A conversation between poet-grammarians
I mean the sign
Is fucking full of it
When two matters interact should I hope to keep my skin.
Note: We speak, in this cointerview, of our books — Serena Chopra’s Ic (Horse Less Press, 2017) and Aditi Machado’s Some Beheadings (Nightboat Books, 2017) — of epiphany and performance, the sociopolitical import of the line break, of decapitation, autoeroticism, and the sensorium. In so speaking, we discover that we are both, and proudly, grammarians.
Serena’s Ic is a relentless book of linguistic terror and social embrocation. Ic(arus) is falling, breaking, and multiplying — as is language. The book is replete with the Latinate suffix “-ic,” ickiness, and ichthyology. Its sonics are sick, lyrical, erratic, and elliptical. For over a hundred pages, it draws outward from one myth, one figure, and one sound: this enduring and fractured sensibility is essential to Serena’s poetics and is the means by which she suggests fresh possibilities to crumble and remake our present architectures.
Aditi’s Some Beheadings imagines personhood as the root-life of a multicapitated garden or forest. Misplacing the head and its head-thought with a vulnerable exposure of the sensory organs, her poems think through the act of touching and touch through the act of thinking. Thought is a porous companion, walking just ahead of us, gently stalked by the book’s witness who observes the thinking landscape, the thinking flora-scape, the thinking I-scape with compassion and sensuous interruption. — Serena Chopra and Aditi Machado
Someone a stat
Istic Ic re
Ness like like is
Aditi Machado: How did you begin writing Ic?
Serena Chopra: I began with these terribly fractured line breaks that were constrained by syllable count, and then as I started getting into it, I realized that “-ic” started reappearing constantly in these fracturings. So, I decided to learn more about “-ic.” I knew the Old English, and I knew that it had this scientific hinging, but I didn’t exactly know what it meant, and as I started to open that up, I realized “-ic” carried the weight of the sociopolitical conceptions I was interested in examining. I thought up a character named Ic, which led me to think about Icarus as a figure for the book, because if Icarus had a pet-name, it would probably be Ic. Even though I didn’t want to get into detail with the myth, I loved the arc of the rise and the fall because at the time, in graduate school, I was feeling very much like I had been in school for so long and I had arrived at this point where I was “supposed to be,” and still success in the institution required that I not be myself. It was a great struggle for me to be a queer woman of color in a classroom. I felt it was expected of me to act like a straight white man and to submit writing that acted like that, too. And so I started feeling that the sun in the Icarus myth was like the institution myth in America. Having an immigrant father, it was a big deal to go to an American university, to be validated by the institution (ironically, of our oppression). Now that I’m up here, I feel like I’ve also lost so much. The book imagines that as the rise is happening, aspects of identity are shedding and falling from the ascending figure. Anything that makes Ic unique or different or non-ic-like with the institution falls — clothes, accents, skin color, hysterics, femmeness — into the city lakes below. As a way to investigate capital and appropriation, the text then questions: are these fallen aspects flotsam (per Maritime Law, any one can claim them) or jetsam (if discovered, they must be returned to their owner)?
Machado: You have used the phrase “ionic attraction” to describe the institution — can you explain?
Chopra: In science — as I learned from my science-y sister — ions that attract ions like themselves end with -ic, and so the -ic in “sulfuric” is going to attract other sulfur ions, but “sulfurous,” or anything ending in -ous, is going to attract ions that are unlike itself. That moment in my research became a sort of epiphany where I was thinking of the institution as this -ic-like ion that wants to attract things like itself. And even though the institution promotes itself as having diversity initiatives and a department might boast about having three women of color — this semester — [both laughing] the bottom line is that, one, the institution gets money for letting those three women of color in, and two, those women of color are most likely going to have to act like straight, white men in the classroom, in their work, in their discourse; they are going to have to adhere to masculine discourse to survive the institution. So much of what they are has to fall away and they have to become an -ic (Ic). They have to become the “I” of the institution, the personhood of the institution. They become this product and possession of the institution. Institution-thinking is patriarchic and capitalistic, like: “we’ll let you in and we’ll give you the degree, but we own you and we make money off of you being here and don’t have to concern ourselves with any actual attempts at integration.” And so, one, fuck that. And two, in the book, there are ions that attract ions unlike themselves, the -ous ions, and these ions for me were floating in the atmosphere, near to the ground — they were this chorus of “o us, o us, o us … ” — this chanting of the us-ness of us. So much of that us-ness gets lost in the institution. As a queer woman of color in the institution-sun, I am automatically cut off from communities that don’t have access (essentially a kind of citizenship) to the institution — in my case, the working-class part of my family won’t even talk to me or my mother, because we both have degrees. There is an arborescent (meaning, centrally structured and powered) sociality that fractures the margins along borders of institutional citizenship. While writing Ic, I felt that the ions being sucked up to the sun necessarily had to abandon us-ness — and that us-ness is so important; it’s the fabric that keeps the rhizome connected and growing. The arborescent system that draws us up to the sun is stripping that rhizomic possibility away.
[…] That’s how
I think. A decapitation, a lovely guillotine wind lays my mind
in the weeds.
Chopra: In Ic, I am interested in the idea of hinging and enjambment, which seems significant to Some Beheadings as well. However, where my investigation leaves the line hinging into the blue, your hinge actually jumps into the blue and examines how things are unfolding and opening into the future. Also, the line “hinging the preposition” reminds me of work I am currently invested in, which examines the preposition as a form of positioning and pre-positioning; the preposition as noting where one is pre-positioned to be, in a sociopolitical context. What does “hinging the preposition” mean to you?
Machado: The phrase “hinging the preposition” forms the second half of a sentence that begins “There is my academy.” There’s a line break between “preposition” and “academy.” The sentence appears in a poem called “Blessed Is,” which takes on the form of beatitudes as though it were a question. The sentences tend toward the aphoristic, but they also irritate the excessive clarities of what might one call the wisdoms of the academy. In other words, “Blessed is my gethsemane // of florid logic.” Because I am a scholar — but preferably in poetry, not dissertations. That’s one aspect of the hinge: the pivoting between different kinds of intelligence. The other has to do with the preposition itself. Translators often express that prepositions are the most recalcitrant parts of speech to work with. They’re among the smallest, least noticeable of words, and they’re incredibly precise to a given language’s way of seeing the world. They are, as you say, ideologically powerful, the movers and shapers of who is placed where in relation to what and at what time. For several years, I’ve been terrified by a sentence a stranger at a bus stop spoke to me: “Does he beat on you?” (To be clear, there was no “he” nor any beating.) Because “beat on” seems to take some agency away from the one doing the beating, it increases the distance between the aggressor and the victim. I didn’t beat you, I beat on you. The violence is just a rhythm and it entered me and you were there.
At the same time, if these ideas are emerging from the line breaks, I would say they are unintentional or unconscious. During the time of composition, I’m thinking of the line break as a way to manage prosody or to improve the capaciousness of the sentence. Whereas your line breaks seem — and I’m eager to know what you think about this — more deliberately political. They often take place inside semantic units, defamiliarizing words into sounds, as though criticizing the will to meaning or the will to singular meaning. My favorite hinges are typically vicious, even humorous, articulations of critique. I laughed out loud at “Data says hire Ic. / O / Too high, Ic,” the pacing of which plays out the drama of institutions that say, “We want to hire you, but don’t fly too high, you’ll melt your wings.” Flying high is a big problem for institutions. That tragedy becomes ever more palpable in this stanza on the same page:
In city lakes
The line break that turns “marginalia” into “margin / Alia” really cuts me. It reminds me of James Scully’s essay on the line break. He’s particularly interested in those breaks that “trouble the sentence surface, to release ideologically suppressed meaning.” You trouble sentences, but you also trouble the word itself. “Marginalia” — a relatively neutral term for writing notes, the work of scholars in the academy — becomes “margin / Alia” or “margin others,” since alia is Latin for “others.” So, we begin to see the marginalized of the sky-academy dropping into lakes. It’s incredibly powerful and it doesn’t stop there. We get to see the farce of it again on the following page with “O diversity / R we / Making friends [several line spaces] Up.” [Laughter.]
So, could you respond to the idea of line breaks as moments of release?
Chopra: As releasing, yes! I think that, using language so much, we don’t recognize how much lineage, history, and depth is in the morpheme. It’s exciting! To think that we are just on the surface of language, typically, and that a book can pull us to the underground of language, to look at one word or suffix — how it has come so far, to see the journeys it has taken and to consider how we can crumble it back into its components to learn from it and reassess — what does alia suggest for the film Alien versus Coleridge’s Marginalia versus the MAGA obsession with walling-off “aliens.” That’s significant, and that’s why Ic is subtitled “a sociolinguistic conspiracy theory.” The book considers how we build conspiracies for ourselves through language.
Chopra: “Following grammar to the precipice” is such an amazing image for me because it’s similar to what I was thinking about in Ic with the divers at the end of their line. There’s so much danger and tension built up at the precipice. I think of the precipice as a point of potential or gathering or break or expansion. I really resonate with expansion in Ic, I think. But in Some Beheadings, the precipice is a point of potential and of gathering. Is it at the precipice that beheadings happen? Is beheading a surrender or a contradiction or a gathering?
Machado: Maybe decapitation is a line break through the body that creates the precipice you speak of. I chose the title of the book much after the poems were composed, when I’d begun to notice certain recurring motifs, the body being dismembered and dislocated, but not as a result of violence committed outside of it. Rather, it was an interiorly motivated desire. I realized — or decided — that I’d been meditating on the question of intelligence. What is it? And where does it happen? We tend to think of it happening up here [touches head], literally on top of the body. It’s “a vertical conspiracy,” as you say in Ic. But if you’re walking, and you’re thinking as you’re walking, is your mind really up there? The Oxford English Dictionary lists a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century usages of the word “sensorium” as the brain or the mind. So, the sensorium is intelligent, which means maybe we have six minds, and maybe the brain isn’t always the most active of them, nor the most present.
Chopra: This reminds me of H.D.’s Notes on Thought and Vision in which she describes what she calls the “over-mind,” which is this sensorium-mind that floats like a jellyfish above the human body, and its tentacles reach into the body and connect to the sensory organs as well as to the “love region of the body” — a kind of love-mind in the pelvis. She presents this idea: “can one think with the womb and feel with the brain?” It reminds me so much of what you are saying as well as contemporary dance — in contemporary dance there is emphasis on momentum rather than the memorization of steps. A teacher of mine, Gabe Masson, would tell us to stop thinking and just move — even if we didn’t know the steps — because to dance is to connect to momentum. A dancer places trust in the pelvic floor, trusting that the love-mind will carry them through a kind of body-thinking.
Machado: Would you say there’s a similar thinking about the body in Ic? For example, in the section called “Palpebra Gula Sic,” which I read as “Thus the eye, thus the throat.”
Chopra: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been obsessed with the eye and the throat probably in every single book I’ve written. When I was writing Ic, I had a thing that Selah Saterstrom identified for me as plum pit,which is a condition in Chinese medicine,where one feels a constriction at the base of their throat. I was super constricted and had difficulty swallowing food. I eventually realized a lot of that was due to the ways in which I was clamping down on my body and voice in the institution, and my work wasn’t the momentum of my body. It was attempting the momentum of academic expectation. My eyes were also muted. I’m still in the process of recovering from all of that. So, what I’m saying is, to be a “visionary in the institution,” as Selah would say, one has to remember thus the throat, thus the eye — grammar balances, mediates, moves speech and sight so that we may trust the momentum of thought, the choreographies of intellect as they are and not as they are institutionally expected to be.
Chopra: “Tendu” in ballet is to touch the floor with your foot. A tendril.
Machado: To attend.
in my heart wake I
I feel human like
like I made pain
[…] I think
I’m not human, I’m grammarian.
Chopra: Reading Some Beheadings, I felt like, yes, this is the work of a grammarian, rather than a human, traveling through the world. I also automatically thought of Andrea Rexilius’s book, To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation. Can you help me think this through: if to be human is to be a conversation, then to be grammarian is what?
Machado: Perhaps what Andrea means by “human” is what I mean by “grammarian.” What I dislike about much lyric poetry is the way it thinks about selfhood. In fact, lyricism is almost always conflated with subjectivity, whereas when I started out as a poet, in a vacuum as it were, I thought of it simply as music, what comes out of the lyre. Now it’s as if the default position of lyricism is this peculiar form of subjectivity that’s inextricable from biography or narrative or the sort of confessionalism that’s no longer daring because it is increasingly the dominant mode of communication in the world. Cooked admissions, a self-sympathizing that isn’t empathetic, the veneer of “what’s personal is political” coating everything without actually reconfiguring anything or (re)defining the terms of conversation. I am much more engaged with writing that answers or enacts Etel Adnan’s question, “Doesn’t the act of looking at an object become also one of its definitions?” The more I think about it, the more I believe that Andrea’s “human” and my “grammarian” are closely related. Because grammar is social — the way it plays out relationships (pre-positions) of people to people and objects. It’s how I’m able to say that you are sitting across from me right now.
Chopra: So, when you are declaring “I’m not human,” it’s almost like you’re saying, “I’m not the object or subject of any of this thinking, I am the grammar of this thinking — or the grammar is the me of this thinking.”
Machado: This image is a bit gory, but if you picture a beheaded human body, with the head down on the ground, does the neck, this open wound, become a sense organ?
Chopra: Like the floral life you are using so much of — the aging dandelion, with all of the spores falling off.
Chopra: I wanted to point out that your book, to me, felt very solo. “Isolated” does not feel like the right word. And “loneliness” does not feel like the right word. “Alone” doesn’t feel like the right word. “Solo” feels like the right word. There is so much solo work and observation in the book. A kind of gently reflexive choreography between the subject and her grammar field and the fulcrum which I see as thought. There’s the subject, and then there’s her grammar field, and then there’s thought moving between subjectivity and grammar. Ic is very externally motivated; Some Beheadings is internal, so precisely internal — but also it resists precision at all moments. The subject and her grammar are suspended on an autoerotic sensuality and conversations with other texts, encounters that continually challenge and stimulate the subject. Can you speak a bit about the autoerotic — how is the autoerotic perhaps never isolated? How is pleasure an ecosystem?
Machado: There is a lot of pleasure in Some Beheadings. I am happy about that. Some of that pleasure is auto: a pleasure of the subject feeling itself out in language. It’s almost a narcissistic pleasure at times — most evident in the use of the pronoun “I.” It’s very hard to speak the ideas outside of it. If I were to use a different pronoun, it likely would still be construed as the self. That’s the discourse of lyricism we write in. You might resist the grammar of “I,” but that grammar is irresistible. At some point the speaker recognizes this is a form of fascism. There are other moments of eros that I find more joyful. They usually occur when the speaker is able to emerge from her interior circumlocutions, to surrender or find harmony with what’s outside of her. Something I’m keen to know, but perhaps never will is where precisely this “I” is located, outside of grammar. Or: where does it feel itself being located? Sometimes I feel it on my skin, the point of contact with other skins. Sometimes it feels like a portion of the landscape — that lip of the seashore. This isn’t mystical. I believe it is accurately, phenomenologically expressive of how thought works. It’s a way of living in the world. I don’t transcend, I don’t go into a trance, I refuse to meditate. It’s just thinking and touching, or touching and thinking.
Chopra: There is so much surrender in the book, particularly in “Route: Desert,” in which a full page reads: “labial / dunes / runes” (63) — expressing a kind of sensual, geographic, and temporal exhaustion. I get the image so clearly, and I am drawn to ask, “what’s between these dunes and runes,” and the answer is: just more of itself — sand tracing/filling sand, symbol tracing/filling symbol, labia tracing/filling labia. And on page 57 you write, “To sleep on its pillow is succulent cacti swelling in times / of plenty shrinking in drought” — here’s a great example of where the sentence doesn’t want to settle; it wants to surrender. There’s something about that related to eros and pleasure. There’s some sort of pleasure and love in wanting to mean multiply.
Machado: I agree. And I see that permissiveness, that pleasure, in the work of some of my favorite poets. Like Lisa Robertson, who has these incredibly baroque sentences — something about how sensuous and how full of folds her sentences are suggest a desire in her poetics for language to touch reality. It’s a very haptic gesture. I like that. I like touching things.
Chopra: I want to talk more about this — the book’s folding, unfolding, creasing, and pleating — and perhaps what has been by said by Irigaray (of whom Lisa is somewhat of a scholar) and other poststructural feminists: that the folds of the labia create an autoerotic possibility for women. There’s this constant sense of hypersensation in Lisa’s work, and also yours. The world touches the body in a way that creates great pleasure — and one of the things that it touches over and over again is grammar. It’s almost like the highest sensual response is that between grammar and the mind and the body — between grammar and touching.
Machado: Your sound score for Ic reminds me of Bruno Dumont’s statement, Ce qui m’intéresse, c’est la sensation, pas le sens (“What interests me is sensation, not sense”). In a couple of his films he doesn’t edit the sound. He’s filming in these intense northern French landscapes and the wind is so strong, you can hear it hitting the microphone. Sometimes the sounds of the landscape are louder than the people’s voices.
Chopra: Now I’m thinking of Bhanu Kapil’s Ban En Banlieue when she talks about disclosure versus discharge — a friend tells her, “I’m not interested in disclosure, I just want the discharge.” I love the idea that language crystals, as Andrew Joron calls them, are failing us in terms of what can be a logic possibility — we have failed our own sensory/sensual potentials through disclosure. The possibilities that emerge in the pleasurable surrender, drift, and spread of discharge actually make the poem and the reader more dimensional, it adds dimension that not even the writer can predict.
Chopra: I am interested in “In the Weeds” — where did it come from; what were you thinking through?
Machado: I suppose I was experiencing a kind of walking in which you’re thinking with your mind/feet in the weeds.
Chopra: That’s such a dance teacher thing to say.
Machado: I want to think about the future of the book, its afterlife. What has Ic’s life since publication been like?
Chopra: I went into writing Ic feeling very fed-up and hurt by the institution — and those feelings fractured and fell into these word crumbles and the language started to disintegrate. After writing the book I wanted to get back into thinking towards the problems that Ic posed. I was interested in theoretical and sociopolitical, rather than personal, ways of thinking about these issues. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari talk about the rhizome as opposed to the arborescent, and I’ve been doing a lot of work with thinking about the ways in which the margins get pushed to the perimeter, where queer (meaning nonarborescent) spaces and folks are oftentimes victimized rather than empowered by their otherness. And, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney point out, this creates a kind of colonialism where the margins/queers are measured against arborescent hierarchies and also become dependent on the arborescent power structures to lift them out of their “debased” condition. I started thinking about what I call rhizomic activisms. What if we (queers) dislocate ourselves from the sociopolitical prerogative to maintain singular patriarchal, heteronormative systems — what if we start to rhizomatically grow beneath the sociopolitical surface and allow the margins to move from the perimeter to within the sociopolitical mulch, sprouting their queer forms, emerging as significant, rather than victimized queernesses. I’m also interested in how the rhizome deconstructs masculine discourse. Masculine discourse is what keeps us in the institution of sense-making, the institution of erecting arborescent architectures and infrastructures that prohibit certain (queer) people, spaces, and modes of thinking. The line break as a social practice represents a kind of rhizomic capability. When a reader reaches the end of a line in a rhizomic text, “meaning” can sprout and multiply, it has so much potential — why contain that potential to a crystalized discourse that wants to uphold linear, singular meanings that manufacture and support the structures of our oppression? The institution of sense-making insists on hierarchies of intelligence, rather than acknowledging that intelligence is communal, vast, and emergent. What I love about Ic is that after the text was written, a theater group, Splintered Light Theater, was interested in a collaboration — they produced a shadow-light production of the text — and asked that I make a sound score for the show. As I was making the sound score, I realized that there was so much about the book I didn’t know before. The sound score was a new version of the book that was completely different from the version on the page. The book, any book, usually claims to manufacture a trustworthy central intelligence, but I don’t really believe that’s possible — there could be so many renditions and capacities. And this is what studying literature and being grammarian is about — seeing that a preposition can open multiply, and how.
Machado: So audiovisual performance is an aspect of the afterlife of the book. You’re also a trained dancer. I’m curious to know, what’s at the end of the line break in dance?
Chopra: I like to use the term movement instead of dance because I do feel that “dance” holds this kind of elitist position — like, “only a dancer can dance,” and what I’m thinking of is not like that. It’s more like momentum — it’s movement — we all have that. Poetry decrystallizes language, or moves language into its possibilities; dance does that for momentum — it shows us possibilities for movement logics — those other to walking and forward-facing interactions. To truly move, to see a body upside down or on its back or rolling around or throwing itself — to see a body doing that reminds us that the body is essentially a grammar of momentum. The body articulates itself through space, time, and energy. Have you ever seen Trisha Brown’s dance piece called Accumulation with Talking Plus Water Motor? It’s a piece she’s developed over a few years. She says something like, “the first time I performed this, it was four minutes long, to the Grateful Dead, and the second time it was fifty-five minutes long in silence.” She repeats these beautiful gestures over and over again, while narrating memories. The first thing she says is, “Start. Started. Starting to talk while doing this dance.” The tension between being, being after/inside of and being moving into the future, self-reflexively, is wonderfully apparent. The dance piece imitates thought moving through space and time, with space and time — it’s emptying itself and refilling on itself; it’s being wounded and puncturing in the future and also trying to take in at the same time. As it’s emptying and wounded, it’s also refilling itself with new capacities. And so, yes, performance is a grammar and the end of the line is a momentum for me, absolutely. That’s why I became so tired of poems wanting to make these little — how do you say — crystallized, yes, but also lines that want to contain all this philosophy and meaning, and want to tell you how it is —
Machado: The epiphany —
Chopra: The epiphany! I just don’t believe it anymore. I don’t believe it anymore.
Machado: When you’re dancing, what does it feel like to encounter your audience in the same space?
Chopra: I love it. That’s why I go dancing every weekend, sometimes twice a weekend. For me movement is a way to communicate without linear meaning. Abstract qualities can be replicated on the dance floor, and people will feel that, and understanding happens, and they will holler out in delicious resonance. I love club dancing and modern dance and other dance forms that don’t have an exacting vocabulary. In my early twenties, I transitioned from ballet to modern dance because of my college dance program. I was very opposed to it at first. But what I realized was that modern/contemporary dance wasn’t interested in making names and movements that could be exacted and replicated. In ballet there’s a name for every moment of the choreography.A ballerina is trained to master combinations over and over again — which is a beautiful and meaningful training. But in modern there’s nothing like that. So, expression and momentum become the two primary composition techniques. What I learned in that transition from ballet to modern dance is that body expression is a vessel for momentum, a vessel for something that cannot be solidified or crystallized into a vocabulary. I love that for dance, and I also love that for poetry. It feels so good to be able to communicate outside of masculine discourses. That’s what dancing and performing feels like — communication that refuses to succumb to the pressure of meaning-making inside the logic constraints of masculine discourse.
Machado: I feel that way about cooking.