An Interview with Shira Dentz
Dexter L. Booth: There’s a sense of woe and lamentation in Sisyphusina, an anxiety, if you will. I feel like poetry is incredibly important right now. Would you agree? Why do you think poetry is important right now, in this moment? What can it do for the world?
Shira Dentz: I think poetry is always important, of course ☺, and I also agree with you that it’s incredibly important right now given how many of us are physically isolated in our homes for close to a year now because of the pandemic, threatened both health and employment-wise, and by the renewed upsurge in American fascism and the popularity of authoritarianism all over. Oh, and climate change. I could go on listing ills upon the world right now, and I tend to be thorough so am going to stop myself here. There are also different kinds of poetry, and each has a different effect. When one reads a certain type of poem, one is entering a space outside of one’s self while also entering an interiority which can only be entered by inhabiting one’s own humanity and imagination. In other words, one has a sense of travel, and can experience a sense of lightness, even if the poem goes somewhere painful. Why? Because the pain has been given shape, is partly less amorphous. Part of the experience of trauma is its destabilization, and with that state comes an incomplete language. Giving voice to what has previously been voiceless is rejuvenating and the world needs humanists to rejuvenate in order for them to be active in contributing to political, social, and economic reforms (among other reasons).
A poem can also inhabit a reader’s mind with a sensation of beauty in the world via a poem’s imagery and/or language. This is resuscitating on a personal level, and becomes an attitude (vibration) that affects what one does in the world and how one treats others.
In general, a poem can refresh a reader’s/listener’s sense of how the world/reality is organized, and cause a reorganization to occur in one’s consciousness and apprehension, which is a prerequisite to innovation. We need to interact with our environment, however harsh it is, not escape, in order to be aware and find ways through our present ills as they threaten us with extinction. It’s no accident that at times of crisis more people read/listen to poetry.
DLB: I agree. I find this particularly relevant given Amanda Gorman’s reading at the inauguration. It seems that, as a nation, we’d kind of forgotten the power of poetry, how it can help us understand how the world/reality is organized, how it can help us innovate, and most of all, how it can help us heal. My hope is that this inspires more people to write.
SD: Writing is the most abstract of all the arts — one’s starting point isn’t tangible (unless one is writing a found piece) — a dancer can start with a body, a musician with a sound, a visual artist with a mark, etc. — and poetry is, perhaps, the most abstract within the language arts, especially lyric poetry as opposed to narrative. It comes therefore with a special challenge, both for the poet and the poetry reader/listener. Paradoxically, it may be able to reach further inside to our respective solitudes, once it arrives, uncluttered. It is a great carrier of empathy, and in our tribal world being able to empathize with others whose experience has been different than your own is humanizing. Detachment and objectification allows for brutalization of people and environments.
Poetry is language that is “beyond language.” It is a site of reconciliation.
Because of my tendency to be thorough, I could go on answering this question and parsing my answers, but I have to let go.
DLB: What’s the relationship between form and content in your work? I know you address this in your Dear Readers precursor to the poems. Can you dive a little deeper into the balancing of “plasticity and order,” as you call it?
SD: For me, form is often part of my language. Finding a form is part of my creative practice as a writer. At least, this is the way it’s often been. I let a lot in, to see what’s there. I distrust conventional social structures as I’ve seen what harm they can do, and part of being an artist/writer is participating in one’s social paradigm. Being an artist/writer is a social act; all art is political. My relationship to form is that I’m also challenging my inherited notions of what’s “beautiful.” Symmetry, for example. I have always felt that my poems’ aesthetics were like adolescents, not shapely and in transition. Perhaps this is a different perspective on Hejinian’s “against closure.” In Sisyphusina, among the things I’m wrestling with is feminine beauty and aging, as particular definitions of beauty have often been used as a measure of female worth. So, in this book, I’m experimenting with composing an alternate sense of beauty, on the page and in space as well as language. In a previous book, door of thin skins, I used form as part of my language to give some voice to an abusive therapy experience that had silenced me as a writer for a decade. When I started writing poems about this experience, I also began talking about what had happened and came to learn that many people had either had a similar experience or knew someone who had. When I decided to write the book, I hoped it would provoke public conversation that could lead to the implementation of safeguards.
My present work-in-progress is a creative inquiry into the notion of home. It springs from an imperative as I don’t have a traditional home — I don’t have children and my family is distant due to various circumstances — and so I decided to tackle a creative investigation of “home.” For this work, I am poet as scavenger, pursuing to create an alternate notion of home. Home is an ideal like god. Along the way, I explore spheres of experience for which there is no vocabulary in our language, and I hybridize in my effort to suture a new language with which to name, house, them.
Is home located in the body, family, place, psyche, nature, cosmos, — ?
To quote myself ☺ in one of my poems (“a suit a suit makes”) in Sisyphusina, “it occurs to me that validation is a form of belonging. /desperate for a form, line-drawn, to contain me in infinity; nature, after all. / belonging is form”
Another thing that I’ll add is that to me, form also is about genre, as line breaks or no-line breaks affect form. Hybridity is a form of elasticity. Working within hybrid writing is a way of ascertaining what the differences are between genres, not necessarily approaching them as without differences. I’m exploring my art medium (language).
Form is a kind of “test”: when one’s form and content “line up,” one hears the turn to art. But what is art if what one has done isn’t recognizable as something that’s been seen before? How does one validate then?
A few years ago, I saw an exhibit of Louise Bourgeois’ drawings at the Met in NYC. I connected deeply with it, noting some striking overlaps between my projects and her work. For instance, a plaque stated, “Straight lines, curves, circles, grids, and an array of biomorphic shapes are found in her work in all mediums. Instead of regarding such configurations as elements of a purely formal language, Bourgeois employed them for their psychological connotations and effects.” I feel that my formal experiments issue from an analogous, albeit poetic, impulse. In my work, I aspire not to compose a symbolic portrait of what I know, but to construct an unforeseen space as I proceed.
DLB: That’s super clarifying. It also brings up another connection I noticed in your work. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between image and text?
SD: I approach all aspects of my materials as a writer as part of my language. Implicit in written language is its visual element and that affects readers whether one is conscious of this or not. Small children who can’t read yet often perceive letters as characters in a narrative. This is not to say that grown-ups look at letters this way, but reading is a sensory experience in addition to an intellectual activity. Seeing isn’t the same thing as looking; in fact, both can’t be done by humans at the same time; yet both are involved in the reading process.
I sometimes incorporate gestural and typographical marks, scribbles, shapes, and other visual elements in my work. A kind of asemic writing, I suppose. I do this partly because I’m interested in giving voice to psychic experiences for which our language lacks words. All languages lack words for a variety of experiences — who and what gets to have language is connected to power structures. An example I often use is that there’s no female equivalent word for “castrated” or emasculated.”
In an essay on literary and visual conjunctures, “PostSecret as Imagetext: The Reclamation of Traumatic Experience,” Tanya K. Rodrigue explores how and why imagetexts can sometimes bridge gaps.
DLB: What about the relationship between thought and expression? There are photographs (I’m thinking of your poem “sadist”) and drawings in the book, but also graphs (in “the very eye of night”), and photocopies (“copy”). Clearly a lot of thought went into these but they are undeniably expressed as poems.
In Sisyphusina, measurement and representation, as well as modes of representation come into play. A reflexivity sort of like in John Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Mirror.”
DLB: There’s obviously a tactility to the book, in terms of how it was made, but there’s also a restlessness to the formatting. Even on the contents page, the titles float around — some all lowercase, some in all caps, none of them justified as reader’s may be used to seeing in a book. Can you tell me about those decisions?
SD: Tactility is like a geometry to me, and has a sculptural dimension. I want to create an experience, a diorama, if you will. Not only for someone to read my book, but for its “mapping” to create an inner experience/sensation as well. Language that is “beyond language.” As for the contents page, that was Aimee Harrison’s artful and simpatico touch. She’s the graphic artist who resized the manuscript for publication. I thought it was a great idea!
DLB: As I read the book, I kept coming back to the symbol—not symbolism, per se, but the use and power and metaphor of a sign as ideogram, as something representative. This was particularly true for me in poems like “~” and “wind rose.”
SD: Thank you! I like to create things that aren’t immediately legible as they can create an aura that can call to a reader’s receptors. Reading also becomes an active process, not just a this is that type of process. Plasticity again! Decoding is put front and center too, like looking into the transparent Macs that used to exist. And, signs like these conjure a different plane.
DLB: How do you create your poems? I guess I’m asking about how and when you make time for them, but also about their construction. Are you using a computer program? Are you writing by hand? As I read the book I imagined you using collage or some other manual cut-and-paste process. I’m thinking here of the physical nature of a poem like “copy.”
SD: Oh, all different ways. I really prefer to sit down and let whatever comes out come out, and go from there. Once I identify something that has arisen that I’m invested in, I undertake a process sort of like lucid dreaming. An interplay of conscious and unconscious, back and forth.
As for their construction, I mostly used the computer to compose Sisyphusina. I used to work as a graphic artist and I know Quark so well it’s like an extension of my body. But InDesign became the industry standard, and when composing Sisyphusina I decided to use InDesign (all my previous manuscripts had been in Quark). Not all the marks in this book are pre-made, however, as I used some InDesign’s tools to draw marks too. I like to include human touches, indexical markers, in my work as a counter to generic representation. It’s true I used some other technologies too — photocopier, camera, video, audio — and since this book centered on female aging and beauty is often tied to feminine worth, representation and modes of representation are explored in it.
Lately, though, I’ve been writing more first drafts by hand. I believe that the materials with which one writes—the surface and writing utensil one chooses, affects one’s content and style of writing. I used to keep a notebook in which I jotted things down without the intent of composing art, and later would pick things out of it to type on my computer screen, but got out of that rhythm a while ago. I hope to incorporate more visual art in future work — hand-work as well as new media.
I usually make dates with myself to write, and when I can, have some sort of regular writing schedule — maybe it’s a Sunday morning every two weeks. For a while now I haven’t had time and peace of mind to do that often. The last time I was able to work consistently for a significant amount of time was during the summer of 2018 during a residency at MacDowell. Rarely, but sometimes, I am triggered by something in particular and drawn to write a poem outside of any schedule. This used to happen more often. Wherever I’ve lived, peer workshops have usually worked well for me as they give me deadlines and I have incentive to have something to show people, to be part of the group. Making time and space to write is essential for any writing to happen, of course.
DLB: 2020 was such a strange and traumatic year. Even when I had the time I felt so overwhelmed and exhausted it was difficult to write. How has writing been for you recently? Have you found productive ways to take advantage of this time?
SD: For a few years now I have been meeting almost weekly with a few writers to write together to a prompt, usually a chance operation, and then share aloud what we’ve written — during the pandemic we’ve been zooming. We then revise what we wrote, and our routine is to send each other our revisions and give each other feedback on the revision before doing a new prompt the following week. This process has successfully kept me writing during a period when I have little time and concentration to spare. This writing process is not as targeted as I would like, but I find that through this process I end up giving expression to things that I’m emotionally invested in anyway. What this compositional approach leads to, eventually, if and when I have more time and peace of mind to write for more sustained periods, is yet to be seen. I would like to write more prose, and it just now occurs to me that maybe I should try chance operations with this genre too.
The challenge between directing things versus letting things happen is in itself a plasticity that’s interesting to me, an open-ended adventure. I’ve tried keeping notes of things that inspire me between my scheduled writing times because otherwise I forgot them, but I haven’t done so well with that. I’ve tried to commit to writing in the same form for the purpose of structuring a book more classically but so far I haven’t been able to stay faithful to this commitment.
DLB: Your formal reach is so wide and varied that I can’t even imagine what a more classically structured book would look like. I think it’s good to experiment, even if you’re experimenting with a more classical structure. Has the pandemic altered your subject matter at all? Who/what do you take inspiration from now?
SD: Thank you for that compliment! It certainly makes things more complicated ... And yes, I’d have to limit myself formally in order to compose a more classically structured book.
That there are still people who speak up against injustice, corruption, and exploitation, even though they have something to lose in doing so. Other people’s writing and art. Many Zoom readings have been great — hearing and seeing some great writers I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to hear, and connecting with writers and literary communities with whom I wouldn’t otherwise be connecting. I draw inspiration from the fact that the creature is no longer president, that life, jobs, and travel might start up again once many people are vaccinated. I always love the sun. Sublime physical landscapes. Nice people.
DLB: Can you talk about performance/reading? Clearly, Sisyphusina, is a book that’s meant to be experienced, but when you do read from it do you lean towards the more linear (on the page) works, or do you have a method for reading poems like “sister brother bucket horse” (an obstructed poem tilted text) or “~” (a poem that requires an intense and rewarding physical interaction with the page)?
SD: I like coming up with new ways to perform/read work that has a visual element on the page — how do I bring this element to readers? Among my solutions has been to crumple paper loudly and deliberately in place of scribbles on a page, and to involve my audience as participants in the reading in particular ways that parallel a piece’s formal structure, or my using hand gestures to convey shapes like punctuation, or coordinating my body movements on the field of a stage to enact a piece’s spatial geometry. I will say that these performances take a lot of energy! and so I have to reserve them for special occasions.
DLB: I’d be remiss if I gave the impression that Sisyphusina is solely about formal abstraction (or that these methods are new to your poetic practice) or that the content is not deeply engaging on the level of language. For example, I was struck by the opening of one of the shorter poems, “grammatica,” it’s self-assertive statement: “just need to let myself feel sad.” There’s an emotional vulnerability in this book that I really appreciate.
SD: Thank you so much! Interplay between affective content and formal experimentation is another type of hybridity. Art for art’s sake. Art as expressive. The material and meaning of language.
DLB: There’s also a constant return to the body, specifically to the female body. I’m thinking of lines like “don’t forget to take your vitamins though some that are bad for your fulva are good for the rest of you. choose between.” In the poem “the girl with quiet clothes.” What were your concerns in the construction of these poems?
SD: I think I was blending in the surfaces of text as an outlining of physical bodily form, together with an awareness of an outside and an inside, a permeability, if you will. The consciousness, or voice, of these pieces shifts in proximity: what’s primary to the “I” and what’s been internalized from outside sources such as advertising, etc. are interwoven. Contours are being drawn, evolving, as a woman’s inner self-representations meet the outer changes wrought by the metamorphosis of losing fertility.
DLB: Can you say a little about your image/word collaboration with artist Kathline Carr? These pieces play a part in the book. How did it start, and did you initially imagine these works as something that would be a part of the book?
SD: This collaboration actually happened prior to assembling the full manuscript of the book. YEW, a journal of innovative writing & images, accepted several poems and asked if I wanted to collaborate with an artist on images to be published along with them. I asked my friend, visual artist and writer Kathline Carr, if she might be interested in creating images in response to my text, and she drew many more interesting images than could be included. When I finally decided to call it a day and to say the book was Ended!, I thought back to these images that Kate had drawn and it felt “right” to me to expand the collaborative dimension of this book, its “skin,” so to speak, and asked her for permission to include some of them. I also asked the late musical composer Pauline Oliveros whether I could include the piece, “Aging Music,” she had improvised for a short work I had done, with this book’s publication. She had recorded it while performing in 2015 in a building; she wrote that the building “became activated by the wind and the banging doors and windows became an engaging percussive part of the musical dialogue. The building as an instrument played by the wind seemed expressive, too, of aging.”
“Aging Music,” is the book’s coda, and readers can listen to it online by scanning a QR code at the end of the book. Also, a video-poem, “Saidst,” that I collaborated on with Kathy High and is part of the book is accessible via a URL readers will find inside the book and online at my website, PANK’s website, Kathy High’s Vimeo page. Aimee Harrison, whom I mentioned earlier, with whom I worked on adapting the manuscript’s proportions to the printed book’s dimensions and who designed the book’s exterior and its table of contents, was my last but not least collaborator. The interweaving of these collaborations with my voice and voices from other sources imbue this book with a porous texture, and reimagines the boundary of the book as a membrane.
Assembling this book was a continuous process over a period of years, and developed along with encounters with new technologies, locations, people, and signs of time. One of the final touches was my choice for the cover art, a painting that I did many years ago prompted by my desire to capture the active dynamic of visible light. I had crumpled up a piece of foil to use as my model. The result looks impressionistically like a heart, aorta included, or a female sprite clapping, and now, years later, I decided that this painting would be “Sisyphusina.”
DLB: I didn’t know you made the cover! I didn’t even know you painted. It’s always exciting to me when writers work in multiple mediums, especially when they find a way for those mediums to interact. Even on a subconscious level, having a cover like that must add layers to the poems themselves. What gives you hope right now?
SD: This is the same question as inspiration, right? ☺ I like it when people are interested in my writing, read and get my books ☺. This helps to give me hope to keep at it, no matter how bad things are.
As far as what gives me hope in the human race, I am hoping for a revolution that upends the wealth disparity between the rich and poor in this country and the world.
There seems to always have been a slightly larger percentage of good people vs. evil people, otherwise the human race would be gone by now. It’s possible that many kids who are growing up today will be more wise and kind in their approach to the nuances of life given the realities and lessons of climate change.
DLB: I love to pick poets’ brains for reading recommendations. What are you reading right now? What should readers check out after they finish Sisyphusina?
SD: I’ve been reading less than usual due to shortage of time, money, and library accessibility. I recommend Sarah J. Sloat’s Hotel Almighty, and also I heard giovanni singleton read a video-text “On Dirt” at a Gulf Coast reading this fall that I think is brilliant and intense. I’m looking to read more of her work. Recently, I attended a Zoom reading of poets recently published in Matter: A Journal of Political Poetry and Commentary that blew me away, seriously: Kate Partridge, Brianna Noll, Denise Miller, Nathan McClain, Bridget Lowe, and Priscilla Wathington. I am looking forward to reading each of their books!
There are a slew of new books that were published in 2020 and forthcoming in 2021 that I look forward to reading too. It’s naturally a harder time than usual to have a new book out. I hope readers who are interested and can afford to buy and read more of these new books, do!
DLB: Thanks, Shira, for being willing to engage in this conversation.
SD: Thank YOU, Dexter, for these engaged and engaging questions!
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