauma is too big a word but I use the word trauma because it really affected my relationship with my mother thereafter because she had brought this into the living room, so people could see how cute it was but also, her response when I said, “Where’s my egg?” She said, “I showed it to this friend. She smashed it between his hands. That’s what happened to it.” I realized that’s how clueless she was about things that really mattered like robin’s eggs. Anyway, this talismanic thing had vanished from my life. First time I walked into the library—my father moved to the Bard College campus and we were two minutes from the library—I walked over with him, I was eight years old and there was a spiral staircase leading up to the second story stacks and he said to me, “You’ll find all kinds of books up there that will interest you, so go up to the second story.” So I went up the spiral staircase. It’s like a fairy tale. I hit a glass bridge, a bridge made of green glass. In order to reach the stacks, I had to cross this bridge of green glass which took a lot of courage because I could see the first floor of the library beneath me and it looked like it was under water. When I stepped off the bridge, I immediately saw a book with a blue spine exactly the color of a robin’s egg. It’s the first time I took a book from any library. I took it down and it was a book of poetry written by Paul Éluard with illustrations by Max Ernst.
DN: Oh, wow.
RD: [inaudible 1:22:31] by Ernst collages. Max Ernst has always been obsessed with birds ever since infancy. He was obsessed with the birds that he saw and the artificial mahogany of his bed—I think it was probably the foot of the bed, could have been a cabinet in his room, nobody really knows—but there’s this false mahogany in which he saw all kinds of magical pictures. The bird and these mysterious bird men were part of it and that would haunt his entire life. What happened was that my relationship with the forest animals, with the birds, and wildlife I was seeing almost every day shifted in some way to be influenced or illuminated by those poems and those collages of Max Ernst. I never looked at the world the same after that. It felt like an extraordinary gift of companionship and understanding. Also, I think it opened the doors to infinite possibilities, I wouldn’t have said it this way, but this is what the imagination can do and this is what it’s for.
DN: I love that. It does seem imbued with magic.
DN: You tell another tale, another childhood tale in both of your essay collections when you’re reading a picture book about the alphabet and you open to B is for bee, like bumble bee, and at the same time, you’re stung by a real bee. That fusion of the bee and the letter B which in the Hebrew Bible is also the first letter of creation of Genesis seems to give us a glimpse of a way back to Eden. I love this description from The Monstrous and the Marvelous where you say, “I like to imagine that Adam’s tongue, his palate and his lips were always on fire, that the air he breathed was kindled to incandescence each time he cried out in sorrow or delight. If fiction can be said to have a function, it is to release that primary fury of which language, even now, is miraculously capable – from the dry mud of daily use. So that furred, spotted and striped, it may – as it did in Eden – scrawl under every tree as revelation.” It feels like this alternate vision of naming that you both experience and you tell us in both of these essay collections, not the naming and classification of dominion over or of the cabinet of curiosities of classification that you return to a lot in your stories, but a naming more like fire or lightning or you’re being punctured by a stinger as you at the same time acquire agnostic knowledge of what a letter means. I wanted to take that childhood story, and you always have these very strange names for your characters in every book, but I wanted us to talk about these two protagonists, if you could talk more about Quiver and Mic as names.
RD: I have no idea. It’s just there was Mic and there was Quiver. It was only in the book later on when I realized that she would be quivering with all her own existential anxieties, her loneliness, and her longing for love and that Mic of course, because of the microphone. I think he likes to say that it’s Michelangelo but there is a little microphone image on his bottom part. [laughter]
RD: So much of what happens is mysterious to me. Those are simple names but while I was writing that book, there was so much happening with language that was just fun. It felt a bit like rapping. Some of it had to do with the fact that I read as much as I can in a science magazine. Actually now, I’m getting Science, the reduced version because there’s so much in the regular edition of Science that I can’t comprehend and the same with Nature, I mean Nature is so wonderful, these magazines are wonderful. For a long time, I read as much as I can, as best as I can, so I often have a sense of the vocabulary even though the vocabulary is often absolutely incomprehensible to me. So I found writing it, that was part of what was happening too, is that a response to the vocabulary that was taking over on its own and has so much to do with the rhythms, just the way the sounds happen together. There’s this collision of words and they spark. There are sounds that are for some reason funny. My favorite actually is a name that my father came up with which I’ve always adored and which I’ve used on occasion once with some extremely pompous people, really pompous people who were saying that—and I’m sure this was true nonetheless—that the mathematics that they were doing, nobody could understand except for two other people in the universe. [laughs] They got into art history and somehow, we got into Michelangelo. I don’t know, I was feeling playful and I said, “Actually Von Pfeffertitz would disagree.” [laughter] I forgot what I said he said and they both said, “Oh yes, we’d forgotten Von Pfeffertitz.” [laughs]
DN: Of course, they did.
RD: Von Pfeffertitz had to show up. But that too, it’s a very mysterious process. I’ve mentioned this recently elsewhere. It’s been a companion thing recently for some reason. I know Robert Coover, I haven’t seen him for some time now but we’re very close friends and he once said, “Your writing is about singing.” This was Harry Mathews, it was a very interesting moment actually, he said, “Harry had just given an amazing reading and talking about the process of writing.” Bob in the audience said, “Harry, it’s like singing, isn’t it? It’s like singing?” Harry said, “Yes Bob, it’s like singing.” [laughter] There’s such a glorious moment and so much of it is music.
DN: Yeah. Of course, there’s going to be things that get carried into the names that maybe weren’t intentional or you went with the music of the words but I was thinking about both Quiver as something felt very animalistic to me, that Quiver was a human animal but also, I was thinking of Eros and I was thinking of both Eros in terms of love. But there’s this line as I was looking at the Cortázar’s, thanks to you, there’s a line in the Cortázar where the protagonist is urged to “Interrogate the sky like someone plunging his face into an anthill with methodical fury.” I loved that. It just made me think of you being stung by the bee while learning the letter B and this arrow, if language needs to pierce us, it has to pierce our bodies. I’m sure you’re not sitting there writing this note down then going, “Okay, that’s why I’m going to name her Quiver.” [laughs] Or that she was born in an envelope which made me think she’s made of words at the same time, even though an envelope, I also imagined like a cocoon hanging from the ceiling.
RD: But that’s what’s so lovely too because I think all of that makes perfect sense. I think so much of it isn’t too intuitive and so much of it is there. It is a mysterious process. It’s been percolating there for some time which is also why a book can pounce because actually, a lot of the writing has been happening already and maybe a lot of it in dream time which you don’t even remember but I have such a deep relationship to my dreams and dreams have been so essential to my writing, that my guess is that’s part of the process that I begin the work day and these things are just ready to pounce because there they’ve been bubbling.
DN: Do you have a dream practice?
RD: I used to and it’s coming back now. I do write the important dreams down. I actually had a dream about the pandemic and the word showed up, pandemic showed up some months before, it is so interesting. But there was a period when I was writing at the beginning because my first book was triggered by a dream—I think I’ve talked to you about that—I was counting on my dreams to help me navigate the mysteries of each book as they appeared, so I did develop a kind of lucid dreaming where I would ask questions and get answers in the form of a dream. Sometimes, it would be very cryptic but always useful.
DN: There’s something about the way that you acknowledge the dual possibilities of language but at the same time, foreground it as a magical thing, a means of connection of us and other creatures that I find really intoxicating as a reader. I want to have that experience with language or increase my experiences of that with language. Because on the one hand, you have these characters throughout your work who are doing the opposite, like this Von Pfeffertitz who isolates things from the realms and makes everything singular and lonely. That’s a very common character in your work. You call it alchemy in reverse in The Monstrous and the Marvelous and you have this interesting quote in that book that when colonizer scientist explorers ordered the natural world in an ideal display in these cabinets of curiosity, they “Betray a rupture at the heart of things, a chronic blindness, an incapacity to read not only the New World’s body, but its metaphysical books of days and dreams and prophecies. As if God gave man a second chance at Eden, and he could not dwell there but only sell there.” It feels like it’s not a coincidence that in Netsuke with the deceptive psychoanalyst, he split his life into two cabinets and that you call them cabinets. The one is like Eros is separated, unintegrated, and hidden from everything that he’s doing in his daily life whereas the way you’re foregrounding language and the spark of Eros animating everything is the exact opposite. The last question I had about what happens when you bring yourself into space as a writer was the question of will the spark of Eros be there? Will it follow us into the book of unnatural nature? What’s so great about reading this book, and that’s why I want you to read again now, is how buoyant, vibrant, electric, and alive the prose is. You’ve taken this vocabulary of machines and this vocabulary of physics and of technology and it feels like it’s coursed through with the erotic, like when Mic’s frustulator sheds a silver trickle of electromagnetic gravy. This is my preamble to have you read some more prose.
[Rikki Ducornet reads from her latest book, Trafik]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rikki Ducornet read from her latest book Trafik.
RD: Actually, that was Christopher Walken who said that.
DN: Oh, really?
RD: It’s a computer, so it makes mistakes. Every time that Al talks, it’s Christopher Walken, except when at the end, I have Christopher Walken talking and that’s me.
DN: So you have another book that follows this book?
DN: Can you tell us a little bit about your future book? Also in space I think?
RD: Yeah. Tiny. It’s unclear where it is but it’s definitely my COVID book because it’s called The Plotinus. First part of it actually shows up in Conjunctions issue on Solitude. It’s tiny but it threw me out of bed one morning, the opening sentence threw me out of bed, so I ran for a pen and I started writing. Not very long, I mean a couple of months, it was just always there. What fascinated me about what was happening was that it is a sci-fi of a kind. It’s a very peculiar sci-fi. It’s existential sci-fi. [laughs] But my character is arrested by a robot called The Plotinus and he’s thrown into some kind of a mysterious cell which he refers to as a closet. It has an air vent and the air vent allows him to have air and also, a tiny bit of sunlight. Because he’s in isolation, just about everything that happens, happens in his imagining mind. The only thing that turns out to be real is this hornet that flies through the air vent and all the erotic interest in the book comes from her arrival.
DN: I love that.
RD: It’s just in this spell the entire time. One gets into the zone but it did feel like automatic writing.
DN: I’m sad it was virtual but I was so glad we were able to spend this time together to talk about Trafik.
RD: Me too. You transcend the virtual.
DN: [laughs] I would like to think so. We’ve been listening today to Rikki Ducornet about her latest book from Coffee House Press, Trafik. 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 Rikki’s work at rikkiducornet.com. Rikki adds two poems, Bees are the Overseers and White Quetzal to the bonus audio archive. These join bonus work from Ted Chiang, Forrest Gander, Ross Gay, Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, N. K. Jemisin, C. A. Conrad, and many others. To find out how to subscribe to the bonus audio or about the rare collectibles available from Rikki Ducornet herself, from Nikky Finney, from Ursula K. Le Guin among many other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers to see what’s available. 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, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter 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.