Illustrations by Jos Demme.
An Interview with Joyelle McSweeney
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of two new books: a play, Dead Youth, or the Leaks, which won the inaugural Leslie Scalapino Prize for Innovative Women Playwrights, and The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults,a book of criticism in the University of Michigan Poets on Poetry series.
Her previous six books range from a story collection, Salamandrine: 8 Gothics, to The Red Bird, the first selection in theFence Modern Poets Series. She also edits, along with Johannes Göransson, Action Books, a publisher of translated works. She teaches at the University of Notre Dame.
Joyelle is endlessly inventive and aware in her treatment of language. Although we wrote to each other from Indiana to New Jersey, this interviewfelt like a Catholic art-school reunion, a corner-conversation under a listening crucifix.
I. THE FATAL AND/OR
THE BELIEVER: During your appearance on Brad Listi’s Other People podcast, you spoke of your Marian devotion, and your interest in Catholic iconography. It is rare, and refreshing, to hear a writer—particularly a writer of work that pushes boundaries of form and genre—speak about being Catholic. Your critical writing, to choose one genre, contains observations that only a writer intimately familiar with this faith would include, ranging from your note that “in Catholicism, all Our Ladies are the same Lady,” to the fact that “Being able to think among many materialisms and see them as cognates, as incarnates of one another, is a Catholic way to think.” How has Catholic faith contributed to your identity as an artist—your creative and critical senses, languages, interests?
JOYELLE MCSWEENEY: My notion of art is very maximalist and souped-up: I love spectacle, overload, magic materials, magic words, incantation and litany, incarnation and possession, spilling and wounds. Art as a sacred event.
I’ve begun to recognize myself as a Catholic writer because my whole notion of the image, of symbol, of art and what it can do, has been conditioned by my immersion in Catholic culture, ritual, and art since my earliest days. Catholicism seeped into me through every pore. Catholicism is about seeping and pores!
Let’s just pick one example: The Virgin of Guadalupe. The story of the Virgin’s apparition to Juan Diego is a story about art’s revolutionary potential, about mediumicity. She appears to the peasant; he tries to tell the Archbishop, who doesn’t believe him; so she meets him again and points him to a clutch of flowers (roses) blooming in December; he gathers them in his cloak and brings them to the Archbishop; when he opens his cloak, not only do roses pour out, but she’s transferred her sacred image to his cloak. Mary, here, is an artist who pushes her message through medium after medium: voice, breath, air, saint, rose, paint, cloak. She upends hierarchy and sends a tide of art moving which pushes Juan Diego up above the station assigned to him by the local (and global) power structure. And her sacred image is a hemispheric symbol of resilience and resistance.
The Virgin’s image has been reproduced in decals, spray paint, t-shirts, tattoos, you name it. It’s an image that moves. It uses every medium: high, low, who cares. Art doesn’t care.
The Virgin also spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl. So this is a force of counterconquest which arises in the heart of the Conquest’s great weapon and alibi, the Catholic Church. This is how Catholic art, iconography, saint’s bodies, apparition logic, technology and mediumicity work patently and openly to counter the more repressive and hierarchical aspects of the church.
BLVR: I want to steal your words—spectacle, incantation, and incarnation—to describe your new play, Dead Youth, or, The Leaks, which begins with a prologue by a character named Prologue—Henrietta Lacks, to be exact, who “died a howling death / of cervical cancer in the colored ward / at Johns Hopkins Baltimore, 1951.” I was struck by some of her early lines: “Every Sublime gotta have its rock bottom / every Mont Blanc its chasm / every blanc mange its spasm / every ice berg its lower berths. / To bear the damage. / That’s me.” And later, “My body is this play.” When I see the sublime and the corporeal discussed in such proximity, I can’t help but think of the Catholic milieu and language you previously mention. So, if you are a Catholic writer, is this a Catholic play? Do you see your attention to form (and how you move between forms in your books) as related to these considerations?
JM: Yeah, I think you could say that! I’ve been thinking for the last few years about the ways in which Catholic saint’s lore is really a kind of media theory, an idea about how certain kinds of power moves from place to place. The sacred wound, the wound that somehow keeps issuing moreness out of itself—more blood, more water, more oil, more wine—the wound that is a womb, that is shelter, the wound that issues occult numerologies, the wound that cannot heal, that rejects wellness and ableness as the model we should strive for and instead places abjectness, weakness, incompleteness, asymmetry, pain, as the indicators of special (and outrageous) fortune. And then on top of this we have saints’ iconography, a kind of stamping of an image again and again on the world in various media, as if it were the natural job of an extraordinary miraculous event to make thousands of copies of itself, like a virus. My ideas about how art comes into the world, issues from and courses back to bodies, supersaturating, spilling, bleeding, killing, reanimating, remaking, hosting, definitely maps onto my ideas about Catholic saints, icons, and mediation. Mary herself is the Mediatrix, after all!
BLVR: Speaking of Mary, there seem to be (at least) two mothers in this play: Prologue and Julian Assange, who often reference electronic existence as a new birth (Prologue says: “I’m dead so I can live two places: everywhere / and on the Internet”; Julian, of course, gestated and revealed so many secrets through code). Is this play an extension of the Internet, an electronic text? And, in a wider sense, how has electronic life affected your usage/conception of language?
JM: The Internet is such a paradoxical space—it’s limitless and totally bounded, apparently free yet corporate-controlled, apparently invisible yet surveilled, a place of disembodiment where bodies are policed and enviolenced, a place that is apparently ‘nowhere’ which nonetheless has a gruesome environmental footprint in terms of server farms, factories, power consumption, heat pollution, mines and dumps, as well as the human rights impact of such things as combat metals used for smartphones or the labor conditions in sites where new hardware is made and old hardware hazardously disassembled. My play exists in and maps this space by constantly sending its motifs back and forth like packets of information. My own writing has been maximalized by the Internet, by the idea that poetry is media and it’s going somewhere, it’s in transit, it operates by pulse and spectacle, interface and code. I also like thinking of the entire Internet as the box in which Schrödinger’s cat is alive and/or dead. The Internet is the fatal and/or.
BLVR: While reading Dead Youth, or, The Leaks I almost expected the prophet of electronic media—Catholic convert Marshall McLuhan—to make an appearance. When Assange says “O dream of a crystalline communication” and one of the dead youths responds “We Catholics believe in transubstantiation. / Our uncanny valley runs on circuits of revulsion,” I thought of both McLuhan and another Catholic, Andy Warhol. And even the way you talk about the Internet space as a place of imperfect communion, how we might be equal there but we know we are not, synthesizes these concepts in a new way for me. I don’t mean this to be reductive, but those two Catholics—McLuhan and Warhol—profoundly changed the way we understand media, self, and data as art. Could you talk about the Catholic contribution toward, or Catholic symbolic identity of, the way we communicate and commune online? And even how you engage these concepts in your other works?
JM: I love this series of connections, and per my response to question one, I do think that Catholicism is already a kind of media theory, transubstantiation itself is a media theory, the iconophilia of Catholicism is a media theory, and hagiography is media theory. So it makes perfect sense to me. Even the inequality of Catholicism, the insistence on hierarchy and unhappy relationship of the one and the many that is repeated again in again in Catholicism, that’s a kind of unhappy not-quite-binary, a system that can never come into stasis. The virtual vs. the binary.
AGE OF TORTURE LASHED TO AN AGE OF TERROR
BLVR: You also have a book of criticism, The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, coming soon from The University of Michigan Press (Poets on Poetry series).
You “give the name ‘necropastoral’ to the manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occulty present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral … the term ‘necropastoral’ re-marks the pastoral as a zone of exchange, shading this green theme park with the suspicion that the anthropocene epoch is in fact synonymous with ecological endtimes.”
I love the breadth of writers, artists, and thinkers examined within this book. Let’s start with Warhol, who you call a “necromancer and fraud,” whose “time-bending movies, such as the twenty-five hour ****, affected moviegoers variously, rendering them, like art’s victims in German Expressionist films, entranced, asleep, or somnambulant, denaturing their participation in chronology, that is, in a conventional, mutually compatible social time.” Do you find the necropastoral an especially ripe space to revise conceptions of time as it relates to art? Are there contemporary artists or filmmakers who continue Warhol’s time play?
JM: The necropastoral is an anachronistic way of thinking about art, a conceptual space that hosts ‘strange meetings’, where literary time can work backwards, impossible influences and confluences can take place. The pleasure in thinking this way for me is that it provides a release from nationalist, patrilineal time which is always about conserving property; the literary world has been all too happy to copy this over, to place an emphasis on influence and conserving masculine intellectual property, while the scholarly world relies on periodization and national language.
Warhol changed our perception of time in art in such a massive way that it’s difficult to even grasp the size of this reorientation. The repetition within the artwork feels both profound and superficial, and so is the distribution of posthumicity as the mark where media touches every face. And he was all about grinding down and masking his own face, using the silver wig to mask and distort the way time is read across the face.
As for contemporary filmmakers, I know there are contemporary video artists and filmmakers working with duration in a very intellectual way, the unbearable realtime or worse. My favorite filmmakers are David Lynch, Wong Kar-Wai, Claire Denis, Lars Von Trier, Almodóvar—filmmakers with a very thick non-minimalist style. These filmmakers have very different relationships to narrative shape but in each case narrativity itself is almost something edible, something which leaves a candy colored or acrid taste in the mouth and nostrils.
BLVR: “Literary canons are full of such young, dead superstars,” you say—with certain artists of the necropastoral creating spaces of “permanent posthumousity.” It might be a quirk of timing, but these ideas made me think of the recent demise of HTMLGIANT, and the feeling that a certain online space and location for ideas has been lost. Is this being too romantic about that site? Where is the necropastoral (and perhaps wider, more “independent” literature) being sustained at the present moment?
JM: The Internet is a graveyard, a bright malfunctioning littoral, and it is entirely necropastoral. But the necropastoral can’t be sustained—it’s non-sustainable.
I wanted to talk about the infernal poet Sophie Podolski here, a Belgian poet I was introduced to through Bolaño, who mentions her frequently in his novels. Paul Legault published a facsimile translation of her great, conflagrating handwritten poem ‘The Country where everything is permitted’ on Amy King’s Esque, but that website seems to be dead.
As this parable shows, the Necropastoral is an unhealthy, spectacular network of totally imbricated live and dead tissue, live and dead media. Dead Bolaño, dead Podolski, live Legault, dead website. We can compare this to the Etruscan torture of nigredo in which a living victim is lashed to a corpse and fed until he begins to decompose along with the corpse, as discussed in “Corpse Bride: Thinking with Nigredo” by the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani. The Necropastoral is decadent, defined by decay. It is in this place where the living and dead are joined face to face like an infernal mirror, a parody of a mirror, where we can begin to understand what Negarestani construes as the experience of the soul as ‘double necrosis’. “The Show” by Wilfred Owen makes another imprint of this phenomenon, a Veronica’s cloth for this exudia. Since we live in an age of torture lashed to an age of terror, we should be very fluent in nigredo. We should understand it on sight.
III. SMUGGLING IN TROUBLING NEW STRAINS
BLVR: You note that “reading contemporary reviews of translation, one concludes that translation must decide what its appeal will be, and that it has two options—masterful or slavish.” As the editor of Action Books, what role do you hope to play in reversing or engaging how we talk about contemporary translations?
JM: For monolingual Americans like myself, translation is exciting because it takes us into the area of lack. Everything I have ever been taught about literature in Anglo-American schools is that it is about mastery, a kind of masculinist control. In the 20th century that’s been a regime of understatement, minimalism, the almost operatically minimal sentences of Hemingway and structures of Carver. But in fact, I don’t believe minimalism really exists. I think everything passing as minimal is actually an outrageous gesture of mutilation. Translation smears the categories of authorship and mastery. It appears to do imperial work, making a work in another language available to the hegemon, but it is counter-imperial, smuggling into the dominant language troubling new strains.
Translation should be loud, present, palpable, it should never pass. The hand of the translator should be outrageous and present, or duplicitous and virtuosic, like at the end of Almodóvar’s film La mala educación which smashes through all the meta-generic strata of autobiography and fiction when it writes across the screen, of Almadovar’s avatar, “Enrique Goded continúa hacienda cine con la misma pasión’—Enrique Goded continues making films with the same passion”. This word ‘pasión’ then swells to fill the screen, writing over and retrospectively re-writing everything the previous hour and forty-five minutes have conveyed. What is metacritical and generically diagrammatic becomes a destroyed, interdecaying surface to be written across, with passion as with lipstick. But even as it fills the screen, it shows itself to be pixelated, a trick of technology, possibly nothing.
BLVR: The Necropastoral is populated with many forms, including lists—which I think makes it one of the most creatively dynamic works of criticism I’ve read in a long while. In “Expenditure: Or, why I’m going to die trying,” you write “there’s no success like failure.” What draws you to absences, failures, and resurrections—in the necropastoral, and elsewhere?
JM: I’m interested in absences as abscess—the area of lack that produces an excess, an infernal production, literature as pus. Bataille’s The Eye is a great, grotesque, comic allegory for this, as is Bolaño’s Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva. We can go back to Catholicism on this one—the stigmata, the stain that bleeds, the statue that cries, the Virgin that bears, etc. It’s a kind of impossible math, like the way the digital logic of the Internet is constantly shedding so much affect—lust, greed, cruelty, passion, and possibly nothing. AKA the Virtual.
Nick Ripatrazone’s newest book is Ember Days, stories (Braddock Avenue, 2015). He is a staff writer for The Millions.
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