Andrea Abi-Karam - an arab-american genderqueer punk poet-performer cyborg, writing on the art of killing bros, the intricacies of cyborg bodies, trauma & delayed healing. A poetic critique of nationalism, patriarchy & gender embedded in an explosive & unapologetic trauma narrative


Andrea Abi-Karam, EXTRATRANSMISSION, Kelsey Street Press, 2019.

EXTRATRANSMISSION by Andrea Abi-Karam was selected by judge Bhanu Kapil as Winner of the 2017 Kelsey Street Press FIRSTS! Contest. EXTRATRANSMISSION is a poetic critique of nationalism, patriarchy & gender embedded in an explosive & unapologetic trauma narrative. It begins with an exhaustive loud, & unapologetic section on killing bros, the perpetrators of patriarchy, before entering a narrative of how traumatic brain injury occurs to bodies in modern warfare. The text labors over how memory constructs our identity, our constant experience, and how that can be destroyed in one of many empty military moments. The language pushes beyond conventional lyric and incorporates angry letters, prose pieces, a love poem, & intimate conversation while maintaining both an intense energy and constant movement. In resistance to how patriarchy and U.S. militarism produce the hypergendered subject, the text generates a genderqueer cyborg whose language comes together to form EXTRATRANSMISSION, a book that explicates how patriarchy, capitalism, & nationalism form the high rising global city that will tear your heart out.

Andrea Abi-Karam’s debut poetry collection, EXTRATRANSMISSION (Kelsey Street Press, 2019), takes on military exploitation of human and animal bodies, the scourge of bro culture, and the Uber-fication of urban space. Their forceful, often capslocked lines pursue a “poetry of directness” in opposition to the pervasive, unrippling “language of avoidance” that smooths over everyday potentials for confrontation.
The book’s opening section, KILL BRO / KILL COP, breaks into a torrent of directives to “kill the sociality that makes queers feel excluded and that makes the orgy feel dangerous for our bodies” and “kill all the power dynamics in the white room,” dispelling any notion that coexistence with power could be sufficient. There are juicy fantasies of retaliatory violence (think eardrums and “thick wet silence”), and the imperative to “kill the bro in your head.” Even in the imaginative space of slicing off non-tipping tech bros’ fingers with their platinum credit cards, these poems recognize that reconditioning ourselves after a lifetime under whitecisheteropatriarchy is an ongoing project.
Likewise, excising abuse and trauma from the mind-body isn’t an instant fix. Abi-Karam uses repetition and polyvocality to move between contexts of contested embodiment. For one, when asking what an Oakland trans punk and a brain-damaged U.S. soldier home from deployment in an unnamed desert have in common, they answer by way of the cyborg.
For the soldier, who integrates with a personal digital assistant to access her memories, being cyborg is an adaptation to the state of unresolvable injury. Hers is a vulnerability of the body in service of violent nationalism:
                                                                           every body  is consumable. every  american  body is consumable.  there’s a whole country  back home to manufacture  more willing bodies  for the volunteer based army. a  country that  sometimes agrees  to relax its borders  in ex-change for the combat ready body. for the soft skin that caves in from every bit of shrapnel. for the soft skull that splits on impact. for the soft brain that bounces back and forth inside the skull. for the soft brain that tears & swells. for the soft brain that after the tears & swells still turns the body back on. still serves.
Later, a stream of error messages repeating “IS THIS WHAT U SIGNED UP FOR?” adds to this emphasis on bodily service. In constructions like this, Abi-Karam gets at the problem of individual agency in global conflict and imperialism through the figure of a soldier whose body and brain have been transformed and traumatized by her decision to enlist.
Agency and the primacy of the body have different troubles for the trans cyborg. The tech inside them feels invasive, but since they can’t remember its installation, it seems to have always been there.
                                                                                     THE INJURY
                                                                                     IT’S ALWAYS THE INJURY
For some of us, the injury might be having a body at all.
It’s not hard to see why the figure of the cyborg should resonate for many trans people. With its potentials for biohacking, cyborg embodiment offers control and self-determination we’ve never had. The cyborg collective also holds appeal as an outlet for the drive to escape the self when our own wrongly-situated, individualized positions are too much to stand.
In the FUSION section, Abi-Karam’s trans cyborg enacts these conflicting desires: to claim bodily autonomy, unplug and deintegrate, but also to lose their personhood. In a movement describing a wire-removal body mod, words jolt apart, “hap pen”ing, as the speaker becomes “one        malf(x)ing         cyborg         among         many.” This is a search for language that will change the way they inhabit their body and relate to others. As the soldier said of being mentally enmeshed with her PDA, “there is no pleasure in this language. in this flatness.” Pleasure comes instead from rupture:
Of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, Jackie Orr writes,“The cyborg is an imploded object of ‘non-optional’ entanglements and architectured intimacy.” Removing the wet, glistening wires from your body doesn’t entirely disentangle you from that architecture, but it is an expression of personal purpose in structures that most often dictate how things are going to go for us and our bodies.
A cyborg, like any body, can be processed through the framework of assemblage, made up of parts that cohere variously, unfixed in their potentials and categorizations. Jasbir Puar (one of EXTRATRANSMISSION’s blurbers) explains that “societies of control apprehend and produce bodies as information,” but “assemblages do not privilege bodies as human, nor as residing within a human/animal binary.” Triangulating the body in machine, nature, and humanity, the assemblage positions us as inseparable from the technology we rely on, and just as animal as we are human.
Turning to the animal, Abi-Karam connects the soldier’s PTSD hypervigilance to horses sleeping upright, always ready to go. The non-profit therapy horse assigned to her is another of the book’s speakers. Looking at their human companion, they see that “we are haunted by the possibility of the future.” Both are stuck in a repeating but hardly remembered past, lives delineated by the expectations of others. Like the cyborgs, the horse wants to go “beyond this one type of experience / we always share together.” Here, change would mean leaving the confining world of federally-mediated recovery together.
It’s rarely simple to pick and go. After unplugging, one of the cyborgs comes to a building under construction, where they meet a wandering fawn. An inversion of the cyborg stripping their tech, the fawn marks a destabilizing shift from the natural to the unnatural, lost in a city of gentrification-in-progress. The fawn’s hooves splitting on pavement feel like a provocation—Abi-Karam asking, “You thought we could just go back to nature?”
To squat in the almost-unclaimed means inhabiting the impermanent, where “plastick” around buildings is transitional, protective but permeable. But when space becoming “something” means becoming Uber HQ, “downtown is totally fucked.” What do we do when our cities are becoming more unlivable by the minute? The unplugged cyborg is lying in the unfinished building with the worn-down fawn, imagining social, connective uses for the space. By the next day, it’s over. The fawn is gone, and “i am on the sidewalk looking up @ the whole nation looking down.” Having opened with bro-killings and ended with displacement, there’s something of a comedown, from the fervor of revenge fantasy to the sobering reality that, in making the world we need, we still have to head somewhere next. EXTRANSMISSION gives us tools, the orgy and the wirecutter, to take with us. - Charles Theonia 

I don’t know if Andrea Abi-Karam remembers meeting me, but I remember meeting them. It was four or five years ago in a faded blue punk house off Market Street in North Oakland, and I found myself working hard not to stare. We didn’t actually start hanging out until earlier this year, a few months before they moved from the Bay to Brooklyn to become the publicist for Nightboat Books, but I continue to feel that same attraction: this is a person I should be watching. It’s interesting that an artist whose work often touches on state surveillance has this effect on people. A magnetic performer and fiercely ambitious poet, the self-identified “Arab-American genderqueer punk poet-performer cyborg” published The Aftermath (Commune Editions) in 2016 and has two new books on the horizon, both of which were selected through contests held by small poetry presses. I interviewed them about their latest work, EXTRATRANSMISSION (Kelsey Street Press), a poetic critique of nationalism, patriarchy, and gender embedded in an explosive and unapologetic trauma narrative.
—Davey Davis

Davey DavisReading EXTRATRANSMISSION gave me this sense of urgency and claustrophobia, a feeling of being totally trapped, not just inside the body, but in all these different systems. I kept thinking that this text is about complete freedom and also about complete capture. Is this something you were thinking about while writing it?
Andrea Abi-Karam It’s amazing that you picked up on that tension because originally when I was conceptualizing the book project, I took more of a wide-angle lens. I thought, I’m going to write about global capitalism; I’m going to write about large cities in general and how they physically get developed. I threw that draft away because it wasn’t personal enough. It was too large and wide and I wasn’t implicating myself in it. I was having a hard time developing a strong sense of intimacy between the “I” and the reader, or the multiple “I’s.” I was sick of formalism and sick of academics writing books of poetry that only fifty people in the world can fully understand. I just started writing these kill bro vengeance poems. I think vengeance is a form of poetry that isn’t done enough and I encourage everyone to engage with vengeance poetics.
DD Is there an actual tradition of vengeance poetics that you’re drawing from?
AAK People do it but it’s not an accepted tradition or something you get taught in school. You get taught Language poetry, you get taught New Narrative, you get taught free verse, you get taught sonnets, you get taught triptychs, all these pretty standard forms.
DD Do you teach vengeance poetry?
AAKI taught a class on vengeance poetics at Barnard during the summer. It was actually incredible because it was a class of high school students and teenagers are just much more in touch with their feelings than programmed adults. They were really into it and the stuff they produced was incredible. I presented a timeline that I call “the Poetics of Terror” that started with Homer/Sappho and traced different aesthetic moments in poetry that were contextualized by their social-political moment. It was really special.
DDGoing back to the idea of implicating yourself in your poetry, the idea of vengeance poetry comes through in EXTRATRANSMISSION loud and clear with repeated invocations of “kill bro/kill cop.” It expresses this concerted, violent instinct against others, but there are also moments of recognition for the policing force that exists within yourself. What do you do to kill the bro in your own head? I ask because I appreciated the honesty and acknowledgment of socialization and normalization, that even if you’re queer or a dyke or genderqueer, you still have this script of objectifying other people and whole classes of people, because that’s what’s normalized.
AAK I think it’s something that I have thought more about since taking hormones and getting top surgery. I definitely don’t pass—also not the goal—but navigating that definitely feels more important and these days, I’m more conscientious of my actions and my actions in language. Part of being trans, being an ever-shifting subjectivity, is having an awareness of one’s changing positionality in the power relations of what David Wojanarowicz calls the “pre-invented world.”
Just because people have various constellations of structurally oppressed identities, doesn’t blanket excuse them from problematic relational behavior. The acknowledgement in the book is intended as an ongoing reminder to kill the bro in your own head.
DDA fundamental theme of EXTRATRANSMISSION is the cyborg, and it got me thinking about the history of monstrous robotics in literature (Mary Shelley, Ambrose Bierce); about the difference between mechanical and digital AI; the differences between guns, drones, IEDs, tanks, fists. Do you distinguish between the mechanical and the digital as organizing principles?
AAK EXTRATRANSMISSION is navigating these two forms, these two different types of cyborgs, simultaneously. One of the characters is an Iraq War veteran who has PTSD and no memory of family members or events. She uses a PDA or an iPhone or a computer as her external brain. She looks at photos before seeing family members to make sure she remembers their names. That character is responding to the tools of violence in war—explosions, improvised explosive devices, and so on. These are things that cause brain damage specifically. The military makes a type of weapon, and each war has a different signature weapon, and so each war also has a different signature injury that most people come away with when injured. With the war in Iraq (and the War on Terror in general), people come away with brain injuries, invisible injuries. The soldiers who survive come home and need to be cared for, and so the medical industrial complex responds, and in this case it responds by encouraging people to become cyborgs because they can’t function with what’s left of their body. So there’s all this stuff in the book about still having to navigate the same world with certain losses.
The theoretical underpinnings of the work are inspired by Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times by Jasbir Puar and Significant Injury: War, Medicine, and Empire in Claudia’s Case by Jennifer Terry. They both untangle the biopolitics underlying the War on Terror, the queer brown other, signature injuries, and how the US military industrial complex and medical industrial complex work synchronously to generate the cycle of: fight, become injured, undergo medical/technological adaptation, re-enter the workforce. I became obsessed with the subject of Terry’s piece, carrying her around in my waking moments. Each “I” arises out of a tension with a power structure—the female veteran with the signature injury (military-industrial complex), the trans punk against the bros (patriarchy), the cyborg (medical-industrial complex), the horse (Veteran Affairs non-profit), the fawn (wide angle lens out to global capitalism and all of its unrestrained tensions). And, of course, things overlap; the entanglements stretch across this web of power. Polyvocality is blurry and slippery when the “I’s” are in conversation with each other.
DD It’s kind of like the Argo metaphor. At what point of subtraction from the original do you stop being what you were originally? At what point are you a new person?
AAK Exactly.
DDAnd the same could be said about being alive and just having experiences. But the cyborg image takes that metaphor and makes it extremely real. Bits and pieces of your actual body. Accepting some moments, rejecting others.
AAK There’s struggle when one pulls the wires out. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. The section in the book called “Fusion” depicts the cyborg’s conflicted desires to plug in, connect, and also reject the adaptation and remove the wires from within. The processes of overcoming trauma and adapting to new forms of the self involves body horror.
DD Like resisting the changes within your body.
AAK Yes. At the same time, beneath the text is my “I.” I was (am always) transitioning when I was writing this book. I switched my pronouns while I was writing this book, and so actually now when I perform it and I use the “she” pronouns in it, it’s this weird dissonance that’s actually very intense to perform. My own transness has arrived out of a reliance on the medical-industrial complex, surgery, hormones, metal on skin, just as the veteran’s functioning relies on the medical-industrial complex to give her a Personal Data Assistant in order to navigate relationships and logistics. Part of the critique and struggle around accepting technology as an adaptation also comes from living in the Bay Area and seeing the rapid gentrification and displacement effects of Silicon Valley on the long-term residents.
DD I’m also looking at EXTRATRANSMISSION in the context of the constant sexual assault reportage. The rape culture discourse is such that no sexual assault is real or believable and everyone keeps getting re-traumatized by having to revisit it in this search for recognition or legitimacy. These poems are just as erotic as they are violent. The phrase “eroticized” or “erotic resistance” keeps coming up for me. An erotics of resistance.
AAKI intended for the transformation of the cyborg characters to feel like a kind of erotic experience. But it’s also very literally violent and uncomfortable. I had a conversation with the dancer & performance artist Gesel Mason earlier this summer about gesture. I want to work more in the performance side of bringing my poetry to the stage, but I don’t want to overburden it with too many actions. She said this thing that really stuck out to me. She was describing a performance she did and said she was crawling on the floor because that’s what her body needed to do and that was the only thing that made sense for the work. The gesture becomes a necessity.
It’s returning to the need to implicate myself in the text or make it work. The text isn’t about me, but it is. And there are four or five “I’s.” This text is very polyvocal. Everyone contains multitudes, especially textual subjectivities. This polyvocality is an attempt to move the text beyond singularity, toward an expansive collective experience. Each of the “I’s” occupies a different formal register at its formation and they also blur into each other, much like Fred Moten’s idea of “consent not to be a single being.” I was faced with the question of, How do I write about the violence of global capitalism, it’s hugeness, in a way that leaves an emotional impact on the reader? I was coming up with the problem of scale and emotional flatness. When you hear about the death of one person, it’s tragedy; when you hear war death counts in the thousands, hundreds of thousands, the largeness of those numbers eclipses what that fully means. The book asserts a collection of slippery “I’s” as a way to translate the scale of violence into intimate narratives.  
DD Why is it important that you implicate yourself?
AAK It’s important that I implicate myself in it; otherwise, what’s the point of writing if you don’t have a stake in it? Why bring it into the world? I see books as book projects because I’m not a lyric poet. I’m not working on a collection of poems; I work on projects. These projects try to tackle large political issues and bring themselves in conversation with other literature and art tackling the same issues. I have to be implicated in it because it’s necessary for the emotional register to work. - Davey Davis


Andrea Abi-Karam, The Aftermath, Commune Editions,  
available for download.

Andrea is a mixed race genderqueer punk poet writing on the art of killing bros, the intricacies of cyborg bodies, trauma & delayed healing. They recently completed the manuscript EXTRATRANSMISSION a book length piece against how patriarchy and US militarism produce the hypergendered subject. From 2012-2015 Andrea co-founded with Drea Marina, Words of Resistance a monthly radical queer open floor poetry night aimed at creating space for folks to share their work, especially if unpolished and messy. Andrea is both a writer, printer, & publisher whose founding small press project Mess Editions seeks to publish emerging writing from queers, people of color, and those involved in social movements yet uninvolved in poetry & art scenes.

Abi Karam will lead participants in poetic investigations of the visual work in Curious Poses, taking an interdisciplinary approach to constructing and deconstructing unconventional relationships with non-human bodies. Using poetic practices to untangle themes of disembodiment, power dynamics, and the self, we can explore such questions and concepts as similarly posed by John Zernan in Animal Dreams: “[D]o non-humans realize that they are ‘selves’? Do they have self-awareness such that they realize their mortality? Many posit an absence of self-reflection and make this supposed absence the primary dividing line between humans and all other animals.”

Andrea Abi-Karam is an arab-american genderqueer punk poet-performer cyborg, writing on the art of killing bros, the intricacies of cyborg bodies, trauma & delayed healing. Their chapbook,  THE AFTERMATH (Commune Editions, 2016), attempts to queer Fanon’s vision of how poetry fails to inspire revolution. Simone White selected Andrea’s second assemblage Villainy for forthcoming publication with Les Figues. They toured with Sister Spit March 2018 & are hype to live in New York. EXTRATRANSMISSION is their first book.