Heather Christle - Interview
Sir, It Is a Hole - Heather Christle in Conversation with Alexa Mal
This summer I travelled to Yellow Springs, Ohio to meet poet, Heather Christle, as she prepared to move to Atlanta with her husband, Christopher DeWeese, and their daughter, Harriet. We talked at a shaded picnic table in nearby Gaunt Park on a very hot day in June. Christle’s stellar first book of nonfiction, The Crying Book, is out this November from Catapult. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
AM: So you’re leaving Yellow Springs. Do you want to start by reflecting on your experience here? What you’re looking forward to in Atlanta?
HC: I’ve loved living here. It was hard moving away from a community of people that we really adored in Massachusetts. A lot of poet and writer, artist friends. So we were apprehensive about moving out here. Chris has lived in Ohio before. He went to Oberlin. So he had a little bit of a sense of it, but I’ve always lived on the East Coast with like three months on the West Coast. But it’s been lovely. And it’s been so tied up in both becoming a parent and raising a kid, and then also writing The Crying Book. I started writing The Crying Book maybe six months before we moved here. And then I got pregnant within two months of us moving here. So that’s been the stuff that’s really made up the bulk of my experience in this place, but it’s been a good place to have both of those things happen. It was so lucky to have this beautiful home where Harriet could go and meet other kids and we could meet other parents and I could have time to think and make this work happen.
AM: So you have this book coming out as you’re moving to Atlanta and beginning your new job at Emory. It seems like a very tight timeline.
HC: Totally. It’s a lot to be happening in the space of a couple of months. I’ve had a few teaching gigs here and there, but I haven’t had a full-time tenure-track gig. So I’ll be starting a new job with this very intense and personal book coming out at the same time. And we’ll be starting over in a new place. Certainly, if my life were a book, I’d be like, “Oh, everything is changing at the same time.” You sort of shape it that way, right? It’s the end of a chapter, the start of a new one. I guess I’ll know more about what I think about it once we’re there. You know, we’re moving in three weeks. It’s hard to know exactly what you think when you’re in the midst of it.
AM: There’s this part in The Crying Book where you’re in the car with Zachary Schomburg, leaving the cemetery, and you hear the song on the radio. You say, “—we decide the book is becoming unkind. I turn the stereo off.” and I just kind of highlighted this next part where you’re thinking of your life within the framework of a book, but then you self-correct, “I say book. I mean poem. I mean the way the landscape suddenly reveals itself in layers, a vertical light shining its connective beam from one moment to the next. An entry into—an awareness of—a dimension always present. Not always seen. I think if I can keep myself alive to it, it will keep me from going under.” I really love that. I don’t even know if I have a coherent question about it. I just—
HC: I can talk about it.
AM: I’d love that.
HC: I mean, I think, “book” is the first thing that I go to because books are the material that I live my life around a lot of the time, but what I’m actually talking about there and experiencing in that moment with Zach, is a sense that it is possible to be living in the physical world and moving through time and space and to suddenly feel a current of connection to many other moments and places. And to be able to experience something that can feel like joy, but also can just feel like a really fortunate intensification of alertness and consciousness. I’ve been reading a lot of Virginia Woolf lately and she writes about this kind of experience, I think, a bit in Moments of Being. She talks about seeing a flower just outside her childhood home in St. Ives, that they would visit in the summertime, and she looks and she suddenly becomes that there was a ring that surrounded the flower and the ring contains not just the flower, but the earth as well and that that was the whole, that was the flower: part-earth/part-flower. And I think that there are moments that happen sometimes when I am reading or when I am in the world and I am able to sense the connection between things that I think, “How could I ever not want to be in one of these connections?”
AM: It seems like a lot of the book is about connections. Or, you talk about parallels a lot. The parallel and the perpendicular crying. And as a writer you seem to be grappling with your relationship with metaphor. That was something I really latched onto. You quote the Schomburg poem where he says, “the good thing/about crying is you/don’t really have to/pick a subject.” Those were just some of the points I was making a constellation from.
HC: I love that you got to make your own constellation. I’m really glad for that. I’ve been writing this craft essay about writing this book and I’m thinking about how I hope that what the book can make possible for a reader is giving many occasions for your own constellations to form, for your own associations to come to bear. It provides a space where I have laid mine out, but I want there to be room for other experiences and layers which every reader will activate differently.
I rely so heavily on metaphor to help myself understand the world. I’m always thinking this thing is like another and this thing is like this thing is like this other thing. When I started writing the book, I felt attached to the idea of the critique of the perpendicular; where things are made to correspond at this very rigid right angle, where it is understood precisely how one thing connects to another, how one thing becomes, briefly, another. Actually, not even briefly, because I feel like the perpendicular wants to really pin things down and hold them there and make it always be so. So I, in a kind of reactionary way, had this real attachment to the parallel where things run alongside one another and we see that their journeys are linked, or that they are associated, but you don’t come in and force them together. But as I kept working on the book I found that that became its own kind of rigidity. I talk about how it’s possible for lines to briefly intersect and then move along their separate orbits. Part of what the book taught me is not to hold things tightly in either shape—neither perpendicular, nor parallel. It felt like a moral question as I was moving through the book and certainly in thinking about metaphor and how it shapes thought. That it can reproduce patterns that are generated by white supremacy and misogyny and capitalism. Of course I want to resist my thoughts being dictated by those preset patterns. As I kept reading and writing and thinking, I learned a little bit more how to hold it all a little more loosely so that imagination could occur. If that makes sense?
AM: I think it makes a lot of sense. I’m curious about the genesis of the book. You’ve said it had begun with a plan to make a map of everywhere you’ve cried. And my initial reaction to that is, “That’s impossible.” Was this always going to take this shape, when does it become a nonfiction book, why not poems?
HC: It wasn’t that I wanted to actually make a map. It’s that I wanted to think about making a map and I wanted to be able to have conversations with other people about what their map would look like. But, yeah, it would generate nothing to actually make that map. What the idea really is seeking to work with is words, is stories about crying. And it just so happened that when I started writing down my thoughts about it, it was in prose and then I started doing some research because I found that the more I wrote, the more questions I had and the more I realized how little I knew about something that I did a lot of. And I suppose that because so much of what I was reading was prose, it seemed like the best container for it would be nonfiction. I also think that maybe I was seeking the pleasure of unfamiliar form. Once I figure out how to do something, I usually need to take a little time off from doing it and try to do something I don’t know how to do. And I didn’t know how to write nonfiction so I thought I should try. Do you do that? It feels good to not know what you’re doing sometimes.
AM: Yeah. I think so.
HC: I think because it can help you do things without glibness. You’re not going to pretend that you have all of the answers if you’re working in something that is new to you. And I knew for sure I didn’t have all of the answers about this.
AM: I really appreciated that about the book. You don’t really assert that you have the answers and it can kind of feel like poetry in that way. The questions are more interesting, but you also include all of these little fun facts and delightful science.
HC: Or horrible science, too.
AM: Yeah, of course. There’s a lot of horrible science.
HC: I wanted to be able to inhabit a relationship where I would be able to feel all of that because I’m fascinated. There’s incredible things that are learned and explored and that can sometimes have good, practical applications and also some that have the feeling of poetry, of a spark of something new being experienced, but then, it can also be used to do great harm.
AM: What was the research like? It seemed like you came up against some explicitly misogynist and racist thinking as well as more passive upholding of the gender binary for instance.
HC: It was really instructive. I’ve always been interested in science and especially in cognitive science, but I’ve tended to read more secondary sources around it. So to go into actual studies and to see people actually saying things that are just so caught in the binary was really instructive. It made me realize just how far there is to go. It was also interesting because if you look into scientific studies around sex and gender and the various intersections between the two, people are doing really great work at helping people to understand the vast spectrum in both cases. And I’m really glad for that, but it does seem like there’s a lack of overlap between that work and other topics. So that it’s still very easy, for instance, for people to talk about crying behaviors and sex differences without any recognition that all of this other work is being done to understand that a binary is simply not a good fit for understanding human bodies.
AM: Was most of your research done in these libraries? Did you talk to many people?
HC: There was a lot of interlibrary loan operations going on. So we built up what Chris called the “crybrary” that way and I did a lot of reading there, but I was also able to access databases through friends with institutional access, which I lacked. I read a lot of material that way. As far as talking with people, it was great. I didn’t talk directly to a lot of crying experts. I spoke to one, William Frey, who wrote Crying: The Mystery of Tears, the one that was really big in the ‘80s. And that was really generous of him, but mostly I just moved through my life over five years letting people know I was writing a book about crying. It was great because you’d just be in regular conversation and that would come up and people would tell me things. It was marvelous because everybody knows something about crying. I would learn about videos of artists crying and I would learn about poems that featured tears and other people would tell me about how they never cry, but they do cry when they watch this one movie. I posted on Tumblr and one person wrote, “I cried in the airplane when my twin sister told me I was ugliest when I smiled. I threw a blanket over my head and cried.” Everywhere I went people would offer up these things and then I would think about it and use that as another point of research and go see, “What else has been said about this?” “What else does this connect to?” It was such a joy.
AM: Yeah, I can imagine. Even in telling people I was going to interview a poet who’s written this book about crying, people want to talk about it. I had people open up to me about their experiences. In the book you reference that website, Reasons My Son Is Crying.
HC: Have you looked at it?
AM: I’ve seen it before. I didn’t revisit it, but I remember it being entertaining. I thought it was funny that you kind of workshopped it, suggesting Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary as a potential source text.
HC: I don’t even totally mean that. It’s just an extra layer it gives me pleasure to imagine is translating the weird banality of childhood and parenting and the extreme heights of emotion into a kind of abstracted, dry language. It’s not that I don’t want the other thing to exist. I like it. It gives me pleasure. It’s nice after you’ve had a day of parenting where you feel like, “Oh my god, they cried about everything.” to go and just be in that release. “Oh yeah, a lot of people are in this.” I think I just like to take that material and turn it over and play with it and see what else it does. And that ended up connecting with thinking about Renee Gladman and the grid that she writes about. It’s hard for me to resist the pleasure of a connection once I start imagining it.
AM: I’m curious to hear more about the grid.
HC: This is also part of how I’m thinking about it in this craft essay I’ve been working on. When I sat down to do the final, big-push revision, I felt a bit overwhelmed and I knew that there were strands that needed shaping or thickening. My editor had done this really nice thing of making this numerical code for the various strands. She went through the book and wrote them down for each passage, but I couldn’t hold all of that in my mind at once. I remembered how my mother used to plot quilts on graph paper and I started to do that with the book. I assigned a color to each numerical strand and added some more and shifted things around a little bit, but I made this chart of the book’s strands so I could see it all at once. And that, I think, is part of that desire for abstraction. Something that lets you imagine an abstract whole as well as a kind of strange pattern hovering behind what we are able to access in our daily lives. I think calling it a grid is exciting because it suggests precision and objectivity, but also, for me, when I have that feeling of, “Oh, I got a glimpse of the grid!” it feels very strange and a bit disorienting, not totally tidy and mathematical. There’s something that feels at once immensely expansive and also feels like I’ve lost my sense of gravity when I get a glimpse of that. I think the way that I’m imagining the grid is a bit different than the way that Gladman is writing about it in Calamities, but when I saw that I got very excited.
AM: What’s an example of a time you had a glimpse of the grid?
HC: I also worry that it sounds really pretentious and stupid and phony spiritual.
AM: No, not at all.
HC: But you know what I mean? I don’t want to sound like I have access to something other people don’t. I don’t like when people start acting like they have an exclusive bead on things because they’re a poet. But there’s one example that I talk about in the book. I was driving to Columbus to meet up with my friend, Gabrielle, for lunch and I was thinking a lot about the book and I was thinking about archives and access and libraries and what it is that makes archives feel like inaccessible spaces, the sort of temple feeling of them. And I was also thinking about the pleasure of driving to lunch with a friend. And as I was driving, I could feel the sense that my consciousness was not existing purely in my body, but was existing also as the dust motes that I was seeing in the light in my peripheral vision. So quite literally, in a way, a grid that expanded out from my body that I could see beyond the limitations of myself. And maybe that’s a part of it, to see beyond the limits of yourself so that you’re able to grow large with possibility.
AM: You’re cautious not to talk about your experience of the grid as something you have special insight into, which feels very related to your writing against solemnity and this passage you quote...
HC: Oh yeah Henri Bergson. I love that passage so much. I really do.
AM: I wonder if you’ll talk about solemnity and poetry and why you are a poet by trade?
HC: It just gives me so much pleasure. Do you know Audre Lorde’s The Uses of the Erotic? She says “There is a difference between painting a back fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.” I think that I experience poems that way quite frequently, both the reading of them and the writing of them. They generate a satisfaction in me that is in the highest degree I have experienced. That’s, for me, why I do it. And there are many other reasons why many other people write poems or read poems and I’m not particularly interested in policing the borders and boundaries of that.
But, the Bergson, it’s just so funny! It reminds me of, I think it’s in Madness, Rack and Honey. Mary Ruefle talks about another poet asking her what she did and she said, “Oh, I’m a poet.” and he said, “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of calling myself a poet!” and it’s like, “Fuck you, man!” It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not like you’re declaring yourself a priest or anything. I understand sometimes, you know, I once went to a standup comedy show and I made the mistake of paying too close attention. I was trying to figure out the jokes so I wasn’t laughing enough. So the guy started being like, “What’s with you?” and he wanted to know what I did and there was no way I was gonna say I was a poet in that circumstance.
AM: What’d you say?
HC: I said I was a teacher. And then he asked of what, and I was like, English. I just was giving him as little as possible to work with. Sorry, comic man. But in every other circumstance, just say you’re a poet. It’s just a thing that we do. And it’s fine. And yes, it can give you immense feelings of connection to so many different pages and places and people and experiences and weird, weird things that language does, but that’s just what it is. It doesn’t have to have all of this other solemnity around it.
AM: Have you always felt that way?
HC: I think so.
HC: I don’t know.
AM: Have you always wanted to be a poet? When did you become a poet?
HC: Ha ha. I wrote poems when I was a kid. They were terrible. A lot of kids write really good poems. I did not. In high school I loved William Blake and Emily Dickinson, Kurt Cobain and Patti Smith, but I had this really funny idea. I think it’s because I was a punk, but I wanted to be like an interesting punk, so I was like, “I only like the classics.” You know? I was sort of suspicious of Patti Smith. I was like, “C’mon, she doesn’t even rhyme.” It was bullshit. I was just trying to be interesting. But then when I got to college I had a really wonderful experience taking poetry classes, both writing and lit classes. And suddenly I was able to enjoy contemporary poetry. I think in part because I started to see—punk can be really rigid. You know? Like, super rigid. And I was always afraid in punk of being caught out as being—
AM: A poser.
HC: Yeah. But then the Boston punk scene started to open up a little bit in the late 90s, early 2000s. I started college in ‘99 in Boston and suddenly the mods and the punks were hanging out more. People started dancing and dance punk started happening. And I was like, “Oh shit! We can just dance. And I don’t have to worry about getting punched in the face right now. This is awesome.” And it brought more creative sexual energy into things. So to have that world open up for me at the same time the world of contemporary poetry was opening up for me, they really got entangled with one another and that’s when I really started to build the foundation of who I could be.
AM: You talk a bit in the book about the harm done by the tears of white women. I wonder if you could talk a little about that, or what you’ve learned.
HC: The main question that I find myself returning to is, What are your tears doing? What are your tears making happen? The strange thing about tears is that, in a way, they have no content of their own. It’s entirely about an intensification of whatever is already in existence. And sending a message of, “This thing that is in existence, I want to at some level, consciously or unconsciously, intensify and call attention to.” So, in particular, the most extreme example of this with white women’s tears is when those tears are shed in order to cause violence to a person of color or a black person or indigenous person. All the systems are in place for that violence to happen; the tears activate them. You need to know that your tears can make certain things happen as a white woman and be alert to that and change your actions based on your knowledge of that. And if you see a white woman crying in this way, it’s important to redirect attention to the thing her tears are trying to hide.
AM: Do you cry in public often?
HC: No, but I think that that might be because I’ve been very much at home for the past six years. I’m not in public all that much. So, we’ll see what happens.
AM: Yes. Crying in the big city!
HC: I try to be pretty in control of it. That’s another thing that’s been great about this book. I’ve learned methods for not crying. “If you feel like you’re going to cry and you don’t want to, here are some ways to not.”
AM: What are some of those methods?
HC: One’s from Joan Didion who says put a paper bag over your head.
AM: Yes, I love that.
HC: I do, too. Another is to pick a color and try to find every instance of it you can wherever you are and just focus on that. Like, “Okay, I’m going to find all of the blue.” And that’s just a really concrete method of distraction. I also love the post-cry disguising of a swollen face, all of those methods from Michelle Tea’s novel, hemorrhoid cream under the eyes.
AM: Have you tried many of those methods?
HC: Yeah. I haven’t done the chilled spoons, but that sounds really nice. I’ve done tea bags. That does seem to work pretty well. With the hemorrhoid stuff you can’t use the ointment, you need the cream. The ointment just looks greasy, but the cream blends in and gets absorbed. The ointment just sits on top. Cold water’s always good. Or a nap.
AM: You talk about the physicality of crying, of collapsing on the floor and experiencing very physical, emotional episodes. I don’t know that I’ve seen many people talk about that in such a normalizing way. I’ve had experiences like this. I’ve been so overwhelmed with despair that I just have to thrash. And I come out of it feeling really ashamed.
HC: Yeah! It is such a physical experience. There’s so many physical details of it. I’m glad to hear you get on the floor, too because some other people have read it and been like, “I mean, that’s kind of hard to believe.”
AM: I believe it. I really identified with that.
HC: It’s as if you’re a puppet whose strings have been cut, like there’s nothing in you that could keep you standing up. I don’t think that I have exactly an average relationship with crying, but I don’t care. I’m just trying to, as much as I can, say things as I experience them and at the same time broaden my ability to experience things and understand them differently and to write all of that down with as little judgement as possible. In most cases. In some cases I feel a lot of anger toward people who have done things around crying, but even that gets complicated.
AM: What do you mean?
HC: Well, I’m thinking of Silas Weir Mitchell, who was horrible in many ways. Especially when I think about his treatment of Charlotte Perkins Gilman or when I think about the way that he was looking at art in Turkey. The intense limitations of his imagining are very apparent and it’s very easy to imagine the cruelty that can extend from those limits. But I went and I spent a week among his papers and when I read of his daughter’s death and his grief, I cried. So, I tried to allow there to be room for all of those reactions and experiences on the page.
AM: How are you feeling as a poet?
HC: As a poet? Extraordinarily lucky. I mean, for anyone to write a book and have it published is extremely lucky. That anybody wants to read my work, I feel extremely lucky. That I’ve been able to have access to resources, both intellectual, through the library and financial, through the ability to afford childcare. All of these things. I’m sometimes bewildered by that. It’s funny. My parents never questioned me being a poet. And it’s not like we were rich. I kind of don’t understand it, but I’m so thankful.
It’s hard for me to say exactly what I feel because I’m in such a moment of transition. I’m about to go and meet all of these new students. I taught at Emory before for a couple of years and the students were phenomenal and the ones that I met on my visit were just lovely. I’m hopeful about that and I’m feeling extremely exhilarated that I get to work alongside Jericho Brown and Robyn Schiff and of course all of the other folks, too, those are just the two other poets. I’m also a bit bewildered that it’s all happening at once. I’m on the other side of some things and I’m still watching what is on the other side of many things that open and come into being. I feel like I lack a conception of what the world will be as these things continue to open. I don’t quite understand the lack of mass action around the climate crisis. I mean, there is mass action, but it seems like there ought to be more. And especially thinking about all of the various ways people are caged at present and in particular people seeking freedom of migration. I’m trying to get my bearings. I’m trying to see what comes next and what I can do.
AM: Yeah. I really feel that.
HC: Right? On Twitter, Mariame Kaba has this great statement that I actually retweeted today because I’ve been holding it as a kind of talismanic phrase. She says, “Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.” The Crying Book talks a lot about despair and I know that despair and I will meet again many times. I hope that in the way that I move my body through space and whatever work I’m able to do on the page or in the world, that I can continue to work towards possibilities other than despair. Something that I ended up learning over the course of writing this book is that despair might know the truth about how bad things can be, but it lies when it says there can be no other way. Of course there can be another way. Of course. Things don’t have to be like this. They really don’t. There are so many alternatives. There are so many people already living lives that make visible those alternatives and it would be foolish to only look to the despair.
AM: Are there people right now whose work you look to in times of despair?
HC: The people who give me that feeling of expansiveness, of possibility. Virginia Woolf does that for me. Renee Gladman does that for me. Mary Ruefle does that for me. There’s this great Russell Edson poem I found the other day. Oh my god. It’s so good. It’s so funny. And so strange. I found it because I was trying to think of the possibility of imagining the form of this book as being like a crazy quilt. And I thought, “I really don’t know much about the origins of the crazy quilt and I want to understand the history of that form.” So, I went into JSTOR and I looked up crazy quilts and one of the first things that popped up was this Russell Edson poem that has the elephant sleeping under a crazy quilt. Do you want to see the poem?
AM: I would love to.
HC: It’s really great. I sent it to my mom.
AM: That’s amazing.
HC: Isn’t it so good? It’s just so strange. It just keeps shifting. It just keeps making you feel like you’ve turned a corner. At first it seems like you’re in a somewhat understandable house, but it’s like the dream where you discover new rooms in the house and you’re like, “Oh, I’ve never been in this room. Maybe I kind of remember this room?” It’s just so good.
AM: Are you writing poetry right now?
HC: Mostly right now I’m working on these essays. While I was working on The Crying Book I didn’t write poems for a really long time and about a year and a half ago, I started writing them again. I was really nervous. Like, “Oh shit. What if poems don’t like me anymore?” At first I told myself, “You just have to write lines. They don’t have to make a poem. You can just practice writing lines.” I thought that I was going to spend weeks just writing lines, but I spent about fifteen minutes writing some lines and then I was like, “Oh, there’s a poem!”
HC: Yeah. Or like, had that poem feeling. It wasn’t like I had the poem in my head and just had to write it down, but like, “Oh, there’s a poem on its way. I’m going to start writing it down.” So, right now the fact that I’m a little more focused on some essay/prose stuff, I feel much less fearful about it than when I was just working on The Crying Book because I had not yet returned from one form to the other. I wasn’t sure if such a return would be possible and I’m so glad that it is. Oh my god. I’m so glad. I wrote a couple poems like a month ago. I think I wrote probably a book’s worth of poems over the past year and a half. I just have to figure out how they fit together.
AM: Has working on this book and taking a break from poems changed your poetry?
HC: I think that it made me more ready to be funny again. There are funny moments in The Crying Book. I wouldn’t want to ever write a book that doesn’t have a kind of range of tone. That seems important to me, but I did miss the total freedom that I feel in poetry to please myself over and over again, to play, to follow the inclination wherever it goes. My poems are usually fairly short which means I can sustain a momentum that doesn’t seem to operate according to the gravity of the various systems of power that dictate things in the world. I’m not saying my poems are like, utterly liberated, but it’s easier for me to feel like there are liberatory possibilities in them. Possibilities of imagination, of strangeness, of humor, of all these things. In a work of prose, you have that first impulse and you can start to move, but over time things start to weigh you down again and the same patterns start to impose themselves. Claudia Rankine and Beth Lofreda in the introduction to The Racial Imaginary talk about how the writer must be in constant skeptical relation with their own imagination. You can write with imagination, but you also have to consider what are the patterns that you’re reproducing that are not from some active imagination, that are part of a racial inheritance that you would not want to be recreating, reinscribing. I’ve been glad to come back to poetry for the greater buoyancy of possibility there, maybe. It just has a different feeling to it.
AM: Do you edit while you write?
HC: Sort of. What I usually do is write a poem and then immediately go back and change whatever needs changing. So I get it down and immediately go back and clarify. Not to clarify meaning, but clarify whatever arc it’s on.
AM: I ask because I’m curious how much you feel liberated in your writing process before going back to clarify or correct your path. I’m sure you’re not saying terrible things then going back and editing it into a cool poem, but I wonder how your sense of responsibility or even just preventing yourself from doing the same thing over and over operates in relation to your desire for liberation.
HC: I don’t know. You just make up new problems. Some of the poems that I read in Cleveland are from this problem that I saw another poet working with. Emily Berry in Stranger Baby was writing poems where every line is its own sentence. My poems are so enjambed usually and they can be a bit messy, which I like, but I thought, “What if you did this other thing? What’s the energy between complete sentences?” And that’s been really fun and made some really wild stuff happen because every time I say something, I get to take a deep breath and be like, “Here we go again!” which is really, really fun. It’s really great. I highly recommend it.
AM: Yeah, I saw you read at the Barnhouse event in Cleveland in that strange apartment lobby.
HC: I loved that space. I was so happy. The fluorescent lighting with the acoustic tiles, and the bad wine and the good people of Barnhouse. It just felt really good to me to be there. I felt lucky.
AM: You said you don’t read out much? Do you enjoy giving readings?
HC: I love it. I really do.
AM: What do you like about it?
HC: It’s another kind of activation for the poems that can only happen in that particular form. I don’t think it’s the only way that the poems can be activated, but it’s one that I adore. I love being witness to that kind of chemistry of the words and the people. I love the feeling when the poem and I and the people are all going together on this weird ride, when I can sense that there is pleasure and I get to be sharing it. It’s tremendous. It’s such a good feeling. I do wish that I weren’t quite so reliant on laughter as a way of understanding how people are doing because I know in reading The Crying Book, it’s a totally different thing. It’s a very different feeling reading The Crying Book and reading the poems. There is some laughter that happens, but it’s different. You don’t get to stop. You have to ask people to come around for longer so there’s a little less of the wild-rideness to it. I have to learn how to be in that experience.
AM: Yeah. I wonder about that, too. I’ve done readings where there’s less laughter. And it makes me feel like, “They hate this.” I know that’s not true, but it feels bad and it also feels bad to want to the laughs. Like it’s cheap or inauthentic.
HC: Totally. There’s this great essay by Nuar Alsadir where she talks about clowning and empathy because it is also possible that you can become inauthentic in the moment. Even if you’ve written it from a place of authenticity and the laughs that it has generated in the past have brought that, in the relationship between you and audience and poem, something turns and becomes somehow inauthentic in that moment and then you’re just stuck there and it’s horrifying. Oh my god. She talks about going to clown school. She’s a psychoanalyst and poet. She’s brilliant and she’s writing a book about laughter.
AM: That’s fantastic. I’m going to read that. Have you ever considered going to clown school?
HC: After reading this, yeah. I mean, I’m terrified also. I’d cry through most of it, I think.
AM: Because of the clowns? Or the acrobatics? I don’t know what happens in clown school.
HC: It’s of the French tradition of clowning. It’s not about doing tricks. You’re performing your inner-clown-child-person in such a way that elicits this laughter response. Though, it cannot seek the laugh exactly, it seems. That’s part of what I love about poems, too. When I’m writing them, I’m not seeking the laugh. I’m just pleasing myself over and over again in such a way that it’s absurd. So, it will often make the laugh happen and that is pleasurable when it does happen.
AM: Since we’re talking about performance, I wanted to ask about the ballet.
HC: Yeah. That was such a weird thing. That was another one where I was like, “I can’t believe my life as a poet includes this.” So, The Trees The Trees came out in 2011 and it was published by Octopus Books, which is run by Zach Schomburg and he’s friends with Kyle Vegter. The Pacific Northwest Ballet asked Robyn Mineko Williams if she could make a new piece for them. They do this thing once a year called Director’s Choice where they reach out to young choreographers and have them create new work. Robyn asked Kyle if he had any music that he’d composed and he said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about making some music around this book, The Trees The Trees.” So, he wrote to me and he’s like, “What do you think? I could just make music that is inspired by it, or I could set the poems to music. Would you be ok with that?” And I said, “Whatever you wanna do.” So he did. He set the poems to music. I have the score—like, I have a score. It’s wild. And the experience was really wild, too. I got to go and see it in person. I’m very bad at estimating numbers. Also, I’m never in large crowds. Like I said, I grew up in punk, so I never went to a stadium show or anything. It was like a thousand people or something. And there was an orchestra and the orchestra was playing music and there was a stage with a set that had been built and Alicia Walter was singing the poems on stage in costume while dancers were—I was so overstimulated.
AM: What was it like to see your poems as dance?
HC: I really don’t know. I was so deeply overstimulated. Also, I have those poems memorized. I’ve read them so many times, they just live in my body. I’ve metabolized them with a very particular rhythm and I know what happens in a room when I read them. They’re tightly packed in. I said this to them the night of the performance, so I'll just repeat it. They live in me as a tightly arranged Tetris game and then the Tetris game was exploded and everywhere. It was in the people. It was in the orchestra. It was in the dancers. It was in the stage. So that’s the only thing I was capable of experiencing, “The poems are everywhere!” I’m incapable of uttering any more of a description of it than that. I know some people really enjoyed it. Some people, I think, were thrown off by its weirdness, which is usually a good sign. I know that the ballet received a really nice letter from a retired, notoriously curmudgeonly ballet critic who really loved it and who appreciated its eccentricities, which is good. I don’t think of that book as being particularly political, but they were saying that the ballet for them was unusually political because it talks about health insurance, “because we have no jobs and we have no health insurance so also we can’t have any babies.” So to be performing that for an audience of fairly wealthy old folks put something in the air. It’s funny because when I think of that book, I think, “Oh, that’s for an audience of other people who don’t have jobs or health insurance.” So seeing it in this other context it’s like, “Oh, what’s that gonna do to you?”
AM: Well, I hope it helped them. Or hurt them. I don’t know. That’s incredible. Is there anything else you want to talk about?
HC: The only other thing I was going to say because I’m learning how to interview about this book, too, is if you were shying away from talking about any of the stuff around my mental health or self-harm or suicidal ideation, I am comfortable talking about it if there’s anything you wanted to ask. If you don’t, that’s ok, too.
AM: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to overstep or upset you so I didn’t really come with those questions, but if you’re open to talking about it, I think it’s important that we do. In the book you talk about your experience with depression and the loss of your friend, Bill. The book really resonated with me in that way as I’m sure it will with a lot of people. I also lost a friend who died by suicide who was a poet and who changed my life. I think for me, my work and a lot of the work I’m drawn to is about missing your friends in one way or another, that kind of grief. So, there was a comfort for me in reading about your experience. What do you hope comes from this in terms of opening up that conversation?
HC: I mean, I don’t feel like it needs opening. There are so many people already talking about mental health and depression and suicidal ideation and I’m really grateful for that. So I don’t know that I feel like this book has a specific project for how it might be in the world around that. I don’t think of this book as a conversation starter. I think it’s pretty clear that the book is engaged with many conversations and I understand that they started a long time before I started thinking about any of this and will continue on for a long time as well. But I think it was an important part of saying things as they are and, for me, things as they are include, periodically, a belief that things will never get better and that death is the only way out. The relationship between that belief and other related behaviors around crying or self-harm means that I just wanted to be able to say as much as I could honestly and without judging myself for how things have been. And I was also just really interested in shaping an accurate description. I talk about that with being in labor. While I was in labor and while I was in this horrible pain, I got really into trying to make images for the pain, to describe it. So like, “I’m a giant bear riding a tiny tricycle of pain.” Or, I’m a paper bag with no bottom and the pain is falling through me. It doesn’t diminish the pain, but it gives you a different satisfaction. I think that that happened with other forms of pain that cause crying in the book, too. The pain of thinking that I need to die or the pain of thinking that I need to harm myself in some way or that I am incapable of doing anything other than crying on the floor. Being able to accurately say those things gives me satisfaction. I was so afraid of wallowing in this book. It would be so easy to wallow and for this book to come off as mere wallowing.
AM: It doesn’t, though.
HC: I really didn’t want it to. There were so many other things that I wanted people to be able to hear me say and think that I wanted to be careful in how I was putting those things together as well because they could become an excuse to close the book. And, again, if you can gain some distance, there are moments when it becomes funny. I remember feeling that pleasure in coming up with the image of the cardboard box of VHS exercise tapes that’s been sitting in the rain. The surprise of, “I’m not the person who left the free box outside in the rain. That’s not my relationship to you. I am the box. I’ve spent the day in tears. I’m so soggy that if someone lifted me, all the tapes would clatter to the ground.” When I wrote that I felt joy and satisfaction. Deep satisfaction. One of the things despair tries to do is to monotonize everything and make everything one note and to be able to do this work around it meant that other notes could also become possible. Does that make sense?
AM: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me.
HC: And I just understand despair more now. It still hurts so badly when it comes, but I can also look at it and say, “Listen, man. I know you. I know you deep down. I wrote about you. I know everything you’re going to try to take from me. I know everything you’re going to try to reduce me to, but I can do this other thing.” And hopefully I can keep doing this other thing.