Ariel Goldberg Interviews Erika Staiti
Ariel Goldberg: In the Stitches has a consistency of the line length that resembles exchanges like the impulsive glory of a blurt embedded in electronic modes of rapid back and forth. For example: "sent undiscard in/ communicative breath," talks to "hardly metal/ meandering metadata". You build a commentary fizzling and resurfacing. Audible and inaudible. I want to read the voices here as different orchestral instruments. But I heard you read a version of this out loud at the Oakland Artifact reading series in late 2009. Your reading of these lines in the one voice that, however variant they are, must house them, makes me think you are the newspaper reader at the bar in the early 19th century. You are reading us a language from a world you've created. You are literate in the language, but we watch it with you be deceitful, towards us, as equals. Things repeat: there are systems; you follow rules. So if this piece is a world's language sample, what does the world look like?
Erika Staiti: There is some kind of world in which this language is existing but I don't really know what it is. It's partly an imagined/fantasized world but it steals objects and ideas from our world. I don't feel so literate in this world at all. I feel pretty removed from it. In the earliest version, I was trying to write lines that would negate themselves. I wanted to see what something looked like if it could be itself and also its own negation. I was writing longhand, which I almost never do. As the piece over time transformed into this thing, I realized that something kind of ambient but real came out in the attempt to negate. I thought a lot about ambience. I wanted to see a world in which ambience dominated. It's interesting about the different voices you mentioned because I've been hearing it as un-voiced, as a humming or something.
AG: Why is there an importance for ambience right now in poetry?
ES: I'm not sure that there is.
AG:It is possible for you to be thinking about ambiance but not vying for its production or importance in your writing. Let’s treat the removal you experience from this world your work creates as the public transportation system of this world. And it takes us to urgency and vulnerability, which are combining to equal negation. Take summaries like "ignorant mass bleed" against commands like "culture productive." Perhaps the humming you produce is to show the constancy of the work, that we are constantly producing an alternate world in writing to deal with the insanity of the one we inhabit. Is the constancy a mess? A low volume? I don't think the system of repetition inside this work is how or where there is an act of negation. The removal seems more important. Like we are trying to identify your original materials for word work? Was the stealing from objects and ideas of the familiar world at all being acted out in the variant stripping down of colloquialisms, when lines start to drop verbs, prepositions, and articles? In other words, what of the familiar gets removed?
ES: I think whatever removals take place here, whether they’re lost prepositions or my distanced self from the work, the result is a new form of presence. Similar to the stasis of the lines that end up creating a sort of movement or momentum, I imagine the removal as creating a unique presence of something other, a presence that may not have been able to be conjured if there was an intention for it. That whole negation and ambience business was just a way for me to think about something as this was happening. I was like a bystander while the work created its own systems, rules, terms. For instance, the lack of verbs or prepositions was not the result of erasure. The lines just came out that way.
AG: Those grammar words sound like bad name-dropping place names. Deer pellets of workplaces. I think too much about grammar at my job. What about presence and other. What about where things get written. I don't want to use the word site-specific. I do want to say inevitable influence. Like what do you think about what landscape will do to our brains whether we like it or not. Living in The Bay Area, but being from New York, these lines struck a nerve: "he said new York/ I pretend not/ to hear him." I wonder about the anxiety of place names--do you feel that anxiety ever?
ES: Place-name anxiety... I didn’t know it was a thing, but I definitely have it. I get nervous when a place is mentioned that has relevancy in my life, like it’s my responsibility to confess that I’ve lived there, and have something brilliant to say about it. Growing up on Long Island had an impact on me, not only culturally as a current resident of Oakland California, but also in my embodied self, my ways of perceiving things and interacting with things, the ways I move through space, etc. I agree that landscape and environment do something to our brains and our beings.
In general I try to create an alternative space in my work where I can float around. It's like those cities you visit in dreams that are somehow reminiscent of real cities you've been to, but not quite. And you wake up and think oh I went back to that city again. At some point maybe I'll write something that feels like I'm returning to the city where this work is situated.
AG: Do you think dildos can be a place name? If so, what would that place look like? I am thinking about the comic relief of the line "do you own a lot of dildos?" I mean this to ask how we can read queerness, which is too often associated with sex, to not be about sexuality pushing through in the art. Can we pass over the queer-identifying word(s) to not just read it as marking a queer place but as something else? Something terribly ordinary? I am finding in this piece the undercurrents of a conversation unfinished and restarted, which reminds me of trying to talk in a loud bar, of public and private life playing a game of come close back off.
ES: Oh yes that line... I almost took it out! The word is so loaded. But to me it appears here as almost ordinary, like "do you own a lot of hats" or something. So yes, exactly what you’re saying. Also, it is funny that someone really asked me that question. My answer in the piece is "no and yes" because it's the answer I wish I gave. It encourages imagination without the gory details. The line that follows the question seems more provocative than the word dildo to me. (I think dildo is a really ugly word and it makes me nervous and I don't like it.) I really appreciate your questions about how we might be able to pass over queer-identifying words in a less queer-marked way, and to treat queerness in general as something that is not inherently remarkable or deplorable. My way of living queer comes with occasional pangs of pride and shame, but most of the time, it just is. I'm kind of waiting for the rest of the world to realize that gayness isn't actually worthy of all the attention it gets.
AG: I am so glad that line didn't get cut. Because it is true how desexualized a dildo can be, like when I’m boiling mine. Anyway, can we start wearing dildo hats to poetry readings? There is something about the dildo question laughing at the attention mongering of gay culture as we plod and parade for basic human rights, and how the calling attention to how one has sex can be slightly irritating. The dildo question speaks of being stuck somehow, pegged, unanswered, like this two time appearing chorus:
presence in the lack of
in my ass
and I feel it
right here where I’m
someone once sat
It seems to be a sort of fireplace of the poem: of our bodies phrased bare, trashy-colloquial, just sitting on a bus. I can't help reading this as the ultra mundane of you & strangers' bodies in unintentional touching exploding with the anxiety of influence being true and farcical. Of great minds or lovers or friends just being a toaster oven for stale bread. Everyone needs a toaster oven! It makes me wonder about that feeling of who are strangers, who are the people you write to and from, of your bookshelves coming alive but laying limp at the same time. Your bookshelves Erika is like vaults, they were like a school for me. How do you make and unmake people or writers who will surface or rumble in your own poetry?
ES: Wow I love this. Now I’m thinking of the influence of others in my work as lingering chair warmth. It’s kind of secretive and ghostly. When you sit in a warm seat, maybe people saw someone sitting there a minute ago, but you’re the only one whose butt feels the evidence of the butt before you. It's a secret that you share with the ghost of the person. It feels weird and titillating. In the same way, people might be able to guess what’s on a writer's bookshelves from reading their work, but they probably don't know exactly who are the presences and influences that keep the person and their writing warm. I write for a real audience and also for an intangible one. I like having a secret audience of mysterious readers (maybe they are the ghosts of the future?) as much as having the ghostly influences of the past. I am terrified of ghosts, though.