Dorothea Lasky and Julia Guez: On Queenliness, Metaphysics, and Book Tour
In Other Words, Life as a Published Poet in 2020
Dorothea Lasky, author of Animal, and Julia Guez, author of In An Invisible Glass Case Which is Also a Frame, sat down to discuss selflessness and ego in poetry, finding harmony in a poem, and the reality of life as a published poet.
Dorothea Lasky: I wonder if maybe we might start talking about poetry itself and what it means to you during this time that we are living in now. What is the role of poetry for you in 2020? Is its role universal, or has it changed for you in this particular moment in history?
Julia Guez: My father—brown-skinned, blue-eyed, Jewish Gemini born in Tunis almost 75 years ago—emigrated to Paris in 1962. Absent that decision to emigrate (not once, but twice), I would not be here writing to you now. Absent my mother’s decision to devote a year abroad to studying art, education and theater first at the Sorbonne and then at Vincennes, the same is true. I am fascinated by the way they first met, fascinated by the time and place, fascinated by some of the scars that still remain.
Fifty years after the uprising in Paris, May, 1968 (which would precede my birth by about a decade), my father is still able to remember so many things so clearly. Before telling me about his own experience during the height of the rioting, he wants to say a few things about Vietnam and the USSR. He’ll talk about Budapest and Prague and, soon, the Six-Day War in Israel. Then he explains why he wasn’t personally involved in the “manifestations” alongside so many other students, Maoists, Trotskyists, Communists and members of various trade unions.As soon as you get used to a moment in time, you lose it. Quickly. It goes and hides somewhere.
When my father emigrated to Paris, his family came with very little. (“As my family had lost all of its possessions when leaving Tunisia,” he says, “I had to work since age 16 on, after school. Various jobs to survive.”) The plan, then, was “to obtain a degree in business that will open many doors.” To do that, to go to lycée, university and, finally, to enter a grande école, he needed “to become a very serious student.”
To support himself while he was preparing to enter grande école, my father took a job as a “pion” essentially keeping an eye on high school students in between classes, the way an RA would. One afternoon, a group of revolutionaries came to invade the lycée where he was working. They came, in fact, to take over. The lycée’s director asked “pions” to protect the entrance. He told me:
As the revolutionaries pushed and we resisted, one of the glass panels broke. My right hand was cut deeply in the palm. Lots of blood was coming out and I didn’t feel anything. Someone from the school took me to. . . a hospital where I received many ‘points de suture.’
What’s poetry’s role in 2020 then? Has that changed in this particular moment in history?
I think poetry’s role is similar to what it’s always been. I don’t think we’re called to be any more or less engaged than those who have come before us (or those who’ll come after). Bringing something like Paris, May, 1968 down to the level of the hand, palm, blood and “points de suture” was crucial then, and, I think, it’s crucial now.
Bringing something like Paris, May, 1968 down to the level of the hand, palm, blood and “points de suture” was crucial then and, I think, it’s crucial now.
DL: I love thinking about poetry as being contained within the hand. Now, maybe let’s move to your wonderful poems. I’ll start by asking: What poets, ideas, and images were important to you when writing your new book?
JG: Descent to the underworld and, ultimate, ascent again to the land of the living (associated with the so-called hero’s journey: kathodos + anodos = katabasis) is one idea that helped me figure out how to consider mapping my experience with general anaesthesia onto the same structure in a piece called “Katabasis.”
To work my way up to writing something on that scale, Cy Twombly’s work. . . rooms full of color and by that, I mean, wall to wall paintings and collages devoted to Orpheus. . . gave me a sense of what effect to, at least, try for.
DL: In his beautiful blurb for this book, Eduardo Corral wrote: “With great precision, Julia Elizabeth Guez arranges the things of the world into richly imagined tableaux. Guez also beautifully arranges thinking and feeling. Her poems are uncannily tethered to interconnectedness and thresholds. This is a remarkable, keen debut.”
I am fascinated by his use of the word, tableaux. Reading your book, I felt as if I were in spaces that were arranged in particular and particularly sublime configurations. Do you see this book and your poems in general in this way? And if so, how important are objects to you in your writing process?
JG: When you ask about objects’ importance in my writing process, my mind immediately wants to see crystals, vévés or succulents on the table where I work; there’s usually not much there besides a Moleskine and a gourd of mate. Maybe, also, a vaseful of flowers. (Knowing my wife, they will be lilies). Either way, I like the word, tableaux (and I love the way Corral read this collection). I am (obscenely) careful about the way I arrange what I am arranging—Corral names thinking and feeling—in particular configurations or frames.
For the smaller poems (my Vicodin, my winter, my mind in the act of entertaining itself) there’s an attempt at arrangement in the spirit of Cornell (whose cases I saw, first, when I was young—ten, eleven, twelve—at The Menil Collection not far from where I grew up in Houston). I have never not found them (and their economy) magical.
DL: If you had to describe your poetics in 9 words or less, what would they be?
JG: I can’t say good morning in nine words or less.
“A poem has an overpowering love” you say mid-way through a chapter called “The Beast : How Poetry Makes Us Human.” This, like so much of what I underlined and asterisked in Animal sounds right and good and true. Made me want to ask about the most recent poem that’s overpowered you (or powered you in just the right way with an overpowering love).
DL: Thank you so much for finding this in the book! I feel like so many poems lately have overpowered me with their love, but one I have been thinking about is this one by Lucille Clifton:
speaking of loss
i began with everything;
parents, two extra fingers
a brother to ruin. i was
a rich girl with no money
in a red dress. how did i come
to sit in this house
wearing a name i never heard
under I was a woman? someone has stolen
my parents and hidden my brother.
my extra fingers are cut away.
i am left with plain hands and
nothing to give you but poems.
Isn’t it so amazing? I just love the whole thing and the twist at the end of the poem to make it all about poetry after all. I love the way she describes loss as a kind of hiding. I often think of both death and growth (or perhaps, some cynical thinkers might see these things as one and the same) as a kind of hiding. Because as soon as you get used to a moment in time, you lose it. Quickly. It goes and hides somewhere. (But where?)
Clifton’s poem has an overpowering love to me because despite all that the persona has lost, which is particular and specific to her particular life and also universal in many ways to the ways in which all humans lose things, she is still ready to give something. I think a lot is made of how poetry (and maybe art in general) can be a narcissistic act and not important to the practical importance of real life (and certainly I’ve made a lot of this notion in my own mind), but I think poets are selfless in so many ways. Despite all the pain they feel from being alive, they always want to translate these feelings and experiences for others, to help future iterations of us feel less alone.One can make a wild puppet, thrust it into nothingness and affect a stranger’s imagination.
JG: Building on William Carlos Williams’s sense that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words” you suggest that what we call a poem is really “a multi-faceted meaning-making machine.” This situates poem as machine, as technology, as a thing. Elsewhere you ask a different question (and open up a different set of possibilities) when you wonder how poetry “connect[s] us to what the animal is, and give[s] us guidance to be of and not of the animal.” To answer this question, you quote Jacques Derrida’s response to the question “What sort of thing is poetry?”
Rolled up in a ball, prickly with spines, vulnerable and dangerous, calculating and ill-adapted (because it makes itself into a ball, sensing the danger on the autoroute, it exposes itself to an accident.) No poem without accident, no poem that does not open itself like a wound, but no poem that is not also just as wounding.
You clarify and extend this definition of poetry when you say “the poem is the thing you run over on the road that is willing to get hit, to open itself up to accident. That which is animal—in this case, a hedgehog—both allows itself to be wounded and also, if necessary, to do the wounding.” This, of course, situates poem as animal, as ferality, as wildness. In another attempt at definition, a third term is introduced (and the first seems to be overridden); by that, I mean you move beyond the thought of poetry as a machine (though you still invoke a sense of there being a dynamic, a system or “order” at play). The term you introduce (in relationship to the animal) is the human being. This turn, I think, is one of many subtle but important turns you take in a book that “mean[s] to distinguish in thinking about poetry what we think of as duende and what isn’t duende” and I want to linger here a second longer as a result. Here’s what you say about a conversation you remember having with a former student:
One day I tried to tell her that in all of us are two beings: an unconscious and a conscious one. They are like an id/animal and an ego/human, but also not. But in the space of writing a poem, they must be in concert. They are like a mouse and a human within a kitchen—in a strange harmony of nature, of nonprecious natural order.
What emerges (in my reading of this exchange) is a movement beyond the previous comparisons of poem to machine, poem to animal, and poem to human being to suggest that poetry is an interplay of all of these things, a “harmony” of them, forming a kind of “order.” That said, I could be reading you wrong here and maybe the title’s there to confirm a particular affinity for the “Wild in poetry, and the idea that poetry is an animal somehow through its wild use of language” even though there is clear openness to many different ways of understanding what a poem’s doing and appetite for them all. Are you partial to any one? Is any single one more central to your own practice?
DL: Thank you for your extremely caring and careful reading here. I love the way you have gone through the progression of these ideas—thank you! I love the way that you say that these poetics might allow for a “clear openness to many different ways of understanding what a poem’s doing and appetite for them all” as I would hope that would be the case, both as a poet, but more importantly, as a reader of poetry and as a teacher.
I think that the idea of harmony is extremely important to the ideas that I wanted to bring forth in Animal, because I do believe that an animalistic way of approaching art making is ideally harmonious with everything it is in the context of. And I wouldn’t ever say that I am against what Williams is saying here, because his work and ideas about poetry are so important to me, but I would say that the idea of poem as machine is a sort of loving foil to what I have been trying to work out in my poems since my first book (and then of course for maybe longer) and what I want to say in Animal. I am most partial, especially in this book and its explanation of my ideas about poetry and my practice, to the poetic idea that one can make a wild puppet, thrust it into nothingness and affect a stranger’s imagination. For me, this is a universal action in concert with a particular experience and takes into account randomness (which I worship) and maybe chaos, too (which I regretfully also worship tentatively) and also our dependence on each other. And also the power of creativity, the thing that I worship most of all.What does it mean to enter a space as a real person after being someone important in others’ imaginations?
JG: You write about the night your husband introduced the idea of intense autobiography with a discussion of Hannah Weiner, Bernadette Mayer and Dorothea Lasky. You wrote about your nervousness and shame to be situated as “part of this history.” You also mentioned nervousness knowing Bernadette Mayer’s son was in the audience that night. “It was like seeing royalty—he was the son of the queen.” You mention so many figures from your personal pantheon in this book. Who else makes you feel this kind of nervousness around them (and/or their offspring)? Who currently fills you with this sense that you’re seeing “royalty”? Let me quickly follow-up that question with another. Are you increasingly aware of nervousness in the rooms you share with other poets and writers? How do you make sense of that, if so? How are you making sense of your being part of so many of our personal pantheons? How, if at all, does that change the way you’re inclined to move through a room / space / conversation as a royal in your own right?
DL: This is such an exciting idea to consider—what does it mean to enter a space as a real person after being someone important in others’ imaginations? I think about this all the time and of course, how prevalent this is as the real world intersects with our lives online. For example, there are accounts and artists I follow on Instagram that if I saw them in real life, I’d faint from seeing someone so royal in my imagination. Of course, poetry and art in general is the original iteration of this idea. Poets live in poems and when you see them in real life it can really affect you, but a celebrity in one’s imagination is the highest celebrity-level one can take probably.
I might turn this question on you: Now with your new book out in the public arena, how do you feel entering a real room knowing people have lived intimately with your words?
JG: When In an Invisible Glass Case Which Is Also a Frame first made its way into the world, I lined up readings in New York, San Francisco, Houston and Boston before officially launching the book where you launched yours (at Powerhouse Arena Books in DUMBO).
I gave forty readings in the fall (which is about how many readings I have given since I began work on the book, ten years ago). From September to December then, every room I walked into, every single one (apart from the occasional gas station where I would stop to refuel) had a copy of my book on one of its surfaces. Uncanny how it felt, almost as if I’d walked into a place twice: Once in the form that would be sitting on the lectern, the desk or the display. And once wearing a pair of Clark’s. In all of those rooms, for as long as I was physically present, it would feel like there were two of me there.
That was the point of the tour, though, or one of them. To make this thing (that had been intensely private for so long) public; to acknowledge that it wasn’t mine anymore, or mine alone. It was yours now, or it was ours.
JG: In the introduction you say:
Poems with a metaphysical I are the kind of poems that I am interested in. I myself write my own poems out of necessity, summoning as much bravado as I can. And maybe I do this because when I started writing poetry my I was a tiny I that I had to blow the root upon myself to become big. Because we all start small. One cell, one poem, one word, one utterance into the dark. The point of it all is to go beyond the beginning, to become something else, whatever that poem may be.
The phrase, “whatever that poem may be” seems to suggest an equivalence between self-making, life- and practice-making with art-and specifically poem-making. I am fascinated by that suggestion. And I am fascinated by the way it echoes a reflection from one of Susan Sontag’s notebooks (collected in Reborn) where she says, “With a little ego-building—such as the fait accompli this journal provides—I shall win through the confidence that I (I) have something to say, that should be said. My ‘I’ is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists.” Now there’s no roaring and not a trace of egotism in what you go on to say to finish out your introduction. There’s a certain suavitas and swagger, though, something that forecasts the Queen Bee conversation you facilitate between Plath and Nicki Minaj, Horace and, later, Lil’ Kim. Before inviting us to begin this book / experience with you, you say, “And maybe the I in my poems is still very small, but I promise you that when I’m gone, my I is going to be as big as this room.”
From there, you invite readers—poets, in particular—to be big, too. And that’s the difference between your queenliness and the queenlinesses you explore in “The Bees.” There’s this invitation to walk the path with you awhile, to get to the same bigness all together, each of us starting where we are (reluctant to stay there very long). And that makes me wonder about the opportunity for a writer to develop his or her or their sense of self alongside the persona he, she or they might be cultivating in their work. It makes me wonder about your sense of Animal’s main audience. And it makes me wonder about the role you see this book playing for that audience.
DL: I love your questions so much for their generosity! I think that you noticing that in the book I want to extend an invitation to “walk the path with you awhile” to the reader is so right. It reminds me of two things. The first is something someone dear to both of us, Lucie Brock-Broido, said to me once (and maybe she said it to you, too?) that the most important thing to show your poetry students is that we are all fellow travelers. When she told me that it seemed so right about how I’d always felt about teaching and the role of the classroom in peoples’ lives. I know that term can have different meanings in other contexts, but the way she spoke of it is the kind of classroom I always want to create. I have always felt that power dynamics (and trips) in a classroom were so distracting (but still sadly prevalent in too many of today’s classrooms), because really the point of all teaching is to show we are all in it together.
Animal is part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series and definitely started out as a book of lectures. I think it still is one, although for a while I’ve thought more about it as a book of essays. Its primary audience I think are fellow poets, who want to think more about poetry, but I hope also that the audience would extend to people who might be interested in some of the cultural and artistic references I make in the book and who then might get more interested in poetry in the meantime. I always am interested in getting people interested in poetry, who might have turned away from poetry at some point in their lives, because someone at some point told them that poetry was “difficult” or “boring” or “not for them.” I want to smash out these ideas because I find them so offensive—because I think poetry is meant for everyone.
Julia Guez is the author of An Invisible Glass Case Which is Also a Frame (Four Way Books). She teaches creative writing at Rutgers and works at Teach For America New York. Guez lives in Brooklyn and online at www.juliaguez.net. (Photo by Wesley Mann.)
Dorothea Lasky is the author of six books, most recently,Animal (Wave Books). She teaches poetry at Columbia University School of the Arts. (Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff.)
In an Invisible Glass Case Which Is Also a Frame by Julia Guez is available now via Four Way Books.