"impossible telling" through epistolary poetry
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about this project:
“…a book might be opened, a letter’s only ever broken into. i know this
now: to each action its own particular weight; to each object its own
particular friction. so what does this poem amount to? gentle reader,
dotter of my every eavesdropped i. i have given you this; we
consummate a censorship. i have been saying over and over: this isn’t
for you. a poem isn’t shared, a poem’s only ever stolen. or else –. what? the eye, inflicted frontier, forced to see against its will. poem in full-frontal peek-a-boo. undignified, the gadje aunt has spoken. such private pain in a public space…”
in october 2016 i’m starting a practice based ph.d at birkbeck on the relationship between the epistolary form in contemporary poetry and the use of letters in therapeutic contexts. i’ve spent my summer reading around this subject, trying to find a way into it, a critical framework for intuitive approaches i haven’t yet learnt to articulate.
my work is mainly concerned with what cathy caruth defines as “impossible saying”, the narration of trauma. her analysis argues for a literature of trauma that communicates in indirect and unexpected ways. her work examines strategies by which trauma may be “told”, i.e. assimilated, integrated, and transformed into some kind of narrative language. my research will explore the idea that the epistolary form is one way in which this process takes place.
i want to produce work that embodies the collapse of linear understanding that occurs during and following trauma, provoking what literary theorist shoshana felman has described as a “disintegration of narrative”. i want to write this way, but i found when I sat down to start, i was inhibited. inhibited first because all language is a compromise with lived experience, and inhibited secondly because the act of producing poems, of “being a poet” situated within prize and publication culture is a form of mediation. writing for a readership, in order to be read, is writing not to express or embody trauma, but to render it acceptable, intelligible, accessible; it is to curtail and to clean up experience.
and i became obsessed by this, with the idea that books are like derrida’s postcards, these infinitely accessible / accessed, mediated artefacts; that the action of opening a book, and that of opening a letter have these radically different symbolic weights, these different frictions between disclosure and restraint. i began to wonder if by creating a book, less of epistolary poetry as it’s commonly understood within the context of publication, but of letters that function as poems within very intimate contexts, and very private spaces and relations, would this change and shape the process and the type of poetry being written. i would be writing against the normalising or “cleaning up” of experience that usually goes on during poem-making, and allowing instead for the inscription of lived experience upon the text, for material reality to make incursions and disruptions, for something more intimate.
and so i decided: private letters, to any possible number of “gentle readers”. and this is where this project is beginning. i bought a second-hand olympia typewriter, so as to remove myself and the process of creation more completely from the arena of “frictionless sharing”, and to preserve as an anchor to reality, a tactile relationship with the poetry i write. all i need now are my “gentle readers”. sign up. let’s do this.
the story so far...
sending out the first batch of “gentle reader” epistles i am immediately noticing things about the way the texts negotiate constraint, incursion and risk. constraint, in the first instance because of the way the creation of the texts contends with the material conditions of my life. this manifests in many ways, some financial – on occasion the progress of the project has been obliged to stall because i couldn’t afford first-class stamps, because i needed to source and replace the ribbons for the olympia, because i was unable to find cheap materials such as pens, coloured paper, and envelopes locally (i was in tooraneena). constraint operates upon the project also in terms of time, of making space for the writing away from what miya tokumitsu, writing in slate magazine, describes as “unlovable labour”, the menial, manual bullshit of everyday existence, which is repetitive, uninspiring and intellectually numbing. any phd will struggle to balance the demands of research and creation with the necessity of daily grind, but because this project concerns itself with intimacy, with the minutiae of lived experience, it does not ignore these constraints, but allows them to operate, consciously and directly, upon the text, shaping and changing the content, the details and direction of the work. i wish to make this connection between material conditions and creative output explicit, but i am trying to resist the temptation to overtly politicise this relationship. the epistle form is by its very nature concerned with the personal world; i am not offering a class analysis of the way poverty impacts my poetics (i could, but i’m not), rather i am concerned with the mechanics of how the ‘i’ that writes assimilates, resists, navigates and negotiates poverty; how those negotiations becomes creative strategies, fruitful frictions, how they are integral to the writing process.
i have always been fascinated by the idea of a poetics that builds and defines itself from the conditions and the “rules” it is working against, and how these rules are as much psychic and social as they are material. this fascination has led me to incorporate deliberate constraints into the “gentle reader” project, such as the "letters" being sent out in the order in which the requests were received. this means i can make no authorial decisions over who receives which letter, and as i write a certain number of letters every day and file them in order until a request is received this has resulted in both awkward moments and happy serendipities. when melissa lee-houghton, author of sunshine was my “gentle reader” her letter happened to be printed on paper the same pink as her book cover, with a slight overlap in terms of theme. when an editor of an online journal i was keen to impress singed up, he received an uncomfortably graphic, and rather clumsy letter, typed during the tail end of a manic period. this was acutely embarrassing to me, but through that embarrassment i was / am making manifest the peculiar tensions involved in creating a work of private trauma for public spaces; i am rendering explicit all the problematic mediations that beset such a project.
similar to, but distinct from “constraint” there is also “incursion”, the conditions of my life that do not halt or mutilate the production of text, but which intersect and warp that production. this occurs most obviously within the rhythms of the work itself, characterised by intense bursts of manic energy, voracious but skittish reading, long insomniac hours spent typing in a state of twitchy hyper-vigilance, followed by periods of numb, dull slog when my mind seems incapable of making lucid or interesting connections, and the poetry itself is moribund and sluggish. the former poetics contains many “mistakes”, typographical errors in spelling and spacing, it is also more prone to drift, becoming rhapsodic (in the technical sense of that word), confusing and conflating the prosaic details of the observable world with the thoughts, feelings and images that flicker through my head. it is harder to pin down a cohesive “theme” with these poems, and they have what one reader described as an “attacking urgency” to them, “it arrived like a brick through my window” he said. these poems contain more elaborate art work and make the most use of paratextual materials. if they can be characterised at all, it is by a tone of hectic abundance. the latter poems are far narrower in focus, often obsessively articulating one particular thing over and over. in one instance i describe a sleepless night watching a documentary on republican party presidential candidate donald trump (complete with artwork of drooling cartoon zombie trump), in another, i describe my dog. these poems are less concerned with the inner world, and do not make direct references to trauma; rather they relate the ordinary experience of living with mental illness. they are, in this sense, perhaps closer to true epistles than concocted therapeutic artefacts written with a particular subject, aim, and destination in mind.
which brings me to “risk”, to all the zones of inhibition and daring that the poems traverse and imperfectly inhabit at any given point. inhibition in a social sense, as i feel the pressure from family and close friends not to “make an exhibition” of myself, not to write that which could embarrass and cause discomfort to those around me, and in my nebulous, ill-defined cohort of “readers”. inhibition too, knowing the proscriptive limits publication culture sets on what is “acceptable”, what forms of expression magazines and journals will tolerate; what kinds of poems are likely to “succeed” in terms defined by the creative milieu in which i struggle to move. i castigate myself for being craven, but this does give me pause. the rejections i have already received, as i start to shed fifteen years of writing habit, do not fill me with confidence. and it is not nothing to me to have come this far through a system that seems designed specifically to exclude me, only to contemplate walking away from the strategies and habits that have brought me here. i do not propose to make this the centre of my research, that would be insanely narcissistic, but i do think it is worth noting at the outset. i have, just four months in, begun to weigh compromises – should i replace capitalisation when i submit for publication? should i re-title and reframe the resulting pieces? how much should i explain in covering notes? how do i avoid, and should i avoid, the idea of “gentle reader” becoming mere conceit?
but risk is also less tangible than this. it has to do with transgressing the system of permissions we all operate inside of for our collective psychic safety: it is okay to say certain things only to certain people. these subjects are taboo. this particular thing may only be addressed in this particular way. speaking to a friend about this problem and about my trepidation in facing it, we discussed patterns of rejection and refusal within existing bodies of work; poets who are considered “too” one thing or another, and my own uneasy position across a number of these categories. we talked about political work, struggling to be “heard” outside of the academic avant-garde, or, in the case of our own working-class cohort, permitted, self-policing enclaves of “performance” poetry. we talked also about works of mourning, and i spoke of my dissatisfaction, two years after publication, with much of mystic, the compromises it made; the lyric finessing and exploitation both of grief, and trauma, personal and cultural. “i don’t know what you do about that”, he said, “mystic was already too much for most people”. which means, i suppose, the moments of poetry within mystic that i am proud of – the “moral” moments, the truthful ones – are the ones that mystic’s putative readers and reviewers find intolerable.
this is a daunting speculation, but it answers the question i started by asking. i have not grieved because i have not yet risked. mourning assimilates, absorbs and processes the pain of loss back into cohesive social forms. it mediates. grief is violent, private and socially antagonistic. it does not seek plaudits, it does not win prizes; it is not concerned with situating itself or being awarded a pat on the back for being clever. it is extremist, absolute. i begin this project with this in mind. a poetics of disorder; a poetics against mediation.