Sophie Seita is one of a handful of brilliant ‘new’ poets and performance-enhancers who are changing and will continue to change how we receive and resist the ‘limits’ of poetic form and performative spatiality. She creates texts that are investigative and synaesthetic
Sophie Seita, Meat, Little Red Leaves, 2015.
excerpt from Meat
In Sophie Seita’s Meat, the witty rigors of the dainty butcher and are butchered (the product of femininity both cleaver and carcass seemingly destined to be sectioned into retail-ready portions). In the racialized and gendered economy of our atmospherically fractured colonial violence, you get you a piece of meat so sweet. Or not. Seita folds us in through the discourses we’ve been eaten by." - Laura Elrick
“How do you translate the sound of a slaughtered animal screaming? What can you say in response to it? It’s in the gory domain of questions like those that Sophie Seita’s remarkable MEAT arrives. By addressing itself to whatever is forbidden the justice of response, MEAT is a long song of the double wound of victimhood—an originary violence followed by the structurally denied ability to speak of one’s being wronged. With Seita’s intelligence, incredible ear, and engaged life as a reader, she distributes her sources and resources musically. This book is melancholy and in precisely the right balance, but is always filled with extraordinary care: “I want to say things and feel them / this weak attempt at telling / not a verdict / just an expanse of caress.”” — Brandon Brown
Sophie Seita, Fantasias in Counting, BlazeVOX, 2014.
Sophie Seita’s Fantasias in Counting furthers an evolving, intense and remarkable body of work with performative textuality, spatiality and ethics of presence. Her poetry and poetics test the very limits of prosody; her theatrics work the defamiliarised into the known: a fantasia of the writer’s making defaulting into non-ownership. Rhythm and its predications and failures are central to ‘speech’. Seita writes: ‘[Begins to play a rhythm on or with scattered sounding-material—whatever is available. Ideally, this is a polyrhythm or cross-rhythm, either 4:3 or 5:3, or even better 4/4 : 4/3 or 2/5 : 2/3 or something of that kind; over the repeatedly spoken phrases: no I cannot; no you cannot (ad lib with pleasure)].’ The rhythm becomes word becomes the ‘theatre’ itself. At first experience a viewer, a reader, a fly on the wall, might undergo the epiphany of the ‘new’. But in Seita’s melding of ancient and modern performative techniques, her investing the moment of articulation with an awareness of the social and political constraints it operates within, we actually start to question what is ‘new’. Rather, we might apply to her work something akin to Stravinsky’s observation that Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was ‘absolutely contemporary’ and would remain ‘contemporary forever’. Sophie Seita is one of a handful of brilliant ‘new’ poets and performance-enhancers who are changing and will continue to change how we receive and resist the ‘limits’ of poetic form and performative spatiality. She creates texts that are investigative and synaesthetic. When we read ‘my theory is better than my praxis’, the irony ripples through the manuscript, because rarely do the metronome, the drum beat, the tones of voice resonate so strongly. The page becomes the acoustically desirable space, with all attendant ironies and wit. Character and writer are of no fixed address. Sophie Seita is a writer of genius who will never stay still, who will constantly work the boards in ways as yet unimagined. Watch, listen, and be changed. —John Kinsella
Appearing in the drag of scale exercises, wrought and precise conceptual variations, and playful improvisation, the performance scores in Sophie Seita’s Fantasias in Counting might cause their readers/audiences to wonder whether they’re clothed or nude. Yet the pleasure of these works is their refusal—tartly apropos our digital times—of such binary codings: countable v. mass nouns, wholes v. parts, the one v. multiples, original v. proxy, integer v. fraction, feigned v. felt, and, perhaps most importantly, repetition v. difference. For while Seita’s jargonate arias may instrumentalize the count of the metronome, they also “ambivalize” to reach an “acchord” or “communichord”; remaining unaccountable to a beat, they transmogrify uniform temporal divisions into the bumpy, opaque spacing of socio-linguistic relations. In Steinian tradition (“a craving so little as that like as if it (then) would be then it would be simple. simple and countable. more simply countable. a slice please. much cream.”), Fantasias in Counting effects, against the preterit, new performative grammatical modes: “cannot be counted, only done,” “practised, not counted.” Likewise, the book forges forced ways of being among languages: Seita does not just notice how “lots of words sound like other words” but stages language in states of “hyperarousal,” finding, for instance, an opera within an opera by unfolding a narrative spelled by its paratextual musical directives cum characters: “Po may be generally slow or fast at wasp-speed.” “The subversive subject has lost. Now only irrational measures,” Seita writes, but perhaps that subject is not so much lost as distributed both within and without itself, just as protagonistic or quantifiable models of action have here fissured into mischievous, disturbing agencies, even the agency of aporia. Here’s more than “A little ‘hey’ for true mathematics”: “Please take some time with this line.” —Judith Goldman
In Sophie Seita's dazzling first collection of poems, Fantasias in Counting, musical scales, lists, and instructions are transformed into theatres, dramatic monologues, and dictatorships. By creating such a provocative disconnect between form and content, Seita raises compelling questions about the preconceived expectations that we bring to literary texts: To what extent do we as readers form judgments about a literary text on the basis of its visual appearance on the page? How do these readerly expectations limit what is possible for the writer, and within the text itself, regardless of whether it is a practical instruction manual or a work of literary art? Most importantly, what can writers do to foster more open-minded reading practices, opening up new possibilities for the literary arts and everyday life as well? As Seita teases out possible answers to these ambitious and necessary questions, her work proves to be as erudite as it is entertaining, surprising the reader at every turn.
Seita's commentary on her own work proves especially witty as the book unfolds. Frequently interrupting her own poems with comments from a reader of literary works, Seita demonstrates an astute awareness of how contemporary internet culture (with its emphasis on instant gratification, short, pragmatic texts, and equally short attention spans) has altered the expectations that we bring to literary texts, foreclosing possibilities rather than promoting them. She writes, midway through her poem, "Pick a Line," "The one thing that interested me about the poem was that it was short." Here Seita aptly summarizes the contemporary reader's ideal literary text. In many ways, her work may be read as an effort to expand what is possible within this very limiting framework.
Although many of her works are concise and carefully crafted, they demand an active participation on the part of the reader, something that an audience would not suspect given the regimented forms she frequently invokes (musical scales, exercises). She writes,
The reader saysWhat's interesting about this passage is the way that Seita writes as though she is conforming to the reader's will, yet at the same time challenges and undermines the expectations that most readers would bring to such a text. Passages like this one, beautifully and artfully fragmented, call upon the reader to forge connections between different elements of the poem, prompting them to participate actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. Fantasias in Counting is filled with thought-provoking works like this one, which show an astute awareness of readerly expectations and the consequences of the work's necessary challenges to the entrenched relationship between the artist and her audience.
even as/if painting
wouldn't sight the single but the total unity.
The reader says
Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lines now
Additionally, Seita's creation of a multilingual space within the book is fascinating. Frequently drifting between languages, namely English and German, the poet calls into question the reader's expectation that he or she will always encounter a monolingual text. As the book unfolds, the reader is at turns confidante and linguistic other. Seita creates a relationship between the audience and the work that is inherently unstable, subject to ongoing change, revision, and shifts in power and authority. Seita's drifting between languages serves as a source of both metacommentary and high literary humor. With that in mind, Seita's poetry collection proves to be as engaging as it is self-aware. She writes in "Diktator-Playmobil,"
[Sprecher, ohne Ironie]Here Seita switches between English and German, rendering the text suddenly inaccessible to the reader. In many ways, this choice calls into question the assumption that readers often bring to poetry: that it should be not only accessible, but also transparent and easily understood. I'm intrigued by Seita's efforts to parody these preconceived readerly expectations, while at the same time rendering us more aware of ourselves as readers. Indeed, Seita holds a mirror to her audience, showing them all the ways in which they have shaped the literary texts that are available to us. Reminiscent of Sarah Vap's discussion of "difficult" poetry in The End of the Sentimental Journey, and Lisa Robertson's eschewing of semantic meaning in R's Boat, Fantasias in Counting is a delightful addition to this ongoing conversation among feminist writers. Seita is a poet to watch.
Every woman with an erection plays a despot. Diktiergerat.
[Kleiner Orgasmus, aber leise]
Alles fake da niemand mehr Schreibmaschine.
- Kristina Marie Darling
‘Let’s be silly, pointless, and puerile—absurd as a kaleidoscope that shows the oozing and inarticulate colours and motifs of a situation that remains ultimately unchanged as the plunder of the state.’ (Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly)
‘A token of our star-gazing friendship.’ (Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or, Paper Tigers)
‘And so the magic lantern which surrounds them, among which they move, of which they are the substance (shadows), swirls around them, dazzlingly.’ (Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings)
Gloriously imagined and re-imagined, Sophie Seita’s textual–performance–play hybrids tickle whimsy from grandeur, opulence from bathos and a kind of melodrama from tragedy. My Little Enlightenment Plays is a project that swings between ecstatic irreverence and straight-faced reverence, the seriousness of language and its subject, language as subject, and the serious commitment to abandoning such seriousness in play and artifice. These are not indulged as postmodern tropes but instead staged as emotive and social sensations, encountered through Seita’s particular archaeology of literary history. Cartwheeling between astronomy, utopia, poetry, power, gender, the queer and the courtly, these pieces generate a disorientating experience preoccupied by its own fertile confusion. Or, in the project’s own words: they are conjured from ‘dangerous pleasings of the empire of the Vacuous Obscurity’ to present ‘the Consort of the Mighty and the Mushy’.
3:AM: Firstly, I’d like you to introduce the ideas and motivation behind this sequence of Enlightenment-inspired plays: Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly; Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or, Paper Tigers; and the play you are currently working on, Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings. Your previous works in poetry, the book Fantasias in Counting (BlazeVOX, 2014) and the stunning long poem Meat (Little Red Leaves, 2015) are both strongly guided by particular concepts and constraints, often framing the works as calculated textual performances and drawing from both art and music. How closely do the plays relate to one another and does the notion of them as part of a sequence suggest a poetics behind their composition?
Sophie Seita: My Little Enlightenment Plays began as an attempt to find a longer form for the experiments in dramatic writing and performances that I’d already done in ‘3,4’ and ‘Talk between Nudes’ (both collected in Fantasias in Counting). The way to do this, I felt, was by looking for source materials that were sufficiently old and broad and weird to keep me interested for a long time. All three pieces have a particular guiding conceit. Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly thinks of the court as a beehive (an idea that goes back to the Greeks and Romans who saw bees as an allegory for political systems—Aristotle, for example, argues that humans surpass bees and other animals because of their ability to make rational and moral judgements; but there’s also a gendered erotics to the metaphor of bees that interested me); Les Bijoux Indiscrets’s conceits are paper, the talking object (such as a book), astronomy, and geometry; and the piece I just finished, Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings, draws on the later Enlightenment’s fascination with sentiments and sentimentality (as opposed to rationality) as being able to produce morally ‘good’ feelings and actions, and throws in a little colour and plant symbolism and the charming pseudo- or para-psychology of that. The ‘poetics’ behind the project is, as you say, similar to Meat and Fantasias in Counting, in that it’s a practice of writing through reading (and by extension, looking and listening). The pieces don’t relate to one another in terms of narrative, but they are clearly ‘of a piece’ in their language, their engagement with citationality and materiality, and my approach to performance. There’s an adamantly feminist and queer angle to all of them, too. Ultimately, they may constitute ‘my little Enlightenment’—playing in my head like a mobile, a toy, or a musical instrument.
3:AM: In the preface to My Little Enlightenment it states:
In 1751 I had a fever. It was the kind to keep you up at night but without the pleasure of delirious fantasy which holds certainty at bay. Not having the implements of magic, I indulged in some old tragedies and turned them into melodramas, the best kind of supplementary medicine.In light of this, how do you see your writing relating to its 17th– and 18th-century sources? Inspiring prompts for departure / guests at a séance / re-imagined versions, spliced tributes and lost relatives / gestures of time-travelling intervention / coveted trinkets from overlooked corners / occult coordinates of a personal mythology of influence / or absolutely none of the above?
SS: I love all of these as possible relations with my materials. I’ve referred to them as ‘star-gazing conversations’ or keenly unfaithful ‘translational tête-à-têtes’, but maybe I’ll start using some of your descriptions from now on—they’re so evocative. I would say, however, that it’s less about influence, mythologies, and tributes, and more about sharing trinkets and drinks with your girlfriends and about tracing some occult coordinates (‘occult’ in the sense of ‘hidden knowledge’)—mining them to make them mine. Practically, this means that I have adapted a plotline here and there, borrowed some character names, or played with a particular feature of the language of my materials. In other instances, I have simply been inspired by my readings and have transposed certain historical concepts and convictions into the present and into ‘my own’ language. That way of writing through reading material is how I’ve worked since at least late 2012 or early 2013. I usually need to surround myself with a lot of language in order to write. It’s just that with My Little Enlightenment Plays that engagement with other texts is more explicit; it’s more like an essay but not in the form of an essay, a thinking-through-ideas in language, a dialogue, like a musical fantasia. (Fantasias in Counting had that title for a similar reason: it was an homage to that polyphonic genre based on (quasi-)improvisation, sometimes over a set composition. But a fantasia is also a piece that distorts or exaggerates structural norms, or gives the impression of extemporisation but is actually rigorously composed.) Often when I write ‘through’ other people’s language, remixing it, grabbing bits here and there, like flicking through a dictionary looking for words that jump out at me, that’s different, the source vanishes and language becomes just material. With my Enlightenment project, the source text matters.
3:AM: Les Bijoux Indiscretes, or, Paper Tigers engages with three Enlightenment texts that blur philosophy, science fiction, and the allegorical role of vocally confessional vaginas: Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686), Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World (1666) and, preempting the The Vagina Monologues by around two and half centuries, Denis Diderot’s Les Bijoux Indiscrets (1748). I wanted to ask you what initially attracted you to these works?
SS: With Cavendish, it was primarily the language—that high artifice and ornamental excess and pleasure, which sounds so camp now, I just had to use it. I was drawn to Diderot because I’d recently discovered 18th- and 19th-century it-narratives (a strange genre in which objects, such as books, tell us their little life stories, how they’re handed from reader to reader, or dusted by a naughty maid). Diderot’s Les Bijoux has that aspect of the it-narrative with its talking jewels. When I came across that Fontenelle book, I immediately fell in love with the setting: two friends wandering in a garden at night, watching the stars, chatting about heliocentrism and other worlds—it’s basically a humorous and enchanting discussion of Descartes, Galileo, and Copernicus for amateurs. It’s prose but dramatic in its use of dialogue (and it has an interesting feminist history too: it was translated by Aphra Behn. Translation was one of the ways in which female intellectuals, like Behn, could participate in scientific discoveries and intellectual debates in the late seventeenth century). What I do with Fontenelle in my piece is this: the two friends do discuss the planets and stars, but the stars are poetry—turning the whole thing into an allegory of female friendship, Platonic love, poetry, philosophy, Marxism… Their star-gazing is also a self-reflexive gesture about reading: ‘There are the stars, and they who can may read them’ (Thoreau). In other words, reading is stargazing. Or, as the German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser once put it: ‘two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper.’
3:AM: Were there any literary models for this eclectic atmosphere? I was put in mind of Flow Chart-era Ashbery and the Surrealism of Rimbaud’s declaration (from Illuminations, 1886): ‘I loved stupid paintings, decorated transoms, stage-sets, carnival booths, signs, popular engravings; old fashion literature, church Latin, erotic books with non-existent spelling, the novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naïve rhythms’
SS: God, I also love all those things! Thanks, Rimbaud! I was and still am interested in set pieces, both in the sense of a stand-alone piece sometimes unrelated to the larger work within which it appears but also a piece of scenery supposed to work independently on the stage. In fact, Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly began as a response to an installation at Dixon Place in New York that my friends Yates Norton and Emma Stirling curated in 2014, which revolved around how a theatrical set could become the starting point for a new work (rather than the set being secondary). Someone also told me recently that my pieces reminded them of 16th-century intermezzi, with their short interruptions, choruses, recitations, dances, sometimes with an allegorical tinge. Otherwise, the figure who gave me literary ‘permission’ to do this was Kathy Acker. In her ‘novels’, Acker splices autobiography and found language, then you might suddenly encounter a few pages in French, then there’s supposedly a scene from a play, then ‘characters’ like Emily Bronte appear. Other literary models: Stein’s operas (‘plays as landscapes’), the masks of comedy and tragedy, and, lastly, the exuberance, grand and statuesque gestures and affects of opera and melodrama (prior to the 20th cent. largely). After our performance of Talk between Nudes in 2013—a piece unrelated to the Enlightenment series in topic but related in style—Corina Copp told me it reminded her of Cocteau and Apollinaire, so I went away and dutifully read some of their dramatic works, like The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower and The Breasts of Tiresias, which have since informed my own. (I wasn’t familiar with Ashbery’s Flow Chart, but have got a copy now—and what a gorgeously bizarre and lusciously metaphysical book it is!)
3:AM: Just on mentioning Cocteau, I was wondering whether cinema enters much into your thinking through of melodrama. At times, I was reminded of the decadently cluttered framing of Josef Von Sternberg’s films (though this is all coming indirectly as a result of my obsession with Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin) or the narcotic chocolate box of Douglas Sirk? Something in the attraction to mannered or heightened speech? You have worked with film before but seem more interested in its documentation and witnessing of performance art than in its experimentation as a medium—could you say a bit about if or how the performance of these plays ties in with that practice?
SS: Cinema doesn’t come into it at all actually—or at least not consciously so. I’ve made a few videos, and I’m hoping to make another one this summer or next year, but film is not really my medium. I’m very interested in video art or, as you say, the documentation of experimental performances. Precisely because these works are not ‘plays’ in a theatre, and don’t create an experience that is repeatable night after night, video can preserve their performative ephemerality or specificity. Through my research I’ve become keenly aware of how much work is simply forgotten or lost because it was never properly documented, and it happens disproportionately to the work of women. But I primarily document the work to help me develop a project further and to think about future projects. I’ve actually started planning an exhibition for all the props from My Little Enlightenment Plays as installation pieces, activated by audio or video work (which I’ll make specifically for that purpose, rather than simply show the recordings from previous performances). I am also currently fascinated by audio work more broadly and am recording a shorter version of Les Bijoux with Constance DeJong.
3:AM: I’m also very drawn to the possibilities between audio and textual work (thinking of David Antin, Steve McCaffery, Lisa Samuels’ recordings, Holly Pester’s looping) and how, more broadly, forms of noise might be enacted in language. Please say a bit more about your interest in audio work—does it relate to the disintegration, infidelity, or preservation of performance?
SS: It’s funny you should mention ‘disintegration’, because I recently titled a short performative piece, ‘Some Disintegrating Loops’, in which I looped and disintegrated some of my previously published texts for my friend Raphael Sbrzesny’s artist book Service Continu 7/7 (Spector Books, 2017), and which I titled after William Basinski’s incredibly beautiful minimalist music in The Disintegration Loops. As for working with recordings, my performance of 3,4 included a 9-minute recording entirely in German, so the second half of the performance was just me and the other two performers (Emma Stirling and Lanny Jordan Jackson) sitting still and listening, with the audience, to the recording. I love Holly Pester’s work—she’s fabulous and her new book Common Rest and LP simply brilliant. I think audio work, like performance and video, allows language to operate on a different sensual level in addition to the intellectual, or page-bound one. It also brings it closer to music—it’s my way of approximating musical composition without being a musician (which I actually wanted to ‘be’ as a teenager). As Jackson MacLow and the Dadaists knew, when you record something you can make things happen simultaneously, which the printed page is just not very good at.
3:AM: I love the William Basinski link—I’d forgotten we both saw him perform his last record A Shadow in Time—he really is stunning. Cosmic melancholy at its finest. Talking of witnessing that performance, for which, like your ‘3,4’, Basinski was sat listening for a lot of the set’s duration, your plays or performances in comparison take on a more obviously staged dynamic. In Les Bijoux, there are geometric paper objects and occult-like floor markings suggesting a kind of minimalist aesthetic, reminding me more of your sparse and controlled sequence in ‘just pick a line’ (in Fantasias in Counting, 2014). Perhaps you could talk about the performances of that piece.
SS: Thank you for bringing up ‘just pick a line’—an exercise in rhythm, in sequencing. Yes, it’s all about control—but so is Les Bijoux, really. There’s an excess but it’s rigorously ‘made’ (not the result of spontaneity or some crazy emotional outburst), and delivered with utter poise and intention in performance. In Les Bijoux, the affect of the performers sometimes counterbalanced and sometimes echoed the exuberance of the language. In fact, it showed me again that the humour and deliberate artifice could also be delivered and received with grace; that artifice isn’t some cheap postmodern gesture, but can become a form for affection. (That artifice can be an affective space and vivid presence in which to dwell and be held is how Constance DeJong described the performance to me afterwards, and I hope she won’t mind me repeating it here, as it captures what I’m trying to do so perfectly).
The first performance happened at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn—a gorgeous Beaux-Arts building with high ceilings and a marbled floor and pillars. Emmy Catedral, who made the set and props, works a lot with polyhedra and has an interest in astronomy (she founded The Amateur Astronomers Society of Voorhees) and she, like me, loves working with paper (as does Anna Moser, who made paper-props for the first play)—it’s such a flexible medium and very appropriate for such ‘textual’ pieces. Emmy was attracted to the language of geometry and the descriptions of objects in my stage directions, many of which are abstract and unrealisable (deliberately so). So her non-representational objects only ever resemble themselves, even when they are used ‘as’ jewels or flower pots or planets. The objects also visualise and materialise artifice and the practice of reading.
You know, I didn’t plan this but because of the low lighting at Issue, and the gridded floor (which Emmy enhanced with her taped asterisms), and also the performers wearing black, it suddenly became really witchy! There was one moment, in which four of the performers play a clapping game in a circle—which ended up looking like there was some strange and beautiful coven ritual going on! So, yes, the occult. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche suggests that it was the occult—witches, astrologers, and alchemists—whose ‘promises’ first created a ‘thirst’ for science, a desire for rationality. For him, there has to be a plethora of promises, only some of which will yield something, will produce knowledge. But this element of the occult disappeared in the second performance, which was much more sci-fi, because of the white walls and oddly shaped layout of La MaMa Galleria (and the taped constellations were now gold-metallic!). The second performance was commissioned and hosted by NYPAC (a performance collective that promotes queer and feminist work) and it was after my conversations with Sam Draxler that Emmy and I decided to incorporate her polyhedra more fully, getting the performers to interact with them to a greater extent, and we printed much more text onto the objects themselves—there’s one scene where the Marquise and Fontenelle have an argument that is visualised in their holding a polyhedral shape between them and reading from it. There’s another scene where they take paper fortune cookies out of the character Paper’s pockets, and pull out little pieces of paper from which they then read.
3:AM: There could also be something ‘occult’ in the ordering and sequencing of the pieces, do you ever envisage them all being performed in one event, and if so, would there be an order? I think the ‘really witchy’ should always be encouraged!
SS: Yes, absolutely, am very much down for bringing out the witchiness in everything! I have considered what it would be like to perform all three together eventually, but I need to think a little harder about what that would mean (what the conceptual unity of the three pieces in performance would be, which is different from what I consider to be their conceptual link in a book, say). Would all three be performed by the same cast? Maybe. I think the order would be Les Bijoux, Don Carlos, and then Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings. It would have to end on something quite intense (feelings!)—though Les Bijoux has this magical vibe to it which could be good for an ending (quite un-Brechtian although so much of its artifice is informed by my interest in Brecht’s ‘Musiktheater’).
3:AM: I’m curious about the unexpected appearance of ‘Karl Marx’ (or as he is endearingly referred to, ‘ma petite minette’), I was wondering, due to you being currently based in Cambridge, whether you had any stance on the permutations of Marxism and politicised theory that inflect much of the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ poetics, or its critical reception?
SS: Yes, dear Karl Marx—well, it has nothing to do with me being back in Cambridge now, but rather comes out of my poetic education as a student at Cambridge, which was very much informed by that Cambridge-y Marxist criticism and poetry and has shaped the way I think about writing and politics in so many ways, and which has given my writing and reading a particular sense of urgency. But Marx is mainly in the piece because I’m poking fun at all the Marxist poet bros of the UK/US poetry world! Marx initially appeared because I was thinking about talking objects (the it-narratives I mentioned earlier), the talking jewels, and how absurd and sexist it is for Diderot’s emperor to want the women (as objects) to reveal all their secrets, so I was reminded of that line in Marx, and in fact I quote it directly ‘If commodities could speak, they would say this’ only that Marx of course means something entirely different by that! In my piece that interjection follows a short dialogue between the gardeners, plants, and courtyards, as a microcosm for a revolutionary conundrum. And then Marx re-appears at the end as the silent interlocutor of the deus ex machina figure, who psychoanalyses him a little by quoting parts of his astrological birth chart at him.
3:AM: The previous two performances of Paper Tigers involved the collaboration of 9 other female writers and artists: Corina Copp, Lucy Ives, Wendy Lotterman, Ada Smailbegovic, Jocelyn Spaar, Bridget Talone, Cecilia Corrigan (with a short guest-appearance in the first performance), and Constance DeJong (in the second performance), with props and a set by Emmy Catedral—how important was this element of collaboration? Considering your discussion of Cavendish’s feminist utopia, was the collaborative presence of other female practitioners particularly important?
SS: Collaborating with all these amazing women extended my textual collaborations with my source materials into real-life interactions. It’s also my way of creating a small community. I also tried to do that in the first piece in the series—Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly—, which I performed with Corina Copp, Lanny Jordan Jackson, Josef Kaplan, Holly Melgard, Luke McMullan, Yates Norton, Jocelyn Spaar, and Emma Stirling, with props by Anna Moser, but in Les Bijoux that aspect of collaboration is foregrounded and feels more politically urgent. To put 7 women on the stage shouldn’t really surprise anyone anymore, but there is an incredible power in it. Someone actually said to me, why don’t we always do that, and I thought, yes, exactly, maybe I will. Cavendish’s utopia is of course still a flawed one—she’s an imperialist empress—so I improved that a little.
3:AM: We must mention the first play Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly. Its courtly setting (‘A Spanish kingdom’) and off-kilter interactions depict an increasingly—at least to me—dizzying and strange theatrics. I felt lost, but compulsively so! It begins with an epigraph taken from Lucretius and then dives into a conversation between a character called ‘Dodo’ and ‘Infant’, later introducing members of royalty, a ‘hand’, officers, inquisitors and a dialogue between ‘happy face’ and ‘pale face’. For you, what is the play about? Or, to what extent does it enact something outside of being ‘about’?
SS: Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly is the one piece with the least aboutness about it—all three plays are ‘about’ language (its attractive ambiguities, its ability to create, warp, or bedazzle worlds and people and stimulate thought and action) but also ‘about’ all sorts of ideas and feelings too numerous to list here and, ultimately, they’re all about power (back to your earlier question, hi Marx!). And yes, they all have somewhat courtly settings because there’s something lovingly ridiculous and camp and surreal about that; it also lodges them more firmly in the realm of fantasy or an imagined past, creates some distance. And yes, that scene between the pale face and the happy face is one of my favourites!
3:AM: In both plays, the stage directions are intricately (and exuberantly) crafted passages that often become breath-taking prose poems. How do you envisage the tension between their ambivalent role, as alleged direction to be staged and poetry to be read?
SS: For me, the whole point of these very textual or literary performance pieces or what we could call ‘conceptual closet dramas’ is that you do not need to think of how feasible something is in performance. That’s why the stage directions are always read by a Narrator-figure. The stage directions aren’t really stage directions at all! They’re just lines like all the others. Their language might tell you what happens or does not happen, which is not necessarily matched (and sometimes contradicted outright) by what ‘happens’ in performance. They’re an opportunity to really exceed the performance space, which is very real, physical, and embodied, and the expected textual space of the ‘direction’. They also allow my language to be simultaneously excessive, undirected, specific and abstract. I’m just very interested in various modes of description (another 18th-century practice, e.g. in natural history, or the Encyclopédie), at the same time as I’m trying to figure out how to ‘have’ feelings in writing. How can the ornamental, the voluptuous, be productive beyond the sonority of the aphoristic, how can abstraction be other than the cooler underside of the lush particular?
3:AM: Are you looking forward to the London performance of Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or, Paper Tigers, and do you feel it is important for you to be in the performance or would you be just as happy to see the plays performed without you? Will it be staged differently from the American performances?
SS: I’m so excited about the London performance and, yes, it will be performed differently, but I don’t know how yet. There will also be a performance at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge this winter, where we’ll be able to activate the space by performing around some actual astronomical instruments. I do think it’s important for me to be in the performance, mainly as a way of distinguishing the pieces from theatre where roles are often more clearly divided, but also to make this ‘about’ me, about my body, and other non-replaceable and specific bodies, in the way a text that could be adapted by any theatre company would maybe not? That isn’t to say that no one could ever perform these pieces without me—of course they could and I’d certainly love to see that—but they would just not be performance art or collaborations in the way I think of them right now; they would become something different.
3:AM: Having previously curated the simultaneous and live-streamed ‘unAmerican Activities Transatlantic Reading Series’ how do you feel your engagement with US poetry differs from UK poetry? Are there any noticeable or concrete differences in the atmosphere of readings and venues, the sense of community or the kinds of work people are interested in? Do you consider the sociality of performance as a way to consolidate or expand a poetry community—perhaps in the same way that the NY School poets clustered around the Tibor de Nagy gallery and performed in, and supported, each other’s plays?
SS: As you know, my academic work and current book manuscript is about avant-garde communities, and how they form in and around the medium of the little magazine across the twentieth- and into the twenty-first century. So I think about sociality and community all the time, both critically and practically. My desire to create welcoming creative spaces arises both from my sense of the persistent hierarchies within the UK/US poetry and art scenes I know, but also as a reaction to the failures of such community-building and its exclusionary structures that I describe in my research.
The idea of unAmerican Activities was to connect both writers and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic who were unlikely to share a pint in a pub together in the near future or maybe did a long time ago or might do at some point, but given that it would’ve been impossible to fly people over for readings at both venues, it was a simple conceptual solution. I say conceptual because, practically, the preparation for and during the readings actually gave us headaches: having to deal with a crappy internet connection, the audio/video cutting out, then even just to have readers be available when we needed them to be. We also printed a pamphlet for each event, with short critical commentaries by other writers (except for the ‘Virtual Cabaret’ events, which included between 3 and 4 writers on each side). So, every reading usually featured an ensemble of participants. In a small way, I hope the series helped to introduce people to each other and audiences to new work, and yes, you’re right, we did try to introduce US audiences to experimental UK writers who are usually less well-known over there. As for the difference in ‘atmosphere’ or ‘engagement’ in the UK/US scenes more broadly, we might be entering the realm of gossip and I’d be in danger of generalising from my own very specific experiences, so I don’t think I can answer that adequately (and maybe no one can), but what I will say is this: moving between these two worlds over the last 4 years or so, I have learned that you have to decide which company you want to keep. And some company just has to go. My Little Enlightenment Plays as a project is all about surrounding myself with the best possible dinner guests or walking companions (i.e. one’s you can disagree with)—on paper and off. - interview by David Spittle
short extract from Talk between Nudes (2013/2014)
Little Trauma, at Intercapillary Space (2011)