In a writing community that values discretion and alternative values; that holds dear its celebrated war history, all the while making very good use of words like “hierarchy” and “slippage,” “low art” and “high art,” and concepts like appropriation, post modernism, and minimalism; a community so interested in gender, what does it mean for a person to be—waste? For a writing to be—waste?
I learned these terms from this community. I grew from this community. It was very beautiful: New York, Iowa, Providence, and then back to New York. Colorado in between. Real friendships; real writing. It was dazzling: for as Cixous says, “the ideal or the dream would be to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates” and, at their best, all alternative communities aim for this, whether they are identity-based or self selected.
From a letter I wrote to Kate Zambreno in 2010:
“Inside and outside of value the sustainability that subsists often past (or pre) survival.”
We say lots of utopic things all the time.
We have to believe in this because we didn’t believe in that.
And yet Giorgio Agamben’s ancient forest in which the bare life, the non-sacrificial, the waste products of community run—hunted in banality—could be in any part of writing. Open the book and there is the forest. There is no fire, no sacrifice because no one wants to see their own book burn. We all know this is what they did—the bad guys in one big pyre—without an ounce of the sacred. And yet, who runs at the edges of our books? What people? What non-people? To whom are we not giving space? What is it that is okay to kill in ourselves?
I have always been interested in the absence in presence
In Raul Hillsberg’s famous conflation of perpetrator victim bystander
In the belief that we are never as powerful as when we know we are powerless
In my text The Devastation, an allegorical book, I wrote explicitly thinking that even in the violence enacted by community from within, there is a lyricism. There is a lyricism that dies. Hands outstretched, body still. And in this dying, other things are created as the world refuses to lose. There is an event: The Devastation. There is no more water, no more language as language was once water. Very quickly or very slowly: depending on how you look at it (many people have died as the water capsized into itself, or they died shortly afterwards of thirst, bodily or spiritual, or you could say they choked on their too-much-ness). Very soon afterwards a refugee society is set up. The survivors wander in non-meaning, their bodies ironically flooded in water that won’t come out, dying of their own inner terrariums, so many things growing, as in Russia in the abandoned structures, as in Chernobyl to cover the stench. But these unseen terrariums are beautiful too: they wander speechless, searching for the water they hold—contaminated in their bodies—as they have become the only devalued currency left in a world of waste. When the water comes back as all things do, it is shallow, of course, shallow in both senses of the word. It is no longer the utopia, the white room, the swarming golden ocean. The fluidity has died. I know that I am not really explaining this. I do not know how to talk about it outside of the book, which is a problem of community as well, I think. A violent sheen covering so much. The space of the book and of the non-book held barricaded away.
In The Devastation, there are a group of people, The Namers, who take advantage of the black market. They are savvy enough to know that the water will come back and, thus, language—which will have a black market value beyond that of existence. They know that whoever has the most water will have the most language-value later. They move around in gesture—in shallow language—trying to convince people to part with their skin, to give up their water, inside, to die for the chance to exhume their insides and rest. Blood echoers: book sustainers.
The Namers could be bad poets. Not bad because untalented or lazy—these things do not exist, perhaps—but because they do not even care. They barter in waste, quickly anticipate the gold conversions, subsume the absence of other people. They could be us: liberal people. They are over-aware. They are good with language even in its absence, knowing that absence and presence are the same. But are they?
In this society, there is no loss.
Nothing can die because nothing can live; everything can be replaced.
I was interested in plain language, impoverished speech, in language that did not do anything, that had no surface value, no currency outside of itself. I wrote my book by moving toward waste instead of away from it, at looking closely at the language debris. The failure, the ambivalence, the someday charted: bad life. In that which did not carry. As it was, the utopia that had created this sea-wreck. The sea capsized into itself. Desire running resplendent unchecked in a community that did not value rules, limits, or morals, that had done away with some bad ones. In the same way that all utopias unchecked create incorporated waste removal systems. We are here because the natives are not etc. You do not even have to look so far.
And how is it that writing can stand the threat of contamination if it lets itself touch waste?
How can it not be waste, how can it tolerate ambivalence?
What are we covering over when we speak?
What does slippage allow in content, for instance, content often divorced from form? Or, at least, unacknowledged this way: and appropriation, the end of some sum, a non-linear account of what happened? What are the relations of these terms to plagiarism, envy, destruction, racism, sexism, careerism, the workshop, etc.; the dissolving of boundaries; the space before writing a greater, more deliberate erasure that ensures the fortification of the whole; the community as it stands and stands full; the progression of the death of an author? I am not arguing against the use of these terms, just thinking about the drives—like aggression—that often propel them without acknowledgement or marked cost.
The Lovers who are the heroes of my book have also survived. They are no better than The Namers, they are just the same—potentially. It is just that they have survived together. They reach and they recoil, pulling the debris off each other. It is not love because there is no word for love. They move further and further away from the community, knowing that they are limiting their chance at survival. They refuse the shallow language; they resolve to live at the limit of nonmeaning even as it means no future. Although the word is not used, and they would not be able to understand it or say it, the lovers literally embody the sacred. They are the gold leaf paper squares of the Tibetans and the screams of the mad saints. They are the young writer, male or female, trans or traded, who believes with all in themselves: in writing as desire, as love object, as another way of life. Even when they can’t seem to grasp the book. It is not about god.
When I was writing the book, it helped me that Clarice Lispector took a whole book to move toward ambivalence, to eat a cockroach, to become less than nothing.
The Lovers survive the book but do not get to swim. It is a great gamble. They save their possibility through nothingness. They know that if they give up their water, it is over. Even as it has also ceased to carry meaning. But to do this, they have to reject language itself, reject love for its possibility. For all those carriers of water, blinking their eyes, trying to speak. If there is a fire, the lives of the lovers mean it will commemorate the sacrifice. All those who have died.
I pick up the ash from this book and use it to make the next Chasm at the precise moment it falls to dust.
But want to come back to you. And to us.
So how can we as community face ambivalence, in ourselves, in the other people—in the mirrors—in time. What recourses are needed to do this, to stay with nothingness and also latency as it builds? What is finally most beautiful in each person? The coming to be. In larger writing communities, how can we do this for ourselves? To want the other writer to live. To know that they will someday die. To value their death right now, to give them space for the fire and the water and the flickering light bordered in silt. To believe in the suffocating but strident liberating value of each one.
To not want to kill them in writing before they die.
I think of Vanessa Place’s work that commemorates a kind of violence on violence in all writing, of Juliana Spahr’s new work that I saw last week in New York that uses iambic pentameter to speak about the struggle of the occupy movement—not large gestures, not new gestures, but the going back and forth, the carrying on as in Beckett, as in transparency—the futility of it all—but also because of this the value unnamed.
What is at stake then is this great desire—we all have to be named.
I am very grateful to Bhanu Kapil and Michelle Naka Pierce for making the space for us to speak about this often unspeakable subject in and out of language. And also: to Teresa Carmody, Brian Evenson, and Bhanu herself who helped in thinking about this week. But I also want to say that, in working on this symposium, I felt both repelled—by the violence I felt that I was putting out in this community/writing, just by speaking it—and desirous, at once, of the opposite track: to say something nice—as pleasure—is community’s definite strong suit.
I can say my next book is for the community with love. But I still do not know how to give it, and so, in lieu of the something nice, this unformed gesture: very empty.