Haven't worked out the particulars
On instructions, position papers, and finding our way
Like so many of us who feel most at home in books, I’ve turned to books in Trump times. The one morning ritual that has stuck with me since November 9 is finding a poem over coffee that I can cling to for the rest of the day. I make it my guiding light, looking back on it throughout the day and receiving its text as instructions.
It’s in this way that I’ve returned to Andrea Lawlor’s Position Papers, out last year from Factory Hollow, because it instructs me on the shape of a future world. In a series of prose pieces that sit somewhere between manifesto, futurist fiction, and Anne Carson’s Short Talks, Lawlor describes the conditions of an aspirational country, as in:
In my country, one-seventh the size of the current United States and not so federated, we will systematically use up all the broken plastic objects people’s step-aunts and fathers have been hoarding in their garages. We will thank our hoarding relatives and comrades in our minds as we watch the stars from our downy bed, all talked out.
Lawlor’s pieces are solutions (often for throwaway culture, digital miscommunication, and other problems of the contemporary moment), and I find myself thirstily drinking them in. Solutions are what I’m seeking these days. Solutions and directions.
In today’s dark political climate, it’s easy to fantasize about a utopian future, and easier still to despair. Work like Lawlor’s could feel fantastical, silly, and far away, but it doesn’t precisely because it is more than utopian: it’s constructive. It takes a clear instructional stance, in a time when finger-pointing is the central public narrative we see on display.
On cell phones, Lawlor writes,
In my new country we will have various and more efficient systems of communication, including trees. If we want to tell someone we don’t like how they were talking to us in the car or if we need to apologize for our abrupt departure, we will leave notes to such effect nestled in the dogwood trees. … When we wish to ask people to take walks or come to couples-counseling with us, we will flag the trees nearest to their houses with coded squares of colored cloth. From saplings’ delicate limbs we will dangle our friend request, and around the magnolia gnarls we will tie with ribbons the notices of our name changes and new pronouns. (13)
Reading Lawlor, I think of that old activist phrase (attributed sometimes to Dorothy Day and sometimes to the International Workers of the World) about the necessity of “building the new in the shell of the old” — of creating now, in our movement spaces and personal lives, that which we aspire to attain.
I feel this in Lawlor’s work, as many of the position papers contain contextual elements of our current world, as in the position paper on property:
In this new country, we will eschew individual possessive pronouns, preferring to indicate linguistically our shared but not individually-owned belief that all property is probably theft. (1)
While holding the context of our existing world, Lawlor makes suggestions for the new and maintains an open stance to what still needs to be figured out. This same position paper ends:
Our house will still be “our” house; I haven’t worked out the particulars of housing yet, but I think we’ll just agree that we stay there, temporarily, like all of life. (1)
Lawlor’s instructions remain porous, unfinished, receptive to the next invention. It’s an open stance: a stance that says “here is my suggestion and it is not a closed loop,” admitting imperfection, inviting us to figure out what remains.
Lawlor both soothes us with future utopian possibilities and, at the same time, demands our participation. These papers hold an ethics of openness, giving suggestions while also yearning, modeling a way of building that does not pretend to be self-sufficient or complete.
So many of my friends say they don’t know what to do these days, how best to dedicate themselves to political change and activist work, how to build on the short, traumatized burst of energy we felt at the start of this administration. We smatter about between marches, organizing meetings, new creative projects, and articles we must read (more we always must read).
Many of us are scattered: so how to participate? How to work out the particulars of how to participate?
Organizer friends tell me that in peak moments like this, we must remember to do the things we know how to do — to use those practices for the revolutionary work that we want. I am one who turns to books, so in this moment I turn to books.
For my birthday last year, J asked me to pick out my thirty-one favorite books, and then people at the party selected a sentence at random from each book and read it aloud to me, asked me to interpret what this meant to me for the next year — a shape of divination from my books, a kind of guidance.
This practice seems even more useful now, in the moments when we don't know, when too many of us burn out and space out. Instead, when we’re deeply at a loss we need to learn to read the prompts we have, turn to the tools of our lives for hints, instructions.
I think of CAConrad’s somatic instructions, the way they’ve broken open contemporary poetry in part by telling us that instructions are enough, are enough for grown-ups, that prompts and constraints are a form in themselves.
In a recent undergraduate writing workshop, I taught an entire month on prompts as form, barraging my students with writers who write in instructional and prompt-based forms, from Laynie Browne’s P R A C T I C E to Yoko Ono’s Instruction Pieces. Once my students had interacted with a range of these, they began to write their own instructions for one another, their own prompts for the class.
My students especially loved reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s essay “Dreaming in Women,” in which she instructs the reader on the somatic conditions under which one should take in the work of different women writers Yuknavitch has loved. I asked my students to write instructions to their own readers for the conditions under which their own work should be read.
This was awesome, one of my students wrote me, I never realized before that I could decide this. My students wanted, and found, agency — especially as the class ended the day of Trump’s inauguration.
This constant reminder of agency is what I seek, and find, in work like Lawlor’s. It’s not an escapist agency: it’s one that allows us to take responsibility without miring in guilt. Lawlor invites us to take up our mistakes and make them our material, as in the position paper on lawns:
we will turn our misspoken words and botched romantic gestures, our quarterback fashion fantasies and stray tufts of anger all into energy, and we will pour that sweat and huff and tempered resentment into battery cells which we will sled home so we can watch century-old light flicker onto sheets on the strawbale walls, relishing our increased ability to flow blood, cozing among baby goats and humans and looking out from the bunker or tinted moon to the snow-deep lawn, that various field — (8)
Here, like in many of Lawlor’s papers, there is a sense of openness, readiness, or longing. As with the “various field” and its dash, there is speaking without closing the thought or topic entirely, a settling back to acknowledge what’s around and begin again.
I find this open stance incredibly helpful in the context of political activism, as I constantly mess up and try again and feel ashamed that I am not doing enough or not doing it in the right way. I know from articles on white supremacy culture that this is the process I need to go through, especially as a white person who is not directly affected by most forms of oppression.
But I want to work hard. I want to participate, and I want some guidance. I sit in political meetings where we are reminded that the organization takes guidance from POC-led organizations, “responds to call-outs for support,” etc. But this is a relatively new stance for me, learning to take instruction. It’s one I need to practice.
In jubilat’s post-election issue, Corwin Ericson’s “Prompts” gives us another example of how to guide or receive guidance. The piece begins:
Pass a note to your new friend in the next cell. In your own words, tell him what you have done. Tell him if there is anything you regret. Who has helped you? Who has been kind to you? The cell block is eager to hear you, their new member.
By immediately placing the reader in a stance of receiving instructions on how to speak, Ericson opens the door to speech while giving enough constraint that the reader can feel compelled and guided at the same time, like there is an open way to participate.
Perhaps the guidance I’m seeking in the first summer of the Trump presidency is this openness exactly. I think of so many projects that present open questions and instructions as art-making: my students also loved Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More and how it presses out into the world in terms of uncertainty, in terms of — by its very nature and aesthetics — not knowing.
What does it even mean to work hard at something we don’t know how to do? Can we be “clueless,” and still work hard?
This is all great, an editor wrote to me about my new manuscript, but too many unanswered questions.
I could go into the manuscript and try to answer all of them, but it’s the questions themselves that I want to write.
The first time I learned the term active bottom I felt so understood I had to leave the room.
I need some fresh air, I said abruptly, my face flushing, and stood outside in the damp San Francisco night. It wasn’t even a sex party, but I felt too exposed. I stood on the deck and I felt the fog’s fingers pointing, whispering, active bottom: that’s me, me, me.
An active bottom, a person who likes to receive but is not passive in this role. I searched gay sex forums on the Internet the next morning for what people thought about active bottoms.
I like an active bottom better than one that just lies there, wrote one person, I don’t want them to just play dead.
I want them to be involved, wrote another.
And: I want to know this is what they want, even from the bottom.
At the moment I’m working on a project with an artist friend where we give instructions. People bring us their problems and we give them instructions to perform — rituals, we call them, rituals adjacent to capitalism. They include rituals for creative blocks, financial problems, family conflicts, and more. In a recent session, a participant shared about her strained relationship with her mother, and how her mother overcompensates for this strain by flooding the participant with a massive amount of useless gifts she mails to her from Amazon.com. We presented the participant with instructions to build a to-scale model of her childhood home from the gifts her mother mails her, and to sit in the to-scale model each time she speaks with her mother on the phone. We were surprised, on looking up from the instructions, to find this participant in tears.
Most of our rituals involve an element of whimsy, and most are not entirely physically possible to complete. Across the board, though, participants in the project talk of the comfort they feel when they receive one of our rituals. To just know I should try something, the weepy participant said. It feels so good to be told there’s a path, said another, even if it’s imaginary.
Diane di Prima, also in jubilat’s post-election issue:
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT
It’s war. It’s war right now. It’s so many wars right now. And I seek instruction on how to be in this war.
Di Prima continues: “you do it in the consciousness of making / or not making yr world,” just as Lawlor makes the “new in the shell of the old” and also leaves space open for it not to be made, for us to be beckoned in.
In a political moment where I search so often for direction, the active bottom seems one useful model — the model of receiving, modeling that we can know what we want, even from the bottom. That we are allowed to want prompting and instruction.
It may seem like the world is against us, there are so many reasons to panic and feel disempowered, but we are surrounded by instructions, should we choose to receive them: instructions and tools from the long history of activism in this country, instructions and tools ready and primed for us to take them up and make them our own.