Earlier this year, books by Claire Donato and Amina Cain appeared: Someone Else’s Body (Donato) and I Go To Some Hollow (Cain). More persuasive than my praise are their own words: prose by Amina Cain can be read here, here, and here. Poems by Claire Donato are here, here, and here. And, if you haven’t already, check out their books!
Wanting more words, I e-mailed questions to Amina and Claire. My questions and their responses follow.
1. Claire suggested that I look through both of your Goodreads lists because you two share some reading interests. I noticed that you’ve both read and like Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel. What’s your connection to Pittsburgh and to this novel?
Claire: My hometown is Pittsburgh, PA, and I attended the University of Pittsburgh, where Chabon’s novel takes place. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was one of the first books I read and loved in college, and it provided me with a kind of backdrop for my future college experience. Of course, college was nothing like the book. But I also hear the movie is nothing like the book…
I love Pittsburgh and miss it in the springtime. I just went back to visit for the first time since moving away, and it was good to revisit old haunts-my former workplace, Caliban Bookshop (calibanbooks.com), Brillobox, and Tazza D’Oro to name a few-and to explore new things and places: Pittsburgh style four-egg omelets and Park House on the North Side, a bar some friends introduced me to.
Amina: I first read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when I was nineteen years old and it had a huge impact on me in many ways, but especially in terms of atmosphere– not how, as a writer, to create it, but in the possibilities of how atmosphere had and might materialize in my life, and in how I sometimes felt close to it.
For a while I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh once a year, as soon as the weather started to get warm; the book takes place during the summer. It’s been a while since I last read it, and my copy (along with most of the books I own) is currently packed away in a storage unit, but if I remember correctly, the novel begins in a somewhat emptied library at the very end of a spring semester. I think the main character, Art, is attempting to finish a paper so he can graduate. The atmosphere is spacious, the way an emptied campus is spacious when most of its students have gone away for a while. When I was in college I always stayed through the break, not taking classes, but working at a museum on campus. I loved the feeling of riding around on my bike with hardly anyone else around. Summer allowed me to develop a quieter relationship to my school. So the book begins in a somewhat emptied environment, which I love. Then all of these interesting characters step into Art’s life, and he falls in love with all of them, together and separately, and he seems to love himself more when he is with them too.
Because I was so enamored with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I decided to take a trip to that city, which was a few hours away from where I lived in Ohio, to try to find some of the places that appear in the novel, like the Cloud Factory and the Lost Neighborhood. I really like Pittsburgh. One of my favorite art centers, The Mattress Factory, is located there. And, one year, when I was living in Chicago, it seemed all of the people I was becoming close to were from Pittsburgh or from Chile.
2. I also noticed that you’ve both read books by Marguerite Duras (in particular, The Malady of Death) and Anne Carson. Are these two writers important to you? How? Who are some other writers you consider favorites?
Claire: I just discovered Marguerite Duras via a fiction writer here at Brown, Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi. I was drawn to The Malady of Death because of its unusually large font size. I am currently reading Duras’ book The Lover.
Anne Carson was one of the first genre-bending writers I encountered as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh-I read The Beauty of the Husband for a poetry workshop. Carson’s translations of Sappho (If Not, Winter) have had a significant effect on the way I think about the topography of the page.
Current favorite writers of mine include Brenda Hillman, Jack Spicer, C.D. Wright, Juliana Spahr, Joan Retallack, and Caroline Bergvall. The first poem I memorized was by Frank O’Hara. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely opened my eyes to cross-genre writing.
Which poem by O’Hara?
Instant coffee with slightly sour cream
in it, and a phone call to the beyond
which doesn’t seem to be coming any nearer.
“Ah daddy, I wanna stay drunk many days”
on the poetry of a new friend
my life held precariously in the seeing
hands of others, their and my impossibilities.
Is this love, now that the first love
has finally died, where there were no impossibilities?
Amina: Marguerite Duras is my favorite writer, and the books I like best by her are The Ravishing of Lol Stein, The Vice Consul, Blue Eyes, Black Hair (which essentially tells the same “story” as The Malady of Death), and Destroy, She Said. Maybe I love Duras as well because of the way her books empty out places, and at times characters, without emptying out what happens in or between them.
I’ve only been reading Anne Carson’s books for the last year or two, but they are quickly becoming influential to me, to my writing. In any book by Carson, it seems there are sections I don’t connect to, but reading the rest of it is usually like taking a drug. Her writing can be so charged, and so honest; so cutting. And I like that so many different written forms– poems, operas, essays, screenplays, documentaries– can exist all at once in a book.
Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, and contemporary writers like Bhanu Kapil, Tisa Bryant, and Renee Gladman are also important to me. I didn’t mean for all of my favorite writers to be female, but it has definitely happened.
With the exception of a couple, the writers you mentioned tend to work in short forms. And, from what I know of your writing, so do you. I’m curious to hear about your experiences with different forms. Do you think any one form has been particularly influential on your own writing?
I do always write short pieces, with the exception of a failed novel, though I love to read writing of all different forms and lengths. The book Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner is so different than anything I would (or could) ever write, but I love that novel very much. I guess even in its packed, epic form there is some of that spaciousness I was speaking of earlier. And though things like plot are not so important to me as a writer, as a reader I sometimes enjoy them.
Like many, I am increasingly suspicious of and bored by writing that insists so emphatically on itself as any one thing. Right now I kind of dislike the word poetry because it feels like many of the poets I know have crowned it king of writing, see it as the only space for true possibility. Not that I don’t like work that calls itself poetry, I often do, and very much, but part of why I like the above writers best is because first and foremost they are writers, and seem to be concerned with what can happen in a larger field than the field of any one genre. The work of Nathalie Stephens (Nathanaël) is very important to me in this way. In general, I’ve learned a lot from Nathanaël.
3. I’ve been reading the essay “Decreation” by Anne Carson. In it she quotes Simone Weil: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there.”
This got me thinking of a few things to ask.
Amina, in a blog entry you posted to the Les Figues blog, you say, “I have thought a lot about no self, but not about what I might be blocking in my insistence on my self. What would it be to unblock? What would it feel like? And, then, what would I see?”
You also write, in “Two-Dimensional War,” “Sometimes I wondered why I had wanted to live on land that looked like a destroyed place would look, but there was something calming about it too, as if it wasn’t required to be anything, as if no one would bother it for a while” (I Go To Some Hollow 37).
Claire, in your chapbook Someone Else’s Body, the speaker in Dermatographism says, “I understand my feelings regarding the other sex: what is engulfing is, in its purest fundamental, warmly beckoning.”
Could you both talk about these ideas: losing one’s self, being engulfed?
(You can read “Decreation” online here.)
Amina: “Decreation” is so good. It’s funny– I just wrote a sort of creative response to the ideas of class and gender and I begin by quoting the same line you did by Simone Weil. The quote continues, “But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.” The piece I wrote is entitled “The Beating of my Heart.”
I have always been drawn to “feeling lost” (though not being literally lost in the street). A complete disorientation is sometimes necessary for me, if only to break my habitual patterns and make me not know anymore what’s all around. Moments in which I think I have lost my “self” have always been shocking, and sometimes frightening. And a little bit of freedom is there too. In other moments I have been frustrated because I seem to not be able to lose my self. I am too close to it. Being engulfed seems like the ultimate way of being present, because the only thing you can see then is what is taking you over. I do think of these things when I am writing, if sometimes subconsciously. These are all forms of emptying out — a self, a landscape, a relationship.
Claire: I’ve spent the past semester reading all of Brenda Hillman’s work, which has led me to consider loss and sorrow in relation to ecology, both inside and outside of my own work. I am currently thinking and writing about grief ecology, or the interplay between mourning and ecological landscape. I am interested in grief as a deep sorrow that we carry inside of us all of the time, both related to and unrelated to death. I am also preoccupied with the ways in which a person might lose herself to grief, and the tension between the diverse ways grief manifests in individuals, and how (and what) grief engulfs.
Hillman’s speaker often attempts to understand her own grief via exterior landscapes, as in the poem “Yellow Tractate,” where she writes: “So I studied the lines around the daffodils, / wanting to see how they could be / and not be at the same time […]” (Death Tractates 17). By focusing on the impermanence of her environment, Hillman’s speaker is able to contemplate, chart, and wade through grief. And this contemplation often leads to a realization that life is happening! “In the shine off the back of a very large beetle / on the driest hill where so much is in bloom. / Even the serpentine pebbles in the cracks bloom, / even the cracks bloom” (Death Tractates 49). It’s as if Hillman’s speaker loses herself to grief, which causes her to see things in an elegiac light. Once that light is glowing, grief engulfs itself to produce life. A lovely cycle, I think.
 In terms of my own writing, I am working on a series of poems titled “Grief Ecology.” Each poem in the series is called “Elegiac Backdrop.” Thinking critically about Brenda Hillman’s work inspired the series. Joseph Massey’s work, which strikes me as very elegiac, influence the forms.
Recently I’ve been reading about riddles, and I’ve come across a (to me) interesting connection between riddles and the elegy. There’s a kind/genre of elegy called frauenlied, or woman’s song, in the Old English lineage. (Translated literally via Google Translate, frauenlied means “woman lied.”) Your answer to my previous question gave me a new way to think about what can be puzzling or riddling about grief, i.e., “wanting to see how [daffodils] could be / and not be at the same time […]”
This is a lot of build-up for a question about a man you mention in your footnote. I’m curious-what about Massey’s work strikes you as elegiac?
Both the form(s) and content(s) of Massey’s poems strike me as elegiac. Like Hillman, Massey makes sense of his own carried grief by looking toward ecological landscape, and the unusual, vivid juxtapositions that exist (are alive, literally draw breath) alongside decay, e.g. “buds on a diseased / tree, at the / edge of blossoming” and “a pigeon feather / [flapping] from a / mound of pigeon shit” (Areas of Fog, 32, 23).
Formally, Joe compresses images of life in bloom against rot by slipping through line breaks and chiseling his poems down to precise, core morsels of language, causing the juxtapositions to be all the more startling. Massey’s words pressed into the sparseness of the page create a sort of ghostly impression: the words and images are there, thriving against what Joan Retallack might call space-time’s “continuous drone” (The Poethical Wager 5).
Joe [Massey] and I have recently been talking back and forth about elegy and grief. Our conversations have illuminated my understanding of ecology’s link to mourning. Recently, Joe said:
“I think it’s impossible to write about the world, the world we’re in today, without it being an elegy — unless you’re blind, living in a Hallmark card, imagining animals as Disney creations, personifying everything into just one more human blob of shit, as so many do when writing about ‘nature’ (whatever that means).”
Nature, is seems to me, is an empty means by which to explain how the physical world “should” or “should not” be. I am much more interested in the way all organisms relate.
Amina, what have you been working on lately?
My writing process is different these days than it usually is. Normally I work on one piece of writing until it is finished and then move on to the next, and it works like that. Right now I am working on a book-length project made up of pieces that in small ways look towards possibilities of performance. Last fall I recorded a couple of these pieces with the help and voice and music of writer/artist/musician Amarnath Ravva, and in January, in Chicago, performed one of my stories as a play with the artist Rachel Tredon. Right now I am working on a short screenplay tentatively entitled “The Day Like a Mouth and Me in It” (the very first part of which is posted on the Les Figues press blog) featuring the character Marya Timofeevna from Dostoevsky’s Demons. It contains very little dialogue, which is funny to me, because the story I performed with Rachel is almost all dialogue. At first, I thought I would never want the screenplay to be filmed, that I wanted to just enjoy the writing of it for the sake of writing, but now I’m not so sure. I keep “seeing” it.
4. When you read something that you wrote a while ago, is there anything that makes you think, That was me then, but I don’t do that now. What is it?
Amina: Yes. Some of my book I Go To Some Hollow feels that way to me. If the self gets lost, or at least changes, I guess the writing does too; but, also, there might be a consciousness or a notion that gets threaded through all of the work one does. I still want to feel close to atmosphere in the ways I did when I was nineteen; and my writing did, and does, want that too. Maybe texts document the self and its journey straight into “decreation.”
Claire: This is a tough question! Someone Else’s Body, which was written a few years ago, feels simultaneously distant but close as ever to my current writing. I’m there, but is that me? Yes, but what’s changed, I think, is my writing practice. I’ve focused and energized my writing practice since then. Which is to say, I don’t write the same way I did then now.
Amina Cain is the author of I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009). Her work has appeared in journals such as 3rd Bed, Action Yes, Denver Quarterly, and La Petite Zine, is forthcoming in The Encyclopedia Project, and was recently translated into Polish on MINIMALBOOKS. She lives in Los Angeles.
Claire Donato is an MFA Literary Arts candidate at Brown University in Providence, RI, and the author of Someone Else’s Body (Cannibal Books, 2009). Recent poems have been published in Coconut, Harp & Altar, Caketrain, and Lamination Colony. Her website is somanytumbleweeds.com. Her hometown is Pittsburgh, PA.