Lauren Shufran Interviews Monica Peck
LS: Can we discuss desire? By this I mean of course I want to talk about desire as pulse or impulse behind the writing, desire as surfacing in and evoking the text – yours – itself. But, too, I ask this broadly: where and by what are we already restrained in the conversation I’ve just asked you for and that we’ve not even begun? Because the pyrhaiad contains and presses against limits: some of which it capitulates to and some of which it refuses. I’m thinking of Pyrrha, in her self-imposed exile, repudiating binary thought, the constraint of definition, thought that circumscribes – in a sense refusing language itself: and yet, of course, this text takes place precisely there. Raging against the violence “at the very root of thought as solid” and “in the experience of self as solid:” that’s Pyrrha. But I’m also uncertain, now, exactly where she ends and the text begins. “Pyrrha without veils thy vales hir borders.” I’d even like to ask if your text itself desires, performs desire – eluding/eluded by the conventions of the form it has taken on (chosen?). Maybe we could even talk about form as desire. But there I go again: delimiting.
MP: When i think about desire, i always think about the etymology, which is so beautiful, because it comes from the latin de + siderae. (i may be misspelling that. ah, indolence.) so, de is “of” or “from” and siderae is “stars” or “constellations” or “the night sky.” so desire comes from the heavens or from outer space like meteorite. what's that green emerald-like stone everyone says is from aliens: moldavite. yes. desire is like moldavite sometimes. it's very old and you can gather it in fields and it appears dark, but hold it up to the light and it's green. you gather moldavite in eastern europe. in the czech republic. i was just learning about this from the poet alana seigel. she's very into moldavite. why is it that desire comes from space? for me, in a sense, intense desire feels like a possession/possessory and i believe this was also part of the belief in the mediterranean region, as in the god eros taking on a form to enact desire, but also as in the god entering into a person. in many ways, this spiritual aspect of desire connects with the later courtly love models of desire as a path to god. and, when looking at desire poetries of various kinds, say, rumi or sappho, i also see the intersection of lyric, there. and so when you speak of the "pulse" or "impulse," there is this sense of musicality that arises from the heart, if i can say that while fishing my hippie membership card out of my wallet.
being queer, desire is problemetized in a heterosexist/normative culture, so desire, as a queer artist, is a place where work arises, for me. perhaps the first place i found myself making art from, was desire. thinking back to when i was a child, my work was largely performative (how pretentious it feels to say this, but i will) and the work was around the conflict between desiring a beloved and desiring an island/land occupied solely by me. much of the play centered around desiring my friend/s (current crushes) and being stranded on a deserted island. when i think about how much that narrative plays out as an adult artist for me, the deserted island aspect is the queer utopia where gender doesn't exist, where my activities and behaviors will not be perceived through a gender-critical lens. this feels very personal and yet i am relieved to be sharing it with you. i'm not sure i made this connection before. so the person i was on the island, who had a male name (david, often) would discover the beloved on the beach, stranded, erotically disheveled; the person was "rescued" and revived. we would then build a boat together, but the story would never carry forth into joining society again. sometimes the boat would fall apart in a storm and we would die. a happy ending, it felt. so the queer beloved must enter into a location that becomes charged with desire. in the case of this poem, it’s san francisco as troy. part of this is because i am making rhetorical arguments about the homeric epics, part of it is that i am queering the iliad, and part of it is that desire is allowed in san francisco, but often (as jeni olson's films so profoundly explore) desire finds no "home." so it feels like an encampment, like the years-long encampment on the beach outside troy. that troy holds helen, who in turn is held hostage by a possessory-form of desire, desire for paris... it's so strange, to me, every time i think about the story, it is about war, but the psychological aspects of war, the illusion of the subject/object, pop out so clearly to me. that no one wants to be fighting the war, but they somehow must keep a promise. this is like our ego, that must perceive things as subject/object in order to survive (or so it thinks). the ego actually won't be destroyed by non-binary thinking, because the ego is indestructible, because the ego is an activity, but whatever. as much as i rationalize and explain, i can't get there. i know what i am doing, but can't stop it, which is why, often, people find themselves in a spiritual practice. they discover they can't control themselves, they realize that if they want to stop behaving in an obnoxious way to their family & friends, they will have to trick themselves. that the intellect isn't enough. and so desire enters in as a way of focus. devotion as a form of love, inspires the novice. beginner's mind. love. desire. from stars.
a few years ago, i guess this was in 2005? i was reading some horace at the same time that i was reading joyce's ulysses. and there is this conversation in ulysses where someone asks, "what was achilles' name when he was a girl." and so i go looking it up and of course robert graves has answers. he's such a goof. and others have answers. it turns out it was one of those questions folks in rome would discuss after dinner. a salon question. but the name pyrrha comes up, of course, as one answer, because achilles has red hair. pyrrh means “fire” in greek. so, there's this ode of horace's that most first year latin students read because it's very short and simple and there it was: to pyrrha. i read the ode and there was no clear gender assignment to the "pyrrha" person, but in fact much effort seems to be made to ambiguate the gender, aside from the obvious f. "-a" of pyrrha, not one adjective steps out to clarify phyrrha's gender. they are, in fact, all neutral. the poem is a poem of desire. i can go more into it later if you're interested. i would argue it is about the moment when odysseus goes to fetch pyrrha/achilles to bring them to troy. to war. and odysseus desires pyrrha/achilles. odysseus is covered in sea weed. it's hot. it's very gay and hot. it's in a cave. just go read the poem. or we can read it together the next time we're studying latin? i feel like i'm not answering your question here. what does the lyric form do to enact desire? i think the spaciousness of lyric, the silence, allows for that projection of desire to enter in. desire possesses the empty. desire is the empty aspect of the present moment. it is what "i" do not have. what "i" "lack." desire is first cousins with loss because of this. loss is the past tense of desire. or erotic loss. the little death. you cannot ever experience desire without knowing loss is around the corner, lurking there, and that's scary. i think it's more scary for some people than others. i mean, for pyrrha, xe's kind of a wounded hero. xe's got this fantastic outfit and has superpowers, but hir girlfriend (helen) is avoiding hir. so the desire shifts to the political. perhaps that is what needs to happen? all of this obsession about romantic love in our society needs to shift to an obsession about social justice. think about how things would change if that were to happen? instead of okcupid we would have okcommie? oh dear ...
LS: Right before I picked this up to respond to you (no kidding) I was reading Roland Greene’s Unrequited Conquests, in part of which he discusses the early modern homology between the island and the fiction. Among the conditions, Greene says, that allowed one to stand in for the other, were an internal coherence they both (ostensibly) shared and a complete differentiation from each one’s surroundings. I was thinking about how all the discourses on flows, suspicion of absolute boundaries – deconstruction, for goodness sake – inserted between these early conceptions and ours have also adjusted a reading of your lone and “lensless” island. The near-impossibility of being stranded now is almost disappointing: auto-affection’s okay until you can’t stand the sound of your own voice (or! does one instead make “notes to self” that consist of things like “sail more” and “rest less” on said unattainable island: can we talk about the entrances of Pyrrha’s voice here? As it upsets both epic and lyric traditions, etc?) I was also particularly struck (pun recognized belatedly; allusion kept) by your comparison of desire to moldavite (a product of impact) and possession (a gesture of control). That the desire that vacillates between these two would perpetuate itself, desire making desire, forever –maybe this to return to your comment that “desire finds no home.” But that encampment outside of Troy is surely not static. Do you see how this question is unbecoming itself? In a sense all this because I’d really like to hear more about Horace’s ode. And about Pyrrha’s voice, there.
MP: what struck me weeks (months?) ago, when you first sent this question, was how apropos it was to some /active imagination/ work that i've been doing in therapy. see, there is this thing about the island, though i've never read roland greene, and i should, it seems, considering your take on it. what hits me is this "coherence" you mention, that sense of differentiation. an interesting word, often used in genetics, but that's another story. or is it? is any story another story? the island concept saved me, as a child, perhaps because of this sense of differentiation. of course, i grew up in kansas. landlocked. so, my islands were invented. out back we had an old garden plot made of four railroad ties to shape a square. nothing ever grew well in that plot, due to the creosote leaking from the ties. that space became my island. and, now that i'm examining my own childhood for genderqueer-ness, i'll note that whenever i was a persona on my island, i was always male. anytime i could differentiate, i also transitioned. i can still access that masculinity. and, it is interesting, too, that my reluctance to share the pyrrha project first stemmed from my own disassociation from my genderqueer identity. i questioned my /right/ to embark on the project; the project then led me to understand myself, to recognize the non-binary gender identity that i experience, rather than perform. somehow the island as body proxy allows the recognition through play of this; so, too, the fiction. which is not to say that there isn't also this sense of being stranded ... i'm thinking particularly of how the "i/we" first person self/ves abandon aspects of ourselves (not only in the jungian sense, here, though perhaps that's my facile understanding), such that through/via integration of these aspects, say, through art or therapy or conversation or sex or illness/healing or dying or //////????///// that the "i/we" does not homogenize, when it connects; i'm thinking about gloria andalzua's notion of bridges/sandbars/drawbridges, only not in a social body, but in the individual body.
connecting via this project to my genderqueer identity has had some rather catastrophic results for my social life, but within myself, the interior has become ... gosh ... there's so much self-love happening, like a great release here around that and around the fact that i can do this process on my own terms. something about the genderqueer narrative scared me into silence, it feels so much beyond my ability ... to enter into the conversation ... so many friends are so clear about their politics & process with it ... but for me ... it feels very visceral, cellular, pubescent. after i graduated from mills, i was like, o shit, i was so into performing femme, you know, and enjoying femme drag, feeling hot in my department store outfits ... but that got old and i didn't feel like i had the energy to keep it going ... my last semester at mills, and the genderqueer stuff was feeling so urgent, but i couldn't really find a way to talk about it directly without hating everything i said. it was like i had no intellect around it. it was all coming from my inner organs, my muscles, my bones. seriously. i felt my body shift. it was like puberty. so, i finished at mills in this odd place, and the pyrrha project was this world where i could project my genderqueer identity without needing to be /smart/ about it. i was thinking about alan moore's promethea a lot then; i'm a huge fan of moore's writing, esp. his comic books; he's a magician & thinker. very out there stuff. so, i know i'm rambling here and my puppy has just nudged me from a sweet canine dream with his paw (what do three month old puppies dream about?) so there's this thing about ending a performance, the "grad student" performance ended & i withdrew into my cave and found this urgency w/ the gender stuff, pressing me further; and, you know, lauren, i am pretty flamboyant, so it was hard for me to articulate this as different from being "butch." i'm not very butch. i'm more of a queen. and a girl. and so that's different. so my apartment/island became this place where i could explore the pyrrha project further. i painted a series of "prophecy" paintings that incorporate the symbols from the pyrrha project; i began sewing soft object sculptures that evolved into a video series that explore the same "shore" or "shoreline" notion: see, the liminal resonates for me here because there is this sense of ... what's the film term when they lay two images on top of each other, a composite. pyrrha exists in a different temporality ... but i also want to add that bernal heights, my neighborhood, has felt like an island, for me over the years too, a refuge; i've felt comfortable withdrawing to bernal hill and used to walk up that hill everyday. that hill is a powerful place, holds many secrets. o shit, i just reread your question and realized you asked about horace's ode.
whoa. in an attempt to cut & paste the latin, i just "googled" the fucking ode & came up with the *strangest* site where you click on a word in the poem and, instead of being parsed as you might expect, pictures of hollywood celebs pop up ... to "illustrate" the poem. check it out. you're gonna laugh. i can hear it already: http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/horace.htm#
hmmm just went on a wild goose chase through the www looking for the latin. found it, but now am having thoughts about how i want to approach talking about horace. oddly enough, whilst writing this laura woltag began texting me about dying her hair red. and so we just had a long text exchange wherein the color red played a prominent role. i think its worth noting that i haven't spoken to laura in a few weeks & out of the blue here she is texting about red while i am writing to you about Red.
here’s milton’s translation :
Ode I, 5: To Pyrrha
What slender youth, bedew’d with liquid odors,
Courts thee on roses in some pleasant cave,
Pyrrha? For whom bind’st thou
In wreaths thy golden hair,
Plain in thy neatness? O how oft shall he
Of faith and changed gods complain, and seas
Rough with black winds, and storms
Unwonted shall admire!
Who now enjoys thee credulous, all gold,
Who, always vacant, always amiable
Hopes thee, of flattering gales
Unmindful. Hapless they
To whom thou untried seem’st fair. Me, in my vow’d
Picture, the sacred wall declares to have hung
My dank and dropping weeds
To the stern god of sea.
here’s the latin:
quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
perfusus liquidis urget odoribus
cui flavam religas comam,
simplex munditiis? heu quotiens fidem
mutatosque deos flebit et aspera
nigris aequora ventis
qui nunc te fruitur credulus aurea,
qui semper vacuam, semper amabilem
sperat, nescius aurae
fallacis! miseri, quibus
intemptata nites. me tabula sacer
votiva paries indicat uvida
vestimenta maris de
i guess what i want to say is that this whole project started when i was back home in kansas city visiting my folks & as i mentioned before i was reading joyce's ulysses & was taken by that part when they're arguing about "what was achille's name when he lived as a girl" (i think they're in the library? i never know what's going on in that book.) and so i started some middle of the night research into it and of course robert graves weighed in that it was pyrrha (bc of his red hair) and so i remembered the horace ode to pyrrha, studying it in college. i'm no latin scholar or anything. not at all. i love the stuff, though. so i went to the poem & noticed the gendering is as i mentioned neuter/indeterminate (except for the "a" for pyrrha) and i thought: huh, what if this ode was narrating when odysseus goes to pick up achilles and bring him to troy and odysseus falls in love w/ achilles? there's all the stuff there for that. the seaweed, for instance. achilles' mother is thetis, the sea goddess. and odysseus as a sea-wandering sailor. and so, being back in kansas, i ended up having dinner w/ poet judy roitman and her partner stan lombardo, a long-time friend & mentor, who’s a great classicist & translator. so we're having dinner & i toss out this idea: what if horace's ode was about achilles & stan recites it off the top -- he's got an incredible memory -- and says, "yeah, that's great." so i thought, i've got something interesting here about gender & history that connects w/ something around "misreading" and also that so much has been written about this ode & nothing has pointed out this fact. so then i thought, okay, i'm going to write into this, but where do i start. so i mashed together alexander pope's translation of the iliad w/ gertrude stein's tender buttons using the online cut-up machine and then started carving the poem out of that. there's so much more to this project, but it gets interrupted by other things. oh, and the reason pope & stein, is that i love the lexicons of both, plus anne carson once painted a portrait of gertrude stein as achilles, it was going to be the cover of lombardo's translation of the iliad. this was back in 1995, i think? anyway, i loved that painting. i only saw it a few times, but it struck me as a possibility, somehow. that painting. i was eighteen in ’95 and loved stein so much and here was anne carson queering achilles with her. maybe that's what made me gay. that painting. ha ha. no seriously, though. maybe that was it.