Why cry?

A question for Diana Hamilton

cover of Okay, Okay; design by Chris Alexander

I had been hesitating to ask Diana Hamilton to talk about emotion / feelings / affect in her work, in part, because I was beginning to feel concerned that a tendency might be emerging in this column: a) that I’d somehow been asking more of my “female” correspondents to write on content questions, and b) that some of those content questions could look "soft" even though the answers I’ve been getting are quite brilliant and sometimes pretty hard-hitting. I mean, I asked Holly Melgard “Why childbirth” but could have asked her about her brilliant work with and on Troll Thread! But of course the issues raised by her childbirth performance are anything but soft or simple, and Holly’s answer makes that clear enough. Diana Hamilton’s brilliance, humor, and theoretical prowess deeply impress me. For the past few years she's been doing alot of heavy reading and thinking in the Comparative Literature Program at Cornell, where's she's earning her Ph.D. I remember her making some helpful theoretical connections in a Freud-Lacan reading group we both took part in a couple of years ago and was especially grateful for the work she and Kareem Estefan did unpacking Lacan’s diagrams. But my favorite memory of Diana involves her heroically instigating a chant CREEPY! CREEPY! CREEPY! aimed at an older male poet as he, essentially, felt up a younger female poet while she was on stage. Yes, that happened. CREEPY! CREEPY! CREEPY! Good stuff.

Hamilton describes her first book, Okay, Okay as ”a book of poetry that appropriates other people's feelings.” Working with all found language around the management of emotions (mostly how to hide them effectively), and woven together quite beautifully by Hamilton, Okay, Okay is a provocative and emotional read. Full disclosure: I am its co-publisher at Truck Books. So I've been reading through the work in this manuscript all the way through its process of becoming. It has had a powerful effect on me, reading through what amounts, I think, to a well-re-written collection of our culture's seemingly insurmountable pile-up of repressed emotion. Okay, Okay does important work. And, moreover, a question about feelings and repression is not “soft”; it's been made to seem soft in its co-optation by conservative, reactionary poetry discourse. When language poetry began to gain traction they said, “but it has no feelings!” Now people say the same about conceptual writing, often taking the title of the recent anthology Against Expression to mean "against feelings."  But these misreadings amount to a refusal to think about what feelings really are and how they work. Intellectually charged writing doesn't avoid feelings, or come at their expense, and no one I know doing it thinks that way. So I decided to just go ahead and ask Diana Hamilton: Why Cry?

Here’s her answer: 

Five years ago, I wanted to write a book called Let It Out that was going to be about all of the things that could be released: tears, waistlines, animals, prisoners. There was a terrible “song” about setting turtles free, if I remember. I started this book in part because of my new office job, where I found out quickly how feelings take the shape of the rooms they happen in, and how everything I felt was felt first by the internet.

Of course the eventual book was called something else, and it was about something else, too: instead of a banal celebration of the expression of the otherwise unexpressed, it became a banal repository for some means of repression; it had advice, which I like to give and get; it had floorplans, which felt emotional for me; it turned out, more than anything, to be about women, whom I also like, and who sometimes feel things.

In the end, I wanted to write about emotion in a way that dealt both with the limited forms for its expression — oh, so your boyfriend left you, and you want to die, and you dislike your job, and you cry every time you come—you are a very unsurprising person whose experience needs no innovation for representation — and which treated the feelings seriously anyway—as in old movies that make no pretense to surprise endings or well-rounded characters.

And at the same time, I didn’t plan to “write” it, either because I hadn’t yet learned how to write, or, more precisely, because not-writing it taught me how to write, or because it was clear that it didn’t need writing, or because repetition isn’t only what repression causes; it’s also a means of repression’s interruption. And still, I had a notion of writing something that someone would Read, alone, crying, and the unlikeliness of that goal made it good. By the time I was proofing it for publication, it had become an autobiography; I was sobbing on the ground outside of the building I taught in; I had forgotten I hadn’t written any of the sentences; many people have assumed the woman on the cover is me, etc., &c. If the book’s wholesale appropriation of others’ language started out as an accident of poetry-world context or personal preference, it wound up necessary: the stylistic flattening out of others’ experiences via writing felt to me like a protection from experience’s becoming generic. 

And in thinking about how something general about a certain emotional experience could be formally registered in language as poetry, I tried to invent Spiritual Poetry, which I haven’t yet invented — but when I do, it will also probably involve Feelings, because Poetry sometimes does.