by Ariana Reines
Fence Books, 2011
128 pages / $16.95 Buy From Fence
Three falls ago, I was in one of my first legit poetry workshops (that particular workshop during which I realized that poetry was going to be one of those things that would be part of my life for forever, like Lyme Disease or an eating disorder) and I was freaking out about being a girl and wanting to write a particular kind of poem and feeling that I wasn’t allowed to do so. My professor, who was/is this very wise man, a carpenter as well as a poet and probably a prophet of some kind, told me I might be interested in reading Ariana Reines. Since I was at the time a very eager and diligent student I went to my room and read every one of her poems I could find online, and as it was right before Christmas I sent my mom the following e-mail that night:
to Debra, debiallied
Also every book ever written by Ariana Reines instead of just the one. There aren’t that many and they aren’t the expensive because she’s only 26. In fact there are only two, Coeur de Lion and The Cow, three if you count her translation of My Heart Laid Bare by Baudelaire which I would also enjoy. Feel free to pass this along to anyone you know who’s in the market for a Christmas present for me. Those books are now the most important things on my list because they are the most important books that have been written in a very long time.
Because my mother has always bought me any book I have asked for without question, I did get these books for Christmas and I spent all of winter break that year reading them and re-reading them. Since then, because of a lot of happy cosmic circumstances, I’ve had the chance to read her work in graduate classes, write about it, see Ariana read it, and talk to her about it. What follows is a rendition of Facebook messages and e-mails between Ariana and me about her new book, Mercury, which was just released by Fence Books and can be purchased here.
CF: I was there when you read a version of “Truth or Consequences” at La Mama from your Blackberry, and then you kind of stopped at one point and decided not to read anymore – then I heard you read it again at the Popsickle Festival, and then I read it in the book. Every time I have encountered the poem I think of the tradition of Great Poets (Mayakovski, O’Hara, you) who are spoken to by the sun and then feel compelled towards the lyric utterance. The particular poems that result from these encounters seem to mark a distinct shift in the lives of the poets – as you say in “Truth or Consequences,” “My secular life/If I ever had one is over.” Did the sun speak to you before or during the writing of this poem? Do you think of poets as mediums or channels through which the energy of the universe/living beings/dead beings/art can or must pass?
AR: The sun spoke to me and then I made notes and then I composed the poem. The poem is a direct and true account of what the sun said and of parts of a vision – the jerky, the eagle – but the poem is not a complete account of the vision, though it is, as far as I can remember, a complete account of what the sun said.
There are moments in the text that almost have an air of petulance – especially the poems that appear before “Truth or Consequences,” i.e. “All the Single Ladies,” “Body Stocking,” “Arena,” etc. Were you writing voluntarily when you were writing these poems, or did you feel otherwise compelled by some internal or external force?
The question you ask, was I writing voluntarily, is a marvelous one, and one I have asked myself every so often all my life. Does one ever write voluntarily? I suppose such people exist, people who do things simply because they volunteer to do them. The moment of volunteerism in Mercury occurs on its final page and it’s a bit cryptic. Perhaps this shall not make sense to the casual reader, but in many ways the magic at work in Mercury consists of me volunteering to do what I am already in any case compelled by forces external and numinous to do.
People who wake up one day and decide they’ve had a good career breaking horses and running the numbers, why not sit down and write a poem… I have nothing against these people because writing a poem is always a good thing to do. These people are perhaps my distant cousins but they are not my sisters. Alejandro Jodorowsky prescribes morning poetry writing to every living human as excellent medicine, as a kind of universal nerve tonic, and I think he’s right; so that would be a kind of voluntary poetry writing that would be great, truly a health. I can see myself doing that, although I don’t do it now. I think if I could do that then I could write my own gay science like Nietzsche’s gay science: the book of my great health.
That said Mercury is of course also a book meant to take your temperature and harmonize your chakras and do acupuncture on you and improve your overall health.
My best writing seems to have to be forced from me by some other force but that force has to be one whose power I agree to serve.
What I like to work at and what I was very careful in the assembly of, in Mercury, is a ground, a field, a structure in which the poems can resonate together as much more than merely themselves. And that takes voluntary work, and it is work I enjoy doing pedantically and maniacally, over and over until it is almost right.
To write the science fiction novel I have planned will require real physical supports, four walls and a door, a regular drug supply, good light, someone to help out around the garden (because I will want to have an herb garden for the novel), and trees, and a large bed in which to dream. I wrote many of the poems you say sound petulant on my Blackberry in the summertime. The best state for writing poems, for me, is having enough money to eat and living in the same place for a little while (not too long), having a big bed, and being in love. Then whatever it is that forces me to write the poems does so without hurting me too much, only as much as it hurts to reach the total nadir of existence that one can touch on any given day or night and that can only be exited through a poem. I admit to you Carina that there are times when I am sure I would die if I weren’t writing right now. How can i know? It is like that nightmare or ghost story about the woman with the ribbon round her neck. All that said I think I am through writing poems for a while, maybe forever.
I know that ribbon-woman story and it’s very frightening. I think for some people poems are like that, at least I feel that way, but I think sometimes it’s dangerous to know that about oneself.
Some of these, especially moments in “Save the World,” have a troubadour quality that is in some ways similar to that of Coeur de Lion. How do you see yourself fitting in to the troubadour lineage of poets with virtuoso talent and crippling romanticism? Do you think of love poems, or poems related to love, as a way to make talent (as a lover/anti-lover, as a poet) tangible?
What a beautiful question. Yes I find the idea of wasting one’s virtuosity on love and especially on love’s literary products exceedingly romantic and perhaps making a poem is the easiest magic by which to make anything tangible? I realize romanticism is supposed to have everything to do with ideas of nature and Germany, nineteenth-century romanticism, but I thank you for linking the troubadour/trobiaritz songs to what is fictive in the medieval tradition of French romance– the very origins of the novel itself, the roman. I think in the way I write or in the voice of lots of my lyrics there is a kind of caricature as a girl on some kind of horse, maybe on a high horse? Trying to be some kind of knight in shining armor. For… someone. So actually I think, and I have had a hard time explaining this, the poem is a way for me to make what I feel to be my androgyny, such as it is, tangible, in sort of caricatured and hackneyed ways. One needn’t read Chrétien de Troyes for this to resonate. Have you seen The Sword and The Stone? Or Robin Hood, or The Facts of Life? I think (and I realize you didn’t ask this part of the question, but I am using your beautiful question to ask myself other questions) the fact that I never feel feminine or masculine enough, and the almost aggressive or aggravated heterosexuality in my poems, has to do with my desire for lyric to achieve the total romance of being both the knight and the lady in distress/lady in the high tower for whom he, the knight, does great things. However obviously Mercury has many kinds of weather in it and there are spaces in which the voice is the incantatory voice of a crone at her cauldron, or a French intellectual too exhausted and cynical to have feelings, and sometimes I feel Mercury sounds like a book, the way I want a book to talk to me – at the beginning of the Mercury section, for example.
When I was reading “The Palace of Justice” I guess I was wearing red lipstick and loved it because I kissed the title and the mark is still there. I was really interested in the speaker’s perceived uselessness of her exceptional skill set in this particular scenario, and the odd way in which the prison reminded me of an art gallery. Could you talk a little about the space of “The Palace of Justice,” the usefulness of skills related to art, and whether you find those skills to be liberating or confining?
All skill is liberating. The dream of “The Palace of Justice” was a happy dream. The lady who was the warden in the dream is a very dear and exquisite exceptional woman in real life, Jeanette Ingberman, who with her husband Papo Colo ran the art gallery and performance space EXIT ART. Jeanette died this summer. I cannot explain fully how the two of us became friends but it was Haiti that drew us together, and Jeanette kept saying she felt like she’d known me her whole life, and I was scared to admit how much her love touched me or how badly I needed it exactly then. I met her in November or so, and in May she came to me in that dream as the warden. The next day I emailed her an account of the dream and she told me it was her last night in the hospital and that she loved the dream and I was so happy that she would beat her cancer, but a few months later her cancer killed her. We had only begun to know each other. The poem “The Palace of Justice” is an abbreviated account of that dream in which Jeanette Ingberman was the warden of the women’s palace. So it is psychic and exceptionally accurate that you felt that the women’s palace was art gallery-like. Or it means that I am an exceptionally accurate dreamer and poet! But few art galleries are like Jeanette and Colo’s art gallery, which does, I think, seek to love its inhabitants that we might become more free, which is not, I think, what an art gallery is really supposed to do or generally does do. That is not to say I think all art galleries must needs always be temples or zones of transformation, I think it is fine for them to be chilly white rooms with mean light and sometimes stunning things inside. I am fine with their being apparatuses in which infinite human energies can foam and be turned into money, but what Jeanette and Colo seek to do is something more on a shamanic and politically-engaged order than what an excellent art gallery does. The main thing about the dream of the women’s palace which maybe failed to make it into the poem was this strong feeling I had in the dream that getting hired for that job was actually completely wonderful, maybe the only job I can imagine accepting without feeling like it was going to somehow destroy me. I was like wow, I have never actually felt happy to agree to work a job and like, this is going to be my LIFE for the next five years at LEAST. Well, not since high school.
I’ve been really obsessed with “Save the World” for like three years now because of the amazing YouTube video of you reading it at the Holloway Series. I love the way you navigate these sorts of megapoems (“Save the world,” “Coeur de Lion,” “Mercury,” etc.). “Save the World” specifically contains some internal rhetoric about form, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little about how you structure these pieces in those terms; is form something that organically manifests for you? Do you think of mercury as one very long poem in sections or as discreet entities that eventually coalesce?
Thanks! The long poems, alright. Here goes. “Save the World” was composed in one night. I altered it here and there between that Holloway reading (actually it was written the night before a reading at a gallery run by one of my then-students and his colleagues at Berkeley, the gallery was [is?] called Alphonse Berber Gallery, and the reading there happened perhaps a month earlier than that Holloway reading, and the poem got tinkered with a bit) but its form, the way it oscillates between lyrical and essayistic pages, and the fact that it is the page and not so much the stanza that legislates its rhythmic structure, all that happened naturally in the one go; when I tinkered I tinkered with lines and words. Megapoems, ok, we will refer to them as megapoems, you coined it, they are so much fun because the difficulty that prompts them is so strong that the ecstatic state with its two antennae up — one for lyric purity and the other for critical intensity — is strong enough to keep going and going. I always hate myself when my energies give out and getting tired makes me so depressed. I wanted to stay in that state constantly after I wrote “Save the World.” I don’t think I could handle too much of a routine – it makes me panic – but if I were allowed to panic and write like that constantly, maybe I could live? But maybe if I wrote too many poems like that they would all be terrible. Mercury is a book, a book composed of five books. I labored over its structure like an animal. I must have made thirty drafts. There is a metabook over the book, which is the book made of its images. The book is backwards, standing on its baby’s head. There are lots of books in there. Discreet entities that eventually coalesce could be the case, yeah. The structure is the most important thing about the book. The structure is its justice. I want it almost to feel like water tinged with – faint hint of something – I want it to be readable like that, so easy that you just drink the water, this “tortured water” as Thomas Vaughan rather allegorically describes the substance of mercury, and find it has just enough particularity to relieve you of yourself, and just enough transparency to pass yourself through it, and just enough shine to sting you with yourself, bring you into a heightened state of consciousness.
I love the moments where you talk about a kind of quality of poetness, like it’s really good reality TV, and this desire to “look good and write poems.” It seemed to me that these were often mired in the sections that dealt in some way with the pornographic, and that porn itself it refigured in Mercury as an almost necessary commodification of the body in order to become more connected to it. Do you think of writing as a pornographic act? Is there a relation, for you, between the real body of the poet and the poet-body as a figure in Mercury?
O Carina, I love the way you are resonating here. There lurk in Mercury spectres of physical beauty and physical loathing like the ones that haunted Shakespeare. There is a way that a woman in her loathing of herself can become identical to the essential writer. The woman who rarely gazes at the woman in the mirror without at least a tinge of loathing is yoked by Mercury to the Shakespeare who cannot gaze upon his beautiful love without loathing himself a little, for his love is bodily beautiful and young while he, the writer, is not; at least his beauty is nothing compared to the beauty he cannot possess — either because he cannot fuck it or he cannot marry it or he cannot effectively emulate or fuse his love to it and have the product of that fusion be living progeny, all he can do with this feeling of the beauty and the love he cannot possess is to preserve it for eternity in immortal lines. This is perhaps the sexuality and homosexuality of all self-loathing, or if not self-loathing, of the feeling that the self shall not ever be enough. Where Shakespeare of course exceeds the woman (and the man, these days) is that he wins immortality and beauty, he wins immortal beauty, by his genius, by his pen. Obviously I am no Shakespeare, but for me none of the necessary commodifications or other stations of the cross succeed by themselves in reconnecting me to my own body, or to love, or to making love, or to some kind of “authentic” nonmediated experience of embodied love — none of this can be done without writing. Everything stays alone with itself if I don’t write it. That was very excessive and sloppy just now, but I’m going to leave it where it is.
The end of the book merges traditional text with images and symbols in an almost alchemical manner. The experience of reading the book from beginning to end made me feel as though I was a participant in a (benevolent!) ritual or magical act. Were you consciously trying to make a supernatural object, or were you aware of those qualities and tendencies in the work during the process of writing?
Yes. And yes I was aware of those qualities and tendencies. And this, what you say you felt, is what I hoped a reader would feel. So I am glad.
This is the third book you’ve published with Fence. Could you talk a little about the process of working with Rebecca as an editor, and in what ways the necessary elements of turning a manuscript into a book alter or shape the work?
Rebecca is a wonderful human being and an exquisite editor. She is absolutely committed to each writer she publishes, and we are all so different from one another. Before I met Rebecca I thought she must be a pretty slippery operator, a real insider, one of those real editor types, the kind of people who essentially are just throwing parties, who are collectors, who seem to have no morals at all and an ability to be everywhere at once, like those people who can talk to anyone brilliantly, who just want to be where the action is, you know the type, not that those are bad people, not at all, we need them, but perhaps those are the kind of people I can like but never love. However Rebecca Wolff turned out, when I met her, to be in fact a saint, utterly stunning in her simplicity, her directness, and her commitment to action. I need not like everything she likes, and there are things I like she doesn’t like, but what I love about her is she trusts what she feels. And she is a startling, exemplary writer. You must read her novel The Beginners, (I did! I read it very slowly, all October, sitting underneath an oak tree behind my apartment at Notre Dame, every day at dusk. It was the first novel I’ve read in a long time that I wanted never to finish, which is how I feel about my favorite books.) and her parties are in fact pretty damn good. But I am supposed to be talking about the process of making the book. Rebecca lets me do it. I am sure I am an infuriating person to work with because I am broke all the time, and I move around all the time, and I lose things, and I rewrite certain things thirty, fifty times. She and I collaborated on the cover of the cow – I paid $300 for the rights to the cover photo, which I’d chosen – and then after Coeur de Lion Rebecca said she wanted to give me more design freedom, so you see, how cool is she. I cannot say enough about this woman. She picked me out of the sludge pile. I was about to write “I probably owe my life to her” but it is likely that I in fact do owe my life to her, insofar as I have been denied the henry darger-like existence to which I formerly aspired, and it is Rebecca whose gesture effectively denied me this existence. Perhaps the only thing wrong with her is she allows me to rewrite my own books so many times that the galleys are always late and Kirkus Reviews never gets them in time.
Carina Finn is an MFA student at the University of Notre Dame. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SUPERMACHINE, TYPO, alice blue & elsewhere, and her chapbook I HEART MARLON BRANDO was recently released on Wheelchair Party. She is a member of the NY Poetry Brothel and helps edit Action, Yes Online Quarterly.