What does damage make possible? I hope no one reads these poems with hetero-tinted glasses, as that’s not their source. Are you a nature poet? I see no life for myself as a poet or political actor outside the transformative power of desire. When I first moved to the Bay in 2008, Warren and her work stood in for that exciting and mysterious concept, the Bay Area. These poems feel wonderfully gender-ambiguous and polymorphously perverse (“to become pliant / in self-enjoyment”; “The Most Oral of Animals”). I read the lines “At the center of the mass / in the scar of my ear / is metal more than / you’ve ever seen / once it touches air / every cop goes poof” and thought about “metal” as a homophone for “mettle.” That you’re describing a scar that becomes a combination of woundedness and valor. What kind of tree is that, do you think? You know, Lauren, spoiler alert: I don’t understand science, and I don’t really try to. Maybe I have some mystical dumb faith that if we paint an alternative, we can access it. Is the idea of inflatable related to “the best dreams are those / that fail most comprehensively”? When I think of being in conversation with Alli Warren, I think of her questions. In the poem, I’m playing with the idea of this explosive element as a revolutionary tool one could wield against abusers. Sometimes I get myself into trouble or fall completely flat on my face. But I do think, as a poet, if I am a practiced, receptive listener, I let more of the world in, and my writing can only benefit from that. ALLI WARREN: I often write in order to figure out what I think and feel, rather than to deliver some didactic or ideological message deliberated upon in advance, so I’m not sure I could name what desire is other than how it emerges in my poems and lived life. It creates worlds that are telling, funny, three-dimensional, and sad. That’s about as much as I retained in the swampy green South Berkeley air, plus I’m a D student when it comes to chemistry. You know, the older I get, the more I realize poetry has always been a realm where I feel a kind of confidence or permission with regards to my body, my desire, my thought. Whereas the news cycle is a deep dark hopeless pit, the earth is old, it existed before capitalism, and it will continue to exist (though much scarred) after the plague is over. (Like that classic line, “lust before dishonor” in Here Come the Warm Jets.) I imagine you’re relating desire to collective world-flourishing: “I move among loves / as aims that animate.” What links desire to the revolutionary in your imagination? ¤
I FIRST MET Alli Warren through her work, specifically the chapbook Cousins, published by Gina Myers’s Lame House Press series. MAY 25, 2017
This is the second half of a two-part conversation between Alli Warren and Lauren Levin. It feels as though there’s something waiting to be exposed by pain, that loss opens up a possibility for resistance. Desire for me is a formless, ceaseless, instinctual urge. Like most people, my daily routine consists of selling myself for a wage so that I can feed, clothe, and house myself so that I can continue selling myself for a wage. The first part can be found here. What does it mean to you to create these realms and have your speaker act in, on, or around them? If, like me, you’re struggling with how to live and love in the dystopian right-now (while still seeing it, fighting it) you need this book. So I try to be attentive to why in a particular circumstance I am choosing to listen. I prefer to ponder. I hope that exploring these complications in writing allows me to bring to my lived life — in my interactions with others, in the bed and in the street — an understanding of myself as an embodied being whose gender and desire is larger than its worldly bounds. Maybe when a real, physical ear appears in a poem, it points to the embodiment of sound in the material world. It feels like such an important mode for your writing even as you work with many other affects from anger to melancholy to joy. It courses, sumptuous. And so these poems don’t just have an ethics and a politics: they are an ethics and a politics, deeply felt, but always changing. This connection with the dead, the living, and the future is an animating force in my life. On the other hand, the dystopian (or what I would call realistic) spaces in my poems are there because they feel authentically true to life. She grew up in New Orleans and lives in Richmond, California, with her family. Or the one about how it’s naïve to look to the ocean for guidance, or how you’re just supposed to accept that giraffes exist, and volcanoes exist, and jellyfish exist, and bioluminescence exists. There’s got to be some light, some lift, some air, some levity. ¤
Lauren Levin is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, The Braid (Krupskaya, 2016) and the forthcoming Two Essays (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2018). An egret is not a venture capitalist. Is it related to “those who persist in entering breach”? I’d love to see what you have to say about Oki’s imaginative and provocative world constructions. In their various ways, the poems that make up this book say: in order to overcome the systems that dominate us, in addition to organized and diverse material action, we have to be attentive to our desire. Does this idea of world-building resonate for you at all? How do you walk in high heels? Art for me is powerful because it can access prelinguistic knowledge, and this realm feels to me more sexual, sensual, and not as constrained by gender construction and patriarchal policing. In the darkness, this can be a source of sustenance and strength, as we draw attachments to those who have come before us and those who will come after. The inflatable thing maintains both a solid perimeter, an obvious boundary, and a skin that is tender, puncturable, vulnerable to deflation. A flimsy little rubber sack swells and, weightless, wafts up into the sky and flies away. Or is there a difference between “desire” and “what I want”? I can’t think of a post-capitalist world without considering the relationship of violence and domination to eros and eroticism, to coupling and ownership. I want my poems to hold that complication, to express embodiment, sensuality, and physical desire without simplifying my relationship to sexuality, which feels social, cultural. I enjoy my David Attenborough Planet Earth and my Jodie Foster Contact. In the air of the street, the radio, the wind, the subway, the bar, the chatter, the ghosts, I listen for the melody. Not brothers or sisters, but cousins. It can also be a site of repeated injury or trauma. At the same time, I don’t want my writing to be bogged down by facts. There’s probing and entering and mounting, which often vibe as sexual, though not necessarily phallic. So even while I’m at work sorting some spreadsheet or affecting a smile, I’m conscious of what it means to be doing this, materially, historically. After deflating, our little balloon retains an embodied memory of what it once did, what it once was, and that potential remains, no matter its current state. I also think of you as a poet with an extraordinary sense of language, someone who “goes by ear.” Your poems are so amply voiced, and yet I find an ethics of listening in them, too. In my writing, I’m not sure I’m world-building so much as world-studying. What’s the history of resistance in the South? And the way the title so perfectly reflected the work within: deeply striving for connection, but also witty, a little sly, off-kilter. I think I missed the lesson where past a certain age you’re supposed to be chill about the stars, to say tl;dr about the Milky Way. It evolves in the reading. The black ants racing around my windowsill say “Fuck you” to NIMBYs. I want my poems to bring multiple subjects, bodies, and expressions into the room at once. After admiring her work from afar, I asked her for poems for a little magazine I co-edited. I recognize myself in your phrase “an ethics of listening,” both poetically and in lived life where I’m often a listener more than a talker. And that curiosity — a permeable mind and body meeting the world — makes for work that’s exemplary in its combination of lush, sensuous embodiment with sharp critique of material conditions. From our friendship, I know that you don’t read sci-fi or fantasy, but I suppose I mean a world-building quality in your writing. Refusing to settle, written on the knife-edge. Sure, I may be anthropomorphizing, but it helps, and I also happen to think it’s true. In writing the discrete poems that became I Love It Though, I repeatedly poked at the question of what desiring and longing in romantic and platonic love can tell us about political longing, the thirst for a better, more just world, which for me animates the everyday. It’s self-satisfying and dynamic, like masturbation perhaps? Does desire cut both ways? Another perfectly pitched title, in which the “Though” functions as a hinge between Warren’s abiding love of nature, language, and culture, and her despair at the multiplying cruelties and destructiveness of capital, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy. In that propulsive excess I find a wellspring of energy I can look to for sustenance and inspiration. That’s the rosy lens. Histories don’t just reside in books; they are palpable in the everyday materials and circumstances of our lives. I’m interested in the gender or sexual imaginary of these poems. And it’s not exclusively sexual or other-directed. “[O]n the way to the bar / I pass three other bars.” Is your wit bitter, about the pleasure of language, between you and the reader, something you do to make yourself laugh, all or none of the above? This possibility of growth, of change, is contained within the thing as potentiality. There’s a very concrete, sensual quality about the poems, but they’re fantastic, too. Warren writes the best titles of anyone I know, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I remember (this is off the top of my head, so might be wrong, but feels right) a striking blue-and-orange cover. And I’m one of the lucky ones. That blooming succulent is not a white nationalist. Through prosody I can create a space that feels more authentically accurate to my embodied experience of the world, its complications, constraints, and excesses. As a reader I appreciate when it’s clear a writer has been attentive to what it might be like to be reading this piece of writing. I love the dynamism of inflatability, of something so changeable, so fluid, it can be filled with empty space, it can swell with air itself. Once the immediate pain is gone, the injury can become an opportunity for strength, resolve, growth. And yet, because poems are made from real human language (joke’s on me!), they can’t escape cultural and political referentiality. When someone comes to my house for a visit, I offer them something to eat or drink; that’s just good hosting behavior — I want my poems to do the same. Could you speak about the importance of the ear in your work (“consult the ear / consult the air”)? ¤
LAUREN LEVIN: I came across the line “as desire can never perish” and thought about the role of desire in your work. I try to stay receptive to whatever strikes me — whether that’s because it’s strange or disagreeable or delightful or entirely common. In my annals of unwritten projects, one is an essay about science fiction in your and Oki Sogumi’s work. Scars are reminders of our vulnerability and our resilience, and I hope they make us more understanding of the variety of ways people are wounded, woundable, and unevenly exposed to suffering. More generally, the poem is conscious of a volatility inherent in intimacy; intimacy could (cynically) be considered a kind of scar-to-be. (“Carry me away, eelpout / egret without regret / Call me polyp.”)
I was recently invited to submit poems to a nature magazine, so I guess the answer is resoundingly yes? It’s also, for example, that sensual feeling of warming a wet body in the sun. The inflatable embodies versatility, possibility, impermanence. After almost 10 years of milling around at readings, curating, organizing, marching, despairing, swapping clothes, and listening to records, her poems and presence still represent the best of the Bay to me: joie de vivre and swagger; vulnerability and self-doubt; color and texture and scent, sensuous life; sense of humor; sense of ethics; a little bit of Scorpionic bite. From 2011 to 2014, she co-edited the Poetic Labor Project. I’m not running for office or giving a job talk. I want pleasure, but life in capitalism means that pleasures are tainted by extraction and domination. The air being, in this case, I suppose, justice. In those kinds of conversations, which happen far too often, I’m also connecting intimately with my friend over our insistent and incessant longing for another world. I think of a pink balloon, a womb, a cock, a financial bubble. At the same time, I’m conscious of (the terror of) the construction of gender norms, and how from a young age girls are taught to take up less space than boys. The presence of “poof,” a magical act by which blood seems to have disappeared, is what makes this poem utopian, and different from the newspaper. There’s folds and moss and softness. Can we talk about your sense of humor? And as a white woman, it is important to me to listen and learn from others who don’t have my subject position. Instead of composing a melody, I write a poem. Well, thanks for noticing that I have one, Lauren! The poem dreams that in exposing this commonality to the air, we’ll explosively bring about a world free from the cops of the State, and the cops of our hearts and minds (“once it touches air / every cop goes poof”). Even though I don’t typically read sci-fi or fantasy, I do read my fair share of history, and when it’s well written, the past comes alive in a way that feels like an inhabitable world. I want to create a space in the poems where the reader can enter what feels both familiar (“I do this, I do that”) and unplaceable as past, present, or future. The poems kept insisting on thinking romantic love and comradely love together. While I don’t have a consistent writing practice — in terms of a set time of day or hours per week — I am, like all poets, always listening. As human animals, we are woundable (though not equally), and this shared condition opens up a space for solidarity. Anything striking a chord for you around gender, sexuality, and embodiment in these poems? A scar indicates a wound, its healing, and the time necessary for this transformation. The lines you quote emerged from a conversation in the kitchen at a loud house reading where a friend mentioned a particular element or metal that explodes when exposed to air. At the same time, it’s important to me that the writing not flatten the complexities and possible pitfalls of romantic love, such as gender oppression, unpaid labor, and intimate partner violence. I think of desire as counter to law and institutions, and for this reason it is a beacon. Say I’m talking with a friend, feeling circular and cynical, unable to see how the kind of real, radical change we hope for will practically happen. I try to avoid giving a reader or listener that all-too-common experience of slogging through. Thank you for not assuming the phallic, Lauren! Part of what I love about this work is its embodiment, and how it makes me feel that the whole world has a body. I really enjoy listening — so much can be gained from asking questions and giving others space to express themselves. It’s the Frank O’Hara “I do this, I do that” poem but the speaker is “toeing the light” or “jabbing my finger in the peephole.” And the emotional tenor of certain images makes me sometimes feel that I’m in a utopia or a dystopia, those sci-fi realms. An ear-catching or humorous line is an engaging way to show care for a reader and to try to forge a connection. The ear and throat often come up as figures in your poems. How does this desire relate to consumerist desire (I think of your poem “Protect Me From What I Want,” which takes its name from the Jenny Holzer piece)? Also, the ear is a hole in the body, one of the spots where the inner and outer meet, a site of transformation. Possibility is what I’m after; it gives me hope and strength to go on. I often feel like my sense of humor doesn’t come off quite right. I find it completely ridiculous to share this planet with such imponderable, innumerable, and wild plant and animal species. Lauren, would you let me peer into your earholes for a look at this unwritten essay? So any reference to “mounting” or whatever the case may be is necessarily complicated by the specifics of subjectivity, power, patriarchy, et cetera. Geologic time is reassuring. I like to float in the clouds of the natural world. Her work is wise. But being a good partner means knowing how to give as well as receive. Warren never assumes she knows, never stops building her mental picture. From an early age (do all kids do this?) I took great pleasure in wordplay, and that continues to be where my attention naturally falls. Yet we must pursue connection to arrive at possibility and renewal. Tell me about the word inflatable (“an inflatable estate / along the lobate plains”; “If you can’t win / with the one you love / love the inflated object”). We got to be friends in some way that neither of us can quite remember, but throughout which I learned that Warren is exactly as generous, funny, and whip-smart as are her poems. Her second collection is I Love It Though. She always has a question, even when (usually the case) she knows more than the rest of us. How is it that I spend most of my waking hours in a fluorescent-lit office staring at a computer screen on the same earth where a million pairs of penguins live out their own urban civilization on Zavodovski Island? I don’t want my poems to shy away from this. Every commodity, object, affect tells a story — as a poet I want to keep my sensory system open to the richness and complexities of these everyday worlds. Music is one of my deepest pleasures, and yet I have no talent for singing or playing an instrument.