INTERVIEW: Eleni Sikelianos

Courtesy of Eleni Sikelianos

Poet, Eleni Sikelianos was raised in California and currently teaches at the University of Denver and Naropa University.  She is a descendent of the Nobel Prize in Literature-nominee, Angelos Sikelianos, as well as the niece of distinguished “Outrider” poet and scholar, Anne Waldman.  She is the author of The Book of Jon (City Lights Publishers, 2004), The California Poem (Coffee House Press, 2004), Earliest Worlds (2001), The Book of Tendons (1997), and To Speak While Dreaming (1993).  She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Fulbright Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. 

Her most recent collection, Body Clock (Coffee House Press, 2008), is a benevolent, reaching linguistic exploration of time as contained in the body.  Taking the subject of pregnancy as a center from which to chart seconds, minutes, quantum fields, wars, New York, death, god, dreams, fictions, and cells - to name a handful from the multitude of objects and thoughts in the pages of Body Clock - the work both summons and welcomes Eva, Sikelianos’s child with novelist Laird Hunt, into the world.  As gleeful as melancholic and as sharp as free-flowing, the poems of Body Clock assemble richly tangible spheres of little and large universes that encase the reader in vivid shapes and extremities of time.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

Body Clock is a work that seeks to unfold a language of time as a sensual experience of both the flesh and the mind.  Thus, these poems slip between and overlay planes of experience, histories of universes, and platforms of perception, operating on adapted techniques of the New York and Surrealist schools of poetry.  Additionally, Ovid's epic, Metamorphoses, appropriately seems to be referenced frequently as a record of transformation(s).  I was dazed by this kaleidoscopic, expanding and contracting world of horizons within and beyond more horizons, a synchronicity of time that is centered only in the female body.  Where does the poem (and / or a residue of language) itself exist in time?   

Poems, many of them, exist outside of time, or so deeply embedded in a profound sense of time that they transcend it.  Although some will claim that language (like music) unfolds in time, it also (like music) can double and triple time, folding it in on itself or abandoning it momentarily.  When it's good, a poem exists in the extratemporal as well as the temporal, even sometimes zigzagging between the two — which is what the line break does — holds us for a moment in suspension outside time or communication.  We get that sensation of all times and worlds being contemporaneous — synchronicity — or mystery — welling in the ruptures of language a poem creates — but also of asynchronicity, another kind of deep time.

 

A compelling and recurrent energy of Body Clock is the stark interrogation of the qualities of - as well as riotous, lyrical reaching for - the radical possibilities of beauty as a form (or variety of forms).  One of my favorite stanzas: "No more fooling around / Make a thing of such / extreme beauty it cracks / and cracks / the hand that makes it" (p. 59).  There are many materials that can be utilized in the exploration of beauty.  Why are you drawn to words?  What are the particular, unique ways that language can access beauty?  

In those lines, I was addressing a few things, one of which is our current fear and suspicion of beauty, as if beauty were a cliché, and the possibility that at its most potent it destroys.  (I guess that's an old idea!  Think of Helen.)  I suspect we're afraid of beauty for more primal reasons than being worn out on the ideal.  And we should not confuse beauty and the ideal anyway. (Must talk to Plato about that.)

Inspiration, too, can be fearsome.  I have a few lines elsewhere in the book about that.

I have always found words to be beautiful and mysterious and confusing and frightening.  Syntax to be so.

For me, it is the small cracks, the ruptures in syntax or language that flood with illumination.  But of course, the music of language can be freighted with beauty and surprise, too.

 

On the other hand, this is also a work that presences loss, war, bombs, grief, shrapnel. Walmart, Waterworld, and other items of mainstream and pop-cultural kitsch also make into these pages, which cover a number of planes - the pre-temporal, the living temporal, after-death, underworld, dreams, deep sleep, internet, the planetary, the minuscule, the mythological, etc.  So there is the seduction of beauty counterpoised to the un-beautiful and suffering.  Both extremes are rendered with intense sensuality.  What are the ethical concerns of presencing such extremes of experience in art?  

In this particular book, which began to gather as such around the pregnant body and the intensely private experience of that, I found it necessary to also indicate the daily world going on around outside the body, but which penetrates the skull.  This seemed especially necessary in the period I was working on those poems, because we were at war in two nations, and living under a president who was enacting, in some forms, a reign of terror.  The opening section of the book contains a poem I wrote while living in New York, in response to the bombing of the Twin Towers.  We were breathing the ash of burnt buildings and burnt bodies.  Then we were bombing distant countries.  None of it made sense.  I wrote the poem to try to make sense, and wasn't sure I'd ever publish it.  As the rest of the book took shape, it made its way there, holding a kind of extremity in place.

That poem focuses, to quite a degree, on the minuscule, on detail: eyelashes, the ball of a thumb, school buses lined up in holding yards in Brooklyn, because in the face of human disaster detail is what holds us to sanity.  It probably leads us to neurosis, too, but for me, in this case, it helped me find focus and sense.

 

The phenomena of beauty, of reality, of possible existences, of absences, of infinite unknowns, of quantum fields, of nightmares, of pleasure spheres further seems to frequently find a palpable position in your words in bizarre expressions of synesthesia.  One effect that challenging art and literature has on me is that I am re-awoken to a world that I have become numb to through constant exposure to new and representational technologies.  In your process, how do you stay keen to basic and more complex operations of perception?  

That is a constant struggle.  World dust settles on the perceiving soul.  A sense of altertness and humor helps, but we all numb out (I know a few people who don't much — it can be very hard to live that way).  I think you have to train your mind toward alertness, and then you have to train and retrain.  Ginsberg liked to say, "Notice what you notice," but for me it's not only a cognitive waking-up.  Sometimes other forces beyond our control move through to wake us up in minor or major ways.

For a long time, rituals of writing practice helped me.  Certainly reading exciting poems or philosophy or fiction, engaging with visual work or music, help wake us up.

 

Your poems spill across the pages, some of them shapeless or perhaps more accurately compared to the nebular, shifting shape of jellyfish.  My instinct is to take this use of the page as cues in regards to how to musically hear these poems (though my tendency to read in this way may not align with your intentions).  As books trundle onto digital platforms, how do you anticipate free-form poetry will respond?  Is projective verse (poetry written by the breath) possible on digital media?  

I do hear the page musically, of course — so we can say we hear space.  Line breaks allow that too.  Synesthesia is suggested again, in a visual hearing. 

Some poets have already been working in digital forms for a while now.  Brian Kim Stephens has created some smart and instinctive electronic poetry, but a lot of it has a long way to go.  There are also e-reader programs that are working on versions that can handle the page complexities of poetry (I know Coffee House used some of The California Poem as a prototype for that).

We have to think of the totality of what Olson meant by "projective," and then also take it further.  There is the breath and body of the poet involved, but there is also the whole energy field of language and the field of the page, and the interaction between the two, and the energetic relationship not just between the poem and the body of the poet, but between the poem and the world from which it was got (the body is one figure in that world) — it's a transference of energy, as Olson says, from world to words.  We can think of the page as a kind of installation site, moving blocks and forms of energy around.  That can happen on the page or in digital forms, yes.  I've imagined a few possibilities, but would need to work with someone who knows how to create the platforms.  I've also seen a few interesting French e-books, that are really rich visually.

 

The collection opens with two epigraphs attributed to Scottish biologist, D'arcy Wentworth Thompson.  In Thompson's book, On Growth and Form, he discusses allometry, or how bodies are shaped in response to anatomy, physiology, and behavior, and gives such examples as the comparable shape of jellyfish and raindrops.  I notice that these poems seem to take an allometric position in the process of discovering the shapes and physical properties of time (a drawing of an hour that looks like a flower, for example).  How intentional was this poetic allometry in the making of these works?  

I wasn't thinking specifically of Thompson's allometry, but I was certainly reading Thompson, and I find that theory (and many of his ideas) really pleasing aesthetically, instinctively and intellectually.  I experience the world this way.  I think it's why I first loved studying organisms, and why biology seems a natural mate for poetry.

 

Another recurrent technique of the poems in Body Clock (as well as, The California Poem, as I recall) is the use of footnotes, which tend to interrupt my reading (whether in poem collections or science textbooks) and I grapple with what knowledge I should retrieve first: the whole paragraph or the footnote.  In the "Notes on Minutes and Hours" at the end of the collection, you elaborate that the 'poem drawings' were the actual experiment of searching for time, and the typed language below is a residue of language.  How do language residues differ from footnotes?  How does a poem differ from residual language?

Hopefully the reader reads a text more than once, and different things happen each time, but it can be annoying to be deferred mid poem like that.

We could probably argue that all language is residue or remnants, but specifically in Body Clock the language addenda are to illustrate the poem — to allow the reader to be able to read the language that was written into the poem-drawing.  The typed version is not the poem itself, but another representation of it.  In The California Poem the footnotes sometimes offer information about source, sometimes add more information, and sometimes add more poem (they hypertext the poem, we could say).  It's like you stick your finger on a little part of the poem and another little poem opens up.

 

You were taught and mentored by a handful of the 20th- and early 21st-century's most prolific female poets, notably your aunt, Anne Waldman, and New York School poets, Alice Notley and Barbara Guest.  In February 2011, VIDA released statistics demonstrating that in the U.S., women are still significantly under-published and under-reviewed compared to male authors (to say nothing of the publication and prominence of transgender, third gender, and genderqueer authors).  What advice would you give to the young, passionate, non-male poet?  

"Work your ass off to change the language," said Bernadette Mayer some years ago.  We still need to do that.  And that means not just in the writing, but in the structures, which is easy to say, hard to do.  Will we see a woman president in my life time?  I wonder.  We have fallen asleep at the (secondary) wheel, lured by the lull of capital and product, which promotes surface and surface thinking.  It all looks okay, because we're trying to look okay.  Some have tried looking really ugly (in art-making) to see if that could shake up a brain or two.  I'm not sure of the approach, but it's going to take persistence and hard work, and that work has to be done on the interior and exterior structures.  The women you mention worked their asses off and paved the way for me and the next generations.  In the avant-garde and small press community (where these particular women and others were working), I think there's more parity, but when you look at more socially and economically powerful literary communities (which have and distribute more money, and can work to attract more readers), they are still dominated by men.  It's a worldwide capital problem — women are still making something like 70 cents to the dollar, the UN reports will tell you.  How long can that go on without a soft revolution coming up?

 

What forthcoming works do we have to look forward to?  

The Loving Details of the Living and the Dead is coming out in the spring of 2013.  I've almost finished another hybrid memoir/fiction, so that should be coming to the table soon.