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The Nonapparitional Caryl Pagel, Interviewed at BOMBLOG
For you contemporary Transcendentalists out there, BOMBLOG’s got your weekend enjoyment: Caryl Pagel is interviewed by Jack Christian about her book, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death (Factory Hollow 2012), as well as “the desire to communicate differently, the desire to join the worldly with the other-worldly,” which by all accounts Pagel is seriously inquiring after. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation–but there’s so much here, from Duchamp to Derrida to Whitman to Frankenstein, science, documentary, and archiving. “‘On the edge of what one knows’ is the trance this book was written under!”
JC I like this idea of making a gift or circuit of the “death” of certain texts. I end up thinking of this as a function of what I call—or, what gets called—the mythopoetic imagination, and yet you are more interested in science and the language of science, the expansion and exploration of its practices. Do you or did you want to write away from the imaginary and confabulatory?
CP Well, much of science is imaginary, or hypothetical, even if it progresses by way of evaluation and the accumulation of evidence. It is also extremely collaborative. Science is a body of work that all scientists work on and toward, lending the discipline mythopoetic aspects. Researchers fabricate stories or taxonomies that evolve toward greater “truths” through collected observation. But we know that scientific findings are debunked, disproven, disregarded, or revised and that it is not a field of absolutes any more than story-telling, any more than the organization or palimpsesting of narrative fact in history, religion, and philosophy. Think of taxidermy or embalming or organ transplants: scientific procedures that finish in the fantastic. I know someone about to undergo surgery for which doctors are printing out a 3D replacement shoulder bone fragment. That’s medical technology and also only recently fathomable.
In the case of the SPR, these scientists practiced legitimate, scholarly research on apparitions, visions, post-death communication: all possible inventions of the imagination and outcomes of things that—we would now claim—can be explained by chemistry, pheromones, psychology, and physics. But what awesome mysteries, or myths, arise out of systems?! It is the employment of forms and (the illusion of) rationality that often spawns the greatest drama. This is a very Victorian idea, that the most conventional structures can result in scandalous and chaotic outcomes, that when there is no room for error each misstep, mistake, or messiness creates fireworks.
Consider the form of the ghost story: every detail must appear absolutely controlled, believable, and measured so that when the ghost materializes it can transform our sense of what’s possible regardless of reality. By rejecting the premise, by saying IT’S NOT REAL, we make it so. We envision the absence or impossibility of the thing into being. Like daydreams or nightmares or memories, these intangible experiences and exceptional perceptions are essential to the ordinary lives of humans and yet are often dismissed as only imagined. The border between fantasy and knowledge, credible and incredible, mind and body is so thrilling and thin and terrifying to negotiate.
JC In your poem “Archive,” you write: “ours an archival / generation.” I wonder how, and what it was like, to make art from archives? Could you talk about your process for making these poems?
CP Most of the poems in Experiments were born in formal dilemma. There are sonnets, elegies, fables, syllabic verse, surveys, field notes, and indexes. The archival nature is both thematic and structural. The “Botched Bestiary” series was written after reading Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am and Steve Baker’s The Postmodern Animal—a book dedicated to purposefully damaged, reconstructed, or altered animal bodies in postmodern art. I was thinking about the ways contemporary visual artists approach post-human or hybrid bodies and how collaging, reorganizing, and archiving create alternative shapes and interpretations of life. This resulted in an experiment of stitching together excerpts from other texts while replacing specific animal names. I wanted the process to be transparent, corporeal, visual—to leave a scar or mark.
JC Makes me think of Frankenstein, and also Jed Rasula’s This Compost, particularly where you mention the Whitman lines and “mulching.” There’s a Victorian, fin de siècle aura and energy to these poems. In what ways did you want to revise or update these notions in light of postmodernism, the twenty-first century, etc—possibly toward our post–millennial concerns?
CP Frankenstein, yes! I would attribute a fin de siècle energy to much of what I was reading while writing Experiments, including Hawthorne, Wharton, Poe, and Perkins Gilman. For me, I think, it was less of an updating and more of an attempt to reconcile certain contemporary artistic procedures with age-old questions, timeless horrors.
JC Also, would you consider these poems Romantic? I’m suddenly conscious of not wanting to box you in to particular terminology . . . but this is what a person does on the edge of what one knows.
CP “On the edge of what one knows” is the trance this book was written under! I love Romantic poetry, but am more influenced by our good old ’merican Transcendentalists and even more so by the mediums, clairvoyants, spiritualists, and visionaries (mostly women) who practiced story-based performance art during that same time period. Unfortunately this kind of work—part fiction, part psychology, part theater?—is predominantly documented through transcript and audience testimony rather than first-hand accounts. These seers created intimate literature-based transformation through careful scripting. A medium “translates” or “divines” (writes) telepathic and apparitional narratives or codes for their audience, creatively exceeding the perceived limits of language and logic. Shouldn’t there be a literary movement attributed to the visionaries?
Read it all at BOMBLOG.