Maggie Nelson is a poet, a scholar, and a writer of non-fiction. Her work is known for bending genres, refusing to sequester academic rigor from lived experiences of intimacy. She is perhaps best known for her 2015 book of memoir and analysis, The Argonauts, as well as Bluets, a 2009 prose meditation on loss and the color blue. She has a PhD in English from the Graduate Center, CUNY and is currently a Professor of English at USC. Harvard Advocate President and staff writer Lily Scherlis corresponded with Nelson by email over the course of a month.
Let's start on a style note. You've described your ideal prose as hot, as writing that "puts the needle right into the vein." What does good prose feel like, for you? How about bad? Is it easy to tell the difference? How do you calibrate your mental prose-barometer?
You mean, my own prose, or that of others? Other people’s writing is infinitely easier to judge, because while reading it I’m not struggling to get any thoughts out. As for my writing, I generally ignore questions of style while I’m writing, & go back in with an eye to sound later. Poetry is a little different, as there I’m not trying to get at an idea that could be separated from its inaugural sound.
In Bluets and elsewhere you talk about how your writing is often comported towards a "you." Your work often makes me think of Lauren Berlant's discussion of apostrophe, which builds off Barbara Johnson's ideas. She talks about how in writing we conjure up other subjectivities, phantasmagoric spectres who are really parts of our selves that have broken off so that we have someone to talk to, to address. Elsewhere Berlant writes:"To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures... but intimacy also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others."
Here I think she's getting at the same tension you address when you talk about wanting "the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person need never apply." Do you feel like writing about intimacy while, as you've put it, serving two gods––the "you" that you love, and the deity on the page––is like writing a letter that's meant to be intercepted? Or is it the work of translating private shorthand into plaintext?
This is lovely—I will look up the exchange of ideas between Berlant and Johnson, both of whom are important to me. I have often used the need to address someone in language as a spur to write, but the more I write of a given project, the more it’s quite clear that I’m not actually addressing that person any more, even though I might have been in the moment of composition. In that sense I never really think, by the time of publication, that I’m writing an intimate letter, or that there’s any doubling of purpose—I’ve been around the block too many times to delude myself on that account. I mean, it can feel great to be addressed in someone’s poem, to be the beloved memorialized in print, to sit in the audience feeling important, but even then both parties know that it’s one-sided literature and not the full relation, so that can feel lousy and cause pain. Exulting in being someone’s muse and feeling used are closely related, always have been. It’s a pharmakon.
Reading your review of Fred Moten's new book, Black and Blur, I was admiring how conscientiously you commit to writing plainly about language you describe as "a field defined by incessant motion, escape." For me, the sheer firepower of Moten's prose together with his tendency to defer satisfying our desire to "figure out" what's being said makes the inability to cleanly parse his sentences is a pleasurable kind of pain. I'm curious how you would situate yourself on the imaginary spectrum between writers religiously dedicated to transparency and those inclined towards more viscous or opaque prose. What do you think these different modes have to offer, especially in the context of the project of consenting not to be a single being?
That’s well put, about parsing sentences being a pleasurable kind of pain. I relate to that, re: some of my favorite writers. Moten himself has said some very smart things about plainness, & about precision. I won’t try to reproduce what he’s said here but I will say that the conversation has been fruitful to me, challenging, important. Generally speaking I kind of doubt that writers really choose their idiom—I think people have a way of thinking and talking and addressing, and then usually find an explanation, political or spiritual or what have you, after the fact, that gives their approach a certain kind of meaning. Which is fine, you just have to watch out that you’re not valorizing what you do as a privileged aesthetic just because that’s the way you happen to express yourself. I mean, even if I wanted to write in a very viscous or opaque way, I likely just don’t have it in me (which is why it kind of delights me when someone thinks I’ve been unclear or baroque, even if they’re saying it as an insult). I don’t think writing should be any one way or another, or that any one style is better suited to the project of consenting not to be a single being. Really the opposite—we need everything, everybody, all sounds. Because part of that consent, so far as I understand it, is endlessly recognizing our difference, while also understanding that difference as part of the world as a plenum, as da Silva has put it. If there were only one way forward, then only one single being would make it.
You wrote about your mentor Christina Crosby in The Argonauts. You've also written poetry about visiting her in the hospital in Something Bright, Then Holes. Reciprocally, she wrote about these poems and your relationship more broadly in her book, A Body, Undone. How do you feel about relationships of mutual literary use, mutual museship? Do they offer new possibilities for intimacy, or are they doubly precarious?
Each situation is distinct, and demands its own negotiation, comes with its own set of possibilities and challenges. In the case of Christina, our enmeshment in person and on the page has brought me much happiness & satisfaction, probably more than any other instance of writing about someone/ being written about that I’ve had. In my experience, being written about doesn’t usually bring the subject very much pleasure. So the fact that Christina valued my being there to bear witness, in writing, some of her most difficult, indeed catastrophic moments, and that she said so in her own book – that meant a lot to me. A LOT.
In an interview with The Creative Independent, you said:
People often say they feel like they know me, but I know they don’t—they’re just responding to an effect created by artifice. Which isn’t to say there isn’t real intimacy created—there is. It just means that they’re responding to a sort of “use artifice to strip artifice of artifice” loop.
What has it been like to meet your own page-dwelling mentors, your "many-gendered mothers of the heart"? Do these encounters change their work for you? Do you feel like matching up voices with real embodied people is anticlimactic, or conducive to more meaningful relationships on or off the page?
I think I’ve been around long enough to no longer ever feel “disappointed” or some such by meeting anyone I admire in person. I usually feel just fascinated and grateful. I’ve noticed that my students often report feelings of anticlimax on this account, maybe because they still expect a certain one-to-one relation between the written word / art practice and the human being. I don’t expect that. I can remember a whole class of poetry students being so disappointed after we read John Ashbery and then I took them to an Ashbery reading – they were like, “he’s not a good reader of his own work!” I was like, there is no good or bad reading of his own work; this isn’t a theater audition. It’s JOHN ASHBERY!!
You told Poetry Foundation that you're (understandably) getting tired of the phrase "personal writing." Any thoughts on how we could recontextualize or change how we talk about the genre it refers to?
Not really. I don’t think personal writing refers to a genre. I’d like it if people gave up this fetish of “she seems to be speaking just for herself, but the miracle is that it ends up a universal truth!” – on the one hand, good writing always does that, and on the other, trying to get to some universal transcendent shared experience or feeling is part of the problem anyway.
As a college lit mag, much of what we publish is juvenilia our writers may eventually disown. How much of yourself do you recognize in work from, say, your early twenties? Do you feel a sense of contiguity with your younger voice? Or is the "I" in those pieces a discrete individual, distinct from your present "I"?
O I recognize all of it. My ‘I’ has always been the same ‘I.’ Mostly I’m amazed that I had the chutzpah to think that my innermost musings and language experiments were worth publishing as soon as I’d written them. But I’m glad I did – because without that kind of chutzpah, you probably won’t go very far as a writer.
Can young writers (or older writers!) have too much chutzpah? Moreover, I have the sense that eventually we all start to develop grumpy language-foreclosing super-egos. Do you have one? If so, how do you negotiate with it?
I’m not concerned about too much chutzpah. If you’re a self-important jerk or your politics are rotten, all that will come out in your writing and personhood eventually, so if you care about that, you should engage in some good old-fashioned self-examination and transformation. And you’ve got to do your work – just because you wrote some cute tweets doesn’t mean you should or will sail into a fat book contract. But chutzpah is necessary for writing, and I don’t worry too much about grumpy language-foreclosing super egos. Just make sure you give yourself the time and space somewhere to express yourself without fear of what readers will think. You can worry about that later.
Hito Steyerl is a visual artist, a filmmaker, and a writer. Her work across media is known for “twisting the politics of representation around the representation of politics” and shaking up our default orientation towards screens, media, vision, and technology. She has defended the poor image, mobilized morphsuited and pixel-headed figures in a comedic critique of digital visibility, and created a world in which workers are forced to dance in order to produce artificial sunshine. She lives in Berlin and is a professor of experimental film and video at Universität der Künste. Advocate President and staff writer Lily Scherlis spoke with Steyerl over the phone in December 2017.
You treat images as things themselves, rather than as images of something. You’ve said that “contemporary visual artifacts project instead of representing,” and I know that Vilém Flusser has influenced your notion of projection. I’m a big fan of Into the Universe of Technical Images, in which he writes that the “image is directed toward a person. It presses in on him and finds him in even the most secret reaches of his private space.” This valence of exposure, of being vulnerable to images that Flusser connotes seems entangled in your notion of visibility. How do you relate the processes of being imaged, of being visible, to receiving an image, to seeing the visible? Can we distinguish between the two?
Between being an image and receiving an image? Bergson found a way of relating the two by inventing a world in which everything is an image basically but also a sensible image. Image that basically has some faculties of perception as well, so in that sense there is no difference between being an image and being able to sense or receive other images. He basically reformulated ideas by Leibniz, who had similar ideas in his monadology, whereby he said that basically everything in the world is a monad and some are lower resolu-tion than others, so they have less faculties of perception. Only one, namely God, the most highly resolved monad, is able to see everything.
So are we images with faculties for perception?
No, we are more complex than that, but interestingly I think that technology is headed in the direction of creating more and more sensitive assemblages ranked according to their faculties of perception. There are very stupid devices and much smarter ones, if you will.
There is a moment from your essay “Medya: Autonomy of Images” in Laura Poitras’ exhibition catalogue Astro Noise that haunts me. You write: “Machines show one another unintelligible images, or, more gen-erally, sets of data that cannot be perceived by human vision”—about how machines may cut us out of their chains of communication entirely, or ventriloquize us to create an illegible reality in the likeness of their images. You describe the reality they might ultimate-ly create as one in which, in your words, “you cannot understand your own eyes.” I’m curious about this last line.
This is partly a reality already. You somehow find yourself exposed to a reality which is bewildering and irrational and not very obvious. In that sense I think it’s partly realized already. The world sometimes looks like a totally disjointed and incongrouous Twitter feed of a person with severe mental issues. Guess why.
Aren’t computerized voices something of an inver-sion of the phenomenon of machines ventriloquizing us (here through our eyes) to talk amongst themselves. I think about the narrators in How Not To Be Seen... they are computer voices, right?
These voices I use definitely are computer voices. I have somehow stopped using them now. I never asked myself why. Maybe because it’s become a template which has been used a lot, but I think also because this communication amongst machines is now happening on a level which is not available to the senses anymore at all. It is even not translated into words anymore.
Did it used to be translated into words?
Well I think you know the let’s say... no. Definitely not. But it was represented to us as using words. But I think there has been experiments in which machines invented their own language to talk to one another which basically don’t make any sense to humans but still use human words but then you can easily imagine that human words are completely superfluous to that process.
This is what it sounds like:
Bob: I can i i everything else
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to meca
We’re just intervening in their own networks.
What happens once machines are no longer repre-senting themselves to us?
I don’t know but I think machines will also use some kind of representation to talk to one another, so in that sense it won’t disappear. The question is: what does it mean then? What kind of function does it have?
You’ve previously questioned the applicability of the analyzing images as representations. What even is representation these days?
I am not opposed to representation. There will always be representation. Representation is a process of alienation which is necessary for people to communicate. I love it. But there is no political automatism or social justice associated with cultural representation. There is no political effect tied to it necessarily.
Whether certain things or people are represented in the sphere of culture or not is not inextricably tied to any sort of political change. It can be reconfigured in completely other or different ways.
What are some of those other different ways?
I think we are or have seen one of them, which is a multitude or avalanche of images of mostly everything existing without any political or economical consequence whatsoever.
Flusser writes: “Technical images do isolate those who receive them in corners, but they isolate those who flee from them even further.” You’ve written ex-tensively about potential refuges from visibility, from exposure, about hiding in low resolution zones and under sheets of plastic in the drone shadow. Do you distinguish between fleeing and hiding? Moreover, where are our refuges now, now that poor images are basically defunct?
I mean most people choose to engage, choose to be involuntarily represented to platforms every day. They could also choose not to. No one forces people to use smartphones day in day out. But to go completely un-represented.. that’s much more complicated. It’s prob-ably not... it’s very difficult, let’s put it like this. Many people don’t have a choice so they need to inhabit this zone. Those who do not want to be seen because for them visibility is dangerous. On the other hand invisi-bility is also a privilege for elites.
What would be the consequences of choosing not to use a smartphone?
I think there would be a lot less data trail, on the one hand. On the other hand it might also have an effect on your brain. For example if people stop using Google Maps or routing applications their brain changes. Orientational parts are rewired. It’s not only on the level of representation that people would slightly change. Time and space would be perceived differently without a phone, or, using the Google maps example, they would not be perceived at all.
What about the video editing process? How do you think about the potential images or potential iterations of a work that never get rendered, potential iterations that exist as a possibility in AfterEffects but then never materialize? Where do they go? Is there a graveyard somewhere for hypothetical images?
Interesting. Yeah, probably there is. I’m just happy that I don’t have to deal with it!
Do you find the decision-making required stressful, or is it a fluid process for you?
No, no. It’s horrible. Getting rid of images is the most difficult thing. I once met an archivist at Frank-furt University. He told me: people are totally naïve, they think storage and preservation define an archive. But I have to tell you that its mainly about discarding stuff and getting rid of it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular visual shorthand from your video How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File: the person with a pixel for a head. Do we relate, bodily, to the pixel in which we might hide? Are pixels appendages, digital phantom limbs? Can we crawl inside them?
A guy once wrote a text about this experiences pro-testing on Maidan in Kiev, Ukraine. I think the text was called my life as a pixel. He would talk about how he worked tirelessly as a pixel in the TV news. If he was a pixel it means there were many people. So there was something rewarding to it - keeping in mind of course that many people were shot by snipers on Maidan, so it was very dangerous too.
Do you think that pixels have insides to them? Do you think that images are spaces?
I think yes. I mean let’s say more in a mathematical sense. Not in the sense that every 2D image has a 3D component to it but of course they have mathematical spaces, color spaces, probability spaces.
What is a mathematical space?
In the sense that, let’s say, a picture has let’s say 12k pixels, so the mathematical space is the space that has all possible combinations of all these pixels to one an-other. Its all the potential images within this one.
So that would be the graveyard of hypothetical images?
Yes. A mass grave or a future potential, depending how you see it.
Others have often asked you how your reconcile your writing with your visual work. You’ve said how at this point writing and images are materially the same—1s and 0s—and trying to enforce the divide or difference between the two doesn’t really work anymore. Does that manifest in your process, in how you engage with each medium?
To some degree, yes. To some degree. Writing, if you want to see it from that angle, is the extremely simpli-fied process of arranging data—let’s put it like that. It´s like a plumber and a winemaker both deal with liquids in different ways, so also very different crafts.
Do you have advice for young artists and writers try-ing to figure out how to move through the world?
It’s difficult because for basically everything the past training set does not apply in the current situation. In that sense I don’t think there is any precedent so to speak, or it would be arrogant to assume that there is a training set for this situation. Honestly speaking, I think trying to disengage with the existing structures is under the current conditions not a bad idea.
What does disengagement look like?
Trying to regain control over basic social infrastructure. Water, energy, health/care, education, information. On a communal cooperative level. If I was 20 now I'd try to learn a profession which could be useful in that endeavour.
In a 2014 interview with Marvin Jordan, you dis-cussed how phone cameras create pictures using algo-rithms that speculate what is signal and what is noise based on past images—in other words, they disrupt the clear indexical link of representation to reality. This residue of the past in the present prescribes history as the future. You noted how Rancière concluded that, in the context of dividing political subjects from the unheard and unseen, there is no noise, only speech: what is noise to you? Where does it come from, and where—once resolved into an image or into a voice—does it go?
Noise is the things that are not yet known, meaning that it is the future.
Does it relate to the glitch?
Yes, but maybe the glitch is after the fact. The noise is the glitch before the image. The glitch necessitates something which is...already configured to some de-gree, right? It is some kind of artifact which is added after something is supposed to have been completed, like an image or a sound. The noise is before the image or sound is constituted. Before the signal is extracted, so to speak. It is when all possibilities are still open.
My mother raised me on spoonfuls of musical theater soundtracks.
Long before I had the motor control to make my stubby fingers press play or rewind, she began to curate a collection of CDs for my auditory consumption. We’d pop them into the stereo, and feeding time would begin: soaring voices and charging trumpet crescendos like bites of quiche, baked to eggy perfection.
Open wide, she would say, and I’d swallow a steaming mouthful of harmonic thirds.
She stored each disc in a neon green CD binder. The case was made out of a shiny material I can only describe as kind of like those optical illusions where you see a rabbit when you look at it from the left but a pony from the right. The kind of material that, once you develop control over your fingers, you can scratch with your nails to make a piercing skrt skrt skrt noise. A material you can keep skrt skrting until the day your dad explodes that he will confiscate every last CD in the case if you make that noise one more time. (Whereupon you tell him it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. He tells you he has sensitive ears. You did not know this was a condition an ear could be in, and you say an extra prayer for weak-eared people of the world the next time you’re not mad at God for making you go to Sunday School, which is not for a while.)
Before they lived in my binder, these albums were my mother’s. Not in CD form–those gleaming tokens never belonged to anyone besides me–but as their primordial ancestors. She likes to tell me how she’d put them on her record player and lie on the ground for hours listening. I imagine her melting into her shag carpet while humming along to angsty Chorus Line tunes. Hello twelve, hello thirteen, hello love... she’d sing, as the rest of the children lit up blunts, paged through Go Ask Alice.
“You’ll love this one,” my mother would tell me, tapping a disk with her fingernail. “It used to be one of my favorites.” Musicals were a love we shared, just the two of us. Sometimes, when we were alone in the house, my mom would let me pick a soundtrack. I’d scurry upstairs to the closet where my neon green binder hid. I’d flip through the plastic pages and pick out a CD, which I would carry slowly back down the stairs. Both hands, edges-only. When my fingers slipped and left a print, I’d frantically scour it with my sleeve until the little cloud of residue had mostly disappeared. Then I’d resume my dirge. Eventually, I’d reach the family room, where our stereo lived inside the left cabinet. I’d stand on my tiptoes to load the CD into the mysterious abyss, and then I’d press “play.”
And during that brief silent click click click as the CD spun unproductively, trying to figure out who it was and what kind of sounds it was supposed to be making, I’d leap from one side of the room to the other, landing next to my mother, where she awaited me on our squishy red couch. We’d curl up together, ready to embark on whichever odyssey we had chosen for the next hour.
And then the CD, having gotten its shit together, would burst into that first glorious tone.
It was via this ritual that I drank in the swaggering waltzes of South Pacific, the stumbling chromatics of Evita, the raunchy vamps of Cabaret. I sat on that couch and absorbed Cats’ psychedelic pulsing, let West Side Story’s gleaming sincerity wash over me. I chomped through the bouncing pitter-patter of My Fair Lady, slurped down the 70s New-Yorkisms of A Chorus Line, chewed up the ominous reverberation of The Secret Garden, swallowed whole the gentle warbles of Godspell.
Listening to a classic musical felt like shucking corn while the sun sets. Steady concentration unravels toward an uncomplicated relief. Gauzy contentment that swaddles in a delicious glow. A chewy golden feast, uncomplicated and hearty.
The CD case still sits by my dresser at home, quite pristine. The material has not dulled from so many years of skrt skrt skrting. These days, I dare myself to press my fingertips into the reflective rainbow of discs’ shiny metal. I don’t listen to them anymore; who cares? I like the oily fingerprint it leaves, marking them like dog pee. Mine.
This cabinet of which I speak, the stereo cabinet, of is one of two that sit against the southern wall of my family room flanking a fireplace. This fireplace, once electric, underwent a serious renovation during one of my father’s bouts of homesickness for the Maine winters of his childhood wherein he insisted we needed a wood burning fire. The upgraded fireplace functions fairly well nowadays, but used to send a thick layer of smoke snaking through the house and my father sprinting up and down staircases huffily muttering “Must close all the doors, I’ve made a terrible mistake… there’s smoke everywhere and the children will suffocate in their sleep if it gets in their rooms… why did I ever come to this godforsaken landlocked part of the country anyway… even fire doesn’t want anything to do with this state…”
The cabinets have not changed one iota in the seventeen years we have lived in the house. It’s as if they are cloaked in some kind of halo, a luminescent field that keeps them safe even as time (and my father) renovates their surroundings.
Like the fireplace, the family room cabinet to the right of the fireplace belongs to my dad. His tiny man-cave, or the closest he’ll ever get to having one. It contains our mammoth television, a television which remains to this day the oldest functioning television I have ever seen. This thing has never not felt old, not even twenty years ago when my dad loaded it out of the moving truck. When you turn the power on, which requires physically approaching the television and pressing the rectangular plastic button on its front since the remote no longer works, it makes a loud popping sound, and if you don’t remove your hand fast enough, the hairs on your fingers stand up as the glass becomes momentarily fuzzy to the touch, like the static is leaping out of the screen.
The left cabinet is my mother’s domain. We are a Family of the Future––my father does our laundry and both parents share cooking duties, so the usual Woman Spaces do not exist in my house. Instead, my mother, despite having objectively worse taste in music than my father, is master of the listening cabinet, which houses our stereo and her old record player.
She uses the stereo when she entertains to play elevator music, and when she was overcome with dramatic emotions, she blares Israeli dance music or smooth jazz or Santana over the speaker because she “really just feels like it.” My mother likes feelings.
The record player was always a bit of an enigma. Silent mostly, except for rare occasions when nostalgia overwhelmed my mother and she simply had to hear Pete Seeger’s Abiyoyo on vinyl. Mostly, this strange plastic prism felt simply out of place. Older even older than the television in right cabinet I figured it couldn’t possibly live in the world of my neon green binder. In the way that JFK accents and hoop skirts are nice in movies but bizarre on modern-day street corners, I concluded that the record player fit inside a different time.
But it was such a crucial element of her lying-on-the-carpet stories that I eventually began to wonder why we didn’t use the record player for our musical binges. I asked her, once, and she told me a story that made me feel weird.
She talked about a time after college when she lived in an apartment next to a commune. She didn’t pay much attention to the commune, and they didn’t pay much attention to her. But they were plenty nice. She quite liked them, actually, except that along with societal norms and my mother, they also mostly ignored material concerns. This was fine until the day their toilet got backed up and they didn’t notice until it exploded, covering their room, oozing into hallway, seeping under my mother’s door in waves of pungent filth.
Most of her valuables were covered with sewage in the Great Toilet Flood of 1990.
She hired two men, both Venezuelan immigrants, to help sort through what was left of her belongings. Like some sort of biblical catharsis, everything she owned was suddenly subject to a dichotomous keep or abandon. And on the seventh day, the men said it is good about the records–plastic impervious to water–but refused to bless the cardboard album covers. Sewage had seeped into the gritty pores, putrid and decaying, permanent.
She’d loved her album covers, she told me. She loved the thin, smooth surfaces; the dappled colors; the way the collection looked when she lined the covers up and pulled out different ones to look at, like synchronized swimmers diving sideways into a pool. She was so visibly heartbroken at losing the album covers that when the men came back the next day, they brought her a record of Venezuelan music with a kaleidoscopic cover. Today it sits in the left cabinet, dressed up square and fancy next to its round, eternally naked peers.
She always gets sort of bashful when she tells this part of the story, embarrassed at how much she cared. But she twinkles, too; quietly grateful for these two saviors who noticed her pain and tried to alleviate it. My mother believes in people.
But no longer in musicals, not after the flood. Once the covers were gone, she stopped caring so much about the soundtracks. She switched apartments and lost track of a few, moved again and lost a few more. Without covers, the collection became a lifeless amoeba of ridged darkness. The musicals lost their own identities and slipped out of hers. By the time the record player found a home in our left cabinet, her collection had dwindled to a couple dozen, none of them musicals.
I didn’t understand how she could just abandon them.
Didn’t you still want to listen to them? I asked her. I’d never pegged my mother for a materialist. Judge ye not lest the book cover… something. Hadn’t she herself told me that??
Not really, she said with a shrug. That was all she had to say.
My mother’s muted resignation never made sense to me, not in the context of the fluffy couch and the stereo’s hypnotic unspooling of my melodic stories. How could she so tenderly fill me with mouthwatering morsels she herself felt so ambivalent about?
These days I’m beginning to understand what she meant. Musicals, as a general rule, overexplain. A drama teacher of mine once explained musicals as representing situations in which people are so overwhelmed with emotions that they can no longer speak, and so must sing and move their bodies. Songs force you to sit in a moment, to swim around in it, to explore it from all sides. Choreography requires characters to clarify emotions, to magnify subtle bodily responses to the world around them. When you musicalize your feelings, you articulate them again and again, a different way with each verse, backed by trumpets and fanfare, underscored by pirouettes and tap shoes.
There comes a time when such relentless emoting feels naïve, or perhaps simply unhelpful. The feelings you are feeling do not add up into one megafeeling that can be sung at maximum volume with maximum fanfare until one final downbeat vanquishes them forever. Life and people and feelings do not organize themselves into neatly exclamation pointed sentences. Sometimes they go dot dot dot and move on, forever withholding that satisfying final note. Sometimes they make sense as a frozen ideal, immortalized in primary colors in a hidden cardboard flap. But in motion, they feel dissonant, cloying, out of touch.
This is what I say to my friends as we snicker together at the concept of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.
Every once in a while, I scroll furtively through Spotify’s selection of Sondheim and Bernstein, Rogers and Larson. The pictures here are miniscule; much smaller than my mother’s long-decayed album covers, tinier even than my plastic CD fronts. I turn my volume down low–heaven help me if anyone heard the pitchy shrieks of “It’s A Hard Knock Life” as I strut coolly past jaded brick buildings in my black turtleneck. And I press my finger reluctantly over a title (this glowing material never yields any sense of possession from my smeared fingerprints no matter how much residue I leave).
The saccharine lessons, tidy aphorisms stream out of my headphones. Though scary is exciting, / nice is different than good, sings Little Red in Into the Woods. Life is a cabaret! shouts Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
No, it isn’t, I think to myself. This is silly.
But then the orchestra crescendos, Sally’s belt crackles with fortitude layered over misery, and I feel a tug at my stomach, a gnawing hunger.
These sugary treats have never quite lost their appeal. Because something happened to me years ago on that plump red couch tucked within my mother’s elbows, as my soundtracks swirled out of left cabinet like smoke from my dad’s botched fires, snaking into my brain.
Bits of musicals sped, honking, reckless, weaving through lanes; vehicles packed close together careening absolutely out of control call the cops toward my center of command. My brain, try as it might to log each musical facet passing through the tollbooth of emotional input, was simply overtaxed, absolutely bamboozled. It could not keep up with the bombardment of glissandos and lullabies, off-kilter cadences and diminished fifths, honeyed rhymes stacked on top of each other, the bounty of minutiae that comprised these fraught worlds.
So to avoid a five thousand car pileup, my brain sent these elements anywhere else, anywhere it could fit them. Off they zoomed, traversing new paths, laying down pavement wherever they could. They trickled into my hollowest corners like scalding hot soup that I could feel oozing down into my stomach and spreading, warming me from head to toe; decadent comfort food, satisfying vague taste buds in every corner of my body. Like an unexpected compliment that hits you right in the gut and radiates, fluffy and good.
What happened next was that these industrious pieces of musical, having ventured into virgin territory, planted a flag and plopped down criss cross applesauce for good. It’s like that story my granny used to tell me about the girl who ate so many watermelon seeds that one started growing inside of her. Too late, her parents realized, she had turned into a human watermelon. Like the Oompa Loompas’ warning–Violet, you’re turning violet!–musicals planted roots inside me, seeped deep into my bones, mingled with my essence at the atomic level. Mine, they said.
We’d claimed each other; I was disciple and deity both. I was wrapped up in the corn shucking sun setting smokey haze yellowed quiche, and they, in turn, bore my oily fingerprints. Try as I might to scrub these naive renderings of the world from my conscience, they’ve burrowed into my being inextricably, attaching themselves to me for good.
There is a moment in A Chorus Line when Morales, my favorite character, tells the story, in a sung monologue, about her experience in an acting class. It begins when her teacher, Mr. Karp, asks them to improvise various scenes. Be a table, be a sportscar… / ice cream cone, he orders. Morales can’t do it. I felt nothing, she reports, again and again. Mr. Karp teacher humiliates her in front of the class. “I think you should transfer,” he says.
Try, Morales. All alone, she urges herself, too stubborn to concede. Karp continues to hound her. Finally, she breaks down and asks Jesus for help. A voice speaks to her from on high, sending a message which she relays in a triumphant swell: This man is nothing! / This course is nothing! / If you want something, / Go find a better class.
It is a happy ending well-earned. We, the audience, relax. But the music continues. Morales has more to say. Six months later, she says, as the music begins to slow, I heard that Karp had died. Even slower: And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul… each word more reluctant than the next. Morales does not want to be telling this story anymore. But the music keeps playing, pulling her along.
A pause here. And cried. Another pause.
‘Cause I felt… three words on the same note, like a hymn, like she is praying again, this time for proof of her own empathy. A third pause.
Here, a moment of limbo, perfectly engineered in performance. She gives the faintest of gasps, as if she’s only just now discovered how the story ends, as if it surprises her. Her eyes light up. The corners of her mouth curve; hopeful, like her eyes. Her neck lifts, craning into the future. It is a subtle, safe sanguineness. So that until the very last, you think she’s moving her tongue toward the middle of her roof, anticipating s, thatshe felt something.
But alas, we cannot hide in this liminal moment forever. The song is waiting for its final note, the conclusion that will make the moment whole. So Morales pokes her tongue forward, lays it flat under her teeth, for n. Nothing, she sings quietly. And we realize that she has tricked us; that her eyes were filled with anguish, not hope; that the corners of her mouth turned up in a grimace of pain, that the pause was not to savor the personal victory but to build up the courage to admit a truth she is ashamed of.
A tinkle of bells, and then the song is over. We are left with silence.
I felt nothing, she said.
But hidden inside that shell of ostensible desolation is a swirling mélange of pungently flavored feelings. Pain and joy mixed up–like in Morales’s face, more alike than they are different. Disappointment and vengeance, confusion and guilt. Feelings wrapped in emptiness wrapped in feelings. Blended together and served in spoonfuls.
That’s the kicker. In the world of a musical, you never feel nothing. You feel so much of everything.
My first TV was the size of a microwave, with one of those bubble-like screens. It was relegated to the family Volvo after we got the new one (which was somewhat larger). My dad strapped it to a milk crate with bungee cords and permanently converted its signal to induction. It stayed there for years, lodged in the space between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. All of this so that my siblings and I would stay quiet on the five hour drives to my grandparents’ house in Baltimore.
We watched VCR tapes of Teletubbies reruns on those drives, long after it was no longer age-appropriate. There was something really weird about watching them watch each others’ stomachs light up, with the camera zooming into a screen within a screen, especially when that screen was someone’s belly. I was obsessed with the red one, Po, especially. This was during the era when food brands were paying royalties to put the faces of TV characters on their child-targeted products. For two years, I would only drink apple juice that had Po’s face on the bottle.
At my third birthday party a few years earlier, my parents had surprised me by paying a full-grown man to come strolling down our driveway in an eight foot tall Teletubby suit. While hiding behind the legs of several of the adults floating around my backyard in rapid succession as I moved away from this man, it occurred to me that the Teletubbies were in actuality men and women wearing eight-foot-tall suits. I had made an error assuming that their bodies, collapsed into the screen, were just my size.
PBS had duped me and all of my friends. I didn't care if Santa was real: the fact that Dipsy was actually substantially larger than my father seemed to represent a hairline fracture in the integrity of my personal universe. I was smaller than I had thought.
Besides: didn't my parents understand? I didn't want to meet Po (let alone an eight-foot version): I wanted, desperately, to be her. I wanted to belong to the world of green vistas and tubby-toast where the sun had a babyface and I had three technicolor friends who would hang out with me for 425 episodes straight. If my parents understood me, they would have carved a rectangle out of my torso and replaced it with a television screen.
I spent my freshman year of college trying to decide whether this deliciously narcissistic brand of desire where you want to become someone rather than to sleep with them was psychoanalytically legitimate. I took a queer theory course. My professor encouraged personal papers, so I thought I’d write about the time when I was thirteen and developed a massive infatuation for a movie star playing a sexy and mysterious doctor. She was female, and her primary character trait was that she was bisexual, a fact which other characters frequently mocked. I want to be a beautiful intern, I wrote in my diary in between eighth-grade science and eighth-grade math, forgetting the last syllable of “internist.” I made a spreadsheet detailing everything I needed to do in high school to get into medical school. I attempted to grow taller. I bought a dark purple nail polish, because the doctor often wore that color. “I want to be a closed book,” I wrote, and tried to develop a repertoire of facial expressions that communicated mystery.
“Listen,” said my professor quickly when I proposed this paper topic. “You like her because she’s a rich pretty white girl. That’s not especially queer of you.”
“Liked,” I corrected her.
My best friend Lucas was, at the same time, taking a course on intimacy more broadly. This one was mostly about straight people. His professor, who was a rich pretty white woman like my doctor, asked him to dinner after grading his final paper, but he turned her down.
Meanwhile, outside of the classroom, I was discovering whole new modes of intimacy through Lucas’ platonic presence. We spent most of 2015 at cafes dispensing nuggets of thought and memory for each other like Pez candies. I would put these tablets of information on my tongue and let them dissolve there. It was a good way to be friends. Each time he and I sat down to coffee, we both compulsively removed everything from our wrists and fingers. A certain kind of intellectual undressing for one another.
We say a relationship occurs between two individuals, as if it’s physically located in the space between their bodies. Affection is like some kind of invisible goop that fills out the negative space between two personalities, bringing the contours of each into sharper focus.
Joseph Beuys cast the spaces beneath brutalist German underpasses in hot beef fat, taking a perfect print of the empty space left by the cold fascist architecture in organic matter that refused to cool. Obviously my friends and I are not fascist infrastructure (at least I hope we aren’t), but I like to think of friendship as the tallow that fills up the cold gaps between us. It’s a warm metabolizing filling, a kind of adipose tissue that stores affection rather than glucose.
There's that classic Scott Fitzgerald line about how personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures. Sociality is a kind of a gaming streak. This line still raises my blood pressure. I’m still trying to get just one gesture exactly right.
Besides, he’s wrong. Personality is always a collaboration. Other people elicit the words and gestures that define us from our lips and our bodies. We spend a lot of time rooting out and chastising the social chameleons in our midst. Really we’re always, always, fitting ourselves around the shapes of other people, drawing our respective selves out of each other.
Moreover relationships of all stripes are nothing more than an ongoing sequence of collaborative gestures clumped into encounters, encounters that become a shared history, a communal lexicon of inside jokes and memories. Intimacy is when a language with only two speakers develops slang.
With my friend Castle there was never undressing. We did a lot of sleeping in his large bed together in pajamas, changing in the bathroom, trying to entangle (covered) limbs without leaving open the possibility of entangling ourselves. We wanted impossibly innocent intimacy from one another. Instead we spent a lot of time unpacking the insults his ex had levied at him before leaving. “I know I am not good at women,” he said. I guess we are a skill.
He had this way of making you feel like there were some people who were essentially worthy and some who weren’t, and that the more time he deigned to spend with you the more likely it was that you were in the former category. He knew how to make you feel special in the light of his attention, and to make you think he felt special with you. We were never dating and we only very occasionally slept together in the proper sense of the idiom, but he managed to get me hooked on an IV-drip of partial validation. Nonetheless I was feeling somehow both smaller and fatter by the day and we were quickly running out of television to watch side by side, and all the while his mother was slowly dying of cancer in another country.
The lack of television really did us in. Television was a way of avoiding eight hour debates about how to conduct our quasi-relationship. These were coldly aggressive encounters where we debated what constituted reasonable behavior toward one another in both theory and practice. If one of us gets hurt by the other behaving in a way that technically is not prohibited according to the terms of our relationship as presently defined, does that person have a right to be upset with the other? If I hurt you romantically, can you then reasonably deprive me of your friendship because I am not interested in you? Is one of us a sociopath?
We were trying to write a rule book while holding fast to the fantasy that what we had didn’t need one. “We’re not even in a relationship!” he would say incredulously every twenty minutes. “We’re not even really having sex!” I would say back. We both worshipped logic and verbosity as some common god of objectivity. “I’ve never argued with anyone so good at articulating their emotional reasoning,” he said once at 4 am when we ran out of steam and started pulling our verbal punches. “It means I have to be especially on my game.”
At first it was perversely fun to strain the emotion out of intimacy and hold whatever was left up to the light. And then we would strain out the emotion (which at that point was mostly anger and hurt) and be left empty-handed.
Television meant we didn't have to do this. We watched Bojack Horseman and Friends and Rick and Morty and Game of Thrones and Big Little Lies and The Young Pope and Lizzie McGuire. It was a way of spending time together without having to deal with each other. We could share the space of Hilary Duff’s mind without fighting. We could experience emotions together safely by proxy of the larger-than-life people on his laptop screen. Hating each other, we could be together in other people.
You try to get the people around you to hurt yourself for you, my friend Margot told me five hours into a Megabus ride. When you feel insecure you instigate these conversations where you try to corner your friends into verbally confirming for you that you suck. This is your worst quality.
Your worst quality is your tendency to calmly inform other people of their worst qualities, I told her.
I know, she said.
In my nightmares there's always a voiceover narrating why I am totally screwed. I think this is common, but nonetheless it’s remarkably disturbing to be informed of your imminent violent dream-death by a voice of authority only you can hear.
One time I googled “Dreams with voiceovers,” hoping Carl Jung would inform me in dense, comforting sentences that these narrators were doing the crucial work of integrating my conscious and unconscious minds. I wound up on a mental health forum for people who hear voices that aren’t there while awake.
There are three kinds of voices: the Narrators, who describe your behavior in the declarative, as if keeping a transcendent live studio audience posted on the situational comedy of your existence. There are Interrogators, who progressively nibble away at your confidence with intrusive questions, keeping you up late into the night. Then there are the Commanders. They give commands. “It is important that you stick to your normal pattern of doing things,” the forum says. “Otherwise it could cause you doubt yourself and Commanders might take advantage of your indecisiveness.”
In a section titled “There is Hope,” we are advised to not stay silent:
If a voice is harassing you, you could start by calmly but firmly stating, “I hear you. Thank you for letting me know how you feel. Right now, I need to [insert important task] but I would like to discuss this matter with you later.” Then make a time and keep it. Keeping your word will become very important as the relationship grows.
It could be worse. I could have to reckon with dissenting parts of myself out loud, to make all of my internal conflict manifest sonically.
Lucas and Margot didn’t approve of Castle. They didn’t get why I continued to spend time with him when the six-hour verbal boxing matches left me badly existentially bruised.
I didn’t get it either. I was starting to feel like I was playing a fighting video game where my avatar had a special maneuver called "consider your thoughts and feelings and life decisions from an outside perspective." This was one of those moves that has to charge up over a period of time and then you get to do it once and there's a cool cut scene where you watch your opponent (my demons?) get shredded to ribbons or whatever. The move was my avatar's dynamite and without it this avatar was totally useless, limp, subjected to the facile violences of its opponents. And here I was with Castle, mashing on the controller, hitting the combination for "consider your thoughts and feelings and life decisions from an outside perspective" again and again, but the move hadn't sufficiently recharged.
Seven months later the console stopped glitching and I blocked his number.
“I miss you,” said Castle in an email a few months later, “And I want to know if you cried at the end of the second to last episode of the new season of Bojack Horseman like I did.”
I spent the summer when I was eighteen running around the Nebraska prairie with a gaggle of feminist artists. I bleached the tips of my hair and started wearing bandanas. On the prairie we were trying to learn to capture beauty and keep it. Everyone wanted to work with the figure, so we all had to take our turn as the model.
The first time was the hardest. “Here,” my photographer-to-be said, pushing her laptop towards me. “You can see my body before I see yours.” On the screen were a series of images of my new friend reclining nude around a tastefully decorated apartment with a glass of wine and a coy smile.
Earlier, she had shown me black and white images she had taken back in Tel Aviv. Her friends were anonymous bodies, leggy and well-crafted women who stared past the camera. They smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, easily folding their bodies into strong lines and pleasing arcs.
I had short legs and razor-burned knees. I smoked my first-ever cigarette a week earlier and hadn’t liked it. I cared, a lot, about what other people thought of me and my body and what I thought of myself and my body, and about making sure no one knew this. I also had this idea that I could be the kind of person who would agree to model naked without hesitation. My new friend made me feel special, like I too could be a striking twenty-something Israeli-American journalist with a fascinating sex life.
I thought she was beautiful. She was calloused and well-spoken and certain of her right to take up space in the world. She had been a drill sergeant in the Israeli army, spoke Chinese, and had once tried to illegally cross the Nepalese-Tibetan border alone on foot. She focused on you with sharp eyes and surprising warmth and never made small talk.
She said she prided herself on her ability to show her models the beauty of their bodies, and I wondered if she thought I was pretty. I was worried about bruises and scars and hairs. I thought about what underwear I would wear as if she was somebody I hoped to sleep with.
She handed me whiskey and loaded the film into her outmoded camera. Later I would nervously knock the empty copper cup out her window. “Ready?” she asked.
I wound up hating these images of myself. I had hoped that teaching myself to strip on command would teach me to be comfortable in my own skin, an expression which always gives me hope that my skin is a thing I could maybe someday get out of. I didn't trust mirrors for a minute: they all told me different things. I hoped photography might pin down a single and absolute image of my body, which I could then interrogate once and for all: are you beautiful? In reality, the photographs were as fickle as the mirrors. You would question the images and they would smile back and say what do you think?
When you draw a naked body from life you're supposed to look at the negative shapes––the curved quadrangle comprised of torso, upper arm, forearm, the hand meeting the hip. The swoop of the neck, when your visual field is flattened into two dimensions, makes contact with the straight line of the by the window pane behind. Only the spaces between body parts are impartial: we have so many laden expectations about the ways bodies look that they interfere with the way we see them and then we can't draw them right.
Various friends of mine have been employed as life models for figure drawing courses. “I feel like I’m professionalizing my ability to be vulnerable,” one of them told me, which happens to also be how I feel about writing. But in reality the life model becomes almost entirely desensitized to his or her nakedness. It’s strenuous work, holding a position. You pick up the skills and then nudity is a kind of a clothing: you are doing your job. It’s not that vulnerability has become banal, it’s that the pathway to vulnerability nudity once provided has closed. Your skin has become an impermeable cover stretched tightly and securely around your self. There are no gaps: you can be all surface.
Confronted with such a surface, we infer the presence of something like us somewhere in there from the behavior of cloth and skin and eyes and invisible vocal cords. We accumulate evidence of interiority, collecting gestures which we connect like dots to approximate what someone is like, how they experience themselves, how they experience us: who they are, really.
We’re always making these predictions, trying to hone our prediction-machines into 99.9% accuracy. We want to achieve knowledge of someone, which looks a lot like intimacy. We want to arrive at a place of absolute comprehension, to reach through our companion's sternum and pull out a struggling wet bird-like organ, the atom of their personality, which we can then hold in our hands and examine (or better yet, X-ray it, sequence its genome, dissect it, bring it to show and tell, and then maybe sew it up and put it back for someone else to check out later). We want to say, "Oh, that's what you are," and then possess that information permanently.
I used to wish for a concrete end to the process of getting to know someone. I hoped for a grand finale to the scary undertaking of progressively revealing the authentic and easily bruised pieces of yourself. If you peel back enough layers of tasteful clothing and casual charm, maybe you find a core nugget of individuality, the atom of the personality. Or maybe there will be nothing left.
Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington were in love, kind of. Their relationship was dramatized in a 1995 Emma Thompson biopic that focused mostly on Dora. It was subtitled: “She had many lovers, but only one love.”
In addition to a lover, Dora was an underappreciated painter. She went by her surname and had a pageboy haircut before its time. All the boys and girls at art school were at in love with her at one time or another.
Lytton was a member of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers. He was also gay. In the movie he met Dora at a house in the country in 1916 and thought she was a boy. He was disappointed when he found out she was not, but they moved in together all the same. Then Lytton fell for a man named Ralph Partridge. Ralph fell for Dora, and she agreed to marry him to keep the three of them together. Lytton died in 1932 and Dora committed suicide the next spring. Lytton, the world learned in 2005 from some letters, was a sado-masochist.
They say Virginia Woolf based the character of Neville on Lytton in her play-novel The Waves. There’s a scene I love where Neville and his best friend Bernard are quarreling. Neville sees Bernard walking up to him and starts to thoughtfully chew his metaphysical cud:
How curiously one is changed by the addition, even at a distance, of a friend. How useful an office one’s friends perform when they recall us. Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another. As he approaches I become not myself but Neville mixed with somebody—with whom?—with Bernard? Yes, it is Bernard, and it is to Bernard that I shall put the question, Who am I?”
It’s a novel where everyone’s always thinking at everyone else, speaking to each other without actually speaking aloud. Woolf hops between the insides of their respective heads:
Bernard: You wish to be a poet; and you wish to be a lover. But the splendid clarity of your intelligence, and the remorseless honesty of your intellect... these qualities of yours make me shift a little uneasily and see the faded patches, the thin strands in my own equipment... I become, with you, an untidy, an impulsive human being whose bandana handkerchief is forever stained with the grease of crumpets.
Neville: I hate your greasy handkerchiefs—you will stain your copy of Don Juan. You are not listening to me. You are making phrases about Byron. And while you gesticulate, with your cloak, your cane, I am trying to expose a secret told to nobody yet; I am asking you (as I stand with my back to you) to take my life in your hands and tell me whether I am doomed always to cause repulsion in those I love?”
Neville doesn’t get his answer, and, pissed off, hurls his poem in Bernard’s direction and leaves the room. Bernard thinks to himself, simply:
“To be contracted by another person into a single being—how strange.”
We are writing to you in the first-person plural. We may or may not be named Stacy, Laura, Genevieve. We are apes and we are soldiers. We may or may not be kidding. Our spokesperson is named Sally Sprout. She is happy to tell you why we won’t tell you our names: They want to be seen as people. They want to emphasize that they are not anti-male, anti-family, anti-children ... They want to emphasize that they are sisters, daughters, wives, and mothers. We want to be seen as people, so we dress up as gorillas. That way we are less particular. Why our costumes? Dismiss the essence if people knew who individuals. Stop worrying about children. No personal gains, only intangibles. We aren’t confessional. We aren’t secreting our lives through our pores or our poems. We aren’t making this personal. We just want to make ourselves known, we want to make ourselves un-ignorable. We want to make ourselves—not ourselves. We want to wear masks instead. We want to MAKE, period. What’s the matter with you—you having your period—you’ve never had one. We sign our notes, with love and bananas.
We want to take you to Big Dick City, because we’ve been living there for a while. We want to take you into the kitchen and let you cook us dinner. We have been unable to escape the burden of responsibility of home and family—the kitchen represents the never ending albatross posited by both society and upbringing on the woman artist. We want to show you our albatross.
We want to hang it around your neck.
Yes, you. Yes, yours.
Come watch our thousand tiny apes march along the painted freeway toward the fabled museum. We hit museums. We give them report cards. Has anyone tried to unmask us? We have been harassed / escorted off MFA property by police.
We may or may not include a woman named Nadine, who packs her two kids’ school lunch sandwiches at night to give herself ten more minutes to draw in the morning. One peanut butter and jelly; one peanut butter and honey. She has a rage in her so vast she could never look at it, because there would be no end to the looking. We may or may not include a woman named Grace, old as dirt; who wants her bones ground to powder when she dies and mixed into paint for other women to use.
We may or may not include a woman named Nancy, a woman named Gwendolyn, a woman named Elvira, a woman named cake batter, a woman named casserole, a woman named Late for School, nicknamed Late for short, a woman named Inadequate Mother, a woman named hymen, a woman named after whatever your uterus was called in whatever language God was speaking when he sentenced Eve to childbirth. We may or may not include a woman named God.
We want to build our installation from whatever’s left over from our homes: cloth and paper and cardboard; ironing boards and dryer lint and orphaned socks; whatever the albatross shits and surrenders. We want to build a jungle. We’d build a giant placenta from uncooked macaroni, fallopian tubes from plastic straws, ovarian cysts from gummy fruit snacks, just to be the women making woman-art, just to say fuck you to your demand that we don’t. I paint w/ my cunt. We paint graffiti. War is menstruation envy. Bent down so long, looks like up to me. Things are looking up for us. Come see.
With love and costumes, love and cream cheese, love and morning cereal. With love and laundry detergent, varsity jackets, late night blow jobs. With love and tampons, love and yes-I’m-listening, love and to-do-lists, love like an albatross; love like a song we can’t help singing. With love and bananas—and none of our names, and all of our lives.
*Italicized sections are quotes from the folders and drafts in the archives.
This piece was originally published in Gulf Coast Magazine