HER KIND talks to California-based writers Lucy Corin and Rae Gouirand about building, crossing and blowing up the many bridges we encounter, whether in workshop with students in the Midwest or those within we create as “imaginative acts.”
HER KIND: Ladies, welcome to the Conversation. To start, Gloria Anzaldúa once asked in the foreword to the second edition of This Bridge Called My Back: “¿Qué hacer de aquí y cómo?” (“What to do from here and how?”) As a woman and as a writer, what are the bridges you’ve had to cross, burn, and forge? What came of those experiences?
RAE GOUIRAND: I grew up in Pittsburgh, a city of hills and rivers and bridges, and I’ve always thought of bridges just as places where the road gets inventive (maybe because I was assigned more than once in school to build miniature bridges, actual weightbearing ones, out of the material of the day). Sometimes bridges are more precarious than the terrain they pass over. I think of Madeleine L’Engle’s tesseract, and the way poets talk about leaps. Aren’t we all just figuring out how to cross distances, how to keep making the road we’re on? It’s not water under every bridge but in my head I think it kind of is—people are awfully close to water, and sometimes we need a structure to help keep us from just swimming infinitely with ourselves. Or at least limit the movement to the internal part.
For women/writers/women writers, some piece of that involves dealing with not only the ways that the world has asked you not to be a woman, and not to be a writer, but also the specific ways that the world has asked you to be “a woman” and “a writer.” It’s tricky to define one’s own language and one’s own projects when the world one lives in wields language in so many ways that challenge the making of new (crossing, burning, forging) language, and meanings for language. I’ve burned very few bridges in my life, but those I would talk about in those terms were conscious separations from the forces of silence and denial that we’ve all found in the world—it’s not distinct to particular individuals; it moves through history and line and story and takes new shape as needed. I think of form and resistance, of that concept of tensile strength—how much force until a medium breaks. Writer as inventor, as experimental break-er.
The more I think about this question, the trickier I find it to distinguish between crossing, burning, and forging, either as a woman or as a writer. Bridges become part of the place where they are built; they do not remain distinct. We all have points of origin, and points of departure, in our personhoods. We all have things we are trying to do, whether we have language for them or not. My parents expected me to be a boy. I was asked not to become a writer—in several different ways. Moving into the nuances of my version of queerness has been a process involving multiple crossings: learning to live in my body, my mind, my heart, my relationships, my consciousness. Putting writing at the center of my life was a crossing—the work of writing is a site where I belong. Becoming my teaching self was probably the first project that wasn’t first about departing something. Writing has become that, though I imagine it will always be to some degree about leaving.
I wonder if all “creative” work is, by its nature. I hate that word, but use it constantly—I don’t mean virtuous or good or measurably productive. I just mean engaged and constant. I love Anzaldúa’s question. Of course we don’t know.
LUCY CORIN: So, I promise to curve around to your response, Rae, but first I’ll say as soon as I saw the question, I asked you to respond first, and meanwhile I wrote to a scholar friend of mine who loves and works on Anzaldúa to contextualize the quote for me. This is a side-effect of being the version of girl I am. Better study up before I say shit. That is good and also not so good. Don’t want to come off stupid. Don’t want to come off snobby, either. Maybe I’ll just shut up. No I’ll just say anything fuck them etc.
This is related to the way as a child I adopted with no effort at all the male persona of every book I loved starring a boy. I didn’t care one bit. I just did it. It didn’t seem any different from pretending to be Laura in a mud house on the prairie. Only later did I wonder what that had done to me, reading like that, blithely pretending to be boy after boy as if it didn’t matter. Only later did I consider that there might have been a significant difference between imaginative acts. Even raised by a mother who inserted “s”s in front of the “he”s in my baby books, I just thought “I love Long John Silver why would he betray me?! What if I am utterly and profoundly on my own!?” But then again, as in currently, unlike when I was in college, I am not sure there is a clear difference between those imaginative acts. I.e. bridges. The difference is some are between two individuals– me and Jim Carroll– and not even individuals– because I am a real person and for the time I am reading that memoir he is a character who lives in a book that I have in my possession. I have the power in that situation. That is a delicious thing about reading boys. The other situation is cultural, and that changes everything. Either way, bridges are important to me inasmuch as they mean imaginative acts.
Anyhow, everything I know about Gloria Anzaldúa, which might fill a thimble, comes from conversations with my scholar friend Suzanne Bost, but I have never read her myself. I’ve looked at pages of her books and thought, crap I have a lot to study before I can read this book properly. Suzanne said, “This quote is from a ground-breaking anthology of writings by ‘radical women of color,’ most of them lesbians. The bridge metaphor is usually taken as a straightforward model of feminist coalition building across racial lines (excluding white women, at that point), and Anzaldúa also did some interesting things with it later in her life, like thinking about the intellectual/psychic power of being in-between states, the actual pain of communicating with others, and the ways in which bridges divide as they connect. She used to go to bridges to think through changes in her life.” So thank goodness. I’m right. A bridge is any truly imaginative act. So do I burn, cross and forge imaginative acts– by trade! If put these two ideas next to each other: “She used to go to bridges to think through the changes in her life” (from Suzanne, about Anzaldúa) and “Bridges become part of the place where they are built” (from Rae Gouirand.) that seems to describe to me the process of learning, which is what happens when you really try to bridge ideas that come from disparate places. It’s a form of learning, the one that is constructed like metaphor itself. But it’s not the only one. As soon as you valorize connecting, you have to valorize simultaneous incompatible existences, too. (That’s just a writer’s version of the assimilation/separation dynamic).
The other thing I’ll mention here is that there is also a form of bridge burning that might mean strategically not bothering with everything. This may be obvious to everyone but me. A bunch of years ago I remember asking Suzanne if she’d read some book I was reading and she said with only a little irony “Is that by a man? Well then I’m not responsible!”
RG: So how does a girl who studies up before she says shit risk imagining herself as someone who imagines?
I don’t know if I can remember a version of my reader self, at any age, who hasn’t at least temporarily adopted the persona of whoever is speaking or searching through the page. And maybe that has stuck, regardless of whether I’m reading a writer’s voice or a character’s.
I taught a fair number of essays from This Bridge Called My Back the very first time I taught comp. At the time I was pretty focused on this question about how women writers find their way to their use of the “I” voice—and was astounded by my students’ responses. Probably the most empathetic, engaged responses I’ve ever gotten in a comp classroom—and those classrooms were almost entirely white young people from Midwestern, middle-class backgrounds who had for the most part not read much to prepare them to know much at the onset about the content or shape of the work they were being asked to consider. I think about those kids all the time, about how eager they were, for the most part, to express their feelings of connectedness to speaking voices that they might not have imagined themselves to feel kinship with had they not read them. I think about how my ROTC kid in that class asked if he could try writing something in first person for his next paper, and how that was for him a risk of significance, and how embarking upon that project changed everything about how he related to reading. I think teaching has lead me to understand that we’re very different readers when we have a project of our own we’re working on—and I don’t just mean writing, as writers
LC: Ack, teaching. Talk about stomping across a bridge that is actually someone’s back. I feel all the time like I’m living off students’ accumulating debt and increasingly baloney educations. I cannot believe the pressure is on colleges to charge $ to make students employable instead of on funding public k-12 that will make students employable so that once you’re paying for college it’s EXTRA. It’s just insane to me. I have nothing to teach students about being employable. And meanwhile so frustrating that paper-writing is totally alienating to students. I mean, it was to me, too, actually. In college I never did well on a test and I got B’s on papers having no clue what I was even supposed to be trying to do. And yet I wrote in all these other ways and thought and conversed so intensely all along the way. I don’t assign traditional papers anymore. Unless I’m trying to teach someone how to get into graduate school I don’t see the point and there are plenty other classes they can take to learn about writing in that particular form. I mean clarity is really important, being able to say what you mean and hear what is actually being said– but logos is not making a lot of headway out there as a rhetorical strategy from what I can see… I don’t even see it winning out in department meetings among academics, honestly. Anyhow all I want them to do in their writing is to try to make a bridge if you will from words on the page to what they actually think, and then back to how words can help them refine and question what they think or what they think now that they think about it etc. I think that’s what writing is for and all this emphasis on persuasion just brings out the phony in people. Will you explain what you mean by your last line? How reading is different when you have a project of your “own” to work on? And that last phrase “I don’t just mean writing, as writers.” I wonder if it has to do with writing “for yourself” vs. writing as a way to progress professionally in one way or another. Or maybe that’s not what you’re getting at all… boy, am I the curmudgeon in this conversation. I’m going to make an effort to get around to something beautiful ASAP. I hope I’m cracking you up, at least, or making your eyes crinkle mirthily.
RG: I see the distinction you’re making between protagonists and seeing-via-ones but now that I’m trying to think of “ones you’re not supposed to see via” I am getting tangled up in questions about whether there are ones I haven’t felt like were there to see via. But then—I often want to stop reading when the project proves to be persuasive, since there are certain kinds of persuasion that are about the prohibition of sympathy. It makes me fetal too. For whatever reason the giant eye in LOTR comes to mind—do all books have a kind of eye that sees through the story, through the framework, through everything, that is chasing something? Sometimes the writing takes you into protagonist or narrator or I, but doesn’t it sometimes cross through protagonist or narrator or I on its way into and through other things too? Into new places it can see from? Sometimes when reading I feel like the writing itself is what is learning, and that is what a reader witnesses. One of my favorite books is Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red—because sometimes the fruit bowl enters the conversation when no one else will, and because sometimes everyone in the scene gets up to leave and it’s the roasted guinea pig’s eye we’re left to watch watching everyone go—the eye stays, even when there’s no discernible director besides what we could maybe call imagination too though maybe there’s a better word.
So yes, let’s talk about persuasion and people’s backs. I love teaching outside the university system—in community workshops especially, which feels to me like some of the best work in the world, partially because people can come together as equals even if they’re just starting to explore something new—but I’ve never been able to grok the employability purchase either. That doesn’t mean I don’t love some of the things that happen in “the classroom,” and haven’t sometimes felt heartbroken (almost doubly so since I became a teacher because I loved studenthood so dearly, and still do) as the limits of the university system have become clear. I started an essay once, about sympathy and resistance, a few years ago while my 90 comp students were taking their final exam one quarter. That many heads bent at the same angle over the same task—a task I could support only from a certain angle—felt like too tight a corner for something essential to make it through. But it’s impossible when there’s a grade and that’s the currency of the transactions leading to the endpoint. When what you want to teach is about the value of figuring everything out on your own, on or in your own terms. I always leave feeling like I need to be giving more, and requiring more, or other, than fits.
It’s interesting you should bring up the alienation of paperwriting—I was there too, but I remember the day when that shifted for me: it was during the first class I took in undergrad with my major advisor, my junior year, and we were required to go to office hours and talk about our first assignment with him before we could get our papers back. I think in the conversation that he came to understand that what mattered most to me, what my figuring-out was about, was about how to make sentences that communicated more than I already knew how to get them to do. So we talked about the sentences. From that point on, my sentences were what I was working on, and that was the basis of our conversation. That’s what I mean, really, by having a project that belongs to us, or that we belong to. Once I understood, as that version of me, that I cared about sentences more than I cared about the topics I was supposedly studying (although I certainly found those topics relevant, and interesting, and good ways to think about things), I was reading and writing sentences. Does that make sense, Lucy? Earlier I didn’t necessarily mean reading and writing only literally—I meant also that when we have something we’re working on, we tend to find (or notice or identify or connect to) more content in the world around us that can help us experiment or imagine our way forward. I know as a writer though that as soon as I have something specific I’m trying to figure out more about, it means that everything I read offers me new insight about that thing. Everything moves into conversation when I’m working on something. Not reading lands me in a really depressive state of mind.
Logos is losing, yes. Of course it’s critical that we learn to think critically, because it is really fucking scary—I mean it honestly makes me fetal—how bombarded we are by false and abusive logics and how skillfully they make their way into our belief systems and default brains. Some really scary substances look just like water to the eye. I sometimes get lost wondering what I might have misfiled where owing to beliefs I don’t even know I have. Even though I go looking.
Also, I think it’s great that you’re worried that your version of curmudgeon might be unwelcome, because I’m feeling extremely curmudgeonly this week and I totally appreciate the company. Also, you don’t have to try to make something beautiful in order for it to end up being so. You know.
Maybe privacy is a really important word in this conversation.
HER KIND: Rae, you write that “…you don’t have to try to make something beautiful in order for it to end up being so,” which made me think of Lucy’s stories dealing with apocalypses. What draws you, Lucy, to this phenomena? And Rae, what of your own work– have you found at times that it is the beauty of the attempt rather than the result that counts?
LC: Apocalypses! I am much more comfortable with this question! Guess I’d rather blow up a bridge than make one… I guess I make bridges when I read and blow them up when I write. So I was thinking about this the other day when a call came across the VIDA list looking for Utopia stories from women, and I thought, why do I only have apocalypses? I think apocalyptic fantasizing might actually be a way into thinking utopically. Critical thinking is about the capacity to imagine things as other than they are– that is a powerful political act in itself– so what I’m interested in is the multiplicity of ways to re-imagine the world after massive violence (real or imagined), and the way individual and cultural consciousnesses remain intact, seep through, no matter how much is seemingly changed or eradicated. I don’t have any really nuanced ideas about its relationship to my generation or my gender, but I can say I definitely resist the idea of utopia b/c it seems all bunnies and rainbows and that clashes with my sensibilities, which are informed by, among other things a) the super-ironic gen-X nineties (with it the literary prevalence of fat books by white men deconstructing white-man anxieties– some of which books I loved and still love, btw), which I’ve had to respond to as times change and my sense of having to get my ass less provincial, less myopic, is increasingly urgent. And b) my secret desire to be androgynous butch instead of a feminine tomboy or whatever I am. I remember some talk about how post 9-11 required a kind of earnestness that had gone out of fashion previously, and I can see why imagining Utopia would go along with that. I’m interested in the pleasures of apocalyptic thinking, in particular. It’s a way of embracing the delicious darkness of discontent, of registering a cultural critique with a simultaneous self-absorption that I find really human and persistently interesting. You get freaked out about the problems in the world and then you can wipe the slate clean and start over in this totally fascist or as-if-divine-right kind of way. If what you imagine is “dystopic” what’s interesting to me is how simultaneously powerful and self-indulgent that is– I mean what do I do with my love of Mad Max? That love is a deep and real pleasure and it comes from feeling utterly powerless.
RG: Any situation (language project, story, leap into alternate space) that allows us to construct and enact powerlessness can serve as a realization about how many different shapes power can take—and likewise any situation in which we accept slash invite a kind of powerlessness—which is maybe a cousin to the kind of exploration that all writing, critical and creative, feeds, though not entirely the exact same thing—is a position from which the imagination is freed. Which is a position from which we can practice any kind of thinking. What that has to do with beauty (loop!), I think, shows up if we pass back through the tunnel that’s shown up here about privacy. Lucy you used the words ‘secret desire’ and I wonder if there’s not a way that beauty is born out of the ways that things born in privacy, rooted in it, erupt into larger fields of attention—because they always show, one way or another. When we call something beautiful do we mean we see something showing through? Also, I see something here about how tunnels have shown up here in this conversation about bridges.
I wonder if the distinction between attempt and result isn’t a little arbitrary. It might just be work. And I think all work counts, though perhaps not according to a metric that defines beauty (completeness?) a certain way, and perhaps not in those terms at all. Putting oneself to work is itself beautiful. Thinking in slash through forms (forms as one voluntary exercise in restriction, a poet’s version of elected restriction slash powerplay) until they fall apart is something that shows up in an awful number of my poems. I think the primary tension in my first collection of poems is the one between the poems that feel like really full vessels (which, for me, has to do with narrative, with filling a space that language wants to account for) and the ones that feel like vessels that have been pulled apart until they can hold nothing other than an awareness of how all words are capable of emptying out or just becoming space for inquiry. Where beauty comes from—a secret passage somewhere underneath connecting every element?
I was at a talk with Sherman Alexie this morning, and he said (I wrote it down) “I don’t want readers to be like me about my work.” Right? Creative work needs a circuit—it requires others to deal with it from a point of origin that differs from the point of origin of the author. In this sense it can look identical, nay twin, to critical work. There has to be enough internal (maybe private) difference between the ways we reach for the world to allow any of the stuff we’re working on to travel between our brains, in order for us to be able to work with it. Which is funny because I think on the surface we’re often awfully concerned with identifying, aligning our variant points on the map and that being the grounds for hooking in or not, relating or not—but in my experience the real circuitry relies on our differences.
Most of what I’m writing about these days is what happens when conflicting perceptions occupy the same space simultaneously. What it is to be caught there, and how the mind responds. I’m working through questions right now about some of the subtler ways that violence can find a foothold in the wider, freer, and more neutral landscape of conflict—and thinking about how some (I’ll borrow the word) apocalypses can play out within a footprint the size of a keyhole, even within the terrain of individual, freestanding, innocent words. Because the meanings we assign to our words individually reveal lots about where we draw our individual territories. Which is one of the things that really attracts me to poetry (not just in verse, but in all its holds)—the recognition that it grants of just how steep the drop is underneath every single agreed-upon meaning we reach for, and how dependent the wild current of sense that flows through wordwork is on human glue.
I’m left at the end of this thinking about how seemingly identical the silence before speech and the silence after it might appear.
LC: There is an overabundance of the need to agree, align, “relate” in s direct and simplistic way in the culture that drives me bananas, and communication doesn’t work like that. It’s not a line or passageway like a bridge at all. It’s a million things, but it is not a bridge and I think there can be terrible consequences to thinking it should be. So much of what feminism has done is bust the myth of the straight line, and the image of the bridge is a tough one for me to embrace because of that, I think.
“Most of what I’m writing about these days is what happens when conflicting perceptions occupy the same space simultaneously.” Me too, Rae. And quite consciously. Simultaneous incompatible truths is how I am putting it to myself. Formally, a collage that is not fragmented and not multivocal. A way of perceiving wholeness and continuity of experience that is not linear and not singular.
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Lucy Corin is the author of the short story collection The Entire Predicament (Tin House Books) and the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls (FC2). Stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, Tin House Magazine, New Stories From the South: The Year’s Best and other great places. Her next collection of stories Over A Hundred Apocalypses is ready to go. She’s been a fellow at Breadloaf and Sewanee, and she just won the 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize. www.lucycorin.com
Rae Gouirand’s first collection of poetry, Open Winter, was selected by Elaine Equi for the 2011 Bellday Prize for Poetry and is currently a finalist for the Audre Lorde Award, the California Book Award, and the Montaigne Medal. Her poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review,Columbia, The Kenyon Review: KROnline, Seneca Review, jubilat, Spinning Jenny, Bateau, Michigan Quarterly Review, and two recent volumes of the Best New Poets series.
An alumna of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Michigan, Rae has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Santa Fe Art Institute. She serves as Writer-in-Residence for the nation’s only conservancy-sponsored public arts program at Cache Creek Nature Preserve, and works with the literary nonprofit Memoir Journal to facilitate grant-funded workshops for underserved communities nationwide through the (In)Visible Memoirs project. A resident of Davis, California, Rae is currently at work on a second book of poems and a collection of linked essays.