Powered by the refrain-directive “write,” and “cross out,” the content of poet and collage artist Lucy Ives’ most recent work, Anamnesis, remains underactive, sustained deliberation throughout. BOMBlog’s Claire Wilcox emailed with Ives, discussing practice, poetry, and power of fortuitous error.
Powered by the refrain-directive “write,” and “cross out,” the content of Lucy Ives’ most recent work, Anamnesis, remains under active, sustained deliberation throughout. In this single long poem, her first book, Ives stalls writing at its inception so that a central question—what can be acceptably written here?—hovers over the poem and induces it.
While Anamnesis proceeds, therefore, in a mode of deliberate uncertainty, releasing a content of memory and images in spurts over the course of numerous campaigns, her earlier chapbook, My Thousand Novel, seems to take the opposite approach, presenting instead a collection of poems that are immediate and dense in language and imagery. Overall, Ives displays considerable conceptual drive, but the work of this New York-based poet, who is also a dedicated scholar (she is completing her PhD in Comparative Literature at NYU), is neither dry nor academic. Her poetry, especially in Anamnesis, is dynamic, open and affecting, adhering to a line of inquiry and then moving beyond it.
Claire Wilcox: Your most recent published work, your book Anamnesis, deals in part with recollection and memory. Where did you grow up? How was it?
Lucy Ives: I grew up in New York City. I was born here. I really like living here now, but to be honest when I was younger I spent a lot of time indoors watching television. I was very superstitious as a child, which I think had to do with being alone a lot. My mother worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sometimes we would walk through it at night. I was an only child and very interested in visual culture, I would say. In looking at things.
CW: I just read Hannah Weiner’s Country Girl, from 1971, which you write about in your essay on naming, “SH Where are you bound?” in gutcult. I think Weiner’s poem is very lyrical, but because in her schizophrenia she receives transmissions from an exterior world, there is little sense of introspection, invention and subjectivity. Your poems in My Thousand Novel seem able to observe both what is “real”—“I saw wind press a page to the building”—and elliptically real—“I saw the girl push the looks from her eye”—and then something dream-like or surreal—“I saw the room fold itself in half.” How do you move between these different states of mind and language?
LI: I think what you’re picking up on here is just bad writing on my part, what academics sometimes (politely) term catachresis, a kind of a mixed metaphor, like the expression, “the leg of a table.” I will say, in my own defense, that I have often been interested in, or wanted to write, images. The more you work on this, or try to do this, the more you discover how difficult it is to ‘point’ precisely with a word. There is on the one hand the problem of specificity, like if I say, “table,” which or what table will you understand, and, on the other, the problem of trying your reader’s patience, like if I begin, “…the table three feet in length, four feet high, two feet wide, of blondish plywood, with clear varnish, its surface able to reflect a face but not able to reflect printed matter clearly…,” how long am I going to hold your attention?
CW: Are there certain contexts that compel you to write more than others?
LI: I use writing for some of the same things I might use speaking for but mostly I use it for something else. I value writing for its silence, its weird beyond. I suppose when I think about context I think that I might produce something that would be read, and thinking about a reader might compel me in an exceptional sense, but this destination for what I write, the context of the reader, can always be imagined by me, and probably is often imagined, so it’s tricky.
CW: What do you think about being a poet and in academia? Is there a relationship between your graduate work in Comparative Literature and your poetry?
LI: There are a lot of practical reasons to want to get an advanced degree. I won’t go into those except to say that I want to teach, or would like to in the future, in order to make a living. This is probably the easiest way for me to make a connection between what I do as a graduate student and what I do with other kinds of writing, though there are certainly other overlaps that would be difficult to point out (at least for me). I have a view of academia that would probably annoy some people in that I don’t see it as incompatible with art. In fact I have difficulty drawing a clear distinction between acts of criticism and what are, I suppose, creative acts. I want to put a question mark at the end of that sentence.
CW: What do you think about living in New York City?
LI: I think a lot of things about living in New York, some of them include being exhausted by doing it. I spend a lot of time on the subway. I like the cliché about the anonymity of the city, though the actual fact of seeing people everyday, possibly hundreds of people whom you’ll never see again or, even if you do, will not remember having seen…it’s difficult to know what to do with that. I’m probably very loyal to this place, unreasonably so.
CW: Do you contemplate moving or traveling?
LI: I lived in Paris for four months last year, and two years before that I lived for a year in the northernmost prefecture of Honshu, in Japan. I used to travel a lot when I was in college, but I’ve become more interested in staying in one place these days. When I was 22, I was sure that I would live outside of America for a significant portion of my life. I was kind of a Germanophile for a while and thought that I would move to Berlin after I graduated and probably stay there, but then this never happened. I went to Iowa instead.
CW: There are eleven different sections in Anamnesis. How did you come to these divisions? There’s also a lot of physical space between sections; each is divided by a full page marked only by the symbol “+.” Why did you organize the poem this way, and why did you chose this symbol?
LI: The poem was written using an Olivetti Praxis 48 (this is a typewriter with really fast action and extra small, raised keys, designed for women I think; they have one in the Centre Pompidou) over the course of two weeks. It was one long typescript, and I had showed it to my husband, Ben, who liked it. As I began typing it up on my computer, it became clear that there were places that contained (if contained is the right word) a pause, and it seemed like it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if I were to put some visual space there. This was when I realized that it might be a complete book on its own.
The section breaks, “+,” are not specifically meant to echo the refrain in the book, “Cross this out,” but that doesn’t mean that they don’t. For me it was just a more attractive mark than an asterisk. And the full page is there to give the reader time, since you have to turn that page. I mean, it’s partially just a convention of books, part of the general book ‘time signature’ you can’t avoid—or that you have at your disposal—the whole page left blank as punctuation.
CW: I’m struck by a sense that the anamnesis of Anamnesis, in other words, the recalling or recollection of things past, applies as much to language as to memories. Many of the lines that appear under deliberation in Anamnesis feel close to your writing in My Thousand Novel. But in this case, the poem is not allowed to fully emerge. In the beginning of Anamnesis the reader and writer can’t inhabit the poem, but later there are moments where we are clearly in a poem, and then the imperative is to leave that space. As in:
Wired to adore I lay out across
The snowy field
The green carpet
I picked messages up like
These were leaves
I was good at it
And in despair
And filled with hate
Cross this out
Write, “walk across the room”
Does your move to frame the process of making a poem mark a shift, or desired shift, in your writing? Are you, in some places, directly recalling language you know yourself to have used, spoken or written, perhaps a kind of writing you find yourself moving away from?
LI: It’s probably better not to admit this sort of thing, but one of my main interests in writing, or the act of writing, has to do with the way it mimics, retroactively as it were, more precise recording devices we now have, digital et al. I’m curious about (as I think I suggested in another response) how exact written description can be, or what the powers or limits of written description are. Could I write like a tape recorder? (I know that’s outdated, but I used them so much as a kid, they’re kind of iconic for me.) Could I write a line that’s photographic? I mean, of course I can’t, but it’s difficult, on an intuitive level, to really know that you can’t do this, since it’s logical to feel that you can describe what is in the frame of a photograph, that you could transcribe your own thoughts, etc. So it’s this question of fidelity that is a great concern when it comes to what you call “[being] in a poem.” If I write a line, what exactly will I be repeating or saying? Is the content just the referent of the words, if I attempt to relate or reproduce an event? This is how, in writing Anamnesis, I got to an idea of what a good or appropriate sort of ‘content’ for the poem would be. I wanted to try to ask this kind of question, ‘What is the content of what I write?’ Or, ‘What do I even think I can accurately talk about or show?’
CW: You have a lot of animals in your poems, what are they doing there?
Animals are generally thought to have a sort of subjectivity that is different from human subjectivity. I don’t really know if this is true in a biological sense, but it’s certainly true in literature. I think when I include animals in my writing I am thinking of this general tradition of making animals speak in stories, making them walk upright and hold tools, etc., but without doing that. Though it’s a commonplace to speak of the limitedness of animal behavior, I think there is an interesting way in which animals, by virtue of people’s general ignorance about what perception is like for them, point out limits inherent in human perception. I think most of the animals in my poems are sort of on the sidelines, in an illustration that a speaker sees, for example, or sitting at the side of the road.
CW: You also make collages. Can you talk about these a bit? Is there a relationship between your collage and your poetry? I know sometimes you’ve published them together.
LI: I like looking at images from the recent past, the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s. I like thinking about the mix of earnestness and venality with which some of the commercial images I use were produced. It’s interesting to me that something can look dated that is at such a small remove from us, temporally speaking. But I’m not sure how much the collages have to do with my writing. I should probably stop publishing them together! Actually, recently I did a long collage piece for the journal Triple Canopy. They had asked me to include text, and it was extremely difficult. The writing just sort of asserts itself, like a caption, without your particularly wanting it to, and this makes it challenging to do anything interesting with it (for me this is a challenge, at least).
CW: In a recent interview with Charles Bernstein for BOMB, Jay Sanders wrote:
“In light of our discussion here, I can see how the emergence of what’s being labeled “conceptual poetry” points to the impatience of some poets for their work to be seen as art. It forces the issue more directly by aping the vernacular associated with appropriation art of the ’70s and ’80s and grafting it upon their poetry practice to see what might still be potent in these tactics.”
Do you have anything to say about this comment, and/or the trend Jay Sanders references here?
LI: I guess I don’t see conceptualism in contemporary American poetry as deriving exclusively from ’70s and ’80s appropriation art; I’d be interested in reading an essay that made a case for classing Raymond Roussel as a conceptual writer, for example. But there is something more specific Sanders is getting at here, which has to do with the professional contexts in which poetry is sometimes produced and received, and the proximity of the art world (and art market) to these contexts.
CW: What about poetry readings? I listened to your recording, “100 Views” on Weird Deer, the Weird Deer Hotline. Your voice is mournful, accented, and coming through the veil of telephone static. I’m interested in this private/public forum, and found this reading much more compelling than many I’ve seen in public. Shouldn’t there be more things like this?
LI: I think poetry readings could be more like parties, or more like anything other than poetry readings.
CW: Having attended Harvard and Iowa, and currently NYU, do you find that the contemporary work you engage with tends to be from people you have known or know from these places?
LI: When I was in college I read a lot of sort of preppy, East Coast poetry: Berryman, Bishop, Merrill, Ashbery, Stevens, among others. I was on the poetry board of a student journal called The Advocate, or sometimes, The Harvard Advocate, to distinguish it from the other magazine of the same name. The Advocate building was this rickety, two-story structure we leased from the university for $1 a year, it reeked of beer, and the people responsible for publishing poetry would meet every Sunday morning to pick through the submissions pile. Although it wasn’t that clear to me that we knew what we were doing, we had a good time, and I learned a lot about how to read—or, how to express what you think about what you’ve read so that other people will like what you like. Iowa was slightly different in that there it’s less about trying to decide what you like or why you like it and more about actually doing some writing and then not freaking out when other people tear it apart. I still see a lot of people I met there, am married to one of them, so I tend to think it was a good experience. Now, in school, I mainly identify as someone “who is interested in poetry.” I’ll just sort of leave it at that.
CW: Do you listen to music?
LI: Yes, but not while writing. It’s a hold-over from high school, but I’m still scared of this question.
CW: When did you find your bearings as a writer. What happened?
LI: I’ve just always liked doing this. When I was little, I would make recordings of short ‘songs’ (i.e., me, singing) on a cassette player. Then, when I was eight, I wrote this poem for a contest at my school, we had to describe a cover of The New Yorker. It was this Magritte-like image, a man in a bowler hat, dogs and cats falling down through the sky behind him. I’m leaving in my favorite misspelling:
This gentle man must look about himself,
For pets are raining in the sky.
It may just be a change in the weather,
Or a sight for you and I.
But regard his look
For it is carzy.
Anamnesis was published by Slope Editions in winter 2009 and is available here.
Her piece Everglade can be seen online here, in issue number eight of Triple Canopy.
My Thousand Novel is a chapbook, published by Cosa Nostra Editions of Iowa City, IA, in January 2009, and is sold out.