In the challenging tradition of Joyce and Neidecker, Stacy Szymaszek’s new book Hyperglossia is only for the brave. Avant-garde, heady stuff, it demands a lot of the reader, who is advised to keep a dictionary at hand. This book flummoxed me, yet, I kept returning to its magnetic pull. The sparse, economic lines thick with vocabulary seem to borrow from musical traditions, like that of John Cage, that emphasize silence as well as sounds. In Hyperglossia the music of language is as important as what it means. Szymaszek’s alchemical juxtapositions of words often creates new definitions and images smashing that word’s prior associations in the reader’s head. This experience is disorienting, but worthwhile in its ability to challenge old ideas and open minds to the many possibilities of language.
Stacy Szymaszek is the Artistic Director for the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City after serving as Literary Program Manager at Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern Book Center for many years. She’s been featured in several literary magazines including the Boston Review and Aufgabe. She is the author of Emptied of All Ships (Litmus Press, 2005), as well as numerous chapbooks including Orizaba: A Voyage with Hart Crane (Faux Press, 2008), Pasolini Poems (Cy Press, 2005), Some Mariners (EtherDome, 2004), and Mutual Aid (gong, 2004).
I interviewed her about her latest book, the much-anticipated Hyperglossia.
Susie DeFord In my research for this article I was hard-pressed to find a good definition of the word “hyperglossia”. Glossia means “of the tongue” and hyper, among other things, means “excitable.” Where did you first come across the word “hyperglossia,” and what does it mean to you?
Stacy Szymaszek The word “hyperglossia” came across me. I’m pretty sure it’s a neologism. I was actually surprised that it wasn’t defined in the medical dictionaries I looked in, as “hypoglossia” is an incompletely developed tongue. I guess overdeveloped tongues aren’t a common deformity. I like all the conjuring the word is capable of, and also that it proposes a condition that I imagine as painful and embarrassing but also capable of revelation with its far reach, kind of like the condition of being a poet. “Hyperglossia” refers to the narrator’s attempt to tell her autobiography post-head trauma; she’s dealing with some communication problems. She’s not able to use language in a socially acceptable manner, and, throughout the book, her language is structured as close to the way the mind works as possible. She honors the nonsense, the nonlinearity, the ruse, the erroneous. I was reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain when I started writing the book. Her philosophy that physical pain is unsharable and inexpressible despite the fact that it occurs in the bodies of all humans at one point or another also influenced the title. The narrator impatiently persists; each page is another attempt to share a state anterior to language.
SD You effortlessly use words like “fibroblaster,” “hyperalgesia,” and “xenoglossy” in the book. Besides simply reading, what are your methods for acquiring such a specific, out-of-the-ordinary vocabulary?
SS “Fibroblast” is a word but I added the “-er.” I thought it would be funny to suggest the existence of a gun that could synthesize/heal connective tissues as quickly as any weapon can destroy them. Ultimately, the only agency Eustace, the narrator, has is “a vocabulary.” I really don’t have a super-impressive vocabulary, but I have to find whatever words the poem needs, and most of this occurs through simply reading. I used a good number of words with the prefix “hyper” such as “hyperalgesia” to create a kind of visual balance throughout, as well as to continue to suggest the idea of the beyond—the excessive attempt to understand a moment of your life and failing at that, but in a way that might be meaningful.
SD On your acknowledgements page you note the inspiration you found in the Egyptian Art wing of the Metropolitan Museum, particularly the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which is an Ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery. What was particularly interesting about this to you and how is this illuminated in your book?
SS I started writing Hyperglossia with references to Ancient Egyptian magic, specifically around mummification. The Smith Papyrus was their medical literature; it doesn’t deal with magical practice except in one instance. It provided me with a different type of information, such as that they treated infection with honey and stopped bleeding with raw meat. The narrator is dealing with a physical condition—death, to be precise—and is figuring out how to be a body in the afterlife. Hers is a question of form: how does the Ka, or life force, go on? The papyrus is a description of the human body and 48 types of injury or illness. The text offers treatments for each case. The narrator, Eustace, uses this information to help herself but mostly uncovers unforeseen complications. I was also arrested by my viewing of Portrait of a Boy at the Met, a Faiyum portrait from Egypt’s Roman period. I couldn’t believe it but his name is Eutyches.
SD How did you come up with the idea of the transgender character of Eustace who appears throughout Hyperglossia? I’ve read that perhaps it’s an anagram of your name. Is it also in reference to Saint Eustace or any literary characters such as Eustace in The Chronicles of Narnia?
SS I gravitate toward writers who I sense write to tell themselves something that they didn’t consciously know yet. Robert Creeley said in an interview, “…I’m given to write as I can and in that act I use whatever I can to gain the articulation that seems to me called for.” Or Williams’s the poet “thinks with the poem.” So Eustace came to be via thinking with the poem, and specifically as a form for the narrator to become a civilian again. The “eu” prefix means “good”, the name means “fruitful.” It would be impossible to ignore that it is also a masculine form and anagram of my name, Stacy, so Eustace provides me with a space for self-construction. Eustace can be read as transgender, certainly, “trans” as movement across or through genders, but also across species. Eustace is also the character of the panther in the book and a more-than-human body. I didn’t learn about the other Eustaci till after I created my own. Later in the writing of Hyperglossia, I scattered a few references to the saint who was kicked off the Roman Catholic calendar of saints—too good to pass up.
SD In Hyperglossia a line reads “Eustace is mnemonic.” What does Eustace help you remember?
SS And the next line is “and I am privy to it”—that pattern of letters helps her remember what her body is at the moment and how she is being perceived. Her body has strata.
SD How did you come to be so interested in anagrams?
SS It’s word play. I’m interested in language visually and sonically, of course. Anagrammatical logic is a good way to keep your words permutating. John Cage’s mesostics in Anarchy were an eye-opener. Both of my books have lurking acrostics too. It’s kind of a flirtatious thing: if the reader is attracted by their flutterings, then they are there, ready for the rapport.
SD The spatial and skeletal look of your lines makes me think a lot about word economy. Can you speak about your thoughts on word economy?
SS I think economy is really at the crux of good art—the word economy literally means “the principles to maintain our house.” We have to manage our material in a way that is compelling to others or it fails as art. That said, this book is the most wordy book I’ve written and it still seems skeletal to you! Calling it “Hyperglossia” was in small part a self-parody of my own tendency to be hyper…condensed.
SD In your poetry the sounds of words seem almost more important than their meanings, though you trigger arresting ideas and images by combining words that commonly don’t go together. A few of my favorites were “verbal hippopotamus,” “biographical helium,” and “oceanic hyperalgesia.” I noticed the word crocodile appeared several times; was it just the sound of the word or is there some connection you have to crocodiles?
SS I would say sound is as important as meaning. Or often the sound carries the meaning. I don’t have a particular connection to crocodiles. There are a lot of animals in the book. I didn’t want to get too much into gods and goddesses, but I liked the animals that were used to represent them—the manifestation of Taweret, a benevolent goddess of fertility, was the female hippo. The hippo appears as one who gives good advice—“Stay away from hostile people.” Now that you mention it, I recently came across the word “Crocodilopolis”—an ancient city in Egypt. Had I known of it I would have certainly used it. Maybe I’m a crocodile person!
SD You seem to use a lot of devices of Language poetry. Do you see your work as part of that tradition, or any other particular tradition?
SS I’ve heard that before, but it surprises me. You are asking me a legitimate question here, but I want to note that I’ve heard this from other poets and readers who feel vexed by a type of poem and will cast it as “Language poetry.” What they mean is that they don’t know how to interact with it, or don’t know they are invited to interact with it. I guess bringing the reader’s mind into the process of generating meaning is one of those Language poetry devices I absorbed. I started writing poetry when I was about 19, and received a mainstream education in the creative writing classes I took. I don’t quite understand why, but it took me a full ten years to discover the contemporary avant-garde via a job at a small press bookstore, Woodland Pattern, in Milwaukee. I had literally no community; I couldn’t even imagine any particular tradition. So I got this job and I read everything, and I mean everything. I started meeting poets too. I wasn’t writing anything interesting until one night I was reading both Susan Howe and Louis Zukofsky back and forth and I started freaking out, really getting the line… I believe I learned how to write that night. My jobs in arts administration for the past ten years have kept me pretty well-read and curious, so I’m not really an adherent. It’s all taxonomy.