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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Juliana Spahr: Interview

Juliana Spahr's "barely truthful" memoir The Transformation (atelos 26) explores her experiences from 1997 when she first received a teaching job at the U of Hawai'i through her living in New York during the September 11 attacks. During those years she was trying to come to terms with deep complications: she was living with two men in a three-way relationship, she quickly learned about the tension between the colonized and colonizers in Hawai'i politics and everyday life,  she questions what her poetry has to do with these extraordinarily thorny issues. What follows is an e-mail interview with Juliana that concerns the book, and that took place in the summer of 2008. If the questions seem terribly personal, it is because the book is unswervingly honest and intimate. These are the sorts of questions it raises. 

I thank Juliana for her time and energy: she recently became a mother. Congratulations to her.

You say that this is "a barely truthful book." But it does follow some of the facts of your life: your moving to Hawaii, your life as one member of a relationship that consisted of you and two men living amorously under one roof, the move to NYC, and your being there for Sept. 11. My first question has to do with embarrassment. You reveal so much in this book. Why? How does it make you feel?

Urgh. I confess, sometimes I curse myself for some things I say in it.  There was a funny moment last week where the three of us were having a fight and one of the loosely veiled characters in the book goes and gets the book and says what did you mean when you wrote this about me. It was slightly comedic, slightly horrifying.

When I wrote the book I felt somewhat isolated. When I was in Hawai’i I felt as if I could write anything and no one would really read it. Or very few people within 2,500 miles. If I were to make a list of the people within the 2,500 miles who might read it, the list might have five to ten names on it. So I felt as I wrote this if I could say anything and it would not resonate very far.

I had, in other words, an incredible yet illusionary feeling of freedom. And I’m not sure that I will ever feel that again. I certainly do not feel as if I have the freedom to write a version of that book right now. Instead I feel very much like I need to protect my private life. I think this has something to do with having a child. (I wish I did not have to say that; I’m freaked out by any suggestion that having a child is a limitation on a writing life.) And it has something to do with being involved in a semi-permeable and somewhat public community of friends and frenemies in a different way than I was in Hawai’i.

At the same time, I understand that one writes things in the moment and one has to do it like that. There is no other way. And I’m not sure this book embarrasses me more than other things I have written. Isn’t it all embarrassing at some point? And isn’t that just part of being human? Being embarrassed and dealing with it?

The book is unrelentingly intense and unwaveringly honest. Do you live at that sort of fever pitch? Or is this one of the changes that made this book "barely true"?

Are you asking, am I neurotic and slightly obsessive? Am I driven crazy by myself? If so, the answer is yes.

Why is it narrated in the third person plural ("they")?

Part of me wants to say because I wanted to. And by that I meant it felt right to me. Several people who read earlier drafts of this suggested that I change it and I refused to even entertain the idea. What this might mean is that I felt that in order to say endlessly embarrassing things about myself, I needed to use a distancing pronoun.

But the story that I told myself about this “they” was that I needed to embrace what it meant to not be a part of a “we” but to be the outsider, not in the marginal sense but in the sense of the colonizer.

You mention Renee Gladman and Pamela Lu's work as "being on my mind" when you began this project. I also felt I heard echoes of Hejinian's My Life and any number of Stein books. The difference is that The Transformation is explicitly political, political to the point where you confess the ways political events affect your bodily organs. What do you see as The Transformation's contribution to this group of works?

Those are all writers/books that I love. And so I’m not sure I see The Transformation as making much of a contribution to what has already been done so well but I do like to think of it as in dialogue with these writers/books. I am a thief. Both literally (I often steal entire sentences) and philosophically (I steal ideas of those who are smarter than me). I call it homage.

Did anyone get mad at you as a result of what you wrote in the book?

It is a prickly book. I sometimes feel it has something in it to make anyone who was in the same space with me at the same time annoyed. Some who lived parts of that book have told me they didn’t like it very directly and those discussions have been very helpful to me. I am grateful for them. Susan Schultz, for instance, had many issues with the Hawai’i parts of the book. And I changed some things after discussing them with her. I probably didn’t “fix” things completely. (I don’t want to imply her endorsement, in other words, because some of her complaints I imagine would still exist). But it was generous of her to spend time with me on it, even as some of her complaints freaked me out.

Others have implied that they have problems but have not gone into them.

And I should admit that there are some things that are misrepresented in the book. And sometimes I wonder why I did that. I tell almost nothing, for instance, about the 4 year very intense fight that took over the English department that was about whether faculty members who were both writers and critics, such as myself, were qualified to teach creative writing. I tell almost nothing about the fight around race in Lois Ann Yamanaka’s work that took over both the English Department and the local writing community. I think at the time that I felt as if I couldn’t fit them into the book. But I also wonder sometimes about the politics of not mentioning them. Should I have confessed that my vision of the university was probably colored by the inevitable disgruntlement that accompanies a long fight about my and others qualifications that involved slightly nutty things like some faculty organizing a letter writing campaign where people were asked to tell the chair to save creative writing from “postmodernism and cultural studies.”

The book seems to have five threads that wind through it. They appear, disappear, and reappear, usually reframed and recontextualized. I noticed the love triangle, environment, moving, politics, the academy, and language as your principle concerns. Am I missing one? Why these concerns? What did you learn about them in the course of writing this book? 

Those are probably the main ones. I might add the word “identity” before politics and I might add “poetry” or “literature” to the list.

Did writing the book help you to come to a clearer place in regard to your relationship to these issues?

Some what. Most of it though just feels as if the book was a baby step to beginning to get to a clearer place, that there is so much work left to do.

Why the repetitions? The most common one is your characterization of "avant-garde" poetry as using "fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on." You also repeatedly describe the U.S. government as "the government that currently occupies the continent."  Why do you repeat it so often?

I like repetition. I like it as a rhythmical device. I think it sounds good (which I know is not shared by everyone). I use it instead of counting syllables or alliteration or…

But a lot of those baroque nomenclatures are attempts to avoid terms that aren’t totally working. “Avant garde” is one of those terms that doesn’t totally make sense. What we call “avant garde” is full of forms that have long traditions. The term “indigenous” (which I avoid with “genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived”) has a certain circumstantial sense (everyone, after all, is indigenous to somewhere but the term “indigenous” used in a colonized place clearly does not include everyone). With “the government that currently occupied the continent” I wanted to point to how the US government is a colonial government, despite the electoral system.

You seemed to lose some faith in the efficacy and relevancy of this poetry as the book moved on?You even mention in one part that government officials begin using the language of "fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on," leaving activist, "avant-garde" poets no leg to stand on?

I don’t know if it is a real lose of faith. I am still very devoted to the thinking that happens in and around poetry. But I guess thinking about the literary traditions that fit a little uneasily into the US, and I would say that about Hawai’i’s various poetries, made me have to rethink some of the things I took to be true. I’d probably also say that this rethinking also opened a space for me to think some more about why I am still devoted to poetry. I’ve been working on a critical book this summer where I try to think about this devotion some more. So I’m not without faith finally.

What is "The Transformation?" Learning that you are a colonizer? feeling your political alienation from the rest of the country? feeling political alienation from what you believed you believed? Are there a number of transformations?

Yes and yes and yes and yes. The book had many titles. I couldn’t settle on one. It was called koa haole for a while. (Koa is a majestic tree that is endemic to the islands and is very important to building things like canoes; haole is the word for people from afar or white people or colonizers or…; koa haole is a small tree from Mexico that is very invasive in Hawai’i and that resembles the early growth of the koa.) And then it was called passiflora. Etc, etc. Jennifer Moxley, who generously read a draft of the book before it was published, told me that she kept calling it something else, something like “the take over” maybe. And I decided on The Transformation as a less loaded version of her suggestion.

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