Its Beautiful Not Caring: A Conversation With Poet Sally Ball and Artist Sally Deskins

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

Sally Deskins: First off, of course, thanks for introducing me to Sally Ball and her work! I’m honored and thrilled at the opportunity to have this conversation with her! As well as Nina Cassian’s poem, what an honest delight….

I had never heard of Nina Cassian or “Summer X-Rays.” Before reading the poem in its entirety, my immediate answer to the question “what draws you to the water?” was simply: “peace.”

I thought of my summers spent visiting San Clemente State Beach and Doheny State Beach in Southern California. My mother’s family lived there; each visit was a few weeks of utter respite—the beach to me was a place of peace not only because of its literal tranquil qualities (albeit frigid water itself, sand rough, who can’t resist looking out into nowhere, recognition of your smallness to the vastness, splashing all wild and uninhibited), but because my mother, too, was calm, herself home, back where she was planted.

My first real memory of the beach, was at age three or four, when we just arrived; I was without my swimsuit yet, and immediately undressed to get myself enveloped in the heavenly waves. My mom laughed, smiled, took my picture—something I surely wouldn’t have gotten away with back at home in the Midwest. That photo sat framed in my family’s home for years, which alone I adored, but loathed in front of company—curious, the sense of comfort of nudity in one place, and absolute shame in another. Who wouldn’t choose the former? Why does the latter even matter?

After reading the Cassian poem, I was taken aback—I felt she wrote my experience with the water (which, when I think of “water” I think of the beach—even more specifically, “my” beach in Southern California). The tiny moments, the dread upon leaving, how the beach literally makes you feel humble, content and free no matter whatever else is going on. And savoring that moment, for it’s quick. (This is the inspiration that I’m drawing on for my current series of artwork—my prints are made quickly; I paint various ocean-inspired colors onto my breasts, do a push up, and it ends with a pleasant abstract image embracing this seemingly simple, satisfied feeling.)

I have lived most of my life in the middle of America, far away from the beach water. Still, being born in Oregon, and from my serene summers, I too, feel like being near the water is blissful, home. A few days ago, I moved to the opposite end of the country—near the east coast, I’ve found myself bits closer to the water, but also engulfed in hills, where it seems a trip to the beach—to anywhere—is just out of reach. It isn’t, of course, and this bliss is really simply in my state of mind. Is it possible to have this feeling somewhere else? As they say, “wherever you go, there you are”—then why do I feel so different near the water? And, how can I bring the water feeling to wherever I am?

For, of course, this water I write of, also causes wretched destruction. This is, thankfully and fortunately for me, not what I immediately think of when I think of “water.” Still, it lingers. Which is why I never go out too far . . .

What draws you to the water, Sally B.?

 

Sally Ball: I think it’s both of the things you mention too: I’ve been around the ocean all my life (or all my summers, now that I live most of the year in Arizona, ocean of dust), and I’ve always been drawn to the water’s edge—for the way it makes us small, and for the allure of that vast body when it’s peaceful, the alternate thrill of seeing it chopped up and dangerous. The ocean is so much, so big: you can’t help releasing your sense of being In Charge. My poem “Tributary” is about this; these are the first few stanzas:

 

About the sea we love the combination

comfort and menace, the sense of water

gently holding us, of depths engulfing—

 

we love to be the smallest particle,

germinal, relieved of any prowess

or conviction about prowess,

 

about control. Inside the sea I know

I love the salty shoring up; I love

the way a wave will take my body

 

and cleave the foam with me

as with a post. My almost

running out of air.

 

I’ve just arrived back at the Jersey shore, where Sandy’s destruction dominates the landscape. My mom’s house is still here, but lots of people I know lost everything. Or lost more than they can recover from any time soon. Last night I drove north about two miles, and there was a crew dug into the middle of the main road, in a trench as deep as they were tall, five feet wide and as long as a school bus, lit by klieg lights, that they’d dug in the late afternoon, and which was closed and paved over this morning by 8. AmeriCorps volunteers worked in a friend’s garage all day yesterday. People trade stories about the kindness and muscle of the National Guard, and groups of veterans who appeared right after the storm to help. There is still heaps of debris in people’s yards, vast open spaces where yards and houses used to mark off the landscape square by square. So many trees and plants are gone, washed away, and among what’s left most evergreens are brown and brittle. Teenagers ride their bikes around the detritus (broken clapboard, washing machines, hunks of torn concrete, stuff you can’t tell what it was. . .). Sunday afternoon my kids pulled a florist’s square-sponge base and its glass bowl (wired together, still trailing some sturdy stems) and a leaf blower out of the bay. Someone’s kitchen table, someone’s garage.

So I have been expecting mixed feelings about the water.

Today I went to the beach for the first time (usually I go on Day One: I must’ve been —scared to see it? scared to love it (or not love it?) after all this?) I turned out to be alone; a lot of New Jersey is still in school, making up the days Sandy shut them down. I stood knee deep in the cold water and tried to think about it à la the pathetic fallacy, à la the objective correlative, and it just didn’t work: the water doesn’t care, has no will, etc., etc. Uh duh.

I’m reading Geraldine McCaughrean’s excellent Theseus to my youngest son right now. So as I went in a little deeper, I thought about Poseidon, about Greece’s need to have someone moody to appease.

The water distracted me with its beautiful not caring.

The water rippled past incredibly clear and clean (almost no shells, no seaweed, no fish today, nothing) crisp bubbles and docile crinkled waves. I went out further, dove into it, tasted the salt. The first plausible wave I paddled with, rode without thinking—whoosh. This is my ocean, I thought (like you, “your” beach!), relieved, maternal and daughterly at once—not despite but because of knowing how much itself it is.

Sally, I want to see your paintings! They seem like they would exactly match this it’s mine, it’s utterly itself sort of feeling (not to mention the pleasure of lying down in the sand, which yields a little—quick to relinquish whatever shape we press into it.)

 

SD: First of all, I love “Tributary”; even the excerpt you shared is so lovely to read—“comfort and menace . . .depths engulfing . . .relieved of any prowess”—just perfect! Thank you for sharing that! I hope to read more of your work.

And you are from the Jersey Shore—wow—I cannot imagine what it has been like going there. I really had no idea there was still such destruction and need for rebuilding—disappointing not to read more about it in the media, as I’m sure you are as well. Still, the way you described your solo visit to the water was calming—“the water doesn’t care”—so simple yet so profound actually! I never thought of it that way, but exactly! And, “maternal and daughterly” is, too, right on. I am so honored to read your words!

On the note of my work—I’ll include one or two examples here. I started about a year and a half ago, doing body prints inspired by Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” which I knew of, but when I saw them in person in an exhibit in D.C., I was speechless and had to do it myself—in a feminist way, of course: myself as model, director, and artist.

Anyways, my first series focused on womanhood and body perspective. I used quotes from women I’ve interviewed and various colors of paint—more just expressive and fun.

 

“Objectivity is Myth,” acrylic on canvas, Sally Deskins, 2012

Then, I did a motherhood series exploring my body/sexuality and motherhood roles, which I did body prints and nude drawings along with childhood imagery. One of my pieces, I decided to just print my breasts a number of times for practice on one sheet, and a friend saw it, and said, “hey, you should draw those into monsters or something.” And I thought, hmm, that’s cool, but they kind of look like fish swimming around in a fishbowl. So this was the result, which has been by far my most popular piece—it sold last year in Philadelphia, after being in a few shows and published twice:

 

“Breastfish,” tempera and pencil on paper, Sally Deskins, 2012

 

So, though it wasn’t my favorite, I thought more about what fish meant to me, and a whole series came to fruition—sea life, the blissful fleeting beach feeling, and the ironies/humor of women’s bodies and imagery.

I’ve made over 100 prints to get drawing on, in my new oceanic color scheme. Here’s one that you can kind of see the fish shape already taking shape.

 

Untitled in progress, acrylic on board, Sally Deskins, 2013

 

And one I drew a rainbow fish on.

 

“Rainbow fish,” acrylic and pencil on board, Sally Deskins, 2013

 

I plan on drawing more—octopus, jellyfish, maybe some sharks, seahorses and other types of sea life. I planned them as singular for a commission who requested a series of six single fish—though at this moment, water is taking on a more singular role.

In this apartment complex where we’re living, there is a rather small community pool, which, of course, my kids love. Usually it is packed. None of the kids care, though, still running into each other, jumping in where they almost land on each other, using everyone’s toys, yelling, splashing, etc. It is amazing to me—I hate crowds and would rather (since as long as I can remember) stay inside than go to a shoulder-to-shoulder place (though I prefer cities to countries, not when they’re jammed!). However, this is, to them, bliss. This tiny patch of water, which to me feels so confined, is heavenly to them, no matter how little space—and water they have.

So I guess, with the second part of that question, “how far out do you go?” I would say, just as far as I can go, on my own.

I wonder how your week is shaping up. And how far out you like to go!

 

SB: Sally, wow: the fish! I love them.

Also I love the description of how your work began and how it moved to where you are now—

I’ve been thinking all day about that kind of shift: from willful to fanciful, from shocking to normal (today is goodbye DOMA day). This morning my son Oscar said he was amazed by his own acceptance of the wreckage here. He said, “At first, it was just awful, scary, everywhere you look, OHMYGOD. Now, it’s, like”—shrugging—“you’re used to it, you don’t even notice.” He’s eleven. (So the “you” suggests maybe a little potency remains in the mounds of broken everything.) We talked about the brain for a little while, the way it gets used to stuff, and about Theseus constantly thinking things will be hard that turn out to be easy.

How far out do I like to swim? Far enough to get a little scared. Far enough to feel that cuspy space between home and lost. Less far than before I had kids!

Cassian’s poem is especially moving because her perfect day by the sea occurs despite some darker knowledge: “I know what’s awaiting me—/ the winter of my discontent./ I have a reservation/ outside on a hard bench/ holding a bag of frostbitten potatoes.” Her poem is about recognizing, even claiming, joy in the fleeting moments where it’s possible to feel it. I think her obstacle to joy was the repressive Romanian regime. The water’s edge seems to be where the usual certitudes break down, a site of great paradox (it’s peaceful AND wild; it’s “mine” and it’s NOT; I’m safe here or it’s menacing—); the water’s edge brings us to the edge of ourselves, too. The brink.

Theseus is sent to fight the Minotaur, and he promises his father he’ll sail home with a new white sail if he wins (instead of the black one under which he sets out). In the excitement of his victory (which occurs thanks to crafty-but-oafish Ariadne, whom he ditches at Naxos on the way back to Athens), jolly Theseus forgets to make the switch, and as the ship approaches, his father sees the black sail and jumps miserably (mistakenly) into the rocky sea.

How far out shall we swim? What have we got to lose? What do we need to let go of?

Sally, I don’t know about you but I think these are impossible questions! I also think that’s why coming to the water’s edge is so appealing. Cassian wonders if to live without fear is a trap, but her poem savors its fearlessness. I think we reckon with our fears, with their hold on us, with the possibility of breaking free of them, when we go out into the water. I like to go right to where the waves are breaking, dive down under them, fly up the other side.

(Caveat: yesterday they found an unexploded WW2 British MINE in about a foot of water along the beach near here! And the Navy came and blew it up! I’m not sure I can assimilate worrying about mines into my fears of sharks, riptides, giant storms…)

But I’m over-emphasizing the fear, because the most seductive thing is the opposite of that, the sense of being at one with the universe even if you also know you should be cautious. Do you know this lovely paragraph from a speech JFK gave at the America’s Cup in 1962?

I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.

 

SD: Oh wow, isn’t that exactly right? No, I had not read or heard that excerpt of JFK’s but it’s right on. Funny how you think you’re so alone or special with your thoughts sometimes, and conversations like this make you feel so much less alone and humble. I just love that quote and think I can also utilize it when thinking about my work and the body’s connection to the sea. Thank you!

I cannot believe—or maybe I can—how your 11 year old is now accustomed to being around such destruction. No doubt the experience has opened his eyes and made him tougher than most people can imagine. Yes—I love Cassian’s referral to the knowledge of darkness, too—its like, even when you’re in a great place, you know (or at a certain point in your life perhaps) it won’t last, and/or that bad things/happenings can occur anytime.

Its been raining here in Morgantown today, the pool is locked, the kids walking around the apartment complex with their little umbrellas. My son searching for worms, my daughter hoping not to find any. Rain, too, is comforting, I think, like a renewal, sometimes a forced rest, time to sit and reflect. Also, it causes destruction—I saw on Facebook someone’s whole sunroom was ripped off. This is, obviously, very small compared to what you have witnessed in New Jersey.

Though still, just like JFK said, just like the sea, rain makes us feel human—alive and connected. Being an Oregonian, rain never bothers me—in high school for one year, I woke up at 5am to go swimming at the pool in town every morning. One morning it was a terrible rainstorm, and a tree had fallen on the road—I couldn’t see it and drove right over it. Didn’t hurt my little Hyundai. After the sun came out and I finished my laps and went outside, I saw the flooded parking lots, school had been canceled; my road was blocked off for the destruction. Woops! Oh well, I got home after all. . . .

I’m feeling more at home here every day and thanks to this conversation, more excited about this series of work—the wet paint on my body, a connection to feeling it in the ocean or rain, and the quick imprints, the fleeting calm moments. The drawing of fish over them, well, okay, still getting used to that idea. I have such an ego for the “naturalness” of the original prints, it’s still hard to draw over them. But I guess that’s the release, the water’s edge, and my extent to how far I go! Shall I? Or shall I stay in comfort? I don’t know . . . the water doesn’t care, right?

 

SB: The worm search! The umbrellas! And your young self swimming through a major storm. (Louise Glück: “You’ll get what you want. You’ll get your oblivion.” That’s also a water’s-edge poem—) It’s been a real pleasure talking with you about all of this. I’m lingering with the fish question: your attachment to the naturalness sans-fish, and the imposed clarity of the sketches on top of the abstractions. How important is it to know how the painting was made? More important with the fish than without them?

Here’s part of another favorite poem, from Louise Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries, the opening of “Night”:

 

The cold remote islands

And the blue estuaries

Where what breathes, breathes

The restless wind of the inlets,

And what drinks, drinks

The incoming tide

 

I think I’m winding up here because the poem suggests that the water’s edge makes demands on us. There’s a kind of reckoning that happens there, shaking us out of ourselves and into the world.

 

SD: I just love these quotes and excerpts you’re sharing! You raise a good question, the importance of how the painting was made . . . with or without the fish . . . I don’t know. For some reason, though, I just thought of a totally irrelevant quote I remember seeing on T-shirts in the 1980s: a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. . . . Ha! Maybe I should make them into fish on bikes…hmm, I suppose what I have to do, is just breathe, drink in . . . and start! Now, back into the rain puddles . . .

 

 

Sally Ball is the author of two collections of poems, Wreck Me and Annus Mirabilis. She’s the associate director of Four Way Books and teaches in the MFA Program at Arizona State University. Her website is saralouiseball.com.

 

Sally Deskins is a writer and artist who examines the female body and identity in her work. She keeps a journal on women in all forms of art, Les Femmes Folles, and lives with her husband and two young children in Morgantown, West Virginia. See more of her work at sallydeskins.tumblr.com.

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Its Beautiful Not Caring: A Conversation With Poet Sally Ball and Artist Sally Deskins

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

AMINA CAIN: My mother tells me that when I was two years old, she couldn’t keep me from the water. She would set me down on the beach and before she knew it, I was in the waves trying to go further than a two year old should. I had very few fears as a child and I loved the water, as many children do. I love it still. I am always trying to decide which I like best—ocean, river, or lake—but I can’t. The ocean is immense, yes, but you can float down a river for a very long time, and in a cold climate a lake’s waves freeze in winter. Today, on the first day of summer, I think I would choose to swim in a river. The Yuba, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I like to think that I’m willing to swim to the ends of the earth, but the truth is that I have a relationship to fear now. There are ways in which I block myself. But there are also ways in which I feel free. I am freest in summer, more myself. I think water has something to do with that. Water is healthy; swimming is healthy. Cassian writes: “I’m still able to recognize a perfect day.”

Is it bragging to say that I think I know what swimming far out feels like? I have felt it in my movements, and in my relationships with other people (I love how far you can go with another person) and myself (I love how far you can go with yourself), and in my writing. To temper this are the ways in which I have been very held back. I think that those moments of going far into something made me a writer, or at least they take up the same space as my writing. It may be that I write partly to be in that space. It is one way to get there. I am probably slightly addicted to it, to heightened experiences (this is what swimming far out is often like for me). But I am also made happy by the simplest of things.

Veronica, I just finished your new novel, The Sad Passions, and the sense for me of reading it was almost total immersion. I think you are able to show what swimming far out is like, swimming out with one’s fears. Feeling them and swimming anyway. Being set in front of the ocean. The water is there, so the question is not do I swim, or how far, but, what is swimming like? What will I encounter “inside the sea’s immense green”? And the sisters’ (and mother’s) voices/chapters do become like waves; they return and crash upon the narrative.

There’s a passage toward the end of the book—in Julia’s final chapter—that reads: “I know what limitlessness is. It was during that year that I saw it in Claudia. I know what not stopping feels like, what not having an outline is, a boundary, an inside, which ends at the edges. I know what not having edges is. I have seen it, that lack of line.” This is the other side of the coin, the other side of swimming far out into the sea. It’s not a place one can live in all of the time.

 

VERONICA GONZALEZ-PEÑA: I think that I swim because I have to … and I am not brave; I don’t go far out. I respect those primal forces, fire and sea, and I like safety; I like to feel myself in some place of control; I envision myself a coward, a scaredy-cat… this is my vision of myself, though when I step outside myself a bit I know it is not true. I am constantly doing things that would terrify other people – this book for instance, The Sad Passions. But it is not a choice for me; it is not as if I do things because I am brave, or feel heroic. I don’t choose to be these things. I feel myself a coward who does what she does because she must. I am already in the middle of the ocean and I have to swim hard, hard to try to find my way back to land. And I can’t say what drives me, either. I am not someone who does things with a plan in hand. I don’t say, I’m going to write a terribly dark novel, or teach myself a new skill, or go far and wide. I like doing and so I do and do and do, I am making films now too, in addition to my fiction, and working on this collaborative project called Rockypoint through which I make prints with writers and artists, and through which too I ran a reading series in LA.

Right now, I am on the road, sitting in a motel 6 with my cat and my dog. My cat has just gone to the bathroom, and the whole room stinks. I have left a very comfortable life and am moving from LA to NY. Not for a job, not for anything concrete, just because I am compelled to; it is like I have to do it. Like writing. Like all these other things I do. But in actual water, in the ocean, say, I am never one to tempt the waves. I do not go far into it at all. I am afraid of that immense space… the wine dark sea… how it may take me over, bring me down and into itself. I respect primeval forces.

I am listening to the Odyssey on my drive across the sea that is Middle America. Ian McKellen’s recording of it – it is just gorgeous, and of course the ocean, the sea and water are everywhere. People are constantly crying too – the warriors weep all the time, into the ocean itself sometimes, and their blood is everywhere, all that aqueous substance. The wine dark sea of self.

In The Sad Passions, Julia says she is afraid of limitlessness, says she knows what boundarylessness is… her mother is mad, so this is her experience of that space that is not a defined space at all because there is no outline. And that limitlessness which can be such a romantic aspiration for some, for her is a terrifying and tragic reality.

But, Amina, I’ve been looking at I Go To Some Hollow again, with our discussion in mind, and your writing, your stories are so full of water. It is everywhere, from the very first. People going to the water, staring at the water, swimming in it, floating, in pools and rivers and the ocean; it is everywhere. All this water is set up as a kind of counterpoint to fire, and barren land. Can you talk a little about this, both as symbol and in the actuality of these primal forces: the barren land (yesterday I drove through Utah) and the sea. How do those two things play off of each other in your own internal landscape, and then in your writing?

 

AC: I relate to that completely: moving to a place because you just have to, because you are driven towards it. That’s what moving to LA was like for me. I was pulled there, kind of inexplicably. And I knew my time in Chicago was over. Driving across the U.S. is like a kind of ocean. The vastness, but also the weird depths. There is something to sink into in that huge swath of landscape that’s always changing. Sometimes your own self.

Landscape has always been important to me, both physically/psychically in my life, and also in a story. When I write something new I often start with land, or at least a kind of atmosphere, usually a place I want to spend time in somehow, either because I crave or miss it. Maybe I passed through once and I couldn’t stay, didn’t have enough hours. Lately, I’ve been combining landscapes. In the novella I’ve started writing: an imaginary France-Brazil coupled with an imaginary Los Angeles.

When I was a baby, our house burned down. Heat is a purifier. I don’t know how to stop it from being a kind of purification in my fiction too. As with bodies of water, when I go to the spa in winter I can never decide which kind of heat I like best: the dry sauna or the wet one. There is something to the sensation of sweating everything out, but I also like the subtle way dry heat pulls out the toxins. I guess I need both, and when I’m at the spa I take turns with each, several times in a row.

When I drove through Utah, I felt very alive and happy. Maybe I’ll never live in Utah, but some part of me wants to inhabit places like that in my stories. I like when everything seems empty; I like when it’s still warm at night. Something this simple is enough to get me writing. In my stories, I think I just go towards what I need and crave, and this means I take myself to these bodies of water and land.

In your novel, Claudia wanders outside her hotel room in Acapulco, looking for her husband M. and she sees a falling star. At first it’s just Claudia and the sky and her fear. Then the ocean is there, moving in that landscape too. “I stopped and made a wish, though I was very frightened, my heart racing, because I believe you must, you must take a wish that is offered to you. And as soon as I had made my wish I registered the crashing waves, loud, hard, and black and loud as they are on the Pacific. I watched their dark violence play itself out upon the soft white shore . . .” When I read this passage it stuck with me, partly because of how beautifully it describes the complexity of an ocean and what our feelings toward it might be in different kinds of moments, but also because of the way it comes alive in that scene, comes alive in that sentence. When I read your writing and in the times I’ve heard you read it out loud I’m struck by how your sentences gather their power and then by how whole chapters do as well. Do you like sentences? I mean, as writers, I imagine we all like them, but in the same way that the ocean becomes present in the middle of fear and a star filled sky, I find a sentence written by you to bring a thing into existence and then another thing and another all along itself. There is a way to travel not just from one sentence to the next, but right inside one of them. There is a way to swim far out. This is gratifying.

 

VGP: I’m obsessed with sentences. With rhythm, with the way things build. I love repetition, and patterns, and hiding things inside of other things. I can live inside a sentence by Henry James, or one by Sebald, or Josef Skvorecky who wrote this incredible novella full of unbelievable sentences, Emoke, or HD (who writes about fire beautifully). Or Flaubert, the way his sentences can negate themselves with one semi colon. Nabokov writes about this in his Lectures on Literature. The way one of his sentences will build and build through clauses; and then a semi-colon and the negating clause which undoes all that went before. It is perverse, almost, and I like that sort of thing… the way that Jean Rhys makes things happen in her sentences too, the dense poetry of them. They do get very complicated sometimes, my sentences, I love layering so I can lose control of them sometimes, and then I have to double back and make them work. This can take a long, long time, but that is what I find gratifying, to use your term – that wrestling with language that ends up giving you something. I like it so much I want to give it to my reader, that gift, a sentence you have to untangle, the pleasure and sense of satisfaction you get from something like that… For me it is all about sentences, not words necessarily. I’ll sacrifice a word for a sentence – I won’t sacrifice a sentence for anything else, not for a paragraph, not for plot, not for character. I work toward making as perfect a sentence as I can; I don’t struggle for the perfect word in the same way. But we’re all so different. I’m sure there are people wanting to kill me over that statement, how stupid, they must think. But I chalk it up to difference, and to pleasure. Sentences are my pleasure. And a series of good sentences, when the rhythm builds to a pitch – that is just beyond…

But Amina, I want to talk to you about the floating sensibility of your characters who are so often there and not there at once – this I associate with water, the ocean mainly, as it is so symbolic a body of water, huge and unknowable, like our very selves. Your characters are often trying to feel or make themselves felt, as if floating on the surface of life. Sometimes they say this directly, express it, their need to be felt, their need to feel; it is as if they don’t quite know they are there at all, like a dream. It is almost as if through the meticulous narration – because your narration is slow and careful and meticulous –  they are trying to explain themselves to themselves. Sometimes the stories have a  dream logic, as in Black Wings where a pilot is suddenly present in an important role, as interlocutor (I imagine him wearing his pilot hat, his pilot’s coat). Other times the stories exist more fully in that dream world, as in Homesteading; yet other times they inhabit our logic, but still feel floaty and somehow slow and surreal – like being in deep water. How do you do this? I keep trying to figure it out. It is not any one element, and, as I said, your narration and attention to detail are meticulous, so how do you achieve that sense of swimming which feels like suspension in water, deeply pleasurable, but so untethered we might float away at any moment?

 

AC: That makes sense to me, that you find such enjoyment in sentences and in the way they build upon each other through rhythm to a pitch. I know I mentioned to you that after hearing you read last month here in L.A. for your book launch, well, I didn’t really want it to end. I felt pitched into something, something not easy to come down from, like when I’ve just watched a film and then it’s hard to walk out of the theater afterwards, into the actual day, or night. The same with reading The Sad Passions. When I finished it, I missed it. I had gotten used to going into the landscape of it, everyday, and also the landscape of those sentences. Interestingly, right now, writing back and forth with you, having this conversation, is affecting my own sentences! I realize I am at times going further into them myself.

It’s fascinating to me what different writers gravitate to in their work. I have always thought that though I’m a writer, it’s not language I’m drawn to when I’m working on my stories—more than that, it’s image. Sometimes fictional situation. And always atmosphere/setting. Plot has never been important to me. Character, I’m not sure, but certainly the relationships between characters. And definitely narrative and voice. So much can be carried in the voice, a swimming out. I think that when plot is not the thing holding a fictional work together then other kinds of scaffolding can emerge, perhaps dreamlike. I don’t plan anything out either, relying instead on my subconscious. That’s probably where some of the floating sensibility comes from. I write to see what is inside my mind—a bit like meditation. But I think in Creature, which will be coming out in the fall, I have been trying to get closer to feeling, and closer to closeness itself, and to understanding another, instead of that distance I have so often mined. Not that one is better than the other, just that these kinds of proximities are important to me right now.

I have to say: I very much want to see the film you just made!

 

VGP: I’m glad you appreciate that sense of rhythmic space I create within my writing – or work to create, anyway. I want the reader to feel submerged in the musicality of the book, to feel so deeply in it that it is as if they must come up for air sometimes. To feel as if they are swimming in it. The films are not as weighty. I made the first one as a relief from the book, which had been so solitary and deep and intense, and so I wanted to work collaboratively, which was a joy. The film is visually poetic, and slow, though it is narrative too, and hopefully it is moving; but it is not of the same deeply immersive intensity as my writing. Sylvere Lotringer plays my daughter’s grandfather in it! This I love. The title comes from something he says to her character about death: Death is like a shadow…. I’m making a new one now, with Michael Silverblatt; and Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti are in it too. It’s about a young poet Michael is concerned about, and a young poet plays that part; I’m not really interested in working with actors, but rather in making things happen with the people who are a part of my life, my sphere of interest. I want you to see the completed one! We’ll do that.

It is clear that atmosphere is your main concern. It is amazing, really, how you are able to create it in such a minimal/minimalist way. There is a sense of indirectness between characters and situations, and although your characters work hard to explain things to themselves, they never quite get at things – this is part of this sense of atmosphere, I think, the living inside a space that is thick and weighty and as I’ve repeatedly said, dream-like, that they seem to not be able to move out of, even through their meticulous attention to detail, and language, and careful attentiveness to each other. We sense they are working toward an intimacy that is at one remove from them. They have affairs that aren’t satisfying, friends they love deeply but can’t tell, the children, even, seem careful in these stories. And we are never quite sure why this is, even though they try to tell us, try to tell themselves to us, and it feels almost as if all these things they do in the world are part of the telling, in the service of the telling that will come. In And Went Inside the narrator tells us, Often I imagine things too soon. Sometimes I begin while the thing is still happening.

I’m in NY now, in my new apartment, and of course I am still thinking about the Odyssey. When Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he still has many tests he must endure. He knows this going in, the gods tell him it will be this way. He enters Ithaca a liar; he has to obfuscate the facts in order to save himself. And then for many books he is constantly lying, even to Penelope, and Telemachus, telling stories about himself to others through the voices he takes on, I believe he is still alive, he tells both his wife and his son at different moments, referring to himself in the third person. I think this is something all storytellers share – a telling of the self through the stories we tell, and of course I don’t mean this directly, as autobiography, but something deeper, more decentered and thus more deeply moving. What are you telling us about story telling through your work, and about yourself as a teller of stories?

 

AC: Regarding Death is like a shadow, I really like the idea of working not with actors, but with the people who are already significant in your life. My good friend Laida Lertxundi, also a filmmaker, does something similar. Sometimes she drives out to a space—like the desert—and part of shooting the film, I think, is spending time with the people who are with her there in that specific space. They are making a film, but they are also having an experience together, inhabiting something, and that experience comes into the work very strongly. Laida’s films are not driven by narrative, but they are in relationship to it, and I’m always interested in how one can be in proximity with something without going through the front door of it, if that makes sense. Connecting this back to writing: a story with a relationship to character, for instance, without centering the story there.

I like the way Odysseus refers to himself in third person. I believe he is still alive. If anything, I think of storytelling as a way to get close to experience. Can I somehow let the reader swim out into that space too? There are things that have affected my life so profoundly that I think I have wanted to be near them again, either because of how pleasurable they were, or painful; either way, I have wanted to share them. I have wanted to be in conversation.

What kind of storyteller are you?

 

VGP: A lost storyteller, always searching. I feel I am always lost, like I don’t know things I should and so I tell to figure those things out, or to at least attempt to approach. I am always searching. And this can be hard for others… I am always pushing further, asking questions, too many questions, and I am sure that sometimes I am just too much…

 

AC: I’m glad for that answer, Veronica, for how honest it is. I think I’m trying to figure things out too. Thank you for having this conversation with me.

 

Amina Cain is the author of I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009) and the forthcoming CREATURE (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013). She is also a curator, most notably for the literature/performance/video festivals Both Sides and The Center at the MAK Center/Schindler House in Los Angeles (with Teresa Carmody) and When Does It or You Begin? Memory as Innovation at Links Hall in Chicago (with Jennifer Karmin). She lives in California.

Veronica Gonzalez-Peña is the author of twin time: or, how death befell me, which won the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize in 2007. She is also the founder of Rockypoint Press, which produces a series of artist-writer collaborations. Her new novel, The Sad Passions, will be out June 2013, on semtiotext(e).

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

Swimming the Blank Page: A Conversation with Jessica Soffer and Liz Moore

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

JESSICA SOFFER: I’ve never lived in a landlocked state. Couldn’t. I’ve realized that over and over when I’ve spent time elsewhere. In New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado. I think that has everything to do with being a water baby. My mother dipped me into the ocean in Eastern Long Island very soon after I was born. And my best memories are of summer, of staying in the saltwater until she had to beg me to come out, have something to eat, go home, it was getting dark. When I was young, I think I was drawn to the water because it had everything to do with feeling strong, challenging the waves, and so on. Now I’m drawn to it because it makes me feel small, puts things in perspective, shows me all that I cannot control even if I tried.

 

LIZ MOORE: I was just talking to somebody about why human beings are so calmed by the water. Is it what you say–that it makes us feel smaller, or cradled by something? Is it something about the rhythm of waves? Whatever it is, I feel it too, and I need it more and more as I get older.

My favorite water is a lake, not an ocean–the lake in the Adirondacks on which my grandmother’s house sits. That house has become our family’s second home, and we spend lots of weekends there in the summer, and weeks when we’re lucky. Everything is slowed down when we go there. It’s where I feel closest to being religious. Once, in New York City, I caught a whiff of something that smelled like those trees and that lake and I almost cried. I’m very sentimental about it.

Cassian uses swimming out into the water as a metaphor for pushing your limits as a writer. Do you think it’s a good analogy?

 

JS: Writing metaphors in general scare me. Something happens when people talk about writing in such a figurative way that makes me twitchy. Like, I remember that I should be pushing my limits. Or I should think of writing like driving with headlights. Or. Or. Or. And it sends me into a fit of humility, paralyzes me for as long as I obsess about what I’m not doing, or doing wrong.

I think that every time I write, it’s sort of all I can do–to do it, to do it how I do it. And so on. Not that it’s a struggle, but that something of the magic is lost when you think too much about it. You need freedom. And writing metaphors bind me to my insecurities. And binding and writing don’t mix.

You’re less twitchy. How do you feel about the metaphor?

 

LM: I just re-read the entire poem and now I’m reassessing my initial interpretation of it–I’m not sure Cassian is really writing about writing in this poem (though I guess all writers are always, in a way, writing about writing), but I’ll go with what I mistakenly said, since Freud would tell me I should.

I actually think swimming farther and farther out into the water is a pretty good description of how I feel when I’m writing. For one thing, it conjures an image of a necessary distance from life. Cassian writes about her view: “Far away on the shore: / children shouting, / dogs with golden rings / circling their muzzles, / and rumors of abandoned memories.” That’s great. That’s how I feel when I’m writing well: like I can see everything going on around me with some writerly distance, as if it’s already on the page, as if it’s framed. For another, swimming farther and farther out implies a risk of drowning. When I push myself to go farther and farther out, I always fear failure–but on the other side of that teetering feeling is sometimes my best work. And finally the aloneness of being far out there, that feels like writing too; the sense that one has to distance oneself from others to get to the truth. I am most at home when I’m alone.

Do you think all writers are introverts at heart, even the seemingly extroverted ones?

 

JS: I hear what you’re saying about the teetering. Totally. There’s something about the proximity of failure that has everything to do with that freedom I mentioned/the opposite of anxiety. And I rely on it. I do. But it’s the overthinking that does me in. If I were to imagine that poetic water every day, I wouldn’t be able to compose a thing. Not a thing.

That said, I once wrote a story about saving someone from drowning. It wasn’t subtle enough–but I think writers are plagued by fears of that big open space (wanting to save themselves, or others from it). The blank page–and then maybe the world, its judgments, how much it might be willing to give or not give on any particular day. Maybe I think of the swimming as having as much to do with the process as with the significance of the process, the bigger process. The writer’s life.

As for your extrovert/introvert question: I don’t know if I well enough understand the definitions of either to respond intelligently. (Though I was surprised when the Myers-Briggs test told me that I was an introvert. Again and again and again. I took it five times–and not in close succession–to be sure.) I think what all writers must be is comfortable in their own minds–maybe equally comfortable in a crowd and talking boisterously about their minds–but really comfortable there. Because that’s where everything happens. I think some writers dwell there, some writers can’t leave there, some writers catapult from there at exactly 10am after day after a solid two hours of writing. But what they must believe in, deeply, dogmatically, is going inside, to the interior. They must need it and be motivated by it. Does that make them introverts? Let’s ask Myers. Or Briggs.

Until then, would you mind if we do some imagining (aka being introverts for a second…)? What would your ideal writing space look like? Would it smell like the water, have a view of the water, have a large water cooler or water feature with watertchotchkes?

 

LM: How far-fetched can we get? My ideal space has no internet or cell phone service. To compensate, it has a huge enormous library with old-fashioned but up-to-date World Book encyclopedias. It has a lot of coffee- and tea-making stuff. It has a large supply of recorded instrumental music of various types. It has a kitchen stocked for cooking (which is the best thing to do after a good day of writing). It has friends in other rooms who emerge at the end of the day. To eat the cooking. Yes, there’s a view of the water. But there are no other houses or roads in sight.

 

JS: As long as I can be one of those friends in another room, I don’t find the idea far-fetched at all. I find it brilliant, and necessary.

 

Liz Moore is the author of the novels The Words of Every Song (Broadway Books, 2007) and Heft (W.W. Norton, 2012), along with works of short fiction and creative nonfiction that have been published in print and online in venues such as The New York Times, Tin House, Narrative Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal. She is also a professor of writing at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, where she lives. Her third novel is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.

 

Jessica Soffer is a graduate of the MFA program at Hunter, where she was a Hertog Fellow and a recipient of the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize. A founding editor of The Tottenville Review, she has been published in Granta. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of an Iraqi-Jewish painter and sculptor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1948. Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is her first book.

 

 

Swimming the Blank Page: A Conversation with Jessica Soffer and Liz Moore