Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Another Tongue I Don’t Know:
An interview with Jessica Bozek

          in another tongue I don’t know
          in this (one) grow goodbye (“Exhib. 2A”)

Jessica Bozek is the author of The Bodyfeel Lexicon (Switchback, 2009), as well as a handful of chapbooks, including the brand new Touristing (Dusie) and Other People’s Emergencies (Hive), as well as the forthcoming Dear Darkest Sky: Postcards (Dancing Girl). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tends a puppy, teaches writing and literature at Boston University and the New England Institute of Art, and runs the Small Animal Project Reading Series.

GL: I’d like to begin by citing your publisher’s synopsis of The Bodyfeel Lexicon because I think it provides a lucid, detailed introduction to your rich and complex book:
In this elusive debut collection, Jessica Bozek presents a system of moving parts, of animal lunges, and sudden lootings—documents epistolary and fragmented that form, re-form, and deform language. Staged as a fiction via the paratextual sleight of its introduction, The Bodyfeel Lexicon chronicles and catalogues transformation as a way of evading and understanding bodies and selves. Readers might register the shuttlings of the book’s interlocutors as playful linguistic performances of the animal transformations they devise for each other. The Bodyfeel Lexicon flies at several altitudes, the demarcations of which threaten dissolution at every turn.
Your publishers credit you with executing a “paratextual sleight,” which sounds delightfully transgressive, at the beginning of the book. They are referring, here, to the prefatory prose piece called “The Peary Assemblage: On the Remnant Correspondence and Ephemera of an Unidentified Wolf and Leon Szklar.” This piece ‘explains’ how the speaker discovered the letters—which were written by the stars of the book, Wolf and Leon Szklar—in the North American tundra. “The Peary Assemblage” seems to riff the narrative framing devices of great nineteenth-century novels, such as Frankenstein and, much later, The Turn of the Screw. These traditional paratexts usually qualify and contextualize the proceeding narrative, and thereby give readers license to cross over into a new and fabulous realm. Does “The Peary Assemblage…” clarify the impending mysteries of the text by making the book seem more habitable and/or inviting to the reader, as with the above nineteenth-century examples? Or do you see this piece as exemplifying the ensuing ironies and difficulties of the book? For example, the speaker of “The Peary Assemblage” tells us that even the most ‘diligent’ reader will never learn Wolf’s last name (a Nabokovian taunt?), and that Leon Szklar died in a tragic hot-air balloon accident! So: Is ‘The Peary Assemblage’ a literary welcome mat, or a sign telling the reader to beware?

JB: Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Greg. I’d say it’s a bit of both. Most of the letter-poems (those in the sections A Hot-Air Balloon Is Quieter, Slower and The Sequence Between Molars) were written in a fiction workshop that I contributed prose poems to. Some people in the class were frustrated by the lack of traditional narrative (this was a fiction workshop, after all), so I wrote an early version of the prefatory essay to address their concerns about accessibility. And I agreed with them that a brief lay of the land might in fact be helpful, though at that point only about a third of the book existed, and I knew I didn’t want to be too straightforward about the thing.

Because I was already interested in epistolary novels, and had written a (probably very bad) thesis on the eerie connections between Denis Diderot’s The Nun and Nabokov’s Lolita, paratextual sleights, by way of destabilized texts and the epistolary, were on the brain. The other text I was thinking about was Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, which not only provided a compelling and discomfiting introduction to the verse-epistle (in fact, I think I read poems from The Master Letters long before I read anything classical or Cavalier), but also proved the impetus for the earliest poems in The Bodyfeel Lexicon, the letters between Wolf and Leo. I actually wrote a creative response to Brock-Broido’s language and sense of emergency as an appendix to another grad-school paper.

More than Brock-Broido’s elaborately wrought contrivances, which parade language as a teratological specimen, I was drawn to her polyvocal inhabitations and abandonments, her restless flights from one (animate or inanimate) role to the next in various settings. And what struck me as crucial to The Master Letters, the slipperiness of its personae, was akin to what I had found simultaneously attractive and disturbing in Diderot’s and Nabokov’s novels—a devastatingly gripping narrative undermined by way of paratextual appendage (in the case of The Nun by the “Préface-Annexe” that follows the young nun’s memoir and in the case of Lolita by John Ray, Jr.’s “Foreword” to Humbert Humbert’s confession). In short, I liked the way the books’ self-conscious scaffolding compelled me to read against habit.

GL: A lot of novelists will sketch their characters for quite some time before they even begin to write their stories. Did you spend time sketching Wolf and Szklar before you started writing the poems? Or did you discover them all at once?

JB: There’s a poem in Brock-Broido’s most recent book, Trouble in Mind, called “Dire Wolf.” That title stuck with me, as did the poem’s last lines: “But in the great white rendezvous, where // I was brooding / Just a while, you get to speak of dire love.” The first letter I wrote began, “Dear Dire Wolf.” That poem doesn’t exist anymore, but it created a way into a poem I’d long (vaguely) imagined—a response to Matthea Harvey’s stunning series “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters to His Love” by the woman Selous writes to in the poem. In the poem, Selous accuses his love of having “handwriting [that] is pretty only a bit cramped it has the look / of someone stuck in a living room surrounded by knick-knacks / and patterned wallpaper which you are.” I photocopied that poem and made lots of people read it, even people who weren’t that into poetry. One friend dreamed that Selous’s love was angry at his accusations and at his desertion. Instead of convincing him to come home, she decided to go out and have her own adventure, but one opposite to his. In the dream, she thought that the opposite of Rhodesia must be Alaska and that instead of hunting animals, which Selous details in the poem, she would be hunted by men and “taken on a plough.” I was really envious of this dream (even while I wasn’t completely comfortable with its content). I’d spent so much time with Harvey’s poem that I really wished that I’d been the one to dream a response to it. So, in a sense, I used the paper on Brock-Broido as an excuse to respond.

Something else that was floating around in my head at the same time was a snippet from W. G. Sebald’s Unrecounted. The following poem accompanies a lithograph of Jérémy Seltz’s eyes (all of the lithographs are of eyes, and I have no idea who Jérémy Seltz is/was):

          In deepest sleep

          a Polish mechanic
          came and for a
          thousand silver dollars made me
          a new perfectly
          functioning head

I was drawn to this idea of reinvention, especially reinvention in the wake of some unspoken (and probably cumulative) damage, which I think we all have to differing degrees, whether or not we’re willing to talk about it. So, this poem, like “Dire Wolf” and “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters to His Love,” exists as a ghost text (though, now, a not-so-secret ghost text).

GL:: The ‘relationship’ between Wolf and Szklar takes shape around absence. Absence between lovers and/or intimates can of course be oppressive, trying, give rise to despair, etc, but Wolf and Szklar seem to use this absence as an opportunity: they take advantage of their linguistic/epistolary space to construct and deconstruct themselves (as individuals and as ‘a couple’) in fascinating ways. Now, on the one hand, erotic/romantic language can be deeply private, since people often speak a specialized dialect with loved ones. On the other hand, romance and intimacy demands, at times, complete sincerity, stark openness. How did you navigate these conflicting impulses? Do you think Wolf and Szklar achieve greater intimacy by sharing poetic and mysterious language with each other? Are they more in love with language than with each other?

JB: I’ve spent so much time away (maybe a third of my adult life in other countries), so extremes—of communication, of friendship, of intimacy—are familiar territory. The first time I ever went abroad, I went to Russia for a semester. Before that, I’d hardly been out of Massachusetts, and never anywhere besides the East Coast. I had time on my hands in Russia (also, it was winter) and I was lonely, which is not to say bored—I was forever going to plays I couldn’t really understand, to museums, to the ballet because I liked watching the dancers wilt. It’s just that, even doing all of that (plus going to school, drinking tea with my host parents, and reading George Eliot novels), I still had hours alone in my room with my notebooks and my chocolate.

So, I wrote letters and postcards home, almost desperately. I made envelopes from Russian cereal boxes and milk containers and candy wrappers. I sent these off (sometimes three a day to my boyfriend), and some of them arrived in the States a few weeks later, some long after I’d returned, and some probably never at all. I received letters, but the chronology was often messed up, and this disorder and lack of context entertained me more than it annoyed me.

Then, years later, when I was living in Spain, I started to think about how much we’re willing to reveal in letters and emails, often much more than we do in person. I also realized that there were levels of intimacy—written-intimacy and in-person-intimacy—and that these could sometimes not match up. Like when you get to know someone through writing and then spend time with that person, it can be a little awkward, because you have all this knowledge of the person, but don’t quite know how to behave in-person.

So, with The Bodyfeel Lexicon, I think that I was half-consciously trying to make sense of correspondence as a stand-in for, but also unmediated form of, communication. Sometimes it is just about the language (superficial play as flirtation and dare) and sometimes it’s about the intimate space language can enable for Wolf and Leo, a space they haven’t allowed themselves to access without words.

GL:: The book’s “Appendices” feature a poetic glossary of sorts, titled “A Bodyfeel Lexicon.” The Lexicon offers a number of playful and cryptic definitions for terms either immediately or distantly related to the preceding drama between Wolf and Szklar. Here, we even get a definition for the book’s title (almost): bodyfeel n. Pathol. The exploration of one being by another as wound. Which is sad, since this definition makes amorous contact with the beloved seem like a lot of pain and misery. Is this definition somehow an ars poetica for the book as a whole? And to what extent are the definitions of ‘A Bodyfeel Lexicon” conversant with Wolf and Szklar’s missives?

JB:: I think you’re right about the ars poetica. To me, these poems came out of my predicament of often being far from loved ones, of needing to write letters to feel closer to them, but also of feeling like what isn’t immediate grows even more distant (though Facebook may be changing that—or exacerbating it, I’m not sure).

That definition you mention, by the way, I lifted from Barthes’s Camera Lucida, one of my favorite books. Barthes says of his interest in photography, “I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think.” He specifies two elements that must be present in a photograph for him to be interested: studium, or “application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity,” and punctum, or “sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” In my own experience, I’ve seldom been more painfully aware of my own bodyfeel as when I’ve been away from everything (but especially everyone and the one) familiar.

Regarding “A Bodyfeel Lexicon” itself, this appendix I intended to operate as a piece unto itself, not unlike Marianne Moore’s Index for Observations or Stacy Doris’s index for Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, both of which make an argument for paratext as text. The fun of Doris’s index is less the realization that Robertson’s dense and wide-ranging essays on Vancouver accommodate both “primal shack-envy” and “pronoun caked in doubt,” and more the juxtapositions of such deeply strange word clusters. Both Doris’s and Moore’s subject indices resemble reference texts and suggest the principle of access to a unified whole. Like a telephone book, the index represents a totality, but an arbitrary one—alphabetical by last name, rather than by neighborhood or street. Yet, the index’s decomposition of the text-proper becomes a form of recomposition, of regrouping by letter. So, the parts stay in motion, shift shape.

The appendix might also be read as an attempt to undercut the suggestion of linearity within the letters, which necessarily act more like montage than they do like collage, since readers moving from front to back encounter the poems in a predetermined sequence. Marisol Limon Martinez’s After You, Dearest Language and Emmanuel Hocquard’s This Story Is Mine: Little Autobiographical Dictionary of Elegy are able to disrupt linearity by way of cross-referenced alphabetical entries, which—in Martinez’s case—contain narratives and evasions of narrative, and—in Hocquard’s case—contain diagrams and theories and red herrings. These fluctuating juxtapositions operate the way I hope The Matchbook Fragments do, but that’s another story.

GL: What other writers or projects influenced your work on The Bodyfeel Lexicon? How have your tastes, reading habits, and fascinations changed since you finished the book?

JB: Aside from the writers I’ve already mentioned, a few visual artists: Joseph Beuys, Ray Johnson, and On Kawara also played a role in my thinking about this book.

The cover of the book is one of Beuys’s “multiples,” a tin-can telephone that I saw on display a few summers ago in the (now sadly closed for renovation) Busch-Reisinger’s wonderful exhibition Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus. Beuys was an expert myth-maker, and I don’t presume to be tapping into that with the cover. But the tin-can telephone seemed somehow appropriate to the makeshift quality of Wolf and Leo’s correspondence (especially relative to The Matchbook Fragments).

And what I was going for in The Matchbook Fragments, or rather in various appendage projects that I executed in Athens, was something (approximately) akin to Johnson’s mail art. Johnson, known as the founder of the New York Correspondence School, began sending intricate collages to friends and acquaintances in the 1950s. Sometimes the addressee was instructed to “add to and return to” Johnson the piece he’d sent; other times the addressee was merely an intermediary instructed to send the piece on to a third person. Johnson created his collages and letters with a specific person or persons in mind. The link between a given piece and its addressee, or the link between intermediary and ultimate addressee, might be oblique, but it always functioned as an affirmation of interpersonal intimacy. Johnson’s coup was to facilitate a system of art that was constantly in flux and thus difficult to catalogue or exhibit. He further destabilized his pieces by way of his methodologies—he used rubber stamps, often cut up old collages to use in new works, and placed no more value on an original work than on a copy, or a copy of a copy, of that work. Furthermore, while Johnson sold many of his collages to galleries for thousands of dollars (often via hilarious, Byzantine pricing schemes—I recommend the documentary How to Draw a Bunny for a glimpse of this), he also gave them away to friends and strangers. And when someone could afford only a portion of his asking price, he simply removed a comparable portion of the work, like he would give them 25% of a collage if they could only pay 25% of his price. At any moment, compositional integrity might be sacrificed to evade any sense of art as sacred.

Then Kawara: for a while in the seventies, Kawara, whose work is obsessed with documenting existence in time, would send his friend telegrams that always said the same thing: “I am still alive.” These telegram were an affirmation that, by the time they were received, affirmed nothing: Kawara could have been dead. But he was telling the recipients that he cared enough to let them know, and that he figured they would care enough to want to know. There’s a compelling vulnerability in this gesture.

When I finished the book, I thought it was too grand, too long. The next project that stuck, a sequence of spare love poems, which moves in the opposite direction (toward the lover), is really different. The poems are short, like the matchbook poems, which were the last poems I wrote for The Bodyfeel Lexicon, which I think were a reaction against what I perceived as the book’s early excesses (early in the composition process, not necessarily early in the current sequence). The new poems are different for me in an additional sense—they came directly out of my experience teaching for a semester in the University of Georgia’s study abroad program in the Costa Rican cloud forest. What a way to end my MFA.

In terms of reading habits, they haven’t generally changed. I’m still reading work by writers who tend to be published by small presses and still going to readings where it’s normal for me to not have heard of at least one of the two or three readers.

GL: I’d like you to tell me about the poem you want to write but haven’t been able to write quite yet. Could you describe the poem you aspire to write that is perhaps still out of reach?

JB: That’s a tough question, because when I try to conceptualize before writing, the result is most often stunted or dead. I usually think about ideas only after I’ve written and as I’m trying to trace my preoccupations in a given draft (and draft is probably generous). So, while I like to be at work on a family of poems (when I’m not, I feel a bit at sea), I’ve come to understand that ideas won’t get me where I want to be. It’s only once I’m already working on something that ideas help.

GL: What pleases you about contemporary poetry? What displeases you about it? And how does Jessica Bozek help solve what’s wrong with contemporary poetry ☺?

JB: One thing that really excites me about contemporary poetry is that the lines of communication seem more open than ever—there are so many small presses, online journals, reading series, poetry blogs, publishing collectives—in short, so many ways to find out about and become immersed in what’s going on.

I was recently at a roundtable discussion at Harvard, on the state of contemporary poetry. The moderator kept returning the discussion to the idea of poetry and tradition (i.e., how are contemporary poets influenced by older poets?), but what I really wanted to hear was the participants talk about how contemporary poets are being influenced by their contemporaries (since that’s who we’re able to read more easily today). Tradition is always relevant, of course, but I think it’s less relevant now than it has been in the past, when writers would almost certainly have been reading the same things in school. Maybe the part of me that hasn’t had a coherent education (which might be a suspect thing anyway) wanted to see my distracted reading habits, my interest in literatures not just US American and British, my sense that some total picture is impossible, validated.

I’m not sure that I have a negative diagnosis about the state of contemporary poetry, but something I love is how easy it is for me to read what other people think about books I’ve just finished. That said, I’m happy to diagnose one of my own failings—namely, the written articulation of my engagements with contemporary writing. Every summer, when I have a bit more time, I say that I’m going to write a review a month, and then I don’t (or I write, at most, one). Maybe this summer I’ll finally do it.

GL: Now that you’re free of Wolf and Szklar, do you miss them? Are you enjoying your freedom? What are writing about now?

JB: I didn’t miss Wolf and Leo at first—in fact, I was uncomfortable with and happy to be rid of them. That’s one reason I wrote The Matchbook Fragments, which began as letters between the characters. But I was tired of them, and their ways of speaking, so I decided to cut them up, to separate their utterances out onto individual matchbooks, which I painstakingly made in the late spring hot of my overgrown Athens house, and then to be even more severe with these words—to remove some and reconstruct a message with the remnants.

But then, as I tried to write after the manuscript was finished, I had a hard time leaving it. I kept writing transport poems, until, finally (a year and a half later), I wrote one called “The Transport Transport,” and I thought, well, this has to be the end of it. And it was.

I mentioned the spare poems earlier—they’re going to be published as a chapbook by Dancing Girl Press at the beginning of next year. And, recently, I’ve been writing poems that look and feel a bit more like the letters in The Bodyfeel Lexicon, which is to say that they’re short prose tales set in an imagined world. At times, they revise or appropriate language from an early nineteenth-century captivity narrative, as well as from news coverage of the war on Iraq. So, they’re much more politically aware. But there are also animals (dogs, birds, beavers), always more animals, it seems.