Andi Boyd is an educator and writer living in Waco, Texas. She holds an MFA from Texas State University and a BA in English from Northwestern State University. She has taught literature and writing to students from kindergarten through university. Her poetry and fiction has been published in anthologies and journals such as Nasty Women Poets, If You Can Hear This: Poems of Protest, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast Magazine, Narrative Magazine, ANMLY, Fiction Southeast, Juked, etc. and was named for a top 50 flash fiction piece by Wigleaf.
Graciela García is a graphic designer, artist, and writer from Madrid. She studied Fine Arts and holds a Ph.D. from the Complutense University of Madrid. Passionate about psychology, her research on the creative processes in outsider artists are collected in her book Art Brut. La pulsión creativa al desnudo. Her blog El hombre jazmín is an international benchmark in the field of Art Brut. She is currently working in the graphic design studio Se ha ido ya mamá, of which she is a founding partner, combining this activity with research, criticism, and creative curatorial work.
In the mid-twentieth century, in a stretch of high desert near the U.S.-Mexico border, people are living their lives for the long haul, without lotteries or easy answers or particular luck. Theirs is the everyday, with its small but meaningful joy. Celebrate our Director Alberto Ríos latest novel, A Good Map of All Things on Thursday, October 29, 2020 at 6:00 p.m. Arizona time on Zoom. Open to the public and free. Individuals who purchase a copy of the book through the Piper Center’s website will receive access to a special meet-and-greet following the event. Learn more and register today here.
This interview about Sève Favre’s recent collection was conducted via email by Art Editor Anna Campbell.
Sève Favre is a visual artist originally from the French part of Switzerland. Sève was introduced to arts from a young age but decided to follow an academic study first: Art History at University. She supplemented her literature degree with secondary school teaching. She continued her education by taking several seminars and workshops in the visual arts, notably at the Ceruleum School of Art in Lausanne. In 2005, she created her first modular artwork and during several years she maintained both careers simultaneously, teaching and private commission for artworks. Today she completely devotes herself to her art practice and promotion. She has been exhibited in Switzerland and abroad. This year, Sève was nominated by Arte Laguna Prize in the installation and sculpture section. Passionate about the concept of integration, she concentrates on transcending the classical boundary between the artwork and the viewer. The main feature of her art is interactivity. The keywords that support her concept are interaction (be together), variation (be different), and activity (be active). Her name for this experience is intervariactivity. Sève can be found on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @sevefavre. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Superstition Review: You frequently talk about your “intervariactive” art as a synthesis of being together, being different, and being active. What attracted you to the idea initially, and how do you continue to explore it through your work?
Yes, being together is interaction, being different is variation, being active is activity. At the beginning, I really wanted to break this classic boundary between the artwork and the spectator, especially through the work on canvas. I found it interesting to integrate the spectator in the process of creating the work, which is a continuous process that starts in my studio but then continues elsewhere thanks to the possible appropriation by the public, a process of co-creation, by revealing the different possibilities of the work. Then, I extended this principle to the interactive double digital of certain works, as you can test it here.
These different possibilities, both real and virtual, multiply the possibilities of participation and interaction. For example, from the digital realisations I can create a gif containing the different proposals made by the participants: a collective work, like this one :
All this can then be shared on social media….
SR:The human component of your work is quite striking. Can you explain your process for creating these pieces?
SF: Indeed in my artwork, the human can be the subject of a work, but is above all the vector of metamorphosis of the artwork (real or digital). In our world where the development of artificial intelligence is dazzling, I find it interesting to highlight our fragility with/on human characteristics, Moreover, by allowing the spectators to intervene directly on my works, I would like to point out specifically human attitudes, such as trust, risk-taking, respect… etc… The spectators are not mistaken because the first question that comes up most often is if I am not afraid of the consequences of their action on my paintings. I don’t believe that this emotion is one day likely to be a characteristic of robots. This is really what I find interesting and important to make the viewer feel: his humanity.
SR: What does your physical workspace or studio look like?
SF: My artworks require different stages; my studio is organized according to them. First of all, I have a relatively large storage space for materials because I mainly work with mixed techniques so I use different types of materials. Secondly, there is an easel workspace which is very practical especially when I work with pastel chalks; I can tilt my easel to manage the dust from the chalks. On a workbench, I can concentrate on measuring, cutting and origami work. And finally, as far as assembly is concerned (gluing the different parts made), I have to do it on the floor so that the canvas is horizontal and stable. And I like to have a cup of tea near me when I work while listening to the radio or music during my time in the studio.
SR: What is one thing you must have with you as you work?
SF: My necessary tool for absolutely every artwork is my favourite pair of scissors.
SR: How has the global pandemic affected your process?
SF: The pandemic had more of an impact on my exhibition schedule. However, it has allowed me to develop the digital part of my work more, notably thanks to my participation in CADAF online (Contemporary and Digital Art Fair). I also remotely managed the setting up of an in situ installation for an exhibition, as I couldn’t travel to London to do it myself. That was a challenge I wouldn’t have considered in the past.
SR: How is your work touched by social justice?
SF: Behind my work there are fundamental concepts of value and participation. The notion of value in my work is linked to the different possible variations. Are they of equal quality? Only the owner or the public can determine this: is it preferable to keep the artist’s proposal, as this visual will have more value than theirs? Would they like to invite a celebrity to interact with the work and then, religiously preserve the evidence… or do they feel that the choice of a relative will be much more valuable? All these questions are much more intimate and personal in scope than the purely economic value, but they are all equally necessary because they challenge the relationship with objects in a world that continually produces them in disproportionate quantities.
SR: What are your upcoming projects?
SF: First of all, I am working on my new website. Secondly, I am preparing a new installation normally for a Festival, but we have a lot of uncertainty about how it will be held in relation to the pandemic. Next year, I will exhibit my installation “Être au pied du mur” at the Arsenal in Venice as part of the Arte Laguna Prize finalists’ exhibition. As this year is special, I am trying to focus on my digital presence; I think it’s important to also highlight the digital part of my artworks, especially with a project of cultural participation in Switzerland.
You can find Sève on Instagram here and on Twitter here.
This week’s BIPOC creator feature is local Phoenix-based artist Antoinette Cauley. Antoinette is a Phoenix native and studied art at Mesa Community College. She apprenticed with oil painter Chris Saper and is now known for her hip hop and urban-influenced work. Antoinette is an educator and an activist, teaching inner city youth how to paint. Her work focuses on her own internal struggles, as well as modern social issues and rap culture. Antoinette was named best local artist by AZ Foothills Magazine in 2017 and 2018 and was featured in Phoenix Magazine’s “Great 48:48 Influential People in the State of Arizona.” Her most recent project was a portrait of the late poet and novelist James Baldwin, which was transformed by Jason Harvey into a mural on the side of his Ten-O-One office building in the heart of the Roosevelt Arts District in downtown Phoenix. The installation of this mural was in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that took place earlier this year.
Antoinette’s work is colorful and striking. It plays with the public imagination of the black community in a way that exposes the fears that often come with inner city youth. Her paintings display images of young Black girls in powerful positions with dynamic juxtapositions that challenge the viewers perception on gender roles, childhood trauma and the influence of pop culture on our youth. It is a brilliant way for a black rights activist such as Antoinette, who works with inner city youth on a regular basis, to shine a light on societal misconceptions that encompass the lives of black youth.
Be sure to take a look at Antoinette’s Instagram, Twitter, and website. If you are interested in finding out more about Antoinette’s personal life and the motives behind her work, check out this interview conducted earlier this year by the Phoenix Art Museum.
History of Violence Binds Us to Live a Life We Don’t Want to Live
L’existence précède l’essence
When Eddy Bellegueule at the advent of his teenage was carrying the unbearable lightness of Anglo-Saxon name representing constructed masculinity intoxicatingly to present himself to the expectations of the social system and to act as per the principles of social exclusion and to remain silent–
a crisis of gender representation,
I standing at the exit door of my teens had encountered an event among the gathering of orthodox Muslim relatives first ever to be acquainted with in my own sister’s marriage ceremony and when I had introduced myself, obviously, as Palash Mahmud, a name combined by Arabic-Bengali words, within a second showing a distaste and shock on their faces, they asked why I am bearing the Bengali word despite of being a Muslim; I could not open my mouth further but to remain silent–
a dilemma of lingo-religious representation.
As Eddy said to Alessandro “Every reality is secretly built upon the rejection of something else,” he excluded the imposed qualities of masculine archetypes for Eddy Bellegeule and transcended to the exposed desires of human qualities for Edouard Louis, on the other edge, I am still carrying the bearable weightiness of intersectionality and enduring the pressure of excluding my linguistic identity to hold up my religious spirit, I could not say anything or write anything but only asking over and over again inside my mind that what’s the sense of not taking a Bengali name along with Arabic name although I don’t speak in Arabic but in Bengali.
Edouard and I have been going through the same societal pressure living in the opposite pole of the world, tolerating the same mass of humiliation and suffering by the different and distinct reasons that proves the objectivity of the human conditions, and adopting two opposite defense mechanisms – rejecting the name Eddy and being a voice of Edouard, oppositely, for me keeping the name Palash and being silent that also denotes the universality of human resilience.
The French debut novel, a global sensation of Edouard Louis, The End of Eddy (En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule in French, 2014) sets in Hellencourt in segregated far-right dominated and melancholic grazing land in Northern France which deals with name, sexuality and identity that are formulated by the norms of class-systemized cultures, social and political decisions that bring shame, humiliations, abuses and sufferings to the individuals. It links up Eddy’s gender representation and sexual preference with his family’s honor and dignity, political bourgeois and supremacy with Eddy’s ruthless poverty which make the analogous tones and themes with Scottish-American novelist Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain which is shortlisted for the 2020 Booker prize and the National Book Awards for fiction; and with Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake which won Palm d’Or in 2016. It shows us the basic structures on which persons and politics intersect and react with each other.
In his second novel, History of Violence (Historie la violence in French, 2016) which has been shortlisted for the 2020 International DUBLIN Literary Award extends the structure into more deeper level where readers can know how person’s identity is reconstructed over and over again by the political malice; and in process politics effectuates violence as a workable instrument evidently.
To show a model of violence in the universal characters, Edouard use bodily assault, the incident of rape from his own life which is very unique in the literary landscape illustrating his psychological journey of pain and grief, rage and revolt so subtly. The truth is no violence or injustice is not singular in nature – it is like multi-folded spider’s web- as soon as you are victimized by any kind of violence- like touching any thread of the web – you are immediately included in the other associate and collateral violences, injustices, humiliations, dominations and sufferings. But the thing is to find out the formula of remodeling the web to degrade the degree of violence and to upgrade the line of human freedom and spirit.
The story has been unlocked after “a whole year since it happened” on the Christmas Eve in 2012 at dawn in Edouard’s apartment when his sister, Clara, is throwing up the swallowed stories of the rape violence to her husband. “Hidden on the other side of the door” Edouard is adding the edited memories and practicing “anxious nagging feeling” and failing to describe the event truthfully because of lacking appropriate vocabulary.
Humans are far behind to picture their conditions in deficiency of exact lexical resources for the feelings and emotions which are kept under the veil of avoidance and rejection.
Being distorted by the rave feeling of reading way back to home, he encounters an Algerian man, Reda, whose “features were soft yet rugged masculine” and with a feeling of romantic and carnal desires for being close together as a man and a woman. They spend a very intimate time, crossing the boundaries of prohibitions and exclusions. During the departure time, Edouard witnesses his valuable appliances and gadgets are stolen and against his charges and protest, Reda exhales his air of violence, rapes him at the death threat. Though the whole narrative is sourced from Edouard own life, he can also replace his physical tribulation and post-traumatic upshots with William Faulkner’s Temple Drake’s rape and its ramification in Sanctuary (1931).
Consequently, Edouard as in Hanya Yanagihara’s Jude in A Little Life (2015) starts to pass through the chronic struggle, internally and externally, to resolve mental trauma; to clean his body, belongings and even his memories. After being raped with physical bruises and spasms he goes to the hospital for medical checkup for “post-exposure prophylaxis against HIV” and speaks “the torrent of words” to make believable the violence to everyone he faces not knowing either is nurse or switchboard operator. He even takes a tactic “remained stuck in metallic moments,” he speaks:
I had cried too much already, I had no tears left to offer. If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry. But my eyes seemed now to belong to a stranger. I made a huge effort. I tried to force the tears to come, concentrating on images of Reda, his face, his gun, so that the tears would flow, but there was nothing to be done, the tears wouldn’t come, my efforts were all to no avail, no tears welled up at the corners of my eyes, my eyes stayed resolutely dry, … I turned to other scenes from my life for help. I brought back to mind other painful memories, the saddest and most painful I had, in order to produce some tears. I thought back to hearing the news of Dimitri’s death.
The reader will also be possessed by every word and even every punctuation mark will occupy you. The most absorbing scenes start to appear when he begins to clean the mirror where Reda has observed and even absurdly strives to dissolve Reda’s reflections and shadows inhibited on it, meanwhile, “possessed by an almost maniac energy” he yields that it’s not any object but his own body and existence to be washed out:
I was the problem. I got in the shower; I washed myself once, twice, three times, and so on. I lathered my body with soap, shampoo, conditioner to perfume it as best I could, it was as if his smell were encrusted inside me,
We know the rape thing happens in everywhere around the world but how many we know their feelings, emotions and everything they endure and adapt except pathological reports, legal and judicial hearings and the most popularly journalistic testimonies. As soon as I come to know the first hand narratives of Edouard’s history of violence disclosing shame, humiliations and the chain of sufferings, I slide down into the whirl of befuddlement and fail to decide of which feeling of him I would exclude or skip over from my list of quotations.
There are controversies and mixed reactions to narrative forms like History of Violence where you cannot draw a clear demarcation between fiction and fact, reality and imagination. Many says without aesthetic imagination you cannot define the ideology of literature, but, surprisingly, Edouard Louis believes when finding truth is the only purpose or making change in human despondency and on the map of violence is the only utility of literature then ornamental literature is an obstruction, and l’art pour l’art is a bygone dream.
Like social or political exclusion, Edouard revolts against the literary exclusion by which writers and poets escape our lived realities to make it more appalling and tantalizing. He uses his own life in the first-person narrative view as a literary material like Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knasusgaard uses in My Struggle series (2009-2011) and Seasonal Quartet series (2015-2016); Annie Ernaux in The Years (2017) uses third-person narrative angle with her memories, impressions, archival documents and visuals. Svetlana Alexievich uses “the real testimonies that make a unique literary form. Writing lived realities is very much risky and dangerous that can make furies and cries into the hearts of people involved.
The next door neighbors, old school-friends, accidental acquaintances or the closest persons will confront the author incriminating for defamation of their images and disclosure of silence.
Edouard Louis has acknowledged in public his indebtedness for the sociological and political analysis of Pierre Bourdie and Didier Eribon; he had published, in collaboration with philosopher Geoffroy de Langasnerie, the article “Manifsto for an Intellectual and Political counteroffensive” on the first page of Le Monde imposing the vitality of the redefinition of ethical principle and praxis in politics:
Si l’on veut redéfinir et transformer la scène intellectuelle et politique, il est urgent d’adopter quelques principes éthiques la pensée et l’action.
The mythology of the working class exposes when people get down to status of muteness and the difference from the mainstream then people only survive and not have a chance to live a flourished life that brings the spiral of violence to society. As Toni Morrison brought the voice in Black literature in America; as Teju Cole commented in the essay “Unmournable Bodies “(2015) “that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.”; or as Edouard tries to break the silence of “the compulsive racism” in France:
At the police station I’d given a brief description of Reda, when they asked, and immediately the officer on duty cut me off: “Oh you mean he was an Arab.” He was triumphant, delighted would be an exaggeration, but he did smile
Lorin Stein, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of The Paris Review (2010-2017), is the translator of History of Violence (2018) and subsequent completion of Who Killed My Father (2019), who has been patrolling the fictional world for years restlessly to find the narrative that always speaks the truth and can “settle a troubled conscience”. Like Edouard Louis he also keeps faith in Ken Loach’s maxim, “art should be anything, it should be what imagination produces”. A translator is a surrogate author who goes through the same creative labor and impeccable pressure to make a bridge between two minds, languages and cultures. As Edouard’s real life appears almost fictional and fictions emerges nearly real, Lorin’s quality of translation draws a blur line between linguistic differences and creates a vivid impression down to the original in the French version. It’s a perfect example of oxymoron (blur-vivid) in transfiction.
The tone of the narrative pushes us to feel stranger than Camus’L’Ėtranger(1942) because it depicts our minuet life that we are habituated with that always has been excluded from the ink and letters. The submission of the story is more on pluralism, truth and optimism than Houellebecq’s Soumission(2015).Memory and imagination make the archeology of knowledge and story that governs and binds us to live a life we don’t want to live.
Once you cross over the title you cannot look away, in some parts you will wish to transplant yourself with the characters only to know how it feels to live a life you have never seen at its core or have been ignoring or keeping in the dark shadows.
I was never very interested in politics. Aside from being taught it was not polite to discuss politics in social settings, the subject never genuinely interested me all that much. I never really saw the point in arguing with someone who was unlikely to change his or her political views anyways. That is, until this year. With everything at stake right now, there isn’t much option for someone as interested in human rights and social justice as me to not be actively engaged in politics. There is simply too much at risk right now to not care about the state of the United States political system. So, in an honest attempt to witness and take place in the election this year, I watched the first 2020 presidential debate. I was hoping to glean something about both candidates by watching the debate, an event that even those least involved in politics can watch to get a sense of the political atmosphere and personal beliefs of the two rival candidates and their parties. Unfortunately for my best friend Hannah, (whose plans for the evening involved spending time with me until I cancelled last minute in order to watch the debate) I think I would have been better off spending the evening with her than watching what I personally believe can only be loosely defined as a debate.
I sat in my mom’s room as we watched the debate unfold before us and witnessed it all in horror and shock. How can anyone in the United States right now expect to have a civil political discussion with his or her peers when the top two 2020 presidential candidates can’t? Many have called this most recent presidential debate one of the most embarrassing they have witnessed in their entire lives and I think it is important we unpack why. 2020 has been, for lack of better term, a total and undeniable dumpster fire. As a nation, we have watched our family members die from a novel deadly disease for which there is no current known cure. We have said our last goodbye to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins over facetime. We have isolated ourselves from the world in order to keep ourselves and others safe. We have seen some of the worst police brutality in 21st century America this year. We have seen our brothers and sisters lose their eyesight from being shot by rubber bullets during Black Lives Matter protests. We have seen local businesses shut down because of the pandemic and we have seen family members succumb to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and depression because so many of us were forced to stay inside and avoid human contact for months on end. We have all witnessed ugly, demeaning, and hateful speech on the internet because of rising racial and political tensions. It has been an incredibly tumultuous and taxing year for just about everyone. I think that a lot of us, including myself, were looking to Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump to let us know that, however hard it might be for any one of us right now, they would keep the country together for a brighter future.
However, that is not what the American people got. What we got was a high-school-level battle of insults and interrupting, with President Donald Trump being the executor of several low, personal jabs at Vice President Joe Biden. Though there has been much debate over who “won” the debate, I am inclined to believe that, as upsetting as it was to see Vice President Joe Biden stoop to the level of President Trump on several occasions, President Trump was the initiator of the majority of the bickering that ensued during the debate. Neither candidate let the other speak for what seemed like any appropriate amount of time on any given topic. Several times, Chris Wallace had to yell in order to announce the end of segments and was forced to assign two minutes of uninterrupted (yes, he did have to emphasize that the two minutes would be uninterrupted) speech to each candidate. Watching this all happen, I felt frustrated and sad. Were these two men engaging in petty arguments and name-calling the best America had to offer during the devastating year that was 2020? Was this debate indicative of what the political future of America would look like? After the debate, I spent the next few days thinking about what the nature of the debate meant to the American people. I eventually came to the bitterly dismal conclusion that it meant absolutely nothing.
When I was asked to formulate my reaction to the debate, I thought “How can I think about the debates from the lens of an English Literature major when absolutely nothing was said? What literature was there to react to?” And then it hit me – the interrupting, the name calling, and overall immature behavior on behalf of both presidential candidates was not all that different than what I have been witnessing from my friends and family since April of this year. They had stooped to our level. They had stopped listening to each other for fear that in a battle of pride versus fact, fact would win.
What I personally think most of us can take from watching the first presidential debate of 2020 is that we could all be a bit better about listening to one another. During this unprecedented time of fear and uncertainty, we are all scared. We are scared of what the future holds and what that means to us as average American citizens. And what we need most during this hate-filled, angry, defensive time of heightened emotions is to sit down and talk with each other. If you do not feel like your black brothers and sisters have a reason to feel threatened by police, sit down and ask them why they might feel as though they do. If you do not feel the need to wear a mask in public, sit down with someone who thinks you should, and ask them why they feel that way. Remember that there is no “correct” way to respond to the pandemic, police brutality, looting, rioting, and general violence 2020 has been host to. Remember that you do not control the emotions of others, nor do they control yours. All that is left for us to do as a collective people is to respect that 2020 has been a time of exceptional pain for many Americans – and then talk about it. Ask your friends and family how they are doing. Check in on your coworkers. Respect the cultures and wishes of those different from you. Make sure that in the next coming month, as all of us jointly rush to the polls to make our final decision, you understand that no matter who becomes the next president, we are all in this together. 2021 will be the year of fixing. Of building our lives back up to what they once were. Of making amends. And we cannot successfully build any sort of promising future if we act as the two 2020 presidential candidates did, without regard to what the other had to say. Because we must listen to one another if 2021 will see the reconstruction of a changed (if not a little battered) American society.
On July 18, 1974, Pete Seeger wrote to me: “Dear Dave: Thanks for your letter and the magazine. Please believe me, in a very short while most individuals’ names are forgotten. But the work we do will play a part in the future, for good or bad. And the work that millions of people must now do is to realize that it is they who are important, not a few well known individuals. I hope that you in your writing can make people proud of themselves and help them get off their asses as they will if they would only realize how effective each one of us can be if we want to. Best Wishes, Pete Seeger.” Underneath he wrote, in script, his tag line, “Take it easy, but take it.” Here’s the context: I was the co-editor of my high school history magazine, with Rob Steele (first and last names synonyms), and Rob agreed with my dedicatory desire.
I sent a copy of our magazine, a ragtag issue of mini-essays mostly indicting Nixon, though I wrote a mixed review of the recently released Planet Waves by Bob Dylan for, I now imagine, without a great deal of ballast, some arty cred. It was smart and committed for seventeen year olds, and Pete Seeger’s response—I don’t have a copy of my undoubtedly sincere letter—is a redoubt of his reputation for being a good guy. And, as you might imagine, from my little row house perch in Brooklyn, I was just so pleased that that this icon that I admired politically and musically was encouraging me to write.
In 1974, I had already had experience working in a political campaign. Rob Steele (I’m trying not to say it again) and I were co-managers of canvassing for the McGovern campaign in our Brooklyn district. This says something about our dedication and perspicacity, or the terrible organization of the campaign. There have been moments over the last 45 years when I’ve thought, “how was he supposed to win with a couple of 15 year olds directing his canvassing?” In any case, I went on to work for the campaigns of Bella Abzug and Ramsey Clark, and got into the habit of thinking that throwing my heart into the campaigns of those who were throwing their hats into the ring meant inevitable heartbreak. These were the campaigns of, to use Leonard Cohen’s phrase, “beautiful losers.”
My next directly political foray was working for the Sanctuary organizing committee in Syracuse in 1982-3. It was mostly a group of nuns and me meeting and trying to find a way to use the upstate Catholic churches to give safe have to political refugees from Guatemala and Nicaragua. Anyone remember all that, or has all of this faded into the morass of Reagan hagiography?
I’ve almost forgotten one other early episode: I was a on a ballot slate in the NY primary in 1977, to be an elector to choose the Democratic nominee for State Supreme Court in NY. I won a slot for undoubtedly obscure reasons—perhaps the perverse people in my district thought I was Swifty Lazar, and spent a quiet few hours months later casting an inconsequential vote.
Since then, my direct action has been limited to political donations, a few marches here and there, signing petitions, and spouting off incessantly about a series of mostly fixed betes noirs: the cupidity of the Republican party, the misery of thinly (if at all) disguised racist, misogynist and homophobic indulgences by the seemingly endless dying white patriarchy. You know: that kind of thing. I am, after all, no less a type than any one else: a progressive New York Jew born of familial connections to the labor movement. A quirky type, yes, even perhaps inconsistent, perchance unpredictable if the barometer is swinging wildly, but mostly close to the set of beliefs I had, lo, those many years ago in Brooklyn.
Now, as for Pete Seeger’s admonition about using my writing, and my own consideration of how politics has figured in my work: the result has been rather indirect, I think, but far from absent. I’m tempted to say to I’m not a political writer until I realize that I’m not at all an apolitical writer—far from it. My politics, which is to say my political self is too essential to me, too bound, to ever be too many rooms away from where I’m throwing the children’s hammer down on the walnut of whatever obsession I happen to be chasing in an essay. It makes itself known in almost everything I write, even if what I write doesn’t lead with political questions or ideations. The Rosenbergs, Donald Trump, 911 . . . my indignity at various forms of human indignities make themselves known. But to be fair these are all things that I discuss as part of my thinking-feeling self, not as leading subjects.
One of my favorie essays has always been Orwell’s “Why I Write,” just as Orwell has always been one of the polestars of the essay for me—a bit, I suppose, like saying, “I just adore Bach. He’s one of the best.” In any case, in “Why I Write,” Orwell speaks to his reputation as a political essayist and surprises, as an essayist might, an essayist should, by upending our expected sense of his motives. First he describes his sense of the political, telling us that no book is apolitical, and that he means the word in the widest sense, as the “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after” which can manifest itself in so many ways, in deeply personal writing, in fact. Along with insisting on his rational, committed, getting people of their asses motives (which Orwell, however, took more ambitiously into a desire to change consciousness), he acknowledges, “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”
It is precisely in the ability to combine these impulses, sometimes jarring, but hardly contradictory, that great works are born. Think Baldwin, Hazlitt, Woolf’s Room of One’s Own. One of the reasons I love Orwell is his understanding of what he could never be free of: “I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”
This is one of my favorite passages in the entire essay canon: so clear, self-knowing, resigned to what cannot be changed, what must be. The essay, one comes to almost feel here, is a solid object that can change the world a little through oneself.
I’ve been thinking about collaboration as a means of queering. In writing, collaboration queers the traditional artist-as-precious-genius notion by forcing writers to relinquish creative control while still in the midst of creating. It queers the solitary writing process by exposing our artistic vulnerabilities. It queers the commercial author machine by sharing profit and leaving less room for a promotional cult of personality. It can even queer the almighty “I” on any given page.
I’m currently at work on a collaborative poetry project with Carol Guess about a character named NonMom. Like me, and like Carol, NonMom is queer. Love and sex aren’t structured around binary gender for NonMom. She lives without interest in the heteropatriarchal family structure. She rejects easy categories. Sometimes she refuses a stable identity altogether.
So I’ve also been thinking about what it means to claim that term, queer—andnot just as a verb, which academics (including myself) love to do. I’m talking about a concrete, women-loving woman (to use my own life) kind of queerness. Around the time that Carol and I began this project, I also began to claim queerness for myself in concrete ways, though I hesitated to use the term at first, because it was not a term I’d claimed in the past. When I’d been in straight relationships, I had written about queerness a little—but only in “persona” poems. I’m embarrassed to say this now, afraid of suggesting to you that I was in the closet or simply oblivious. Those notions don’t capture my life in the slightest.
As Carol (who is a frequent collaborator) has pointed out to me, a collaborative poem is a kind of persona poem. The reader knows the “I” is compromised. If needed, the author can hide—but she can also write a role for herself. I didn’t want to hide in NonMom. I wanted to enter into something big and complicated with the support of another queer writer. I wanted to create some of the most confessional poems I’ve ever written by claiming not just queerness in NonMom’s voice, but also her refusal to keep quiet. She’s outspoken about her desires—and her lack of a desire for children, which is embraced in her very name. I, on the other hand, am still learning how to speak up about such things.
A former colleague once spoke to me about an acquaintance who identified as a lesbian but married a man, had a child, then divorced the man and fell in love with a woman. It was just that she made such a big deal about being a lesbian, my colleague explained, and then she wasn’t, and then she was again. It was the swerve that bothered her, apparently—the shift from one lane to another, or perhaps worse: occupying multiple lanes. The question that needled: How could anyone be more than one thing?
In collaboration, voices can meld, but they can also clash in fruitful ways. I often teach collaborative work from literary journals and anthologies (like They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing). One of my favorite collaborative essays to teach is “Pink” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade. I ask my students why it matters that the essay has two authors. Many admit that they didn’t at first notice there were two authors, while others say they knew because one author calls herself “straight” and speaks of an ex-husband, while another calls herself “a proud gay woman”—though it’s not necessarily clear who is speaking at any given moment in the essay. At this point, someone in class typically reminds everyone that who you’re with doesn’t determine your sexuality. Maybe someone else says sexuality can change. A pregnant pause enters the room. Eventually we conclude that although there are two distinct authors, the lines between their identities and experiences intersect and even blur. After that, my students usually create fantastic collaborative essays that use “I” to challenge the very notion of a stable identity.
On the page I am Rochelle and I am NonMom, who is also Carol, who is also I. We travel a loop through the poem, leaving in the center a wide-open space for being.
The Superstition Review blog posts two types of content from past contributors to our magazine, guest posts and Author Talks. Both of these are posted regularly on the blog and are a great way for us to hear authors talk about their writing process and what they have been up to since being featured in the magazine. We now have an easier way for past contributors to submit both guest posts and authors talks to the blog. Both can be submitted by following a link to Submittable, an online submission form found on the front page of our magazine, or by clicking here.