Making the invisible visible

Jennifer Scappettone and Tonya Foster in conversation, 2010

Editorial note: The following conversation has been adapted from an Emergency Reading Series event hosted by Julia Bloch and Sarah Dowling on January 21, 2010, at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited for publication; additional commentary by the speakers is included below in brackets. The conversation, between Jennifer Scappettone and Tonya Foster, explores topics ranging from Disneyfication to the Greek chorus. Scappettone is the author of From Dame Quickly (Litmus Press, 2009), and of Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice (Columbia University Press, 2016) and The Republic of Exit 43: Outtakes & Scores from an Archaeology and Pop-Up Opera of the Corporate Dump (Atelos Press, 2017), both of which are discussed as in-progress works below. Her most recent publications are SMOKEPENNY LYRICHORD HEAVENBRED: Two Acts, a free downloadable chapbook of poetry from The Elephants (2018), and “Smelting Pot,” which appeared on e-flux and in Dimensions of Citizenship, the catalog for the US Pavilion of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennial. Foster is the author of the bilingual chapbook La Grammaire des Os (bilingual chapbook), translated by Olivier Broussard (joca seria, 2016), A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Belladonna, 2015), and the coeditor of Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2002). Watch a video of the 2010 event here, or listen to an audio of the reading and the conversation here.Watch a video of the 2010 event here, or listen to an audio of the reading and the conversation here. — Amy Stidham 

Julia Bloch: I think we’ll have a short Q&A before we go to the reception, and maybe, if the image comes up, we can look at it while we’re talking. [Foster had been describing the image of an online FBI document pertaining to her “A History of the Bitch.”]

I would love to get started by hearing both of you talk about connections you see between your work. It’s very fortuitous that we were able to have you both here tonight as part of Emergency. Would you say a little more about the connections you have and the correspondence you’ve had before tonight, any overlap with what we’ve heard in the readings or otherwise?

Jennifer Scappettone: I think our first extended conversation was after one of the Advancing Feminist Poetics and Activism meetings [organized by the Belladonna collective], and we were talking about geography on the train back uptown because I was living in Inwood —

Tonya Foster: And you were also doing work on Venice —

Scappettone: Right, I’m writing a book about Venice, and when I got out of graduate school — just after that — Katrina hit, and Venice became this site of additional disgust for me, I guess, in terms of the way we fetishize its disappearance [; it becomes a canonical European locus of decadence whose artistic treasures must be preserved, while the people and infrastructure of New Orleans — and particularly of the 9th Ward — are neglected in grotesque proportions. Both populations are treated as if their disappearance is a foregone conclusion]. So, I was thinking about New Orleans and this other place: this jewel of disappearance, this site that we go to to understand what passes away, and the incredible irony of all the charitable organizations that have arisen around that place, which are always about preserving monuments and not the population…. Recently, there was a funeral for the population of Venice, held because the civic decisions being made are so incompatible with the needs of a viable populace. It’s a really interesting example of place becoming something so sublime [in the imagination “out there,” beyond the city’s day-to-day reality, that it becomes] other to itself; we fetishize these places so much that they become a … shadow of themselves. 

Foster: And we’re not willing to deal with or take on displacement and the other things that are the necessary components. I was in Las Vegas for the first time, and I thought, wooh, I love Las Vegas, but it is scary, which isn’t fair. There are a lot of people from Las Vegas and for them it’s not so scary. But there is something about the — it’s too easy to say Disneyfication — but I think Césaire pegs it when he says that colonization is thingification. And so, there is some way in which we thingify the place and don’t imagine places as, in fact, migratory and always in transformation. We have to, in some way, begin to not embrace but deal with displacement. Not so that we go “Oh woe is me,” but so that we contend with the real complexity of what it is to experience a place, to be a living being in a place. I often think that one of the things that haunts me in the Hartman [Saidiya Hartman’s project in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Transatlantic Slave Route] is when she talks about the only evidence of the slave having lived was the body of the slave, which is very Orlando Patterson-y. I think that she is getting at something that is in some ways about our not being willing to contend with what we don’t quite understand, with what’s messy, stinky, uncomfortable, not nice; that we want to find a way, whether it’s to find a cause and effect, explanation — not that you care, but my favorite book of the Bible is Job, and part of it is my hyperdrama tendencies when I was a kid — I’d sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” for no apparent reason — but because in Job there is a rejection of suffering as being related to an easy cause and effect. In fact, the divine is implicated in the horrible things that happen to Job, and so the notion that reason will protect us is really pushed aside. There’s something in that that we have a tendency for. You know, I love Pat Robertson: “They made a deal with the devil.” I once wanted to make t-shirts that said: “All those devil people raise your hands,” in part because there are tons of people that you could argue — you can try and come up with some justification that really doesn’t look at the structures in place and the chaotic nature of being alive. But there are structures in place to assure certain bodies and locations suffer more, or a lot. [I would add to clarify that there is intense tension and stringent pressure out of those forces that would thingify/commodify being’s ever present messiness. Violence is a central mechanism of thingification/commodification. There are, of course, structural mechanisms producing and distributing violence, and inflicting damage and suffering. Reason, as mode and perspective, often fails to take accurate accounting of what it seeks to make invisible.] 

Scappettone: So, it seems like part of the point of the poem is to make a place for that mess and to honor it and, at the same time, to expose the infrastructure of that mess, the enormity of it, and its relationship to the core mechanisms that make these societies run. 

Foster: I love something you said, I was very excited. I always feel very inspired when I talk to you. I think you ask very difficult questions. I was very excited when you were talking about the chorus, the Greek chorus, and of course I was taking notes and I had questions afterwards, and I was relieved today when you said “The chorus is always public,” because I thought how can there be a chorus that is not public? I don’t think there can be. 

Scappettone: Yeah, I’m doing this research on this phenomenon, and the fact that the Spartans actually called the main square, the civic square, the chorus. That it was the same for them really literalizes something. It literalizes why it is so difficult to try and make a kind of collective poetry, because you’ve got to get that — the [sociopolitical] center — in, and try and change it from the inside, to contaminate it.

Foster: Really? I think there are many choruses, and one of the things I was thinking of in the nation-state, the chorus was a civic responsibility, but not everyone was a citizen [nor was every being considered a visible/legible part of that civic space]. So, what do we do [in] the spaces in which you also have a chorus that is not engaged in citizenship and is not a part of official civic life, and yet you have a chorus that is also public? What do you think about that? 

Scappettone: Well, I guess that in a way my link to Italy, as I talked about, is so strange because I remember getting all the citizenship papers in, trying to get a passport to this place, and being told at the Italian consulate that we couldn’t do that because, actually, my great grandmother wasn’t a citizen. Until [the events that succeeded the gradual fall of Fascism in] 1944 [cemented in 1948, with the passage of the Republican Constitution in Italy], women were not citizens. That really literalized something. [The women and the immigrants who hadn’t obtained US citizenship in my family] did have choruses — we have silent films of these people playing castanets and tambourines and singing, I wish I could hear what they sound like — so we have, literally, those [extraterritorial and structurally muted] choruses [still pacing in the archive and in the day-to-day of political and extrapolitical life]. I guess what’s interesting to me about the form is that somehow you want to account for what’s most central in the society while also infiltrating it with these more marginal or liminal voices. What I’m trying to do in these [new poetic] pieces is, I’m actually sampling the rhetoric of these corporations that have been accused or found to have produced certain environmental disasters: going to the documents of their own defense, and manipulating that rhetoric, and also interjecting — I mean, I didn’t read that many of the pieces [from The Republic of Exit 43], so you may not have heard them — but, interjecting the sorts of data sets coming out of the EPA and the Superfund listing sites. I’m bringing them all together with the logic of Alice’s adventures underground — using Lewis Carroll’s rhetoric, which is so excellent in exposing the nonsense in the authoritative structures that govern us. He seemed to me to be the perfect vehicle for this kind of structuring. He’s so good at producing these very melodic and harmonious-sounding things that don’t make sense, which is what corporate rhetoric is anyway. 

Foster: And it’s funny because I also think there are spaces where, even if it’s not corporate rhetoric, nonsense may be useful and instructive. 

Scappettone: Definitely. 

Foster: I was at a party and there was this argument about who had produced more babies, Luther Vandross or Anita Baker. […] And one of the people at the party, who was a very good singer, said, “But Anita Baker doesn’t use consonants. She hates consonants.” And he’s like [imitates Anita Baker],” and he does the whole thing, and I thought, “That’s right.” And I said, “Sometimes you don’t need consonants.” And that there is some other kind of sense that nonsense gets at. 

Scappettone: Definitely, it’s very subversive.

Foster: It can be, yes. 

Bloch: We have two questions waiting here.

Amy Paeth: I have a question for Jennifer in general, but Tonya might want to speak to this — but Jen, earlier, in your reading, there was this line that was striking to me and it was “disaster that can’t be mapped and only hyperlinked.” So, I just wondered if you might see poetic method more broadly as the effort to map what’s hyperlinked, or if you see your work more in the logic of hyperlink, or else the effort to be both mapping and hyperlinking. So, I wonder if you could speak to your method?

Scappettone: That’s a really good question. [In] the kind of crises and disasters that I’m looking at, if you go to the actual sites — a Superfund site, even the Love Canal site, which was what started the EPA — you will find no trace of what happened before, even though it’s basically a historic site. But there is all this stuff that has been archived online and so on. Ultimately, the idea is to raise consciousness so that there are actual physical manifestations of what’s happening in sight. What the poem can do, I think, is actually map causes and effects that may not be immediately apprehensible. So, I literally am trying to map these things and create this archaeology, this archaeological text that invites reading that is sort of like a hyperlinked reading, in order to register the struggle of finding a narrative in this kind of landscape. I didn’t really narrate this, but I’m struggling with some of these texts, and the last thing I read is still in progress, but the idea is to be zooming in and out of this thing … looking for something that is in a field that far exceeds the … immediately legible field. I want to show, I guess, the interpenetration of the concrete and the virtual, and, ultimately, to come up with some kind of grounded knowledge-producing apparatus through poetry.

Speaker: I have a question that I’ll posit to both of you, as I’m curious what both of you have to say about this, and it has to do with some of the conceptual content of both of your work and also some of the things you’ve said at the beginning of the Q&A as far as place and displacement are concerned, and disenfranchisement. You talked about how we fetishize this kind of disintegration of these places, and you speak about this in terms of them being external forces that are inflicted upon the population that’s in place. I’m curious as to if that doesn’t compound the problem of disempowering the people who are in that place that is disintegrating by repeating that kind of rhetoric of external forces being the driving factor of that disintegration as opposed to it organically rising from the population. 

Foster: I think it’s both, that any line that attempts to suggest that it’s only the external — there is some measure of agency. This is a terrible model of agency, but I think Frederick Douglass is right. He says, “I’m never going to be beaten again even though I may be a slave. In fact, I will never be beaten by another man again.” So, his choice is [to] die [or to face the possibility of death], or to somehow get lucky and he not be beaten again. [When Mr. Covey tries to have him beaten, Douglass] supposedly fights day and night. It’s a horrible choice to have, and yet it’s a decision to exercise agency within the limits of the space that you have. So, certainly there is some measure of agency. But we also are readily [or under threat of death] indoctrinated [and grammatically regulated]. Language speaks us as much as we speak language. We come to understand the world through the language that we are given, and maybe if we are lucky we begin to challenge those perceptions, [those sentences], or try and push against them, but often we’re trying to eat. 

Scappettone: Yeah, I totally agree with what Tonya said. For example, in the case of Venice, there are petrochemical plants right across the lagoon on the mainland, and they exist there because tourism wasn’t enough to keep that place going. So, there are leftists who profoundly support the idea of putting these petrochemical factories there, and there are many people who needed those jobs, but now there are many people who can’t speak because of the air that they were breathing [which contained vinyl chloride and ethylene dichloride — as well as over 150 workers who died from a fatal liver cancer associated with PVC production]. It’s just incredibly complicated. The people are complicit, but I guess what you can do in the process of researching and remanipulating all of this is to make visible what is invisible. I actually grew up across from a couple of Superfund and hazardous waste sites, and I didn’t know. So, how much agency do you have if you’ve grown up in an area that is programmed to disintegrate in a certain way? Part of my interest is just to, again, make eloquent that which is not yet eloquent, even if it’s uglily eloquent.

Foster: Yeah, I mean, I’m very interested in the subjunctive and the possible. It strikes me that that is one of the ways to push against the naturalization of choices and the limits of agency. I love this: there was a lawyer in the South, in Louisiana, and she is representing people who are pretty sick from working for oil companies, and her phrase is “from the plantations, to the plants.” That was the route. Once you’re not picking cotton or tobacco, you’re in a plant. It seems as if you can work and feed your family. The idea of the long-term consequences are more difficult to see, and the idea that there might possibly be other choices, that that’s about reconfiguring a notion of what it is to be alive, so that one is aware of possibilities outside of what you’ve experienced. [That awareness comes to us through language and through the imagination.]

Speaker: I’m curious as to what both of you seem to be saying in conversation with one another and what occurred to me as a question or conflict between the idea of chorus and the idea of chaos. Looking at that in terms of what we’re playing with, the idea of cultural togetherness or cohesiveness of society, and the chaos that comes out of that, I’m interested in what you have to say about that, in terms of your personal experience or what you observed when writing. 

Scappettone: Well, the chorus is a way of reforming, remanipulating chaos. So, there’s this very complicated [function performed by verse, whether sociopolitical or metaphysical] — and we can’t completely restore what it was like in the Greek chorus — for example, the strophe and antistrophe. The antistrophe repeats the meter, but with accents on the wrong syllables and the wrong pitches. I’m really interested in that. You’ve got this thing that is perfectly formed, and then you take that perfect form and somehow… make it all wrong. I love that idea that you can mow over the same aesthetic terrain and make it discomfiting the second time around. I’ve worked with that a lot. In these pieces [from The Republic of Exit 43], it would be that you would be moving through the pieces in different ways [each time you read]. I guess I was kind of doomed to be a poet because I’m really struck by sonic coherence. I really am interested in the kind of lyricism that has dropped out largely from our understanding, and the reason I am interested in it is because it’s a way of ordering the chaos, but it could be incredibly beguiling. I’m interested in exposing that beguiling quality of it. 

Foster: Which is what I think [M. NourbeSe] Philip does in Zong!, that there is tremendous beauty in that work and yet it’s horrific. I mean, it’s a lyric poem, it’s entirely the kind of lyric outcry that can not step away from that [the chaos and the chorus in which the public sociality of the self is and is implicated], which I tie to melancholia. There are moments when the void cries out and it’s not a curse, and it’s not [an ode] — you curse someone, you also praise them, but there is not a causal relationship that the moan, the cry [articulates or performs]. It is that momentary outcry, and that, to me, is what happens most intensely in the lyric. [It is the crossroads of chaos and chorus, the discordant chorus that reason and the record attempt to thingify.] I think it’s [the outcry has] dropped away [from our foremost modes] because we have so much information. Everyone wants to retell some story, bring up some dead person. Not that we shouldn’t honor the dead, but we do have a lot of information. [What space do we make for the mourning that is the story’s partial consequence? The cry that is not narrative, is not descriptive, but is atemporal and evidence of being, of having been.] So, what does that mean? 

Bloch: I think we have time for one more question.

Sueyeun Juliette Lee: Earlier, you both mentioned making the invisible visible in your work, and I was struck by how much is invisible in what you presented. You had, Tonya, this incredible armature around the Queen Kong and how you said that this is only understandable in these islands of inner voices being present. And, Jennifer, with your work, so much of it requires an imagination bigger than the text on the page. So, you have the dance pieces [from PARK, developed with choreographer Kathy Westwater and performers], and I was struck by the gaps and the edges and the tears in the writing. Somehow, to me, it seemed like they were trying to, maybe, not to make visible what was invisible, but to suggest this impossibility of archaeology, in some way, that we’re dealing with these very disparate tools. Tonya, just now, you said, “There’s so much data.” I was wondering, as poets, how do you think about your work in the future? How will it be presented? Is it of this moment now? Does it have an expiration date? How do you see this work impacting things fifty years from now?

Scappettone: Without any touch of arrogance … my work will be taught in …

Foster: All the kindergarten classes!

Scappettone: That would be so great if it was, if my book were to be taught at the elementary school where it is largely set, which wasn’t closed down till I was eighteen, and I finally got the hell out of there and went to college … Well, the thing I am encountering now is that it’s a little difficult to say how it will transmogrify, in that this piece started out as a book for Atelos. Now, I am trying to figure out how it is going to actually fit in that book. I have to just admit that it’s not going to exist only on the page. I’m actually working with my friend Judd Morrissey on a digitization of the piece that would actually make these into pop-up windows. 

Foster: I love that.

Scappettone: What’s funny is that it’s very hard to do pop-up windows, Judd tells me, because so many people have pop-up blockers. So, you have to get around that. There will be that, and then there’s the performance with Kathy Westwater [PARK, with showings at New York Live Arts, Pratt Institute, and Fresh Kills Landfill]. Somehow you have to redefine what the book is. The book is a non-site, is the way I started thinking about it…. I had another series that I didn’t show because I didn’t want to talk at length, but it’s also visual. These are film stills [of verse lines that “crash” spiderwebs, making up a series called Neosuprematist Webtexts: Pastoral Crash]. It just seems to me it is hard not to participate in this visual culture abounding [both because it enables us to address issues in nonlinguistic or paralinguistic modes, vying with and hopefully offering rejoinders to the contemporary culture of eye-candied commodities, and because it enables accessibility to audiences who might not see themselves as interested in or equipped for poetry]. I’m not sure what that means. I don’t want to be known as a visual poet, because that label makes people presume that you’re not actually saying anything. It seems like there is a prejudice that there’s no content [in visual poetry].

Foster: I want to make videos for books that don’t exist, poetry books that don’t exist. Just the facade. I don’t imagine that my work is to make the invisible visible. That seems like a lot to do. It’s difficult contending with what is visible, right? And that seeing clearly seems, to me, to be an enormous amount. In terms of fifty years from now, if I’m still alive, then I’ll be reciting my poetry in my niece’s attic to friends who come around. Who knows? Who knows? That’s a horrifying thought. I feel like I just have to write now.

Scappettone: What a great audience. You stuck around for so long. You deserve applause.