Evelyn Reilly in Conversation with Andy Fitch

Interview by Andy Fitch

This interview discusses Evelyn Reily’s Apocalypso (Roof Books, 2012).

FITCH: Could we start with the apocalypse then get to the calypso—hopefully the Trinidadian historical context for calypso? First, to what extent do this book’s fraught references to climate memory, to finding oneself awash in premonition, to wholesale legislative abandonment, provide explicit reference to the present moment?

REILLY: I do consider these explicit references to our historical and cultural moment. I’ve tried to convey a communal mental landscape I think we all inhabit. The apocalyptic imagination has become such a part of us, as people alive right now, although the language we use to describe it necessarily draws from inherited models. So I wanted to play with some of those models and probe what uses this kind of imagination and idiom can have in the present.

FITCH: Your opening quote from The Material Sciences Division states, in part: “Materials that we cannot now imagine will form the basis of devices and applications in a future about which we can now only dream.” Here the apocalypse could seem less literally apocalyptic—positioning epistemic limits along a historical trajectory of progressive paradigmatic shifts. Though later we find references to the Book of Revelations, to end times, to Bruegel. And then the conflation of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” with Harold and the Purple Crayon demonstrates your virtuoso ability to move between alternate subject positions on an impending crisis. Again, to what extent do you seek to advance an ambiguous, abstracted concept of apocalypse, as inherited, let’s say, from the Romantics? To what extent do you wish to enhance our efforts at imagining this specific environmental collapse before it exists as a full-blown material reality?

REILLY: I doubt I can claim so grand an ambition. I wish I could. That Material Sciences Division quote, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, struck me because it still appears on their website and sounds so undilutedly optimistic. I’m not anti-technology or anti-science (positions which seem a waste of time), but do believe that our status as animals harnessing potent technologies presents huge problems. And of course, through feedback loops, technology structures our brains, and our brains structure it. I wanted to explore that process. But the relation between apocalypse and calypso became important—because for whatever crazy reasons we continue writing this stuff. I think we still need to embed ourselves in the joy of art, even when that art addresses potential disaster. So I hoped even for this grief-stricken book to stay tethered to that notion of music, of joy. I don’t have any deep knowledge of calypso music or Caribbean culture. I wish I did, but can’t pretend to. I did attempt to signal, from an ecopoetic point of view, that somehow human work, human art, still has to emerge from our animal joy in being alive.

FITCH: You mentioned the desire to convey or address a communal mental landscape. Does that mental landscape itself provide a technology you wish to harness? Could we develop more constructive forms of envisioning futuristic scenarios, rather than overcoming ourselves with a constrictive, worrisome passivity?

REILLY: I consider language one of our basic human technologies, one means by which we engage our environment. Our shaping of language has a strong impact on how we live with others (in the largest, trans-species notion of others). And I retain some…I couldn’t call it optimism, but I wish to inhabit this space of not knowing how things will turn out—of developing language as much as all our other technologies to see where they can take us.

FITCH: From what I understand, calypso initially functioned as a highly politicized form of lyric, even a respected news source. By comparison, how do the light, effortless-seeming sequences throughout your book correspond to the heaviness of that “real emergency / beneath the emergencies”? Do you deliberately deploy elided structures for more argumentative ends?

REILLY: Interesting. I think those structures came from that desire to stay tethered to pleasure, even while presenting an ominous landscape. And in the long poem “Apocalypso” I let myself do something I hadn’t in the past—embrace some traditional poetic rhythms and a more lyric sound. That poem’s quite easy to read aloud, though much of my work has not been. Depictions of animal life and even beauty flowed into my apocalypse, which helps explain why I gave that concluding poem the full title “Apocalypso: A Comedy.” I don’t know if I could have finished this book, quite honestly, without allowing in these positive elements.

FITCH: In terms of the forms you adopt, the broader rhythmic patterns, I also appreciate the occasional aphoristic brevity, those passages possessing the air of the non-sequitur. “Powdery Flowers” makes compact, elegant use of the page with entries such as “So many bodies setting off detectors // this is the meek and the lame.” I wondered if such concision…can a line-break, an aphorism, construct its own mini-apocalypse? Do the localized disruptions throughout anticipate, emulate, contemplate apocalypse?

REILLY: When I wrote the “Powdery Flowers” section, from the long poem “Nature Futurism,” I hadn’t yet written “Apocalypso: A Comedy,” which doesn’t invalidate your point at all. But because I’ve tended to write quite densely, with “Nature Futurism” I wanted to explore a more minimalist form—to see what would happen. Like I’ve said this book addresses grief, but not so much personal grief, as communal grief. Here I wanted to ask, what would it mean for me to channel such grief through a kind of radical minimalism, as many fellow poets have done?

FITCH: With their elegies for instance?

REILLY: Some elegies (although I don’t consider that a form marked by minimalism), but also other examples of grief-stricken poetry. I didn’t plan to assemble a personal project. Yet regarding that specific “Powdery Flowers” section: one of my brothers is a Vietnam veteran and an amputee, and when you walk through airport security with him, he has to step off to the side or he’ll set off the detectors. And so, for me, that little page you quoted acknowledges him, which doesn’t matter for the reader, really.

FITCH: One last question related to minimalist depictions of grief: do you distinguish here between grief for what already has happened and grief for things to come? Does this book position itself more forcefully in either direction, and does the minimalism help shape that trajectory?

REILLY: Again, I think it helped me to go minimalist for a while but then let myself return to the maximal. And in terms of past grief, I think that the more you live, the more that you absorb of history, the more you understand how easy it is for terrible events to happen. So that awareness of the past shapes my sense of our future.

FITCH: I’m dumb on Walter Benjamin, but his conception of history as the wreckage from all past exploitations, from all these desperate utopian efforts that failed, seems to provide a related form of extra-weary optimism.

REILLY: Well I make my living in the museum world, working mostly on history exhibitions. And most of these exhibits depict some staggering catastrophe. I don’t need Walter Benjamin for my sense of that. But I recently read some Benjamin after Angela Hume wrote about my work in relation to his notion of emergency. “Apocalypso” quotes one line she pointed out to me, about “the real state of emergency.”

FITCH: Your work experience makes me think of you as coming to poetry from a broader scientific/curatorial context—bringing with it a multi-faceted perspective on political, historical, environmental concerns. Could you describe how these professional endeavors inform your poetics?

REILLY: Sure. I first got a degree in zoology and planned to become a scientist. But I just couldn’t give up my broader interests. Still I worked as a research assistant for many years to support my start as a writer. Just by accident I fell into a position at this design firm that creates exhibits for museums. For a long time now I’ve worked with curators, helping them write for the public, and have found myself placed in between the worlds of curation, architecture and design. I’ve never received an academic literary education. I’m self-taught in that way—which has plusses and minuses. Now I mainly work on history and cultural-historical exhibits. I soon will finish a project on Russian Jewish history in Moscow. Again this probably sharpens my tragic sense of history. You just can’t get away from it.

FITCH: Does curation attune you to proactive modes of engaging your reader? Independent of developing individual scenes, does it shape your approach to providing broader contexts or sites of engagement? Does it present a productive vantage for designing a book that probes our limited abilities to imagine ecological disaster?

REILLY: I have no idea. Because when I write these books I feel a bit like a crazy person. I think, who in the world would want to read this stuff? It always amazes me if I have readers. And of course the museum world demands clear, concise presentations for the public—whereas poetry often calls for the opposite, which I do find a relief. Still this life around design and architecture has given me a preference for finding basic compositional structures into which I then let a lot of variation enter.

FITCH: “Dreamquest Malware” deliberately integrates faux-architectural language into its idiom. Can you discuss the role that François Blançiak’s work plays in this piece’s composition? More generally: could you describe your methods of appropriating discourse from architecture and other disciplines (fiction as well)?

REILLY: I’ve learned much from poets who productively adopt alternative vocabularies. Judith Goldman and Kristin Prevallet and Lisa Robertson, for example, often generate work from non-poetic sources. The Blançiak offered a more fleeting source, though I felt obliged to credit him. He produced this fey, wonderful little book called Siteless: 1001 Building Forms, presenting impossible structures nobody could build. For each, he provides this charming little drawing and a wonderful title. That helped me get going. But Battlestar Galactica had a much bigger impact on the Dreamquest series. I suddenly thought I could channel the experience of an engineer off on a distant planet. The whole genre of dystopic sci-fi colors this book—that shift from a 1960s Star Trek optimism (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”) to a sense of ourselves as exiles from a destroyed Earth, searching for some kind of home.

FITCH: What about the parts of “Apocalypso: A Comedy” that you describe as “events”? From what circumstances do these pieces derive? They almost feel like field work.

REILLY: I guess this book’s long, elastic poems just allowed for the insertion of various materials. So twice I thought, I’ll share here one of my favorite poems, from Technicians of the Sacred, that early Rothenberg ethnopoetics anthology. I’ve hung these two on my wall forever. And he calls them “events,” so I wanted to honor that. Again this didn’t shape my poems so much as fit in with them—not that I believe in originality anyway. We all just channel each other.

FITCH: We tend to think of events as emergent phenomena, so it interested me here to consider Rothenberg’s “event” as a re-emergent phenomenon, one that comes back—posing questions of whether its recurrence becomes a different type of event, whether anything ever really could return.

REILLY: That sounds appropriate, because for these particular “events” I think Rothenberg transcribed an Australian Aboriginal ritual and one from Papua New Guinea, both of which seem to emphasize recurrence rather than occurrence.

FITCH: Well this brings back questions about the temporality of your own book. Do you think of it as future-oriented? As retrospective? Does it take place on a personal timeline, or according to some broader global/human/ecological measure?

REILLY: I’ve thought about this. I don’t think I’ve ever achieved it, by the way, but I’ve explicitly thought, what would it look like to write from the vantage point of geologic time, or astronomical space? Perhaps the science person in me always wants to frame things within these largest natural structures. I bothered to get a science degree because evolutionary theory seemed so amazingly liberating. So how in poetry can one suddenly telescope out to a totally different timeframe? The idea of attempting that does give me some pleasure. Christopher Dewdney wrote a book which describes a kind of erotics of geological time and place, as one model.

FITCH: In terms of the design work you do, again questions of scale seem quite important. That’s why I’d asked about your minimalist structures and syntax. How can we scale a book to direct its reader towards broader, more historically-oriented, more future-oriented thoughts? Apocalypso creates space for this type of readerly reflection, and scale seems to help with that.

REILLY: Those minimalist pieces do seem less controlled, presenting an ambiguous space, whereas “Apocalypso’s” quasi-narrative flow feels shaped more by the writer. Then Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” offered another alternative—especially its vision of a very, very contemporary devastated landscape. That poem engages doubt about everything. Roland arrives at this tower, and the tower’s just a wreck too. He doesn’t do anything with it. So one poem in my book, titled “The Whatever Epic,” picks up on Browning’s language. Apocalypso as a whole issomething of an anti-epic.

FITCH: Anti-epic because no sweeping trajectory could tie it all together? Or given the triumphalist tone of most epics?

REILLY: I guess the end to the notion of “progress” has been with us 125 or 150 years by now—the end of this human hubris about our cosmic quest as the chosen species. I hope to keep constructing some new sense of shared humanity (and animality), of common goals, common trajectories. I don’t understand anything about allegory, but Eileen Myles wrote about allegory for Apocalypso’s back cover,and when I read that I thought, really? Still she felt strongly about it and that made me reconsider this form that might seem dated to us.

FITCH: Eileen’s Bush-era opera Hell works well that way.

REILLY: She also mentions Tarkovsky. She and I both became obsessed with Tarkovsky, who directed some very dystopic anti-epic films like Stalker, in which his characters tramp through this amazing polluted landscape, in 1972 or something. Or Solaris. And I think Hollywood, too, keeps making dystopic futuristic films because most of us inhabit that imaginative space. Perhaps they speak to the fearful part of us that we try hard to repress. But we need to show it, to see it, because we still face it.

This interview was originally published in 60 Morning Talk (Ugly Duckling Press, 2014).

Transcribed by Maia Spotts.