Water, Writing and Submerged Fairground Attractions: Kirsten Tranter talks with Australian authors Lisa Jacobson and Margo Lanagan

HER KIND: Ladies, welcome to the conversation. In her poem “Photo of a Girl on a Beach,” Carmen Gimenez Smith writes: “Try being/a figure in memory. It’s hollow there.//For truth’s sake, I’ll say she was on a beach/and her eyes were closed.//She was bare in the sand, long,/ and the hour took her bit by bit.”

Looking back on your own relationship to the water, how has it influenced your own work?

 

MARGO LANAGAN: I was trying to think what my relationship with water was. Early memories of the Hunter River flooding; we lived over looking some fields that flooded regularly, and it was always a wonder when they disappeared under that sheet of water. Also, we weren’t madly coastal, even though we were near Newcastle. I was quite afraid of the sea until my early teens, when I guess I got strong enough and brave enough to cope with surf. I’m still pretty nervous in the sea. Only just learned to snorkel, which has opened up wonders, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to scuba dive.

 

KIRSTEN TRANTER: So you grew up with the river as a primary reference point for a big body of water rather than the ocean?

 

 

 

ML: Yes, definitely – it was the Hunter River; crossing it on the ferry, ambling around the fields near it, always having it in sight, hearing speedboats buzzing up and down on a Sunday.

 

KT: I admit to sharing your fear of the sea, Margo. I got caught in a rip when I was a kid, and was not a strong swimmer, and it was very scary. Deep water still terrifies me in some primal way. Lisa, I imagine you must be a diver, given how much you write about it in The Sunlit Zone? What’s your relationship to the water?

 

LISA JACOBSON: I love water as an element, although my relationship to the sea is ambivalent. I find that I am frequently writing about it but not naturally drawn to it in that I don’t head off to the beach on long weekends like many Australians do. I did spend many holidays at the small coastal town of Somers, Melbourne, however, with my family. My grandmother had one of those classic holiday houses just across from the beach. My best friend Melinda would always come away with our family on these holidays and the beach was very flat and safe – so we spent many hours on the sand and in the water. This place has always held a kind of enchantment for me, and was firmly in my mind when writing The Sunlit Zone.

Quite some time ago I had a travelling scholarship to visit Israel and write about my Jewish heritage, but I was somehow drawn instead to the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, where I did a scuba diving course. I too am fearful of waves. I often look out to the horizon and imagine a tsunami coming, kind of an intrusive involuntary thought. But the diving course was amazing. Like dipping one’s head into an alternate reality. All that magic going on beneath the surface of the sea, that we are not usually aware of. And it exists!

 

ML: I remember loving the beach and the sea for just a couple of summers when I was 14 or 15; the beach seemed a very romantic, wild place. I liked the idea of the winter beach, and striding up and down that with my hair blowing. But also the summer beach, that can be a damn’ sexy place. 😀

 

KT: It’s interesting that our childhood and adolescent experiences with water are so profound and shaping. There is something fundamentally nostalgic about the beach for me, always.

 

ML: I think, not being a very physical person as I went into teenager-hood, the fact that being in water let you move any way you want, and in secret, was a very powerful thing. Also, the beauty of watching a wave from underneath; diving under it and finding that safe place beneath it, were very powerful impressions.

 

KT: I was thinking about this question and wondering if there’s something about growing up in Australia that establishes a certain relationship to water and the ocean in particular – the sense of being on an island, surrounded by water – and also with so much desert in the middle… so much of the Australian population is clustered in coastal cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth. Growing up in Sydney there’s the beaches, so beautiful but with all the beachy culture that goes with it. And the iconic harbour, this piece of water that defines the city but also divides it. It’s an ambivalent relationship, especially for a bookish girl who didn’t really learn to swim; it was a kind of alienation from something that I felt I was supposed to be really connected with, as a proper Aussie. I did have something of an epiphany though when I stayed at Clovelly one summer a few years ago and learned to snorkel, and made friends with the incredible blue groper who lives there. Though there’s that horrible, fear-filled moment of sticking your face in the water and trusting that you will breathe through this plastic tube…

 

LJ: That is so very true. For the first few lessons my instructor was exasperated with me, because I would be breathing underwater through the device (it’s called a regulator), and then I would think, “Oh my goodness I’m breathing. I can’t be breathing, I’m underwater!” and then I would panic and shoot back up to the surface.

 

ML: Snorkelling has been a revelation to me; my partner has done a taster dive and raves about it, and it sounds as if there are even more wonders to be discovered that way. Just…my ears! And all that water above! I already have mild claustrophobia nightmares…

 

LJ: Margo, yes, the beach can be both melancholy and sexy. As my best friend and I grew into teenagers, our experiences of the beach became less childlike and more exploratory with boys. But she was very beachy, lean and tanned. I always felt like the short slightly chubbier friend tagging along. 🙂

Diving can be claustrophobic. You can also get vertigo where the water is very clear, and your brain tricks you into thinking you are in air, not water. Jacques Cousteau writes beautifully about all this in his book The Silent World.

 

ML: But yes, Lisa, that sense of having entered another world is amazing. So many creatures, and so various. And you can just fly around there, like dream-flying.

 

LJ: And as in a dream, you can also go too deep, and just want to keep going deeper and deeper. A bit like Margo’s characters being called into the sea. It’s called nitrogen narcosis.

 

KT: Lisa, there’s a passage in The Sunlit Zone where your protagonist North is stuck underwater trying to save her sister Finn, and she seems to be under there for such a long time, in such an extended, dream-like state – were you thinking of nitrogen narcosis when you wrote it? I thought it also had affinities with the idea of fairyland, a place beneath the normal world where time moves differently.

 

LJ: Actually, I don’t think I was thinking of nitrogen narcosis whilst writing that passage – although I can see why you did. I did, however, stick my face in the sink and inhale water to see what it felt like to drown, sort of. That was an odd and challenging day. And I have always been fascinated by stories about places where time moves differently, such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, and Narnia.

Cousteau’s book with all those salty “men of the sea” and their hefty equipment got me thinking about how we are so unequipped to live in water now, although we originally clambered up its shores so many millions of years ago. Unlike seals, which move so easily through it and in it.

 

KT: Margo’s comments about the sexiness of the beach made me think of the way the beach in The Sunlit Zone is definitely a sexy place, but also very dangerous, and those two things are connected so strongly.

 

ML: I didn’t mean actual sexy. I suppose I meant sensual. I suppose it’s just where, there’s very little between you and nature, and you’re plunging your body into moving surf, then hauling it out and having the sun dry you off, then plunging back in, flinging yourself on the mercy of this big cold creature.

 

KT: Margo, this description helps me understand what might have drawn you to selkies. It’s really interesting to me that you have this ambivalence and claustrophobia about the sea, and yet you were drawn to writing about these creatures.

 

ML: I think I was always pretty envious of seals. They had the breathing thing sewn up, for a start; but also, they were so smooth and fast in the water. Humans could never quite achieve that degree of swimming expertise. Otters the same, of course. (This is visits to the Melbourne Zoo speaking – didn’t see a seal in the wild (or a sea otter!) until very recently.)

 

KT: Margo, can you describe the central elements of the selkie myth for us, and explain how the story that became The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape?

 

ML: I think I always knew the selkie myth; I can’t remember not knowing it, so it must have been a very early story that was read to me, or that I read as a very young child. The main component is that seals change into humans – male or female – they come up on land for the purposes of, I don’t know, just dancing or trying out human bodies. Then humans catch them at this, and in the case of the female selkies, most tales have the observer (male) falling in love with the selkie and immediately needing to prevent her returning to the sea, which he does by stealing her shed sealskin. The male selkies, of course, generally tend to have more self-determination; I don’t recall any versions where women entrap them quite the way men do female selkies. Then there is a romance of some kind. Usually reasonably happy, except that the woman is constantly yearning for the sea. Then at some point the woman accidentally finds her skin, and returns QUICK SMART to the sea. Sometimes she comes back and visits, you know, every Midsummer Eve or something. Sometimes she just goes and leaves her husband and children pining for ever.

 

KT: My impression is that male selkies are seducers of human women.

 

ML: Yes, male selkies are just more active all round. The female selkies’ allure is usually very passive; there seems to be very little intention in their seducing land-men. They’re just irresistibly gorgeous. But as for how The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape: It took shape as a novella first, and that ended up being the “Daniel Mallett” section of the novel, where the hybrid son of a selkie and a land-man organises to get his mother (and eventually all the selkie-mothers in the town, for there are no other women BUT selkies) back into the sea, for her happiness. Then, when it came to turning it into a novel, I poked and prodded at that witch figure, Misskaella (except she was called Messkeletha in the original novella, and I rather wish I’d kept that name for her) to find out what had motivated her to bring forth all these selkie-wives for the men of Rollrock Island, and the rest of the novel came from that search. It really turned into Misskaella’s story in the end, though it had begun as Daniel’s.

All sounds so simple now, when there was in fact a lot of switching and changing and trying-out of points of view and wondering, “What the hell is all this about anyway?” : D

 

KT: You’ve connected so strongly with the element of the stories that is about children, and the way these women are torn between their incredibly strong love for their children and their need for the sea. I like the way Daniel is so much at the center, the hybrid child who acts from deep compassion and love for his mother. This felt reparative to me in relationship to the selkie story, which I’ve always found to be such a tragic sort of myth about the incommensurability of male and female, masculine and feminine.

 

ML: I think the children’s point of view was the most powerful thing about it for me. The blokes who brought the selkies onto the land, they kind of deserved what they got, and they had the wit to know that their wives might leave at any time if they didn’t hide the skins properly. But the poor children, it must have seemed utterly mysterious and awful when their mothers disappeared. So I kind of let Daniel and his fellows have their cake and eat it, spend a bit of time in the sea with their mums and experience that life; know, to an extent, why she chose it over the land life, why she belonged there.

 

KT: Yes, at first the sea and the land seem like utterly separate incommensurable environments – but Daniel and the other boys manage to move between them. Did you also have The Little Mermaid fairytale in mind?

 

ML: Not strongly, no, although certainly there’s something of the mermaid’s pain at being on land that afflicts my selkies. In that story, her misery is much more highlighted than in selkie stories. Generally selkie women suffer silently. And selkie men don’t seem to suffer at all.

 

LJ: I think for me the notion of being drawn “back to the water” has several levels. It is about the way we, like the selkies, yearn to return that state that Daniel in Margo’s novel says was his experience of the sea – utter lack of anxiety, or time and all human things like worry and the general daily challenges of what it is to be human. Also, that we spend 9 months of our lives in amniotic watery fluid. So the sea is a returning of sorts. And then we evolved from the sea, grew feet and clambered up the shore.

 

ML: Lisa, I never thought about Daniel’s spell in the sea as being a return to the womb, but of course!

 

LJ: Yes, I was most struck by the oceanic sense he experienced quite literally in the water. The twins in my novel are in a sense joined – North is a “land girl” and Finn, who is born with fins and gills, is a “water girl”. But when one goes too far from the other, there is a tug, like they are joined in some way. So in a sense we all live on thresholds, those liminal spaces between land and sea. Always returning to the sea and leaving it. The pier is a good example of this, neither in nor out of the water.

 

ML: I think also we’re just set up to yearn. Possibly it’s an evolutionary thing; the yearniest humans get to survive. But all this searching for the perfect placement in the world, the perfect state of being, the trying out of different roles, the disappointment with what we’ve got and what’s easily accessible to us; all that’s going on in this type of story, in the background.

 

KT: I really like this idea of evolution selecting for yearning.

 

ML: “Yearning” may just be a nice way of saying “competitive” : )

 

KT: But makes competition sound so much more poetic! Lisa, Finn struck me as being something like the Little Mermaid or a selkie herself – literally a fish out of water.

 

LJ: I think that for Finn, at least, there is a sense of homecoming in returning to the sea.: For me, seeing goldfish out of water is one of my big phobias! I once came home to find our large fish tank had cracked open and all the fish were lying gasping in the room, some up against the wall, on the carpet, behind the couch. And I had to run around putting them all back in a bucket. It was terrifying!

I love these lines about water, from the American poet Mary Oliver, from her poem “Some Things, Say the Wise Ones”: “But water is a question, so many living things in it, / but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming / generosity, how can they write you out?”

 

ML: Water is a question, I like that. I found it much more of a question before I snorkelled in it; the sea was just this lid, hiding things. Now that I can see some of them, it’s less closed-off from me. But yes, still, swimming in the local pool, in this handy resisting-but-yielding matter, the question arises! And I tend to think it’s living, in itself. But then, I remember even when I was REALLY small, assuming things were living, things like grains of sand, and stones. So I’m just naturally anthropomorphic in my thinking. 😀

 

KT: And/or seeing the world as a writer of fantasy fiction might tend to see it… Lisa, I love all the Mary Oliver lines that you use as epigraphs in The Sunlit Zone – that one about the soft animal of the body is one of my favourites. You also use a marvellous epigraph from Winifred Snow that seemed so right not only for the section it heads, but the whole novel in a way: “The ocean is tonic incarnate for the technological world.”

 

LJ: Yes, Winifred Snow is one of my favourite poets…as I worked deeper into The Sunlit Zone I became more aware of the ecological layer of the work, about how in mid life I stand astride two worlds: the world of fast-paced technology and the slower world of the past. Jack’s slow art of boat-building in the novel (couta boat building is knowledge passed down the generations), the fact he reads “hard copy”, and North’s parents’ resistance to technology and hybrid vegetable crops etc is part of this. I worry about the fast pace of our world, at the same time as I enjoy its benefits, like being able to do a three way skype interview…So the ocean as a tonic is really, for me, about a returning to the natural world that we have become so distracted from, and lost touch with.

 

KT: Lisa, sci-fi/speculative fiction is not a genre often associated with verse so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

 

LJ: Yes people have been asking me if I know of any other verse novels that draw on SF and spec fiction,  and I don’t. I didn’t sit down and think, now I am going to write a verse novel using those genres. But I guess it is an instinctive way to write for me, to blur the line between reality and enchantment. Also, the work usually tells me what kind of animal it wants to be, rather than the other way around.  I had been writing spec fiction short stories before this also.

Because The Sunlit Zone is set in 2050 in Melbourne, I also wanted to create the kind of world in which the reader could easily slide from our present way of living to the future, without feeling the gear change. So iphones become skin fones, real whales are now cloned whales, resort sand is coloured pink, floral goldfish are the norm to match the decor of your couches, that sort of thing. Margaret Atwood does it in Oryx and Crake and she was a big influence.

 

ML: I’ve been reading a lot of Australian history for my next novel, and last night I came across a wonderful section on water in a book called Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends, by Pamela Lukin Watson: “A clan or person of this totem must regard all water as sacred, and similarly water-bearing things such as hakea trees and certain water birds; each must be acknowledged as sharing the same substance as the person or tribe involved. People of the water totem needed to be very circumspect in their behaviour to any body of water; they could not shout before it, but had to take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink; they could not foul the water, nor could they tramp angrily about the creek banks.”

 

KT: The complexity of the water totem is really fascinating to me. Some Aboriginal people in Northern Australia have a very specific water totem, the sparkle on water.

 

ML: Yes, she’s talking about Indigenous people of the Channel Country in Queensland. I always think of a visit to the beach as a form of rinsing out my head; the noise and repetition of the waves, and of course the fact that they look very much as if they’re intent on scouring the beach clean. It seems like a naturally healing thing.

 

LJ: That’s nice – the ebb and flow of the waves as cleaning the beach and cleansing us at the same time. And I think, at least in the west, we are at risk of losing our capacity to be able to talk to elemental things such as water. That is why Mary Oliver is such an important poet to me. Also, I love the way those waves just keep on rolling in and out, in and out, no matter what. The way river water runs around stones in the same pattern for years on end, without changing its course.

 

ML: Yes, Lisa, the attitude of having to “take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink” is so un-Western, yet seems so right to my mind. The idea of acknowledging the whole system that you’re contributing to and taking from, every time you do the taking. Just this morning when I was on my bike ride, it was a misty morning and several people had come out and hosed down their cars to get the condensation off them. Water all over the road, no one using the cars yet; it seemed very profligate. Wouldn’t have used that much more energy going over the windows with a squeegee. <–Curmudgeonly thought. But there was no respectful speaking to the water before using it, that’s for sure… (Not that I do, every time I turn on a tap. But perhaps I ought to.)

 

KT: I guess the drought is really over! Lisa includes “Water Police” in her future – very convincing.

 

LJ: Well, I thought of the roller coaster at Luna Park in Melbourne, and how close it is to the sea shore there. That was when I was writing the book. Then after I finished it, I saw all these maps people have been drawing of rising tide levels that are predicted to actually cover this area and flood it in the decades to come, and then I saw a photo of the roller coaster washed out to sea in NY when Hurricane Sandy hit. I think the water police are not far off!

 

ML: We definitely had patrolling rangers monitoring water usage during the drought.

 

KT: I remember that. No hosing down the driveway, etc. I still have that attitude, which I think is particularly Australian in some way, driven by that drought consciousness.

 

LJ: Yes, and I think all these things are very important. But do not go deep enough into us establishing a more profound connection with environment, the way indigenous people have. One of the things I’d like to say about Margo’s book is that after I finished it I felt like I was still in its world, in the dreamy underwater word of the selkies, and also in the town.

 

KT: Yes, Lisa, and this is exactly what I want from a book, to take you under and let you stay there, like a dream.

 

ML: That’s a lovely thing to say, Lisa! I did want it to be very intense – I think because the selkie tales (and a lot of fairy tales) are so very matter-of-fact about their magic. Outrageous things happen – people turning into animals, ghosts, magical swords – but in fact the stories relate them as if purposely avoiding evoking a sense of wonder; they’re just the baldest, barest plot devices to move things along in the right way. I really wanted the weirdness of the change between animal and human (and I guess between animal and human environments) to come through strongly.

 

KT: Margo, what you’ve just said about the everyday-ness of magic as it’s represented in fairytales is really interesting – your work definitely has a sense of uncanny estrangement about it, an almost uncomfortable sense of going into another very different world. I wonder if you have read Among Others by Jo Walton? I love the anti-climactic low-key descriptions of magic in that book but in her case it actually elevates the sense of weirdness I think.

 

ML: I totally love Among Others, for exactly that reason. Love those prickly, cantankerous fairies! And it made me think, oh, maybe there IS a way to write the more memoirish story-ideas I’ve been having, without being as literal as memoir generally is…

 

KT: That sounds very interesting and makes me wonder if there will be cantankerous seal people in your memoir.

 

ML: Oh definitely. Possibly a cantankerous sea elephant or two as well!

 

KT: Bring on the cantankerous quotidian fanciful creatures of memoir!

 

ML: *embroiders that on a sampler and sticks it above writing-desk*

 

KT: Lisa, I wanted to say how beautiful the cover is for The Sunlit Zone – I used an image by the same artist, Samantha Everton, on the cover of The Legacy, my first book. I love her work.

 

ML: Have either of you seen Martine Emdur’s paintings, of people floating in water – mostly women? Beautiful things.

 

KT: Uncanny! They are so like Samantha’s pictures. Margo, do you have any pictures of selkies that are particular favourites?

 

ML: There aren’t many very good ones – they tend to be a bit My Little Pony in style. But my selkies scrapbooks Flickr set gives a good idea of the kinds of images that inspired me. Selkies tend to be very sentimentalised-over, bit like mermaids. It’s hard to find really good images that capture their mystery.

 

LJ: Margo’s selkie figures are so dark – I think her book cover also captures this. I love the idea of creating a scrapbook like this, Margo. I have collected a few images myself, mostly news items (but striking images) from the world that have occurred after I wrote my novel. I have one of the rollercoaster submerged in the sea after the New York floods

 

ML: Phoargh, that rollercoaster is terrific, especially the wrecked-ness of it. Did you see the flood picture of the lit-up merry-go-round, surrounded by water? Similar kind of weirdness.

 

LJ: Oh…my…god. Thank you – that is truly haunting and amazing….

 

Post script

KT: a couple of days after we spoke, the submerged roller coaster is finally being dismantled.

 

 

Margo Lanagan is an internationally acclaimed writer of novels and short stories. The Brides of Rollrock Island, a modern versionretelling of the traditional selkie myth (published in Australia as Sea Hearts), won the two 2012 Aurealis Awards (for Best Young Adult Novel and Best Fantasy Novel), and was shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize and the a 2013 British Fantasy Award. Her short stories have garnered many awards, nominations and shortlistings. Black Juice was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, won two World Fantasy Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction. Red Spikes won the CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year,  and a Horn Book Fanfare title, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s’ Prize and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her novel Tender Morsels won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was also a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. Margo lives in Sydney.

She maintains a blog at www.amongamidwhile.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @margolanagan.

 

Lisa Jacobson is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. Her new verse novel is The Sunlit Zone (Five Islands Press, 2012). This book was recently shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize, the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the 2012 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize (University of Melbourne) and, as a manuscript, for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work has been published in Australia, New York, London and Indonesia. She shares a bush block in Melbourne with her partner and daughter. More at http://lisajacobson.org/

 

Kirsten Tranter is a co-founder of The Stella Prize and the author of the internationally published, critically acclaimed novels A Common Loss and The Legacy. The Legacy was a Kirkus Reviews Debut of the Year in 2010, and was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, the Indy prize for debut fiction, and the ABIA literary fiction award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Kirsten completed a PhD in English Literature at Rutgers University in 2008, and is widely published as a critic. She grew up in Sydney and is soon moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. More at kirstentranter.com

The Stella Prize is a major new literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, awarded for the first time in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds. It is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin. The Stella Prize rewards one writer with a prize of $50,000 and recognizes writing across genres by women that is excellent, original and engaging. Extracts from The Sunlit Zone, The Brides of Rollrock Island (aka Sea Hearts), and all the shortlisted works are available at thestellaprize.com.au

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Water, Writing and Submerged Fairground Attractions: Kirsten Tranter talks with Australian authors Lisa Jacobson and Margo Lanagan

To the Water: Speaking of the Interior (Self)

by Melissa Buckheit

What are your ocean-crossing stories? If you were to describe your writing like a body of water, what body of water would it be and why?

I’ve always loved the Atlantic. I grew up near the Atlantic Ocean all of my childhood and into my college years. Its green-grey is very personal. My first collection, Noctilucent, is, in part, preoccupied with the absence of water. I lived landlocked in Colorado for four years and continue to do in Arizona since 2005. Darkness and night almost became a substitution for water, the ocean—almost. Both are very similar, which is why I can’t say one can stand for the other. To be outside at night and to be near the ocean—these spaces/experiences are kin. In the desert or the mountains of the West, one feels the absence of the ocean as keenly as one felt its presence near the harbor; here, memory takes over and my sense of this aspect of my home—water—is omnipresent.

For the past several years, I’ve been writing poems that have been preoccupied with the narratives of my family—immediate birth family, as well as extended family, ancestors, and relatives. In some sense, this means or includes narratives, patterns, scenarios, and stories that I’m aware of and perhaps play a part in—either as a witness, participant, or a “repository.” My sense of a “repository” is a bit like an archive in a library: I was given histories—family members’ perceptions, feelings, or memories—almost with the intention to hold or carry these narratives. One doesn’t always have a choice in the transmission of information; sometimes, one seeks the stories. Almost separate, but intentionally and organically connected, are the poems I’ve been writing about various migrations of sorts and thus, about lands, islands, oceans, and other bodies of water; countries and other physical and spatial demarcations; and preservation of culture, identity, and history. Somehow, these poems have been isolated and separated by time and place. Not surprisingly, there are these “waves,” as in energy (waves and particles), but also of water, which surround each of these times (historically), characters (relatives, family, ancestors, self), and places (the physical locales). These “waves” separate the poems by category but also connect them, therefore, by the intention and association of theme, sensibility, or kinship.

In the midst of these stories—places and times, all felt sensorially as if they were the present—is the act of moving between places, of moving across water and oceans, to arrive at a new place, to return to an old home. This act is almost what we do, isn’t it? Whether literally or of the felt sense (in mind, body, memory, words, movement, image), we embark and we return. I think sometimes it is something like trying to remember a past life or another self—the sense of a place or of a self is so familiar we almost can’t describe it without great effort. It is em-bodied and re-membered, so perhaps the mind has less need to carry it as something separate. Places, times, and people hold this for us—and writing is often landing on these small islets or knolls of land, isolate, almost empty. As the writer, we are alone but populated very distinctly by what lives there, in sense and memory.

Yet, I hate to have the ocean be mostly metaphor. I feel the ocean, personally, in the sense of my aforementioned analogy—it is a homeland, solitude, and release. When I was a child (think about 8 or 9), I always thought the best way to die would be to choose to stop breathing, while floating under the ocean. I felt that if one chose to let go of breath, that holding and attachment, it would be completely different than the struggle of drowning. I do not know this, but I still feel it to be true.

I think many people feel that a homeland is not a specific or defined country. The Atlantic Ocean was this ever-present sense throughout most of my childhood. It will always be my familiar, as I have lived on and in Long Island, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. I love the Atlantic, its color, its cold, its harshness, and sharpness, its power and very nature. It is not a quiet ocean, it is not becalmed or soft by nature, although small shoals off Cape Cod in the summer can be gentle, to buoy face up to the sun-dazzled sky in July. Stars glint off of the water’s surface.

The “ocean-crossing story” that fills my brain most these days is quite common: it is the story of my relatives who came to America from Ireland, and also the Netherlands, Germany, and England, across the Atlantic, by boat around the turn of the century. A poem published in the April 2012 issue of Shearsman Magazine (UK), aptly titled “Narrative,” addresses my ideas and feelings around the sense of this movement:

Across the wide sea

I came

and you did not recognize me

for what I appeared to be:

the rust and grey water

with its broken remnants of seaweed

rocking, slapping against the side of many pilings anchored

in the vast and realist Atlantic,

which never lied to a soul

who drowned in its waves

or pretended to be anything

other than it was—

barren at times, welcoming, others

—a challenge to the people

who settled there.

In a sense, the story of this ocean-crossing, meaning those embodied in the poem, is about the narratives created in the transition from one country to another, from a homeland to a new homeland or foreign land, from culture left to culture found, supplemented by the aspects of self and community which make the trip with us. Sometimes, the immigrant or foreigner finds herself transformed; sometimes they find themselves lost or found or altered beyond recognition. Sometimes they are recognized in the new place, sometimes not. Although I am not an immigrant, at least not yet, I feel the depth of this even in the sense of where my ancestors, rather recently, came from (about a hundred years and a bit more ago). I feel the confusion at their confusion; I feel the loss here in the United States, as well as what was gained, which is much. I feel the strangeness at my return to a land and country (Ireland, for example), which is not mine but yet I have ties to, which knows and does not know me, which was referenced by some of my family often, in stories, memories, jokes. Yet these places remain utterly different and far more complex than the references we receive as repositories. And yet, in the felt sense, the Atlantic is the tie between two lands for these histories. The poem continues, ending:

Inside the vast sea,

I existed for centuries,

until I came to be born

and landed on a narrow

expanse of island—as after a long trip.

We were waiting to come to America,

my parents and I . . .

We came up through the Atlantic

but we were changed

and could no longer speak,

we had to learn language again,

Our sounds were rough and harsh to unfamiliar ears,

but with each other, intimately

we were shyly gentle,

our voices soft like honey.

I can’t say my writing is like a body of water, for the Atlantic is, itself, a thing that I cannot equate with another thing. I can say that the Atlantic is like sleep, an intimate. For me, this is largely due to its beauty, which is in part violent, and its truth, which is of the most honest nature.

Your first time at the ocean and how did you engage it?

I was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, very close to the ocean. I don’t remember my first moment there, but as a child and still as an adult, I love to watch the sea for long periods of time, particularly in the off season when the beach can be less congested. There is something like oblivion and emptiness in the horizon that draws me—the unrelenting distance; on the East Coast, one cannot easily see it, and the ocean is one of the only unencumbered views available. My parents often took me to Jones Beach (NY) to play; I remember the sand was soft and a very dark brown. I remember the sounds of Cicadas, Crickets, and Tree Frogs near Long Island Sound at night. I like to think that my first moment with the ocean was in utero, in the salt and water balance of my mother’s womb, before birth. I remember this as a quiet and serene space; our cells also contain a constant balance of water and salt, akin to the ocean, where life first coalesced.

After watching this video “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” how is water is connected to your consciousness? Have you ever drowned in one way or another?

The video, “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” was interesting in its intention of understanding and exploring the idea that realities and energies exist beyond the traditionally quantifiable world. I think that water is as much a barometer or rather a compound in a fluid state that is or can be altered or affected by a variety of things. I’m not sure I completely align in my belief with all of Dr. Emoto’s ideas about the causality between words and intentions and the effects on the crystalline structure of frozen water, as if the water had a sentient consciousness. It seems somewhat too literal, as if forgetting that water need not be a sort of Rorschach test with direct implications, almost black and white ones, but is part of the whole of our beings (and any living thing, in fact). We know that emotion, energy, and communication affect all beings—for why would they not?

When I think of the self, consciousness, and water, I arrive again at the written word—poetry or fiction or non-fiction—and the nature of immersion (in water or writing or what is required to get to the writing). Your theme for July is “To the Water”; for me, this phrase was very potent, ripe with references and meaning. Virginia Woolf, who has been a great influence and voice (in the sense that many have read her in order to know or follow their own path) for many female writers, says in The Second Common Reader, “The other side of the mind is now exposed—the dark side that comes uppermost in solitude, not the light side that shows in company.” This was in an essay titled, “How Should One Read a Book?” She was speaking in part about what is necessary to write and, therefore, read literature truly, i.e., with truth. I believe that to write or dance or make art—any art form that seeks to communicate in some way about human experience—one must go “to the water” and in “to the water.” Woolf knew herself to be different in some ways in company (around other people), than alone (in solitude). Many writers are like this—I am like this.

One must go into the self, alone, free from pretense, without judgment and despite fear, to write, and this side is dark, not because it is “evil” or related to some other dualistic understanding of human nature, but because it is private, in shadow, internal. I think poetry must have a particular privacy in order to accurately communicate with truthfulness, and not ego, a desire for fame, or co-optation. Then, the poem may succeed on its own; it becomes art, afloat, and independent from its author. This dark side or shadow is akin to immersion in water, whether ocean, lake, river, bathtub, or the body’s own, because, like water, the consciousness we enter to create is interior, another world. It is of the unconscious, what is dreamt, and what is known, often beyond language, in body, mind, and spirit.

In the dark—in the dark we hear the most precisely, do we not?

To the Water: Speaking of the Interior (Self)

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.

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

Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

by Sheila McMullin

Science reasons we came from glass. Water vapor trapped in glass, encapsulated in an asteroid leaving Mars crashing into Earth. Water stimulating growth on Earth. We may have come from Mars, not just men, all of us. Earth is defined as a water-based planet needing the sun, needing the water more. To be living means we traveled a long way to be prosperous. I think of feminism like water, and water like camaraderie. Love is said to connect us all… water seems more tangible, physical, material, transformative; engaging all our senses, is divine, spiritual, cleansing, life-giving. Water is a currency. Water unites, and it is ravaged.

::

I wanted to let my hair shine weightless in the pool. Knowing only some of my hair was there. Knowing if I wanted my hair to grow back, I would receive scores of cortisone injections into my skull. This procedure doesn’t work for everyone. Knowing my fret over losing my hair was deemed cosmetic and uncovered by insurance. Knowing losing one’s hair is only a side effect of alopecia. The root of the problem was more emotional, more stress-related. Perhaps under the care of a therapist to work on relaxation strategies I could realign my immune system without the injections. Knowing long-term emotional health care is also cosmetic and uncovered. I was in high school.

It was there in the water where no one could really see me; I fell in love with floating. Being outside, with the sun on my skin, holding my breath, and concentrating on sitting on the bottom in a weightless arena. I would do anything to keep close to water.

::

1946: At the moment the light traveled and hit their eyes, the far away sky heard compliments. Then the far away sky heard the explosive sound, which had already seen bulldoze the palm trees. Sound came as a shock wave on the ocean top, and knocked like a thud against the wooden chests of all the observing soldiers. Huge fire and ocean dirt rolled up into the skies.

It was said: it reminded me of the setting sun, it was the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen, greatest thing I had ever seen.

::

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the government chose to experiment with the atomic bomb over the water. Their location: the Bikini Atoll.

The U.S. government employed military duty to explore the offensive or defensive power of this weapon. A Harnessing of the Basic Power of the Universe, it was called. Under the guise of the benefit of mankind.

::

Operation Crossroads at Bikini.

While the American military explained to the Bikinians they would have to leave Bikini (so the bomb could be dropped on their home in front of cameras as God’s calling), Bikinians were unaware what the camera was. A Native Bikinian recorded in the 1988 documentary Radio Bikini is quoted to this effect.

Cut to stock footage: Take after take of admiral explaining the dropping of the bomb in multiple inflections in front of a quiet, sitting Bikini audience.

The Bikinians were boarded to sail to the island, Rongerik, an uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands. Leaving their home, they watched the military burn everything into the sand.

::

“One of the most important, and one of the most dramatic elements concerned with the dropping of the bomb is the photographic aspect,” says Operation Crossroads Military Personnel.

As human beings in an inter-connected global economy we focus on sight. What are others doing and how does it compare to what we are doing? We need this coverage to keep progressive. So often our coverage fails to awaken us to an underlying damage being done.

::

It was awesome glory being a spectator in this waterscape. But future be told, no one was just a spectator at Bikini. Especially those merely 20 miles away.

“Do as you’re told and nothing bad will happen to anyone,” says Operation Crossroads Enlisted Soldier, John Smitherman. None of the soldiers had any real knowledge of radioactivity—a word not yet in common vernacular. Before Veteran Smitherman died in the late-80s, he suffered from incredibly swollen ligaments and amputated legs. He died of cancer.

Marie Curie had coined the term radioactive barely 50 years earlier.

The displaced Bikinians still in harm’s way, still unable to go home, suffer today from disproportionately high rates of cancer and diabetes. More data and testimonials can also be found at Unnatural Causes.

::

Cut to stock footage: Huge fires pirouette into the sky. Able detonates, makes fish into birds obliterating every test dummy battleship in the bomb’s radius.

To my knowledge, only slight reparations have been given to Marshallese Islanders and Operation Crossroads veterans.

::

A slow war of pollution at levels never before imagined entered into the waterscape.

Within ten hours of detonation soldiers were at ground zero. They continued to wash, drink, and bathe in the water their ships and islands floated in.

The animals aboard the test dummy military ships were ravaged by the radiation. The animals’ skin was tested for causal reactions to radiation—as if not enough evidence was found in Japan.

::

Waterscape: Within two months of their displacement, the Bikinians were starving on their new island, Rongerik, with inadequate food and water supplies. Military escorts visited to display pictures of the bomb exploding over their home. Baffled by what they were really seeing and reasons as to why they could not go home, a U.S. soldier is over heard saying: “At least they admit it.” The Bikinians he means… to not knowing exactly what is that atom bomb?

Rongerik was an already uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands, so why bomb Bikini? If a bomb needed to be dropped, why Bikini?

::

1946: The term bikini for the swimsuit was coined by Louis Réard, the same year as the nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll. In a design race to create the world’s smallest swimsuit, he found inspiration in the smallest atom creating the most destructive earthly force.

What I am to write, I hate, because it is the saddest thought I’ve ever had. Why did a bomb need to be dropped on Bikini? Because people were there. Cultural constructions demand the need for a human presence, so beginning operations can be valued as important, after which, those people can be ignored.

Réard was not making an anti-war, anti-nuclear testing protest with the naming of his swimsuit. Taking advantage of the already exoticized island body and culture, the built-in fame of the word bikini, and its proximity to water, the bikini swimsuit was born de facto propaganda.

Waterscape: When we talk nonchalantly about our “beach bodies” or “bikini ready” what are we then saying? Bodies devastated by cancer? Homes burnt to the ground? When we get a biniki wax, what are we waxing? Ripping away Earth. To be clear, I wear my two piece because I want the sun on my body. But because I want, cannot mean a forgetting or ignoring of this history. I’d do anything to keep close to water.

Wearing a bikini hasn’t become an act of protest quite yet. I know some wear suits decorated with radioactive symbols, but most of our conversations of the female body in this highly sexualized suit does not focus here. A sexist hyper-active focus on the female waistline displaces the history of Bikini.

And then I wonder: What else is tiny? What else is polluting our water?

::

Plastic is a miracle product providing cheap resources for over 7 billion people. But plastic never decomposes, only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that sea creatures and land animals eat. Or plastic absorbs into our soil and skin, which then affects our hormones and biological composition. General disregard of waste finds its way into our oceans—oceans which are now huge trashcans.

On a readily visible level, sea creatures ingest these molecule-sized plastics and begin the process of self-embalming because they were eating what looked like their natural food source.

Do you know where the plastic things go? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Gyres. A great displacement of our belongings right into the ocean. There is no “throw away,” only a throw into.

I fear plastic on my worst days, and ignore it on every other day. I fear a tasteless, scentless, clear poison in our water. Drink the water and slowly mutate into the immortal Barbies and Kens. Soon, this won’t be a choice, it hasn’t been for our animals.

::

As we become more artificial we lose our love. As our water sources become more polluted, water quality becomes an even higher concern, becomes more valuable, and less people receive access to clean water sources and healthy, prospering environments.

Place is not free of plastic, of radiation, of our use of water. We have a lot to do. Not only do we have to prepare and plan for a sustainable future, reduce our dependence on plastic, re-evaluate our need for massive destructive weapons, we have to be filled with historical knowledge. Knowledge, like water, can fill every gap in us.

In my 13th year I was baptized in the ocean, in the dull waves under a cliff in California. We come from water, inherit water, and I wanted to pay my respects. After my baptism I wore my first bikini.

::

Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

Lady in the House Questions: Karen Biscopink

If you were to describe your writing like a body of water, what body of water would it be and why?

A creek in western Kentucky, in some hilly woods, that is kind of scarily isolated but also kind of beautiful in the type of way where you know you could drink sangria there at midnight with a bunch of friends, but you would probably be too afraid to try doing by yourself.

A crucial part of my aesthetic is presenting eerie, or unsettling, places and experiences in a way that becomes ultimately beautiful. There is a fluidity to the ways in which this manifests; like the creek, sometimes the inverse is true: that which is beautiful can also be unsettling.

 

along the paths lie

our iterations: glistening

 

skins dead yet

able to be touched.

 

there is a magnitude

to our

shedding,

 

great animal underbelly

of growth. of this, I

 

am certain – nothing

so fragile

                                           exceptional us

 

              corrodes.

 

What do you think about the bottling of water? 

A confusing convenience. A surprisingly elaborate procedure, particularly in terms of energy consumption in how it’s manufactured as well as shipped.

As a San Franciscan, my relationship to bottled water is largely couched in terms of impending earthquakes. I’m told I need to create a stockpile, but to do so feels strange to me, maybe superstitious. I should likely do what I’m told in this regard; I will likely be very thirsty during the Apocalypse.

 

After watching this video “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” how is water is connected to your consciousness?  

Emoto’s studies and findings are phenomenally interesting. The idea of water as both attentive and responsive? Mind blowing. For me, this video opens up all kinds of thought spirals about the power of suggestion, the effectiveness of intent.

I dream with a pretty alarming intensity. Water, in its many iterations, is the most consistent imagery that crops up. Frequently, water’s absence is the heart of the dream sequence (arriving as thirst or untamable fire). In my waking life, I am less aware of the body’s intricate relationship to water, a blindness that means I am fortunate for having my needs met.

 

Who are your favorite water gods and why? 

Ran, the wife of Aegir (the Norse god of the sea) is beautiful and cruel. The couple hosted parties for the gods at their enormous underwater hall and were responsible for the ocean’s behaviors.  Ran, in particular, amuses me because of her rather confused lustfulness. So desperately did she seek the attention of sailors that she would drag them down to her palace, not realizing that the result of her affection was their immediate death. This makes me think of the sirens of Greek mythology, similarly luring sailors to destruction but with sheer malice (where Ran was mostly just naïve). The force of these women, the capacity to which they are ruled by desire, is a literary thread I enjoy exploring.

 

Your first time at the ocean, how did you engage it?

My entire body responds to the ocean with a feeling of awe, even now that I live on the coast and experience it with frequency. I don’t remember my first trip to the ocean, but can’t imagine that my response would have differed. For me, it is the measuring rod of everything’s immensity or the one accessible, visual clue I have into the definition of “possibility.” My engagement with the ocean, then, is largely observational, thoughtful, quiet.

 

Have you ever drowned in one way or another?

During college, I spent January at Crystal Waters Eco-Village in Queensland, Australia. I studied Permaculture, did an intense amount of farming; learned best practices for establishing and maintaining sustainable communities. The sheer physicality of that month (working all day in the Australian summer heat) was the most exhausting and satisfying I have ever experienced.

One of our last weekends there, several of us hitched a ride to Noosa Beach for a farewell to the coastline. The word “riptide” had little weight in my brain as I ran into the water that day. (I laugh now, remembering the words to an Ani DiFranco song I sang out loud as I started to swim: “I am an all powerful Amazon warrior.”)

Things went wrong quickly. My lack of familiarity with riptides (in which I eventually found myself) meant I tried swimming directly toward shore. The exhaustion of fighting waves and the downward pull of the tide coupled with my panic as I was pulled out farther from the land (which I could no longer see at all). What fascinates me is the way time changed, then, in the water. I still have no concept of how long this went on, with my mind churning back through the last two decades, turning up prayers and advice and regret and love: anything that could possibly be of use as I struggled to keep breathing.

Clearly, I’m incredibly fortunate for having been rescued that day. I’ve tried many times to recapture, in poetry, my brain’s gymnastics in those moments; I’m not sure I’ve yet succeeded, but it’s become a strangely grounding, meditative exercise to which I often return.

 

Lady in the House Questions: Karen Biscopink

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