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'Literature is against us': In Conversation with Anne Boyer

If you don't know Anne Boyer's work, you should. She's a fierce intellect, tremendous poet, and laudable person. I'm grateful she spent time untangling my meandering questions. Her new book, Garments Against Women, is just out from Ahsahta Press, a perfect fit for Boyer's words. We talk politics, protest, the personal and poetry. Boyer's strength and insights make me hopeful, and that is worth everything.

Portrait with Mel Chin’s “revised post soviet tools to be used against the unslakable thirst of 21st century capitalism”

Amy King:  Hi Anne Boyer—I’m reading Garments Against Women, your latest that has been described by Chris Stroffolino as "widening the boundaries of poetry and memoir" (The Rumpus). It is for me something of a memoir of the mind in real time. That is, the persona (you?) explores the things she is considering, weighing, analyzing, on the page. This resonates with the ways in which social media posts so often deal with the social and current happenings, except in this case, Garments isn’t so much responsive to current events but perhaps to what the persona is thinking through, the ideas of social order she is interrogating, how a person navigates many mediums, etc. Do you think the ways in which we interact through social media influenced your approach? (Have the mechanisms and conditionings of social media affected your writing for the page?)

Anne Boyer:  Hi Amy King—Thank you for taking the time to read my book and to ask me questions about it.  When you say “a memoir of the mind in real time” I think you must be a very astute reader: that’s most likely the way any book would come out if anyone was reading what I was reading at the time I wrote it, I think.

The scene of the book then is a scene of the struggle to be a person who could think and write, the account of a person who isn’t supposed to be spending much time in intellectual activity yet does despite, even if she thinks it makes her sick, even if she has to do in the negative, even if the only territory in which to think is that of the terrifying and too-generally-articulated not-.

Aaron Kunin had recommended I read Jean Jacques Rousseau and Hannah Arendt, so I went to the library and checked some stuff out, and everything followed from there. Rousseau met me at the problems of confession, of gender, of “freedom,” and Arendt at the problem of appearances, of the object world, of reason and of will, of the question of survival itself as the grounds for freedom. Arendt, though, never answers what we are supposed to do when anything beyond survival is scarce. Rousseau can’t answer much of anything, only seduce and mislead and really hurt our feelings, writing such terrible things about us (women and girls). Neither of them were writing for a reader like me, at least as I was living at that time.

And yeah, social media lends certain structures the thoughts and feelings of everyone who uses it, but much of this book was written during periods of refusal—refusal of the blogs, times I’d turn off the internet, refusal of poetry’s available socialities and structures. I wanted to figure out some way to live as something more than information. I wanted to figure out some way to write what we need that wasn’t going to turn it into a pornography of particularization. That we are alienated, that we are unsure, that our next month is so regularly worse than our this one, are things common to many of us, are these hard and ordinary things of life as it is now which an algorithmic display of affect can’t soften.  The feeds could weep all day long, and it wouldn’t mean they won’t also be crying harder tomorrow. So what are we supposed to do?

Amy:  “…even if the only territory in which to think is that of the terrifying and too-generally-articulated not-” Is this writing, even if it is making you sick, happening around the time you were diagnosed with breast cancer? Is the articulated not- heightened by this experience?  Or are you referring to the less specific but common human condition of being aware of our mortality, our inevitable nothingness, and how writing, with all of its promise of immortality, cannot redeem this inevitability that already exists?

Anne:  This book was written a while ago, mostly in 2010 and some years before. My daughter and I were struggling, then, in the kind of poverty in which you are always getting sick from stress and overwork and shitty food then having no insurance or money or time to treat the problems caused by having no insurance or money or time. I began to believe that it was the extra burden I put on myself to be a writer that was making me sick and that we would be a lot happier and healthier if I could give it up. Things changed for us in 2011, fortunately, and as soon as I got a full-time job with health insurance and enough income to cover the rent, I stopped getting sick until I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September of 2014. The “not” in the book, then, is quite general. The “not” I learned about last year is a whole other story.

Amy:  My partner, Melissa Studdard, is also a single mom, rarely gets sleep, takes on extra work and gets sick regularly from overworking and pushing herself to write. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be a woman in this country, raising a child single-handedly, often with little to no financial help from the other parent, and the impact of that on you as a writer?  Has that situation—and the relief from the full time job--directly impacted your writing in terms of content or even simply productivity?

Anne:  I didn’t know how to do it. I still don’t.  My daughter is fifteen now—that means I am very close to having “done it”—that is, “raised her”—and I still don’t know how anyone does. I was desperate for models of how to be a single mother and still get a chance to write, to have an intellectual and creative life, how to do it without it bringing real harm to one’s child or children. The search for models led me to some of my favorite poets, people like Alice Notley and Diane di Prima, also people who didn’t make it, who left mostly a scathing record of why they failed, like Marcia Nardi. The experience itself informed everything I think and care about—without it, I would have possibly not noticed the way the world is made of unwaged labor, not begun to think about things like care and the nature of the family.  While the situation has so often been prohibitive of writing, at the same time, it gave me the things that have been worth writing about.

Amy:  I only recently got to dive into your Tweets of the past six months or so, which say so much about your experience as someone with breast cancer in this country. Can you give those of us who haven’t had to go that deeply down the rabbit hole of the shame and injurious ways in which women have to endure treatment, often harmful treatments, for breast cancer an idea or example of what this process entails? How such handling impedes healing, and even if there is healing beyond the “cancer free” diagnosis?

Anne:  This is what I am writing about now, in a book about cancer and the politics of care, one that I hope will reach a wider audience than my poetry has.  Recovery is tough and often lonely—and that’s what I am still trying to do now, which means I spend a lot of time being exhausted and confused—and the structures of the world as is are hostile to what it takes to try to get over something as catastrophic of the effects of a serious illness.

Amy:  Does writing come from a place of the negative because it is intimately connected to the struggle for survival, for recognition on a human level, to have a voice, to have a way of keeping yourself and your dependents housed and fed and clothed in this neoliberal, end stage capitalist economy?

Anne:  Yes. That’s it.

Amy:  Some of what you seem to be doing is pushing, poking, cutting little holes in the clothes of poetry.  It no longer fits, and what?  Do we need new styles?  A whole new wardrobe?  The poetry of nudity? Does my metaphor come close to what you envision the next big permutation of poetry to be? Any idea what it might look like in five years and what it will be doing?

Anne:  This is probably totally obvious to anyone who has read the book, but I’ll still say it: by “garments,” I mean “literature.” And literature is against us. And when I say “literature,” I mean something with historical specificity, seen with all of its brutality intact, with our own intact too, not as we might define it from its exceptions, despite how these exceptions are honorable and instructive and how much we might ground our work in them.

And this is going to get kind of long, so I apologize for that, but by “us” I actually mean a lot of people: against all but the wealthiest women and girls, all but the wealthiest queer people, against the poor, against the people who have to sell the hours of their lives to survive, against the ugly or infirm, against the colonized and the enslaved, against mothers and other people who do unpaid reproductive labor, against almost everyone who isn’t white—everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own. And by “against,” many of us know this “literature” contains violent sentiments toward us, is full of painful exclusions, but that isn’t even the core of its opposition to us. How “literature” is also against us is that it is a magic circle drawn around the language games of a class of people—the rich and powerful and those who serve or have served them. It gives (or appears to give, like any mystification) these words a permission and a weight, dangles the ugliness in our faces and names it beauty, gleefully shows off stupidity and claims it as what is wise.

Now how, believing this, can I participate in—even “love”—what hates me, what hates us? I also know that writing can be vital to our survival, has helped me survive, even as it has imperiled this survival, too.

Perhaps the answer lies in the historicity of the idea of literature, that “literature” is not universal or eternal, but specific to certain times and places and parts of other structures which are also historically specific, which mean they haven’t existed forever and the only certainty about them is that they will end.  Perhaps the answer lies in the possibility that poetry doesn’t have to be literature, isn’t necessarily always literature, can exist before the idea of literature and also after it and apart, or apart enough, from it.   Perhaps the answer lies in a truth that there is no essential nature to a set of words arranged on the page, that every time we arrange words, we are arranging the possibility of something that isn’t literature at all.

Perhaps the answer starts in the exceptions, the fragments and figures that survive into memory and remind us that there are have always been those who have used writing as a grounds for struggle, that poetry can have a vitality beyond every institutional weight tied to it, that the most vital poetry is always issued from surprising quarters. Maggie Zurawski has been writing beautifully about some of this over at Jacket2 (“Poetry is always in the service of a sociality, but not necessarily the dominant sociality.”).

Or maybe the real poetry hasn’t been written yet, at least not the poetry we need, because the world as most of us need it arranged isn’t here yet, either.  Sometimes I see something like it—perhaps in the manner of a reflection off of a surface, but not the surface itself, or the echo of a sound, but not the actual sound. I have a poem that goes something like:


Every poem until the revolution comes

is only a list of questions

so mourn for the poet

who must mourn in their verse, their verse.


And by “revolution,” I mean I don’t know.

Amy:  Having just been discussing “literary activisms,” I’m keen to hear a bit more on your position. Someone was indirectly instructing that all of these activisms are useless if we don’t articulate shared goals, what you may be referring to as the ‘revolution coming’. The fact that you ‘don’t know’ resonates with my feeling that we can’t know altogether what it looks like, that we can identify what’s wrong right now and push against that, and maybe even envision some relief in the immediate. Can you say a little more about this idea that literature is against us, unless one comes from the class that has … what? Material, safety and therefore primacy? So is it their stories that are told fully?

Anne:  I think politics, even more than poetry, requires an aptitude for a kind of negative capability, a kind of rigorous not-needing-to-know to know, like how by its very nature freedom is almost entirely unknowable from the condition of being unfree, and yet those who are unfree struggle for what they can’t-yet-know every minute on this earth; or how action is that which we do which has no certain consequence —yet that on which all politics depends; or how material conditions create ideological ones that sometimes make it impossible for us to imagine the effects of new and different material conditions. Politics keeps its ground in the shadows. Still the world changes, has changed, continues to change.

Amy:  Regarding Zurawski’s idea about poetry not necessarily being in the service of the dominant sociality, do you think poetry has a proverbial leg up over other genres in terms of its remove from the obedience and adherence to capital? Can it be something of a wedge, disturbing moments akin to Debord’s insurrectionary events? Are those disruptions effective--do they benefit those who are not the wealthiest? How so?

Anne:  Poetry has some useful things about it.  It’s terrific at creating mentally portable yet complex concepts, so you can memorize a sonnet much more easily than you can a book or essay. Metaphor and other forms of figuration, which poets more than any other artists tend to excel at, are excellent for inventing new possibilities and unthought of thoughts. The music of poetry creates intense somatic reactions that can calm people down or excite or inspire them. Poetry is good at preservation—of tradition, but also experience. Poetry is also kind of weird and delightful in that how easily it is memorized, copied, and so on, makes it very difficult to own or sell, so it has some of the social permission that comes from neglect.  Poetic language also functions as a kind of code—Fred Moten has that vital poem, barbara lee [the poetics of political form], in which he refers to poetry as something like “the open secret.” Now who is sharing the secret, who this code is written for, who can break it, seems to be what Maggie is talking about, saying we need to be very historically specific when we make claims about poetry’s place in society. No shovel digs the same hole; not all bullets fire the same direction. I hope I am clear about all of this when talking about “literature” on one hand, and then about literature, on the other. And what’s useful about poetry can be actually useful, just depends.

Amy:  Who gets to wear the poet’s clothes?

Anne:  I might have already answered this.  Maybe one answer is “Why do we want to?” and maybe the other answer is “No one or everyone.”

Amy:  You seem to suggest that some mediums are more effective towards achieving goals like social justice on the implied premise that they unite more readily, “Poetry was the wrong art for people who love justice. It was not like dance music.” I wholly believe the starkness of that statement, but I sense a frustration over how to get people to converge via poetry. Do music and science fiction actually bring people together over social justice causes often? Do you think social change can be found, not simply through groups uniting, but in more minute ways such as individuals, apart, having transformative experiences via encounters with the more isolated arts that you note (I.e. poetry, painting)? Would a fantasy boost in the proliferation of the arts inspire leaps on behalf of social justice?

Anne:  I get nervous seeing that statement about poetry and dance music standing all alone like that, suggesting I meant it without equivocation. At the time that I wrote it, I was listening to Jace Clayton’s music (this mix) feeling sad about my own.  Jace and I like to talk with each other about a certain kind of aheroic Science Fiction.  I was thinking about him, thinking about what we think about when we are together, and trying to figure something out, make a claim to test it. Some of what Jace does brings bodies into new arrangements, of actually “moving” people, of something so much closer to collective action than anything like poetry seemed to be able to encourage. But I am not certain about much of anything about poetry, so I don’t know if that claim holds up. Like most poets there are times I mistake a spot for a leopard, write an extended treatise on that spot, odes to the spot, ardent social media posts about it and love poems for it, too, even disappointed or exhausted condemnations of it, and then realize in embarrassment that I’ve missed the cat.  But as unsure as I am about poetry, I am fairly certain that politics is not what occurs in hearts. Politics is what occurs in the arrangement of the world, and that is necessarily not an individual pursuit, but a collective one.

Amy:  Beyond the poet being distracted by the spots, you suggested earlier that poetry may be in other things, that it may not be simply on the page. Do you think poetry can be in street protests? Is there a clear division between poetry and protests that make material demands? Perhaps I’m obtusely asking if the poetic informs the political, and if so, is that productive?

Anne:  I want to start this answer with that great Fred Moten poem I mentioned before, Barbara Lee, because it starts “Even since Plato, some poets are surprised that they don’t run shit, that they ain’t even citizens.”  First, I know poets don’t run shit.  Second, yes, of course we run shit, right? At least sometimes, at least in the Missy Elliot kind of way?  Or, more precisely, yes, there’s a poetics of action. Yes, we can use some of the things we practice in understanding poetry to understand other things, too, and also forms we make can also translate to ways we are in the world. Yes, there’s a potential for a thing called “poetry” that has nothing to do with the page, has to do with what we can’t even imagine except in how we can’t imagine it.

Amy:  Are we always responding to contexts?  At once, upon entering each sphere or space, defined by them and then resisting, complying, embracing those clothes imposed on us?

Anne:  Oh completely. No one is ever born alone, and no one is in a bigger crowd whoever has joined the company of the dead, and no one in between birth and death is ever anything but a person in a world full of other people, full of animals and objects, full of things and their relations, full of processes and histories and types of weather. Whatever we are, we are made.

Amy:  Brooklyn-based poet, Amber Atiya, recently wrote on Facebook:

dear poets: your $15 pus tax book is competing with BBQs, a pint from the LIQ, jurassic world, off off broadway tickets, da club & the sales rack at macy's.

dear poets: the average person on the street is working 8/10/12/14 hour days to support 2/3/4 children & after shuttling the kids to school, going to work, working, coming home, helping with homework, cooking, serving food, washing dishes, washing kids, putting them to bed, ironing their clothes for the next day, then doing the same for themselves, the average person on the street has maybe 30 minutes (of a 24 hour day) to wind down before bed.

why should they spend the remaining 30 minutes of their 24 hour day reading your book?

dear poets: if you can't find a way to connect with the average person on the street, they're not gonna give a fuck about you or your poems.

Did you have a similar sentiment in mind when you began Garments? Any speculations on making that connection?

Anne:  I appreciate this, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. What Amber Atiya describes is my life, and that of most people I know. I guess my qualification then might be that poets aren’t then the opposite of the average person on the street; both are a type of fiction. I know poetry books, including my new one, are too expensive for a lot of people, so if anyone would like a pdf I’m happy to send it—just send me an email—and I’ll be grateful for your interest, because a half hour spent on reading poetry is a miraculous thing in a heavy world.

Amy:  It’s funny that you say that, because after reading the various responses and back and forths to those aforementioned “What Is Literary Activism?” posts, I caught myself thinking about how hard it is to get my students to read more than an essay or short story sometimes and that, in fact, reading itself is becoming a radical act. I’ve never been a fan of the pessimistic view that we are a country on the verge of no longer reading, or even worse, on the verge of a strictly image-based literacy, but I’m starting to wonder if reading pages upon pages of just words isn’t actually radical…

Anne:  I am not sure reading is more radical than anything else, but it is something that takes time, and capitalism very literally takes our time, too, in that we have to sell off the hours of our lives to survive. Then there’s not much time left for anything other than whatever we have to do to take care of ourselves so that we can sell more hours of our lives. Reading—even literacy—can always be, and for some kinds of people always has been, a minor rebellion, but it’s probably never a full scale revolt. There’s a genius in bodies, too, in hands, in seeing and hearing, in feeling, in arrangement, in taking care, in imagining, in saying words aloud. But the world as it is makes reading particularly hard, like we should read just enough to get some bad ideas but never enough to finally get to the helpful ones.

Amy:  In “Bon Pour Brûler,” you seem to be conveying the transformation of the person, a little girl, into Rousseau’s version of the little girl. She owns her wealth and stops writing, except to claim possessions. I find this a bit uncanny in that you are describing Rousseau’s instructive lesson, just as the little girl followed his instructions, and in this way, by simply repeating the story, it becomes apparent how wrong it is for the little girl to simply do as instructed and frame herself as one of the wealthiest girls. But you are not simply retelling the story via appropriation; you are able to summarizing it very eloquently--poetically--with the “O’s” and, in so doing, you foreground the narrowing down of the little girl in carefully but almost overtly.  Do you see any overlap with this and the projects of some conceptual poets? I ask because of the political implications of that club and because the techniques may overlap, the effects are markedly different.

Anne:  It’s dinnertime around here, and everyone is waiting for me to cook, and if I start going on about all of that, no one will get to eat tonight. It’s like I told Sandra Simonds the other day when she was mentioning how hard it is to keep up with the poetry nanoscandals: Poets don’t even get bread and circuses—we get crumbs and flea circuses. But thank you, Amy, for the thoughtful questions, and also thank you to everyone who took some time to read this.


Originally Published: August 30th, 2015

Raised in Baltimore and Georgia, Amy King earned a BS in English and women’s studies from Towson University, an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College, and an MA in poetics from SUNY Buffalo. Her writing, which shows elements of Language poetry, has been influenced by her work with Charles Bernstein...