Aphrodite and Oysters: A Conversation between Karla Kelsey and Laynie Browne —March 9, 2019

Laynie Browne is a poet, prose writer, teacher and editor. She is author of thirteen collections of poems and three novels. Recent books include: In Garments Worn by Lindens, Periodic Companions, and The Book of Moments. Her honors include a Pew Fellowship (2014), the National Poetry Series Award (2007) for her collection The Scented Fox, and the Contemporary Poetry Series Award (2005) for her collection Drawing of a Swan Before Memory. Her poetry has been translated into French, Spanish, Chinese and Catalan. Recent collaborations include a public art project, “Dawn Chorus”: a constellation of poetry in 13 languages engraved in The Railpark in Callow Hill, Philadelphia with visual artist Brent Wahl. She teaches at University of Pennsylvania and at Swarthmore College.

Karla Kelsey is a poet, essayist, and editor whose work weaves together the lyric with philosophy and history. She has published three books of poetry: A Conjoined Book (Omnidawn, 2014), Iteration Nets (Ahsahta, 2010), and Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary (Ahsahta, 2006) selected by Carolyn Forché for the Sawtooth Poetry Prize. Blood Feather, her fourth book of poetry is forthcoming from Tupelo Press and in 2020 Ahsahta Press will publish On Certainty. Her book of experimental essays, Of Sphere, was selected by Carla Harryman for the 2016 Essay Press Prize and was published in 2017. From 2010–2017 she edited The Constant Critic, Fence Books’ online journal of poetry reviews. She currently co-publishes with Aaron McCollough SplitLevel Texts, a press specializing in hybrid genre projects, and with Poupeh Missaghi she co-edits Matters of Feminist Practice, a new journal of feminist criticism housed with Belladonna* Collaborative. A recipient of a Fulbright Scholars grant, she has taught in Budapest, Hungary, and is Professor of Creative Writing at Susquehanna University’s Writers Institute. 

Karla Kelsey
: Laynie, your new book, You Envelop Me, takes such a delicate approach to the difficult topic of death, grief, and mourning. While there are narrative aspects of the work, the sequences feel more like gold filigree than recounting, which gives the book a texture both elemental and worked, symbolic and material. While reading I receive the feeling that your language is less descriptive of the process of loss and more part of the process itself: perhaps even alchemical? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship of language to intense experience, particularly the experience of loss.

Laynie Browne: I really appreciate your distinction between recounting and process, and the word “alchemical.” I’m struck by how the most common of experiences, such as mourning, can be isolating. It’s impossible to find language. Or language fails, that is, descriptive language fails. I’m interested in how poetry can provide us another language. I’m interested in poetry and language as translation. How to translate intense experience into a series of marks and letters on a page which might offer a reader entrances, glimpses, bodily memory and form? I’m usually not interested in writing “my” experience. I’m much more interested in how we make and unmake meaning. In the case of You Envelop Me I turned to the landscape around me, the Sonoran desert, and sought counsel from creatures of flight. I was in deep lament and looking for meaningful practices, such as reading sacred texts. Another practice was walking and crying. You could say I was looking for structures that persist, that exist beyond the self, the mourner, and the recurring narrative of loss.

In your book Of Sphere I am amazed at the intricate structure you’ve created. I feel we share many affinities, and I won’t be able to articulate them all at once, but maybe we could begin with structure. Can you say something about how the structure of this book emerged? One thing I love is how the notes are connected to the texts, yet the relationship is oblique. In other words, the notes open more questions.

Kelsey: “Emerged” is a good descriptor, in terms of the structure of Of Sphere, because it was organic and visionary, by which I mean it felt received through conversations with writers living and dead. The majority of my writing up to Of Sphere included lyric prose, but always in conjunction with highly-architected poetry—I love constraints like the sonnet and the sestina. When Of Sphere began to manifest as a book there was no architecture besides the sentence, and the long stretches of prose felt too amorphous. Teresa Carmody, a prose writer and editor I admire very much, suggested that with continued attention to the language a larger structure would appear to me. On an airplane shortly after, it did, and I understood the book to be organized around the “spheres of Earth”: geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. To which I added a celestial sphere. Around the same time one of the prose pieces wanted to be etched into lyric fragments, which became “Cosmogony,” the fragmented lyric poem that interweaves the spheres of Earth. The idea for the notes, which now compose nearly a third of the book, came after the book was selected by Carla Harryman for Essay Press. The context of a press specializing in essays led me to think of the work through the lens of this genre and to the micro-essay form, and I liked the idea of the language of the text spanning the lyric fragment through to the analytical. I’d also been re-reading H.D.’s marvelous The Gift, as published by the University Press of Florida, which includes her incredible notes to the body-text. For me, writing the notes was a process of reverse-composition: all of the references and concepts were present for me when I was writing the body text, but until writing the notes the thoughts were not articulated. It was great fun to go back and recover texts I had been reading when writing the body and to push this into language. 

Your articulation of “walking and crying” as “practice” moves me so much, and points to something I always find so hopeful about your work and your thinking about writing: I feel you convert or transform so much of what is at-hand for you, in your daily life, into your books. At the same time, I’d totally agree that your work doesn’t have the texture of being “about you.” This differs from the way that Bernadette Mayer, for example, who I know has been a big influence on us both, so often gives us the texture of being about someone who we can readily imagine to be the author. I’d love to know more about some of the techniques of practice that went into composing You Envelope Me. Did you use constraint-based writing? Different notebooks for different series? 

Browne: In terms of “techniques” for writing You Envelop Me, I leaned heavily on structures and practices deeply ingrained so that inside the immediate trauma of loss, like a sleepwalker, I could go further. I listened—in a heightened state of attentiveness—to being alive. This was not a state of my choosing or volition but of mourning. I tried to make as much time as I could to fully inhabit grieving. I had the good fortune of spending much time with my step-mother while she was ill and while she was dying. Writing through fraught spaces (when I was able) was another practice that helped me to be present. I gave my devastated self to a notebook, with no thought that this was writing for any other eyes, and then awakened, tore myself from the page and tried to be useful. In general, when I’m writing I’m not thinking of “making” a space for other eyes. This doesn’t happen until something has almost come alive, into full form, and then my consciousness shifts and I begin to ask if this writing, is (or could ever be) for others.

At first I could write nothing, after her passing. I made collage and painted from dreams. I prayed and meditated. I practiced yoga. I chanted. I cared for my children. I cooked and made herbal medicines. I taught. All of these practices informed the writing. Eventually I realized that I was writing a book. But this was much later, after the book had been mostly written. At that point my gaze shifted.

How much do we allow or disallow the process—as it morphs, twists and evolves? You used the word “received.” This resonates for me as well. In listening, I was hoping for signs, birds and butterflies. And I was struck with your writing something similar: “I admit to expecting answers from the number of butterflies, orange and blue, swarming where the house had been.… I wait for a sign.” Could you speak about practices of divination in relation to your process? I’m also thinking of this passage: “I approach the text to see how quickly I become trees uprooting sidewalks, abandoned sportswear factory, chapels milk-glass windows, patterns tightening in service of a discourse that does more than deposit linguistic layers.” Would you say text can be divined from surroundings and also we can divine our circumstances from text? Would you dip your pen first in earth, air, water or fire? What was it like, from the moment in flight, when structure began to appear, through the process of breathing this book to completion?

Kelsey: My relationship to divination often feels like looking through a thick window longingly at a space I want to inhabit but don’t know how to enter. Luckily, something from the outside—a book, the thoughts you have been typing out to me here, a painting, a bird—comes to remind me that the “trick” to opening the window of divination is engaging what is present to hand, taking the lived moment as a deep sediment full of material, full of mystery. I often find myself pulled into the realm of concept, searching for ideas that will help me understand both writing and life but simultaneously turn into the guts of the world. This question about where to dip the pen first—earth, air, water, or fire is so lovely—perhaps I often dip my pen in air first, which is a catalytic space, but I find richness always steadfastly in the earth. We can understand this on a physical level when paying attention to breath: breath high in the chest is so different than breath that makes its way deep into bottom of the stomach. Seeing what I am writing as a book happens within shifts like this: moving breath from the chest to the stomach cavity retools the entire system. This is airy articulation, but the moment when something arises from material seems to work like this, particularly if one is intent on listening to the material rather than imposing a set of desires onto the material.

I’d like to read a history of divination, particularly as practiced by women. Do you know if such a thing exists? Lately I’ve been thinking so much about the ways in which humans interface with the nonhuman—the nonhuman out in the world but also the nonhuman parts of ourselves. This interface is most often violent and revolves around appropriation and consumption, but of course this is not a necessary form of the relationship, as the practice of divination (for example) shows. You Envelop Me slips between human and nonhuman in such engaging ways: “Owl Pages,” the opening sequence, blurs the distinction between human and animal; the book then moves towards more “human” cultivated materials: your work with mourning practices; the last sequence, “Rainbow Body in the Mirror of Death” foregrounds the nonhuman, minimizes the human and yet maintains an intimate, embodied sensibility. Do you think of language as a human material? What capacity can it have to interface with the nonhuman without appropriating it, without doing violence to it? Do we become nonhuman when we die?

Browne: I, too, would love to read a history of divination, particularly as practiced by women. I’ve been trying to divine this history, to inscribe or embody. Poetry can open all of the senses our dominant culture ignores, delimits, or frustrates. Like a willful attempt to see with eyes closed beyond illusory notions and predetermined modes of being. Those modes which say: get over it. Or: everything is fine. Those modes which insist: the dead are gone. I want to hear the voices of ancestors interwoven with and conversing with my own. I want to divine the living as whole and thriving. Imagination as precursor to action. Divination can be a mode of creative resistance and healing. In You Envelop Me this interest took the form of collecting and re-versioning superstitions about death in the poem “September Shall Never End.” You spoke about reverse composition and I think I’m practicing a process of reverse divination in this poem, by re-imagining adages, some familiar, some bewildering. In the title poem I explore divination through reading sacred texts. To alter one’s internal state is a way to practice reverse composition on oneself. I might define prayer or meditation in the same way. Contemplative practice as a form of divining oneself, a willful reframing that requires openness to the constant fluctuations of perception and being.

I am so intrigued by your questions. Whether or not language is a human material depends on how we define language. My impulse is to extend human definitions of language to consider other intelligences. The central long sequence in You Envelop Me, “Phoebis & Psaltria, a (conversation between a bird and a butterfly who follow a mourner),” was received in a heightened state of mourning, walking between worlds. My poem does not speak for the experience of bird or butterfly. But I can say that I strongly believe in the intelligence of plant, animal, stone, wind, fire, water, ether, and the invisible. I am both humbled and comforted by what I cannot understand. In “Rainbow Body in the Mirror of Death” I collaged text from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying with scientific articles about evolution, astronomy, bower birds, and dung beetles. The poem attempts to make visible the constant connections between spirit and physical worlds.

Your final question, “Do we become non-human when we die?” is the most perplexing. This question is kin to a question I struggle with greatly. What and where are we—beyond our physical bodies? I repeat this question in various forms in the book. Searching for the absent beloved is connected to denial but also to bafflement and awe. We continue to experience both the absence and the potent presence of the departed. Mourning becomes a process navigating those simultaneous experiences. We swim or breathe in multiple currents of time. The present moment rushes on, and the mourner is still awash in past visions. How not to lose sight of ourselves? We learn to preserve our permeable outlines and borders, in order to persist, in order to absorb and accept punctures in reality so that we might move ahead with integrity and purpose. I don’t know how. But also, every breath is an attempt. I love the way your book ends, resisting solution. As you write: “The word ‘rose’ will never flower.”

I’m so curious about your articulation of the “non-human parts of us.” Can you say more? Also, this seems a good segue to talking about the presence of mythical figures and art in Of Sphere. And as I write these words I am aware that they lead many places in your book.

In addition to dance and painting and installation I’m always aware of the figure or speaker in relation to art. I’m amazed by how many sources your book encompasses and how these sources in art span time, place, and medium. For example I’d love to hear more about your fascination with Aphrodite and oysters, Athena, and Yayoi Kusama. Do these sources lead to new projects, new reading and writing trajectories? 

Kelsey: The sources in Of Sphere are instances of lifelong fascinations with embodiment, representation, and the life of the mind. I grew up very seriously studying ballet, which I believe to be formative of these fascinations. Ballet is a study of forms where you learn at an early age to envision an ideal and attempt to replicate this with the body. You check to see how this replication is going by looking in the mirror and adjusting the body that is reflected back to better match the interior form inside. While this is a physical process it is also a mental process and a practice of focus. Imagine doing this for at least ninety minutes a day, six days a week, throughout childhood and the teenage years: it creates a sense of identity where one both is and is not the material in the mirror. These practices directly map onto questions of embodiment—what is it to have a body, to be a body?—, representation, and the mind-body interconnection. Aphrodite and oysters, Athena, Yayoi Kusama, and Pina Bausch are all sites for these explorations—as are all of the other sources of the book.

Since these investigations are so much a part of me—perhaps they are me—the project is ongoing. I’ve recently been revising a poetry book titled Blood Feather, scheduled to be published in 2019 by Tupelo Press, which is composed of three long poems, each spoken by a different female persona. The poems are both very character-driven and also archival, working the productive tension of the individual and the cultural. While it is quite different from Of Sphere it takes up many of the questions surrounding women and representation. Current reading trajectories include a book on intuition and divination in classical antiquity; the writings of Anni Albers; the new Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey; a sneak-preview of Lyn Hejinian’s book Positions of the Sun, soon to be published by Belladonna*; as well as re-readings of Veronica Forrest-Thompson’s Poetic Artifice, and Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva.

While I’ve just written to you about continuities in projects and practices, in your last response you say that “to alter one’s internal state is a way to practice reverse composition on oneself,” which implies change and perhaps disruption, and I am also intrigued by this view and find it to resonate. I wonder if you consider the writing of a book a practice that alters the internal state—and perhaps for good? Does grief do this as well? Given these things, how has your current practice and reading trajectories been altered by You Envelop Me? How have they remained the same?

Browne: How wonderful to hear about your forthcoming book Blood Feather. I love the title and very much look forward to the continuation of so many essential inquiries in your work, especially those regarding women and representation. You ask if writing implies change. Writing definitely alters my internal state, as does mourning; though I don’t think I’d say for the good. Instead I’d say it’s a complex peristaltic movement, a spectrum, wavelike and dynamic. I believe that writing has the potential to heal, but as with any potent practice it also has the potential to cause harm. My aspiration is always that writing is an offering. I’ve been meditating much on a poem as a protective device, especially in my new book, forthcoming, Amulet Sonnets. I’d like to believe that my writing always leads toward hopefulness, and yet it’s also my experience that writing leads to devastation. I should be clear that there are different ways to ask and answer this question. How does my writing change me? How does it affect others? I can’t predict the answer to either question. Writing You Envelop Me did help me navigate a precarious time. Creating the text was like melding a scaffold, a sturdy structure in which to dwell. Now, five years since the death of my beloved step-mother, I am finding it very difficult to read from the book because this act requires me travel back to a time when my grieving was unbearably constant. When we are lucky we can write as we proceed through a labyrinth. Recently I’ve been turning to other mediums—collage and drawing. I find myself stitching with thread into paper, imagining future textile work. I am also doing more collaboration. Currently I am working with poet and visual artist Sarah Riggs, whose drawings will be included in Amulet Sonnets. Other collaborators include Noah Saterstrom who created a dozen drawings for my novel Periodic Companions. With Brent Wahl I have been working on a public art project in Philadelphia, a two-part installation including a sculpture by Brent and a constellation of poetry in thirteen languages. I often return to the art and poetry of Cecilia Vicuña. In her recent book, About to Happen, she writes “An object is not an object; it is a witness to a relationship.” I’m currently thinking about a poem, a book, a drawing or an installation in that context. I’m thinking about the way a conversation, such as the conversation we attempt here, can animate art. If we consider poetry as a live transmission then we are given a collection of moments in which we breathe through and between texts. I’m grateful for this infusion of light, these threads and strands we share, and for all of the eyes and hands weaving in curiosity and affinity.