The Grief Work of Writing and Thinking
Sara Jane Stoner with Daisy Atterbury
March 9th, 2020
Writers Daisy Atterbury and Sara Jane Stoner stage a conversation on the relationship between shame and desire in language, touching on topics ranging from topping, bottoming, the queer erotics of speech, poetry, and the pulverization of "settler subjectivity," self-abolition, and teaching. They speak briefly in the interstices of events: first, inside the form of a workshop, and later on a bench in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in July 2019, where they observe a juvenile hawk hunt a squirrel, talk through the rows of a rose garden, and then wander down Washington Avenue, past a recalcitrant dog named Trixie, to a bar with a quiet backyard. They consider the contradictions and possibilities afforded in relationships to university institutions from positions on the inside and outside, asking what writing and teaching practices afford, cost, and produce in these contexts.
Daisy Atterbury: I’ve been thinking about shame and desire in relation to power. Everyone has tremendous shame around their relationship to power, whether they’ve experienced disempowerment and disenfranchisement or the opposite, complicity and participation in power structures designed to facilitate domination. The way structural power works, most everyone has both—the double shame of having experienced both disempowerment and proximity to structures of domination in their lives, even if that double shame manifests differently, is constituted differently, is based in often extremely different experiences. So how do you manifest a relationship to language, if language is the vehicle and the medium, such that the reorganization of desire allows us to change our relationship to power, and thus to shame?
Sara Jane Stoner: A conversation is a kind of dynamic relationship manifested in language that is combinatory. I am still deep in work on a piece about the feeling of talking in the present moment that my friend Erica Dawn Lyle is going to publish in her zine SCAM. I’ve felt obsessed by my feeling that the aboutness in a lot of political programming buries the double shame you describe so well, or loops it into a kind of catharsis feedback system that seems something other than the reckoning that people seem to desire. The aboutness of political programming never seems to account for the necessity of that chance-based relationship between desire and language—where do the words come from, what brings me to choose that word—that I think is revealing or altering. Where a person in language finds themselves moved.
DA: I’m always trying to understand this in terms of writing about place. And this question about getting outside of something like a "settler subjectivity," or more specifically, articulating a formulation of presence such that we can begin to understand the ways that ongoing colonial forces and changing relationships to colonial history operate on us as subjects and alter not only our writing but all of our ways of being, making, and loving. And there may be no way to find language for this. But there may be a kind of, I think, beautiful and useful way forward, an impulse to the reorganization and reconstitution of the self, in relation to others, which poetry offers. A pulverizing operation on our current understanding of relation. And it's not just about bodies, it’s weirdly about particles.
SJ: Our work has different but similar attachments to the project of making the poetic happen in language as a way to approach the problem of structural injustice. How this process resists forms of instrumentalization and legibility. How it might frustrate someone who wants you to make a structured argument with clear evidence that constructs the subject of the problem in an authoritative way. The negativity inherent in the poetic subject-object that you and I seem to be involved in making sensible, if not making "sense" of. I thought your writing for the Poetry Studies Now conference at Poet's House this spring was so amazing. I mean, speaking of negativity. I experienced it as a real effort in writing with a will to not let the self cohere; that was powerful and effective and I felt the room struggle with it. Did you feel it?
DA: I felt the struggle with it and the tentative openness to it. I was trying to understand how to speak from a place that accounts for but tries to implode the authority of the speaking subject, with emphasis on how that's not one activity but a practice. How that can become a durational (life) practice and a set of methods. I am also interested in the question of who receives this practice, and I think the ways the work doesn't land are as important as the ways it does. Academia isn't structured to embrace the kind of thought experiment that takes destabilization or let’s say, not knowing, as a starting point, which I think of as the idea eating itself. And I'm so glad you turned to negativity, because I'm also hung up on whether revolution requires some digestible working shared language. And if you're not willing to work within a shared language, if you're always imploding the definition of the thing, you're accomplishing something, but are you just isolating yourself? That's my question.
SJ: You know, this talk about dialectics and authority makes me think about teaching. What could be cool or radical about the myopia of really caring about an individual's capacity to read a sentence and just being like," I want you to really be able to read a sentence," and just losing my mind for a moment over getting a student to admit to the texture of a verb, or whatever. Which is insane when you really think about it. But some part of me believes that's going to substantially reorganize this person's relationship to their own desire such that they're going to then meaningfully resist the forces compelling them to buy in to whatever idea or product or possession that will possess them and drive them forward into a greater and greater entanglement in a way of being that essentially requires the oppression of life, of many forms of life. And I do madly believe that.
DA: I have observed what feels like this almost chemical process in myself. Finding a new grammar of address can reorganize a predisposition to repression or again shame, which often structures our desire in contemporary life. Oddly we can reorganize our relationship to desire. I think that's how you put it?
SJ: Or even, no—is it the reorganizing of desire itself? I think so. Is that fair? Or maybe that's too grand. I know that this connects with something I’ve heard Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak say live on a panel at the Graduate Center in NYC, which is echoed in an interview she gave in Pakistan at Habib University: that getting to know students personally is so important because teaching isn’t about changing a person’s mind, but "rearranging desires." I think if you're talking about something, the word relationship is in the sentence, but I think if you are entangled in it, something maybe more immediate, more rare is happening. Kandice Chuh always said to me, SJ, could you just get out of the language, could you just like, get out of it? Could you just take a few steps back, rather than being in it? And I was like, No. I don't want to. Or I can't. More probably I don't want to. So I think if you're in it then the linguistic activity is more revealing, or has more of the desiring self in it, so that you're interacting with something closer to your own desire. I spend 80 percent of my teaching time trying to figure out how to get people to just admit that things are making multiple meanings, and then trying to support them in forms of writing that don’t need to deny this. Sexy Rexy… this Summer Romance rose still isn’t doing that well, I was hoping it would be doing well; that it would be a good omen. I work hard to make this argument that we’re instruments the world is playing on, less-than-or-more-than-sovereign subjects vibrating all of the time with phenomena. Kew Gardens. White Pet. I don't know why, I find all the rose names so problematically erotic.
DA: White Pet is so… Mister Lincoln. There’s a project that I'm actively working out which involves trying to exist or like, subsist in a more consciously responsive state. I think I'm trying to be "sexually constituted by my environment" in a way that I haven't been available to before. The question is, do these micro or individual forms of reorganization have any role in reshaping social structures?
SJ: I think we have to believe the answer is yes, but be prepared to admit that we misrecognize or miss the evidence. When you say 'sexually constituted by your environment' it makes me think about what comes in and what goes out, conceptually or materially—the infinite penetrability of the body and how I always find myself wanting to insist on it when people are trying to argue for a possibility of safety or control. I recognize that there's a certain kind of violence in my insistence on that. But then I'm holding a sign that says "No" in my mind, "No, you can't know what you're going to see when you walk over there." You have to walk over there and as it's happening, things are coming in. That's about chance or about ... the probability of what you’ll be exposed to in particular environments, what that says about your life, your life risks and chances. This isn’t an argument against care, or being conscious of other beings, but about the significance of developing an awareness of what it feels like to perceive, which always exceeds our consciousness.
DA: Anna Gurton-Wachter recently published a poem, which Dorothea Lasky selected for a prize for Peach Magazine. There's a moment where she talks about passing a person on the street who spits an orange seed at her, if I’m remembering correctly. It seems like she’s trying to name that as a kind of contact, both receiving and also projecting herself out of herself. Maybe this is my own reading of that moment—but to me she projects herself out of her own experience by endorsing his gesture. She's like, "Do it—spit the seed."
SJ: I am wondering about the power of endorsing another’s action in a poem, what the moves and terms are. So that's like a projective moment of relation? And was this a queasy moment for you in this poem?
DA: Maybe. I felt she was naming two different kinds of contact. The gesture that he was making, and then the gesture that she made in response, which was almost like to engulf this character’s action. Or to take over the narrative. Part of me thinks the power differential is so great between the narrator and the other person that this treats the other person like an object in the poem. But there’s also this wish articulated for the object to bait back or to confront the speaking subject. A wish for the object to control the poem, to "spit the seed," but there’s the impossibility of getting out from under the problem of narration, the "projective moment of relation," as you put it. How abject and thwarting. Even as it offers a way out. It brings us back to shame.
SJ: What you're saying is making me think about how my emphasis on myself as a thing which is infinitely penetrated is more or less an effort to identify as much as possible as an object. I like your citing of Anna's poem as a kind of call or like an invitation to acknowledge that that does not solve the problem. That things are always travelling in both directions. Trixie, go to the park. The name of that dog is Trixie. And the beseeching of Trixie to go to the park was so verbal. Trixie come to the park, we're going to the park.
DA: I’m thinking about connecting it with people, how it feels when the embodied dialogue involves someone wanting to gently and roughly and in all ways be treated like an object in this constructed space. What’s the role of the facilitator? A strong imaginary thrust for me is outward, in the sense that it feels really toppy or like I want to push at or into a thing.
SJ: What I hear you saying, Daisy, is that in the erotic play of dialogue, you are conscious of yourself engaging in a dynamic that involves registering the extent to which a partner in conversation is up to be topped in a way? I'm such a hard switch. I know that I have the capacity to look at a person and speak to them in a way that will make them silent. Whether or not I'm right about what I'm saying, I know that I can. And I fear it. The way you describe your topping feeling in conversation feels somewhat inextricable from our somewhat shared academic context. To what extent are analytical capacities an obstacle to intimacy or to a kind of knowing? "What do you want to sustain with your knowing?" is a real question, and also whether that knowledge is physical or intellectual.
DA: I like thinking about the role of silence in topping, or the role of slowing, in speech. What waiting can do. Regarding different kinds of knowing, is there a sense in which you bring pedagogy into every interaction? Is it hard to deal with a situation in which you have to resist the teaching moment?
SJ: Seeing any moment as a teaching moment could be a matter of a perceptual mode, an orientation of self in relation to the present. I feel taught by everything. Working in the Writing Center at Cooper Union, I experienced my perceptiveness as valuable to collaboration, and even as a lightness—like I had a lightness, even as I had an intensity. At that point in time I was learning about my ability to evacuate myself, make spaces for other peoples’ selves and ideas as a rhythm and as a way of being part of a kind of pseudo-undercommons of institutional learning. Writing center work is conventionally viewed as less valuable than classroom teaching. In some ways for the purposes of like, being in relation slash teaching, putting myself off, delaying myself, made me a certain kind of agile listener and improviser. The more I shore up my own subjectivity, the less agile I feel.
DA: What’s the degree to which delaying or evacuating the self makes you a good teacher? Julia Calver, Mira Mattar and Marina Vishmidt talked about self-abolition in an interview in Makhzin a few years ago. That conversation felt like an attempt to think about gender, specifically. Via Monique Wittig, Vishmidt thinks about self-abolition as a process that involves strategically affirming and then disavowing multiple selves, or identities, along the way. I like that you’re thinking about pedagogy, and classroom environments in particular. And I’m wondering if a certain kind of self-evacuation has its limits as an approach. Whether this kind of evacuation—as a mode, as a practice— leaves enough space for certain kinds of other necessary contact.
SJ: I mean, every big strength is a big weakness. There were other people who did the Writing Center the other way where they would basically talk at the student—give them or impose the substance of their own interest. Can I actually evacuate myself? If I crowd myself with details. If I really take in as much as I can, I think that my self is pressed to the margins, in a way. Though I'm still a container with qualities. I would like to try to find a way to name that. Is that pedagogical? Maybe. Is it caring? Could be. Not always. Was it about impatience and speed, desire for my own—like if you could just fix this.
SJ: Or entanglement. Living a discontinuous self like an electron—that’s Karen Barad’s direction. I think I'd make a good unpredictable object out of myself, and made a good object. But it's like what do you do, you know, when someone pops up and poses an existential problem to you, verbalized or not? Do you walk away out of respect for your own boundaries, or do you turn in? And if you turn in, how do you not mingle yourself with what is happening? You cannot not.
DA: I think you can offer some kind of presence without ...
SJ: Say more, Daisy.
DA: Without mingling yourself.
SJ: I think that's your fantasy.
SJ: How can you be present without—
DA: Maybe it's a defensive fantasy!
SJ: How can you be present without...? We're really getting into our pathologies now. How can you be present without mingling yourself in what is another person's existential crisis or—or subject?
DA: I mean you can be like a rock. A rock in the ocean. And the waves wash around you. You can be a bulwark.
SJ: The rock absolutely affects the ocean.
DA: Yes but does it mingle?
SJ: And the ocean, it erodes the rock.
DA: It doesn't mingle!
SJ: It so mingles.
DA: But it mingles in this way that's like, very slow.
SJ: It's a force!
DA: Very slow.
SJ: It's a force. It shapes the water!
DA: I know, I know. But I think it's about. It's about—
SJ: It stops the water. It forces the water to leap.
DA: But it has its own constitution.
SJ: It's also deluded in that it thinks that it's not moving.
DA: That's true, it is deluded. But.
SJ: Can we just go back to the original question?
DA: No. We are! This is the question!
SJ: I know, but don't hide it in metaphor.
DA: So, it's about temperament and availability to the other person, thing, or situation. It's about porousness and this question of receptivity to the other person's stuff. The degree to which you make yourself available to the co-mingling. Right? There's a whole kind of sliding scale of receptivity there. There’s a gradation, a degree of porousness. There's choice there!
SJ: And to the extent to which I believe that we're fully conscious of the choices we're making, there's choice. But I just feel like so much of this has to do with like a fantasy of an ideal teaching self that's like hygienic, and like always knows the right amount of the self to reveal.
DA: No, I don't have that fantasy. So, how to work with—or against—the briefly constituted or eternally unraveling self, housed in language, participant to wider social structures? Especially if we name these as determined by ongoing colonial dynamics.
SJ: I know you don't have that fantasy, Daisy. I know you don't. For what it’s worth I think Socrates was an eternally unravelling self. I desire a teaching environment or a learning environment, or a situation, where there actually isn't a meaningful power differential. Or the differences in power in terms of our structural identities are like, named and accounted for and acknowledged and are a part of our speech or interaction. But that we share conditions in such a way that when a person comes to you with an existential question or an academic one to not share of yourself in that moment is the ethical failure. To not say, this is how I'm answering this question based on this, who and what I am, and not to isolate the subject somehow from the conditions of the self. Which means mingling the self in the moment. I think I'm irrelevant. I would like to be, actually. But that's not a denial of my power.
DA: So, to keep pushing at this, perhaps unfairly, within a particular and admittedly narrow framework, I'm trying to think about this in terms of topping and bottoming. I think I'm trying to grapple, I'm trying to wrestle with power dynamics that produce a desired experience based in some kind of hierarchy, but that still involve power play. Because I think the question of whether an interaction involves desired or productive power play, and whether that power is like, created and dispersed, is malleable and is part of a performance that everyone engages with, and whether that's consensual or not, are all questions we wouldn’t want to do away with in a pedagogical "situation" as you put it. When I think about teaching and whether one would imagine it as non-hierarchical, I still think—I'm still like, we have to think about power not as if power is bad, or as if it could go away, but as if it's a function. Can that function be engaged with to a degree?
SJ: I'm thinking about the idea of productively playing out certain power dynamics within academic institutions. What is the "there" there to the politics of these ideas, and if, right, push comes to shove in a certain way, like what kind of reality is there to these ideas and these relationships. How much does it exist in the realm of imaginary power? How many tenured faculty do we know who are advocating for adjunct labor? Is there good play with power within an institution? I kind of think not. Like I kind of think it's all nonconsensual SM. Which we all "consent" to via like roughly two decades of institutionalization.
DA: I mean I think in some ways that's the question. Right? It makes me think about questions I considered while co-organizing a poetics program in New Mexico over the past decade. If you're choosing to build something jointly with people, you have to consider dynamics within the institution you’re building. And anything's an institution after it exists for a number of years, even if it congeals and then dissipates and reimagines itself and refuses to like, make itself known in all these ways, to a wider public. I think of most other collaborative or collective projects I’ve engaged with over the years are institutions at a certain point, too, whether they operate within a university space, or independently.
SJ: It’s wild to think about the academic institutions I’m teaching in now being jointly made by a group of people with common interests—even as those interests were delimited through bigoted exclusion and colonialism. How to take stock of that initiating moment. So, can you be a little more specific about the relationship between what I said and your move to these other institutional structures?
DA: I'm asking whether there are some "productive" forms of contingent hierarchy, perhaps as unexpected organizations, or configurations of power, or say, some ways that power manifests within organizations even temporarily. And maybe we're talking about different kinds of institutions. I get what you’re saying about non-consensual SM. I think I’m specifically talking about work outside the academy, outside the apparatus of the state, those monoliths we can name, historicize, and interrogate, though I know it’s not spatially or situationally accurate to think about just "inside" and "outside." I do find that the ways I've been able to successfully create meaning through structures that prioritize sustained conversation and contact have at times rested on me having a final say in things I've organized and built.
SJ: Sometimes it feels hot just to name it. Your knowledge of the fact that at the end of the day, right, the success of the particular thing depends upon your executive power. And that's your pursuit of the topping subject.
DA: I mean these activities exist alongside engagements in which I’m the sub, where I’m absolutely on the side of endorsing and giving over to someone else’s vision. Like you’ve been saying in the discussion of mingling, non-contact is the thing that doesn’t exist. I've learned a lot from the exterior force of so much work happening in the places I grew up, the coalescing presence of organizing work in NM I’ve been lucky enough to be proximate to. Resistance efforts have always been there, but it has felt more diffuse in the past. It feels like now there’s a lot of social reorganization happening.
SJ: I think you are really good at certain kinds of holding in abeyance your own knowledge and your own cumulative history of doing this work. And your own like long and deep consciousness of certain fundamental problems. Regarding close reading and the instrumentalization of one's knowledge in the production of authoritative subjects and topping, how do you understand and name the relationship between your own lack, whatever that is, and the manifestation of your desire, so well and so clearly for those who encounter you that its negotiation becomes a collaborative form of mutual protection from it?
DA: Maybe it's about understanding that not knowing can be a cogent state in the present. That Knowing is more like, static. It's a kind of static distraction. That's what I liked so much about that excerpt I pulled out of your Vida essay, Failing at Subjects that begins, "I'm not not an academic; and I am not not a failure." There’s that moment which asks "how the writing we make teaches others how to treat objects." Maybe it's the lack of consciousness about where our desire moves from, which manifests in a performance of a false kind of Knowing, that’s the problem.
SJ: This remix of Joanna Newsom is really, really odd. Where'd the harp go! So, is this a grief project?
DA: It may be a grief project. That work is, I'm sure you can relate, it's also the work of writing and thinking.
SJ: Yes, the grief work of writing and thinking. Or just like being really sad. I remember when we talked for the first time and being like, Daisy trembles. And I named it to you because I felt like I needed to admit to noticing it. What is the feeling knocking rhythmically at the door of that trembling? Which I feel like my equivalent for that is like, what is the force built up against what obstacle that I feel as I go about trying to be a normal human being?
DA: For me, sometimes it's like, why isn’t everyone trembling? Look where we are! I'm just at the surface in my body. My level of self is nothing! All these people are so trained, it's mind-blowing the amount of control. I just feel more at the surface of that negotiation and it lives in my body.
SJ: The extent to which that already represents a form of knowledge that most people will never allow themselves is something you should try to give yourself some credit for, I think.
DA: These ways that we meet and encounter.
SJ: Rich failure.
DA: Failure to achieve arrival.
SJ: It will alter your writing.