An interview with Stephen Motika
Note: What follows is an edited transcript of an email exchange between Stephen Motika and Brian Teare that began on October 8, 2016, and ended on March 19, 2017. Motika and Teare discuss Motika’s most recent chapbook, Private Archive, which was published by Albion Books in September 2016. An extension of the obsession with biography found in much of Motika’s earlier work, Private Archive theorizes and practices a specifically queer relation to the archive, what Teare calls “a noninstitutional, affective relation that courts the collapse of the ‘proper’ distance between subject and object, author and history.” To persist in such relation is one way, Motika argues, in which “we inherit past lives and work and … create a space to honor their contribution as well as deal with the fact of inheritance.” The poems in Private Archive honor the inheritances of culture workers as various as Stacy Doris, Paul Thek, Adrienne Rich, and Susan Sontag, among others. — Brian Teare
Brian Teare: One of the exciting things about the work in this new chapbook, Private Archive, is that it suggests to your readers what aspects of your first book you’ve chosen to pursue and develop. I remember the first time I read the poems in Western Practice, and I remember in particular encountering the serial poems, “Delusion’s Enclosure: On Harry Partch” and “City Set: Los Angeles Years.” I’d never read anything quite like them — on the one hand, they’re luxuriously projective page-based poems, and on the other hand they’re basically documentary projects that mine research and source material for imagery and musical phrasing that suggest the outlines of historical facts. So it was exciting to read Private Archive and realize you’ve continued to develop this sui generis mode of yours, a kind of “notational biography” you’ve largely devoted to the lives of other poets and artists. Though I love this work, I can’t help but wonder: why use poetry as a medium for biography?
Stephen Motika: I think of “Delusion’s Enclosure: On Harry Partch” as a biographical poem. Having written that poem, I didn’t want to repeat myself, although I continued to feel compelled by biography. In these new poems, I tried to use biography as a portal to explore my own subjectivity as well as other issues that interest me. As such, only the poem based on Paul Thek involved significant biographical research and how that might create a context to engage issues of desire, death, and materiality, among other things. I projected a version of myself into Thek’s life; so there’s a haunted quality, as though I’d been his lover, broken up with him, and then survived him. The arc of the relationship in the poem is based loosely on his friendship with Susan Sontag, which was very strong in the 1960s (she dedicated Against Interpretation to him). When Thek left New York for Europe, she dropped him. It wasn’t until he was dying from AIDS that she came back to his bedside to read to him. Sontag’s complex subject position also inspired the opening of the title poem, which deals with sexuality and surveillance in the twentieth century. I think I actively chose not to write about Sontag’s biography, although I know it well. She went to high school in Los Angeles, where her classes at Hollywood High famously bored her. She read a lot and had a chance to interview Thomas Mann, who was living in California in exile.
So the question might be: why does biography spark something in me? I don’t have a single answer, but I became aware as a teenager that there were stories that weren’t told in our literature. This began with an intense awareness of the absence of women’s lives from what I was encountering. My first two chapbooks deal with a fictional curator who’s the visionary behind a museum of works on paper to be built in the desert. She’s an amalgamation of the female mentors I had as a child, but is very much based on my grandmother, who was very knowledgeable and opinionated when it came to books, art, and culture. She famously disliked fiction, preferring to read long biographies. The desire to portray and honor her comes from a very deep place. Later, as I found my way into poetry, I became interested in notating a wider array of lives that had been overlooked. It was projective not just in terms of form, but also content. Since those two early chapbooks, I’ve been slowly moving into my work, not as a biographical subject, but as an affective being, as a body. With Private Archive, the biographical component is one of several things at play in each poem, which often include an engagement with a text or specific history, but also a desire to situate myself in the context of these lives. How do these figures, ranging from dear friends to people I never met, impact the paths I’ve taken, will take? I wanted to embody the desire for their having been here, to explicitly engage the space they made, and now in their absence, to mourn their loss. It’s not elegy in any traditional sense, but the elegiac mode/mood was very much behind the writing of these poems.
Teare: Thanks so much for this rich answer. Reading and rereading these poems, I’m acutely aware that more is going on than I can track accurately, and to single out any one thing at play is to push many others into the background. Grammar, syntax, narrative, lineation, image, allusion, alliteration, prosody — taken together they offer such a density of information I’m forced to absorb the poem as a somatic and durational experience, an immensely pleasurable temporal sensorium. The music specific to each poem becomes ambient, its structure the result of you having situated yourself “in the context of these lives.” I want to say these musical structures hold the tension between narrative and lyric, and that the words make visible the subjective aura facts take on in the presence of what you call “affective being.” Indeed, each time I reread Private Archive, I return to the ways in which these poems almost entirely eradicate the usual foreground and background perspectival relationships of biographical and documentary projects — the poems force me to think of the privacy of your archive as being different than the privacy of institutional archives. The privacy your archive speaks of is the relation between an amateur archivist and their chosen materials — a noninstitutional, affective relation that courts the collapse of the “proper” distance between subject and object, author and history. “In achieving access, we felt closer,” you write in the title poem. Is the desire for closeness a specifically queer approach to the archive?
Motika: I think so. I’d like to read closeness as a form of articulation of desire, self, emotion. The word “archive”has been so trafficked of late, that it can be difficult to define, to know how and why I/we might use it. I want to return to Ann Cvetkovich’s Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, in which she produces (as opposed to analyzing) a lesbian/queer archive (“this book lies between the queer and the lesbian, not quite occupying either category comfortably”) by working through trauma in American life (as expressed in incest/sexual abuse, AIDS, and our racial history). I think her investigations in this book, written nearly fifteen years ago, are germane to my work, to this moment, and has sparked me to think about the temporalities of the archives I engage with, the archives I’m creating. I don’t use the word trauma, but I do think there’s something about awareness and sensitivity that’s key to how my poems come into being. Is this queer? I think yes. I’ll borrow from Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner in their essay “Sex in Public,” written nearly twenty years ago: I work through and extend “affective, erotic, and personal living” and create some new sense of public — perhaps not in the accessibility and collective activity they envision — but certainly something that’s “available to memory”. But there is still precarity in my efforts, there is still noise, interference, trouble along the way, friction in the language. The closeness is difficult then, because these lives, the work, are fragile, and there remains a danger of it/them being lost. I think there is also something about the essence, or to use Benjamin, the aura, that holds for me, that creates a bridge and context between the life and the work. This is affective work; the archive it makes is something only I know, which brings it back to something that’s intimate, and yes, private.
Teare: That’s a beautiful and useful answer, a helpful theorizing of your own affectively driven archival practice. In light of the context provided by Cvetkovich, Berlant, and Warner, I’m wondering how your own theories apply to, say, the title poem — how do you see the poem itself bearing out your desire to “create some new sense of public” while also bearing witness to what the poem calls “the absence at trauma’s core”?
Motika: “Private Archive” comes out of my time at the ZK/U residency in Berlin and my engagements with a group of artists from other countries around the world, namely Brazil, Canada, Germany, and Sweden. These artists were all incredible analytic thinkers and many of them were very well steeped in the politics and theoretical issues of our time. One of the strands of the poem is attempting to come to terms with US surveillance practices of the present alongside the ravages of the Nazis. I visited several off-the-path Nazi killing sites in Berlin; a hall for executions just a half-mile from where I was staying in Berlin. Another site was a pre-concentration-camp prison in the middle of one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods. So right underneath Berlin’s gentrifying surface lies a very dark and murderous past. It reminds me of Sarah Schulman’s argument that underneath New York’s gentrified face lie the bodies of those who died of AIDS; queers and artists who inhabited New York City in its darkest days whose apartments became fertile ground for developers following their deaths. Visiting these sites in Berlin was like walking into a surreal caesura, and I became aware — too quickly — of how people, especially Europeans, are forgetting the horrors of the Nazis. The Berlin Wall had vanished into a sea of development and corporate possibility; other aspects of the German past are quickly disavowed or forgotten. But the poem isn’t entirely dark; I made a special effort to include some of the allowances and pleasures — some of the loveliness — of a privileged experience in a place rich with possibility and sensuality.
I also want to discuss the short lyric fragments in the body of “Private Archive,” which are the remnants of an installation I created in Berlin entitled “glow, might be patient.” I described it this way in September 2013: “These eighty short poems were written over the last two weeks and created by collaging text from each one of Louis Zukofsky’s ‘80 Flowers,’ Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color, and my own journals written over the course of ten walks and bike rides since arriving in Berlin at the end of August. I thought of Zukosfky’s poem while noticing the flowers in the gardens in Berlin and was inspired to think about color by the packet of Muji origami paper I acquired. I initially thought there were eighty different colors in the package of origami paper, but I was mistaken. So there aren’t eighty colors, but forty. The poems are filled with sensual detail and rooted in the lexical world of the botanical world, although I chose not to identify any of the plants described in Zukofsky’s sequence. I thought of color as a way to think about diversity and emotion as well as light, but did not write texts that address a specific color. The work was written in memory of Lynn Elfert (1935–2007), intrepid gardener and traveler.” This statement reveals some of my own training — in the high modernism of the twentieth century. Zukosfky, a New Yorker, was a member of the Objectivists and author of a major American long poem, “A,” and Albers, an influential painter and color theorist, came to the United States after the Nazis took power, to teach, first at Black Mountain College, and then Yale University. I can’t imagine creating this piece now, but at the time it seemed important, and represents some ecopoetic work that I’d been engaged with the previous few years in response to the threat of fracking in New York state.
“Private Archive” offers many modes of witness, but it is also a fairly direct conveyance for autobiography, which is rare in my work. I think this relates to the context of this piece and the desire to write for an audience — my fellow residents — and in this way there is an intimacy here, reflecting our conversations and excursions. I’m deeply grateful for this experience, and hope the poem conveys something of the wonder of this intentional community.
Teare: I love how you tease out the many strands of thought and experience that led to and informed the writing of “Private Archive,” which so artfully integrates the traces of its many sources into a unified set of gestures, a body of prosody. But one thing you haven’t yet addressed in full is the hovering presence of Sontag in the epigraph that opens the poem, particularly her insistence on the “professionally self-regarding and self-esteeming” nature of the homosexual and the writer. It sets us up for thinking about and through the homophobic trope of the narcissistic queer, but also binds this stereotype to the equally persistent trope of the narcissistic artist. Given your abiding interest in and support of queer artists — and given that you’re one of the most generous and humble queer artists I know! — I’m wondering if you could say a bit more about your relationship to this epigraph. But I’m also curious about your relationship to Sontag in general and how it’s left its mark on this archive in particular. As you indicated earlier in this interview, you’re deeply interested in her, her life, and her work, and yet it seems you’ve rendered somewhat oblique her presence in and influence on poems like “They Have Fans,” “Beautifully Psychic,” and “Private Archive.” Why?
Motika: I was reading Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s & Other Essays while writing this poem; it includes his essay “Susan Sontag, Cosmophage,” in which he quotes the line I use for the epigraph, taken from Sontag’s novel The Benefactor, and then writes: “Each of her books and essays contain a similar coded declaration.” Sontag’s insistence on coded declaration of her queerness reminds me of her blunt inflexibility and her deep resistance to the emergent feminist and LGBTQIA+ movements. She wasn’t interested in being part of any group, which, to her, would reduce her stature. No, she wanted to be untouchable, her personal politics and desires off the table. She was narcissistic, but also intuitive and passionate, insatiably interested in books, film, music, art, and culture. It makes sense to me that Sontag’s final lover/partner was equally powerful and successful.
I love thinking of Sontag as a bridge between two eras, from modernism to the digital age; a complex and contradictory force; the first and last of her kind. Her entire life and body of work is about a flickering persona, someone who walks on and off the stage of public life. The enigma and mystery was important; her resistance to certain identity remarkable. When she wrote something in the New York Times Magazine, you would read it, you took notice. When I first came to New York, she was the person that represented everything the New York writer’s life could be. I was young, but she was also everywhere.
She appears in two poems here, yes, one as a friend and figure in Paul Thek’s life (“Beautifully Psychic”) and then as a presence in my own life (“Private Archive”). The first hints at her difficulty with intimacy and generosity; I think she had no patience for Thek after he dropped out of the New York art world. I was curious to know what they talked about when they were great friends, to know what their point of connections was. He’s like a ghost in her life. The second poem hints at her presence in my life. About fifteen years ago, I heard her lecturing a young man in a used bookstore in the Hudson Valley about what he should be reading. I would have loved to be him; to be, in some sense, dominated by her. The epigraph of “Private Archive” hints at a place of queer pleasure and power. Her language, her example, allowed me to consider the erotics of my self-knowledge and experience. I don’t think it’s an accident that I wrote this while I was in a place (a residency) where I was able to focus exclusively on my writing.
Teare: One of the most productive tensions in Private Archive stems from what you call your “training in the high modernism of the twentieth century,” an aesthetic that in much Anglophone poetry of that era tended to emphasize a kind of codedness: allusion, fragment, collage, semantic difficulty. And though you are also interested in queer erotic self-knowledge and the preservation of queer histories, a poem like “Beautifully Psychic” proceeds through Paul Thek’s life not by narrative logics, but by ear: rhythm, alliteration, homophones, and wordplay. It is a deliciously physical and deviously worked-over surface, “A spunky mess. Debris and debris,” as likely to conjure up the specter of Modernist collage as the specter of Thek’s own queer biography. Reading the poems, I experience the poem and the archive as intimately linked by your own body and affective life, but also in deep tension with each other, given their very different priorities. How do you reconcile the archival impulse and the desire to memorialize other artists with the formal demands of your own poetics?
Motika: I’ll borrow from Jack Halberstam the notion of queer methodology as scavenger methodology. I’ve worked on subjects — people — as Halberstam writes, “who’ve been deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies of human behavior.” I’m also a bit of a scavenger when it comes to my poetics and my own formal interests, which move back and forth in the waves of a littoral zone between poetry and prose. It’s pretty frothy actually. At some point in my creative process […] the desire to memorialize and the desire to disrupt that process (the formal demands) collapse into each other, or at least a path forward is revealed. It’s not always clear; I might start and stop quite a few times, or follow a sound, an image, a narrative moment to find that it doesn’t lead me to where I want to be, to a place where there is a moment. During this moment, what I have perceived as unending becomes a discrete piece, a discrete series. I’m interested in this collapse, the reduction of something vast into something intimate. I love the frisson, when I come out of the archive, the material of the life, and the formal structures become clear, when their shape, their frame reveals itself. This is why I’m a poet and not a novelist. For me, this is the music and magic that Robert Duncan identified as being necessary to make a poem. Without this turn, the text is likely to be vast, dull. I hope the tension persists between these two impulses; it’s imperative to the process, to the poem.
Teare: I love the description of your creative process as wavelike and frothy. That makes sense to me, given the crosscurrents created by your “scavenger” poetics, the tensions that ebb and flow between found material and your own notational and embodied prosody. But there’s another kind of frothiness I detect here, one created by ambivalence, the tension between candor and code, your felt presence in the poems “not as a biographical subject, but as an affective being, as a body.” And I’m thinking here of the startling prose poem “As landscape,” which seems uncharacteristically candid. In it, the speaker dreams that “a video of me masturbating went viral on the Internet,” and after coolly describing the video, goes on to remark that “The realm of the performative and pornographic equated a dream state. Repetitive, I quivered, ending in the panic and anxiety of revelation. Does our desire implicate us in the catastrophic endgame of sociality, the long gazing public?” I’m as struck by the phrase “the catastrophic endgame of sociality” as I am by the fact that the poem is dedicated to the memory of Adrienne Rich, whose work changed the terms of what it meant for poetry to engage the social. Though in its form and brevity, this poem reads like an outlier in the chapbook, I feel like its ambivalence about the social structures our desire implicates us in lies at the heart of your current poetics. I’m wondering if you could speak more about “the catastrophic endgame of sociality” in relation to your work, as well as this poem and its relationship to Rich and her body of work?
Motika: I do have ambivalence about the relationship between revealing and not revealing. I’m both fascinated by the structures of sociality, especially in the era of social media, as well as obsessed with being removed from them. Many of the writers and artists I’m most interested in struggled with the cultural pressure and the need to work outside of it. Adrienne Rich was public in some ways, but in other ways very private. There’s something so dramatic in the tension between Adrienne Rich’s politics/public image and the private person. She worked hard to keep that space. I was also thinking of the hopeful landscape at the heart of her work of the 1970s; I can’t help but think it’s intertwined with desire in the poem “Transcendental Etude.” Later, landscape became a place of war, the evidence of destructive colonialist projects. Was the desire replaced by grief?
When I wrote “As landscape,” I wanted to show how desire and grief collapse into a small space, an intimate space, a domestic space that is also the space of the death. Death, it strikes me, is one of the last private places. We always ask: what happened to that person? We rarely get an answer. I’ve been trying to train myself not to ask, to focus on the moment when the body is stilled and whatever life is, has left. What is the future? Death. There are so many endgames to talk about, so many catastrophes waiting to happen, now so much more than when I wrote this poem a few years ago. In light of what I wrote, I can now only think of the desire of a large portion of the American people to oppress, to dominate, to pillage, and how little left there is to extract, to spoil. I think I was thinking about our media and culture when I wrote this, but now I’m thinking about the end of the Anthropocene. Having said that, I haven’t written much about these various endgames. I think a lot about it and wrote a few poems in response to the arrival of fracking in the Northeast, but haven’t yet really engaged the topic in a deep way. Like several other writers I know, I’m very interested in thinking about utopia, which perhaps is some way of writing about the catastrophic endgame by looking to the impossible, a fantasy of an alternate reality, which returns us to desire, to grief.
We need a figure like Adrienne Rich more than ever, someone who can speak to many, educate and inspire, without being trapped in a certain class of the visibly famous person. I think her work was a necessary part of my education and that of many other feminists, queers, and outsiders of my generation. We found her, whether or not her work was on a syllabus. Her insistence on a radical personal politics with the commitment to poetry is unmatched. She wasn’t an experimental writer, but she could read and appreciate nearly anything. She left the East Coast in middle age and widened her reading to include more experimental poets and many international writers. She came to terms with the devastating racial history of this country over forty years ago. She asked Audre Lorde and Alice Walker to join her in accepting the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974. She turned down many honors for political reasons. In her sixties, she wrote a brilliant essay on reading Wallace Stevens in light of his racist ideology. I feel so grateful I got to see her read with June Jordan at Berkeley in 1996.
Teare: What a great answer. I’m especially moved by the sentence, “Death, it strikes me, is one of the last private places.” It highlights for me a tension in the chapbook between the desire and respect for a certain kind of biographical privacy and the way an archive generally collects and orders the traces of a life — and that such curation and organization not only leave their own traces on a life, but also prepare them to become part of public record, should the archived traces ever be consulted. By which I mean, if one’s life has been archived, death both is and is not private. And this is a deeply fraught and political fact, given that, as Derrida points out in Archive Fever, “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.” In terms of the politics of your archive, I’m thinking, for example, of the histories of postmodern poetry, art, the American West, and feminist and queer cultures that your dedications intertwine: Stacy Doris, Gloria and Mel Weisburd, Adrienne Rich, Paul Thek. On the one hand, their poems reframe elegy as, in part, an archival impulse, and highlight the mourning work of remembering the dead by going through their traces. On the other hand, the archive these poems and these figures create together is uniquely yours, and in that sense, private. I’m thinking especially of your relationship to Gloria and Mel Weisburd, whose names are likely unfamiliar to anyone outside of a certain Los Angeles poetry scene. I’m wondering if you can speak first to what you see as the politics informing this particular curation of very different figures (Doris, the Weisburds, Rich, and Thek), and then go on to speak about the importance of Gloria and Mel?
Motika: The selection of these figures comes from a deep place within me, and for the most part, I’m compelled to write about artists who few others will. This is not the case with Thek and Sontag, who are historical figures, and whom I think of as being part of a larger armature of queer and experimental work that I spring from. Sontag has been important to me since 1992, when her novel The Volcano Lover was published; I discovered Thek six years ago when the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted an exhibition of his work. Both Sontag and Thek had very complex relationships with fame and issues of visibility, quite specifically: how were they visible? In what way? To what audiences? With what labels? He had a big hit in the late 1960s and then fled from that success for the next decade. When he returned to New York, no one knew who he was. He died of AIDS in 1988 nearly forgotten. Sontag was famous her entire adult life, but she wanted to be something she wasn’t: a great novelist. She’s a pretty lousy novelist, and her great strengths — as social gadfly and observer of certain cultural activities and movements — drove her crazy. I’m interested in investigating writers and artists who had divergent desires — they were good at one thing but desired something else. I suppose I see that in myself. I’m often attracted to people with this internal contradiction. I think Mel and Gloria represent some of these complications, especially since they were barely recognized for their contribution during their lifetimes although they pursued their art without visibility or recognition for decades. Their example operates as a foil to the life and work of Sontag and Thek. One of my arguments is that the life and work are always intertwined. I’m often more interested in the life than the work.
I was intimately familiar with their lives because I grew up across the street from them. I knew them first as dear neighbors and friends; it was only later that I understood them as artists who’d had to balance the many demands of adult life. I wrote “Rainbow Walker” shortly after Mel’s death; the poem arrived in the context of reading Costume en Face: A Primer of Darkness for Young Boys and Girls, choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata’s notebooks, which were translated into English by Sawako Nakayasu. I was thinking about space and the spaces the body moves through, which, in this case, I imagined as the material world of the Weisburds, especially their house and the physical objects of Gloria’s studio. I also thought a lot about the physical body’s movement through life, which here became a version of my own life inserted into their lives and home. Different temporalities are also at play — reflections from when I was a young child as well as the present of the poem. There was also an erotic aspect of this journey, so desire is again inscribed with death. I think of a honeycomb without the bees; I walked into their honeycomb, the physical archives of their lives, which was taken from them as much as it was left behind when their lives ended.
Mel, born in 1927 in Minneapolis, studied with Thomas McGrath at Cal State Los Angeles in the 1950s. When McGrath was fired from the college for his resistant appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Mel and some of other poets formed a group committed to protecting academic freedom. They published a book in response, Witness to the Times! In 1955, Mel cofounded, with poet and teacher Gene Frumkin, Coastlines, a literary journal that brought leftist politics and social realism right up to the early Beat and outsider culture. Mel took LSD in a medical test and wrote an important essay about his experience. Mel was a poet, but wasn’t a Beat and felt disillusioned by the narcissism and heavy drug use of the poets and artists working in Venice at the time. He distanced himself from the poetry community in the 1960s, moving into his work in air pollution abatement and into a life as husband and father.
Gloria, born in 1923, was from the Bronx and moved to Los Angeles on her own in the 1940s. She worked in a department store and painted. She homesteaded a property in the desert, near Joshua Tree, and was incredibly independent. When she met Mel, she was nearly thirty. They married and had a daughter, Stefi, who is also a poet. Gloria worked for decades between painting and drawing, sculpture and ceramics, and woodworking and stained glass. She cast bronze and worked in porcelain, which are demanding and toxic materials. When I was a child, she invited me to her studio to sculpt in clay. I remember placing my small sculptures in her outdoor kiln. Her backyard was her own world — a massive grapevine draped over the back porch produced pounds of fruit each fall. The kidney-bean pool was a pond, unchlorinated and evocative of some other place. In the suburban landscape of Southern California, Gloria and Mel cultivated a home that valued an environment of another time and place. Books and art covered every surface; the house was shrouded behind a rough-hewn redwood fence. One entered through a large portal and walked up a wooden ramp to the front door, which had no handle; it was like entering another world.
Gloria suffered from depression and eventually dementia. In her later years, she took writing classes for seniors at the community college and always complained that she had nothing to offer. In her memoir class, she worried her life was too boring because every other student was a Holocaust survivor. She was trying to make a joke about it, but it pained her deeply. She always fretted about not be a good writer, about not being smart enough. I don’t remember her anxiety about her visual art, which remained a source of calm for her. Her anxiety is symptomatic of a woman who did many independent things, but was also confined by the expectations of our culture, to be a wife and mother. In her final years, the only thing that made her happy was the ocean; she walked on the bluffs above the Pacific nearly every afternoon.
They had a difficult marriage, and as with so many strained partnerships, Gloria’s illness provided an opportunity for Mel to care for her with unbroken devotion. She died in his arms; he held her for hours after. Following her death, he filled the house with her art — living in a retrospective exhibition of her work — and wrote, with a new passion, poems dedicated to her and their relationship. He received some recognition in late life for his work as an editor and poet. Although he had taken early retirement to focus on his writing, he had suffered from various illnesses, one of which brought on a relapse of his acid trip. He spent years working on the great American novel, which ran to several bound volumes; it was never published. He died in the same bed she did, nine years later, in April 2015.
Although some of his archives were donated to special collections at universities in Southern California, there was still a massive archive and library in their house at his death. Stefi graciously donated some books and a full run of Coastlines to Poets House. I went in there to pack the poetry books, to take what I could. I was aware standing amongst their things that nothing there had any monetary value except for the property their house sat on. The artwork and many items went to others as gifts. There was still so much, far too much to be saved. In this case, it’s the affective response by a daughter, by a community, that led to the constitution and interpretation of their archive, which, I think, was largely lost. In the end, the living must carry forward with their lives and that may mean repressing an archival impulse. In this case, I know that I will keep remembering and carrying on Gloria and Mel’s work for the rest of my life. It took me a long time to realize that my job was not to be Mel’s publisher; it’s a much more personal kind of work, one that represents the gift they gave to me, the love they had for me. A love they had been deprived of in their childhoods, a love that came across in their absurd jokes or an instance to go out for dim sum in the middle of the afternoon. They were so wild in their way; I can’t believe they were right there, across the street every day of my childhood. Now, many years later, I realize how rich, complex, and unique they were. I realize how lucky I am to have known them.
Teare: What rich narrations you’ve offered us! Your account of the Weisburds in life and in death allows us to see exactly how your experiences “as an affective being, as a body” are indeed central to the way your poems archive the lives that have touched your own. And now I’m wondering, as a way of turning the end of this interview into an opening, an afterlife of sorts, if you’d like to reflect on the experience of working on the poems in Private Archive. What affects, ideas, and modalities did they make possible for you? Did they in any way surprise you? Teach you? And what new work has emerged in the wake of the chapbook? Where do you hope the new work will take you?
Motika: The work in Private Archive marks a shift in the way I worked with the page. I was interested in moving away from the projective-oriented poems of my first book and towards a denser line, something closer to prose. Several of the poems in Private Archive balance these prose lines with a bit of lyric distillation, often sourced from another lexical world. I was inspired by haibun when writing these poems, but am now attempting to move forward to a more integrated form, so that the lyric and the prose sections become even more blurred, the tension and texture of the poetic line more integrated. I have been thinking of this form as a way to write about the body and from the body, as a way to be closer to these figures and the archival material, whether physical or emotional.
I’ve also been considering how we inherit past lives and work and want to create a space to honor their contribution as well as deal with the fact of inheritance. In that sense, I’m more interested in how these historical figures affect and influence me in the present than I was in my earlier work. I spent a lot of time thinking about being in the past — in my first book, I place myself, even vaguely, in the poems, which are set in the years before I was born. The poem “City Set” ends in 1977; the poem about Harry Partch covers the years of his life, from 1901–1974. Now, I’m in the present, bringing these historical figures forward, into this time and context. In some sense, there’s been a shift in subjectivity, from the historical figures’ to my own, and a decision to unpack how my own identity is mitigated and defined by their lives and their art. I’m in the process of completing several long poems that extend this examination, using a broader range of archives as influence and inspiration. In terms of intention, I’m moving into the space of lyric poetry, which is perhaps why I want the line to stay complex and unresolved (in terms of prosody, etc.)
Following this, I’m excited to dive into a new work inspired by utopia, which I suspect will be the work I do in the Trump era. I think this is my way of writing about everything that we aren’t doing now, looking back to find different models for ways of living on earth, for a chance of sustaining our presence here. I don’t have a lot of hope, so perhaps this is a way of insulating myself from the worst while also writing about the environment, community, and the less dire sides of humanity. I already hear the soundtrack of the Trump era in my head: the constant, rhythmic, rumbling clap of the pile driver running nonstop as new pipelines and drill sites rise across the country as our own great wall is constructed. Funny to think that we’re investing in a bit of technology and infrastructure that is most identified with a past empire. Instead of empire, I’ll be out-of-step and out-of-time by investigating ecotopias, past, present, and maybe future.
1. Stephen Motika, Private Archive (Philadelphia: Albion Books, 2016), np. As Private Archive is unpaginated, editors have omitted parenthetical citations throughout this interview.
2. Ann Cvetkovich, introduction, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 10.
4. Stephen Motika, artist's statement, 80 Colors (after Louis Zukofsky) (Berlin: ZK/U, 2013).