Poetry News

Gazing into the Eyes of Frankenstein: an Interview with Andrea Rexilius

By Harriet Staff

Olivia Cronk at Bookslut interviews Andrea Rexilius, author of To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation, out from Rescue Press, and the forthcoming Half of What They Carried Flew Away, from Letter Machine Editions.

Here Rexilius weighs in on the topic of "Accessible vs. Difficult," based mainly on an argument Johannes Gorannson laid forth at Montevidayo last spring. Cronk asks:

When you are reading and/or reading for writing, are you interested in “difficult” work? I mean: maybe some mainstream readers think of experimental work as difficult, obfuscating, willfully obscuring, lacking clarity, etc. Do you bother with these distinctions in the first place? Do you have a position? I tend to agree with Pate; I find it much, much easier to read a page of Susan Howe than an Auden poem... what do you think?

To which Rexilius:

I guess in this particular text I was thinking about how to place a number of different types of writing next to one another: memoir, poetry, essay, history. I wanted to find a way to have the facts presented, but also allow room for the strictly factual to be transcended and made creative. I don't know whether or not that's difficult.

I'm working at Naropa's Summer Writing Program this summer and one of the things that was talked about on a panel about hybridity in the context of what is cyborgean or monstrous is that the new is often monstrous or ugly because it is new or because we don't know how to look at / respond to / interact with it yet. This also suggests that we will, that it isn't impossible or “difficult.” And personally I would rather gaze into the eyes of Frankenstein than Hayden Christensen any day.

To pick up the idea that a text should be read horizontally as well as vertically in light of the term “close reading,” I would say that where I find my students most upset about “difficult” poetry is in their failed attempt to decode something. This act of decoding, perhaps, is what “accessible” poetry most often asks of its readers, to find the symbolism and the metaphors and etc. However, for me meaning is made primarily in the horizontal space of the book. A landscape of text or experience is being curated on each page, but also within the entire text. I don't expect readers to decode anything. I want to invite them into the linguistic experience of the “poetry.” Or maybe what should be “decoded” is process rather than symbolism or detail. You could hypothetically question or “closely read” the process / larger decisions of the book. Why interviews? Why essays and histories when these are actually poems? Why interviews/ essays and then research / bibliography and then poems? Why photographs of an unrelated twin relationship? Why no photos of me and my sister? Why bodies on the front of the book and faces on the back? Why three sections and not two? When I read or write about books of poetry I begin by asking questions like these, questions that examine how the text was curated. If someone's doing something with form I ask questions about that as a process too: Mathias Svalina's creations myths or Rusty Morrison's elegies or Julie Carr's notes or Alice Notley's epics, or Bernadette Mayer's sonnets, are all saying something about those forms, for example.

And, later, Rexilius on the process of writing both books:

The process was pretty different for them both. The first book about my sister took forever to complete. This is because I felt responsible for telling the story, maybe for witnessing or confessing something about it. For years I had a manuscript called A Hem that is now a condensed version in the last section of the book. I had no idea it was about my sister and I. But one day I heard the title differently and realized this writing had been hemming two A's together, two Andreas. The bulk of this manuscript was written by the body and by that I mean, I wrote these poems as responses to a series of performances I had made at SAIC that I thought were about hemming, and suturing, and sewing, and sewing patterns, and division and continental drift, etc. When I began trying to write more directly about my experience with my sister I realized I had been writing about it indirectly for years and so I decided to let those two manuscripts merge. I wove the essays on sisterhood into the histories of reading as stitching, etc.

The second book was written in a period of about two months, just after I completed the PhD program at the University of Denver. That sprang from four years of extensive thinking and fragmented writing. I wrote by weaving together notes I had taken, though the majority of it (the questions in particular) came off the top of my head, furiously. I had all of this surplus to get down on paper, but most of the time I didn't know what it was. I purposely avoided knowing what it was. I knew too much what the sister project was, so I wanted to be unhindered by an idea. The question, as I said above, was about duration. But it wasn't really a question. More of a prompt, I guess. I decided to write “a novel” (quotes included), so that I could write something extensively. I tried to avoid knowing what the “novel” was about, so that what it was “about” would appear, as opposed to “be shaped.” About half way through the manuscript I knew who “they” (the main characters) were. I took a break for a week or so and tried to forget about who I thought “they” were. I do think there is a bit more shaping involved in the second half of the book, but I tried to leave it out as much as possible and tried to let “they” become other things/characters that I wasn't aware of yet. When I finished writing it, I was able to articulate what thinking/gathering/witnessing/contemplating had made it possible, but this activity was a concluding, not an opening part of the work. I also knew where the title came from, but did not decide or think about how the title related to what the novel was until after the novel was.

Read the entire interview here.

Originally Published: August 4th, 2011