43.2 Feature: An Interview with Sara Jane Stoner

Jul 11, 2017Archive, Interviews

Sara Jane Stoner is a writer, teacher, and PhD Candidate in English at CUNY Graduate Center, who holds an MFA from Indiana University and a BA from Smith College, and is currently working on a dissertation focused on critical pedagogies and queer theory, particularly in the context of contemporary experimental writing. She has taught or currently teaches at Brooklyn College, Baruch College, and Cooper Union, where she worked in the writing center for almost a decade. Her first book, Experience in the Medium of Destruction (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2015) was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Her reviews and criticism can be found or are forthcoming in the Poetry Project NewsletterSinister WisdomBrooklyn Rail, and The Fanzine. A chapbook of poems titled GRIEF HOUR was published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Black Warrior Review.


Black Warrior Review: GRIEF HOUR situates the reader in a space of struggle, queerly ambivalent, and cratered by the relentless munitions of history—the “brutal utile” of the “colonial manguard,” bodies entangled and deployed across centuries of violence. The core of this violence, it seems, is revealed in the last poem, “Grief Hour,” which interrogates “the mánaging of whó is sláshed from the nátional whó díes / whére.” Death is everywhere throughout these poems threatening total absorption, and yet the poems do not feel nihilistic. In “It’s Like This,” the speaker asks, “So what love will you make of the world when you / draw that knife out of you.” The final lines of “Grief Hour” similarly acknowledge this fucked up wasteland, motioning simultaneously to the half-cauterized wounds of the past and the open sores of the present, with a queer optimism toward a liveable future founded on the regenerative energies of love: “accépt just gáther your déad and réckon the rémains of the / búrnt tríángle what wás this únfíxed knówledge tóward lóve.” How do you see violence working in these poems, and what does love mean in the face of it all?


Sara Jane Stoner:  Though I have a tendency to resist “aboutness” in my writing, I have to confess that in many ways the poems in this chapbook are “about” the violences, small and enormous, that exist in this world and in language—the violences that separate us, that make us through relation, the violences that condition us to certain ways of living, that destroy us. I wrote everything in this chapbook in the first eight months of 2015, during this underworld time in which I felt like something was dying in me, or I was killing off a part of myself. But alternatively, I was learning how to recognize something in me too, figuring out how to love it, and submit to the idea that it is worthy of care.


It’s possible to think of my writing as a kind of violence, to grammar, to usage, to syntax—to readers’ desires for order or discretion; but then I also think these poems are an expression of a complex feeling toward violence—trying to speak with/toward/through violence, rather than avoiding its omnipresence. I’ve always wanted to be attuned to violence at the grammatical level. It’s weird, but I experience the choosing of a certain preposition as such a limiting act (how could an orientation between things ever be singular or unidirectional?), so I end up stacking them or scrambling them away from their expected usage. The impulse to action comes from beyond you as well as within you, so you have to engage a kind of wrongness to subvert the power of verbs.


The work of these poems has to do with recognizing the ways violence is done to a person, and how that violence gets perpetuated or whether it evolves into a form of consciousness that feels and attends to these violences systematically, structurally. Whiteness, particularly the version that I was born into, is composed of rhythmic violences, refusals to recognize, reflect, and respond that are validated and actively and passively promote forms of action and inaction that further reinforce its values. One of the great terrors of whiteness, as it aligns with capitalism, is how it incentivizes the adoption of its practices and values by almost anyone. I find in “Grief Hour” a battle with this adjudicating, historical authority (gendered and colonial), charged by faith in its own morality, defining, deciding, determining, displacing—a kind of murderous paternalism that anyone can defend (out of fear or a desire for power), take up, and enact, provided that they dehumanize or refuse their relationship with those who suffer their judgment, those who die, socially or actually. How we live inside or adjacent to such authority, perform for and with it, how pleasure becomes involved, in resistance, capitulation, mockery. Fear’s role in motivating judgment and violence always touches on death and the abject for me, the feminine, the leaky messy mortal effluent body, “bad teeth,” and other forms of social negativity that are everywhere but relegated to the status of problems or aberrations.


How do you meet others and love them in a way that refuses to perpetuate their participation in the kinds of disciplinary relational violence that makes the world a nightmare for the majority of life forms on this planet—and how do you let other people love you in this kind of excoriating way? I am not even confident that this is the right question to ask. How do you let the other unfold without ruining them with your expectations, your desires for “sense”; how do you seek terms that address and redress conflict beyond the constitution or projection of a victim or a perpetrator? I’m learning/teaching myself about the relationship between a kind of living and love—that question “what love will you make of the world when you / draw that knife out of you” from “It’s Like This” is asking how love can be a different kind of thing, once you recognize how the violences have formed you—a big love, made and remade every day, one that extends beyond the private or familial. The kind of honesty this kind of love might call for, and what movements inside a person might become possible.


BWR: These poems are full of holes: “so many holes / so many you,” you write in “Arsenal of Lovers.” Tunnels, mouths, assholes, craters, wounds, and portals populate these poems, never meaning just a negative, not a lack, but rather openings—conveyances of the betweenness, the vulnerability and permeability of bodies in becoming. Can you speak to the function of holes in these poems, of the holeyness of this work?


SJS: The holes occur to me—they’re definitely all over my book too—they present themselves as presences, remind me of what I, what each of us contains, what’s near but not totally knowable. They remind me of all of the entrances and exits of this life. Living means surviving a vast and incomprehensible permeability and availability to others, the world, food, language, chemicals, culture, the environment, institutions, states. Thinking and feeling this I often find makes people want to manage or deny it, find ways to make it less apparent, less true. Selves are built out of this. Holes explicitly remind us of this permeability, as they are marked as abject, simplified into negativities. One thing I find myself trying to do is bring humanness back to the hole, to its own penetrability.


I’ve also been lightly obsessed with the significance of rendering my thoughts/ideas/representations with and through motion. Holes to me seem always to be in some kind of motion in relation to time and space—they serve us in so many ways but remain so independent in my mind. Holes are terribly sexy to me; my whole body feels engaged by the word, the concept. There’s a power in feeling the outside on the inside, how what we think is not there is always a kind of presence. A kind of holding.


BWR: The first and last poems in GRIEF HOUR invoke the trope of the “monster.” In “Arsenal of Lovers,” you write, “tender monsters / meet them / in the tears / your words can make.” When I first read this I was immediately reminded of the part in Annie Lennox’s song “No More I Love You’s,” where she sings, “Desire, despair, desire, so many monsters…no more I love you’s…the language is leaving me…changes are shifting outside the word…the monsters are crazy…there are monsters outside…outside the word.” Her ambivalent vacillations between desire and despair turn monstrous in their inability to be articulated, to cohere, and be controlled by language. On one level, this song seems to be a coming of age tale in which a person grows up and learns grown-up lessons on “love.” On another, this song gets at the fascination and horror of intimacy. Here, “love” becomes a frenetic and vulnerable occurrence, a “spatial fire” to use your own words, totally outside the person’s understanding of “love.” The air that pulses and vibrates between the singer’s lungs and the lungs of her (real or imagined) lover in adulthood becomes the medium of love’s conflagration…(búrnt tríángle what wás this únfíxed knówledge tóward lóve)…at once total absorption, and a turn toward regeneration. Your “tender monsters” also remind me of Donna Haraway’s “promising monsters”—queer liminal creatures threatening always to undo, disrupt, and transform. How do you see monstrousness working throughout GRIEF HOUR?


SJS: A substantial part of me wants to let your question stand as the perfect answer to itself. I feel so blessed that you called up this Annie Lennox reference, because I love her voice, and how she’s always dragging gender and playing with feminine madness—and she’s one of my perpetual karaoke queens. This song’s power seems to come from what I see as the delicious tension and weird dubiousness of its claims. Just to sing “no more I love you’s” with that feeling. She’s singing to a deadened audience about the end of her desire and despair, the dismissal of her demons and monsters. But she brings the intense colors of these drives, feelings, and specters, not to mention the dancers paying homage to Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, into the room with her voice and her face and to the people watching, who are transformed in beautiful and terrifying ways.


I can’t remember when I first started to identify as a monster, but it had nothing to do with Lady Gaga (though I do love her in a complicated way). The ideas around queer monsters exist in a kind of embrace of negativity, its potential—what is reviled, what refuses, what goes beyond the normal, what trespasses, what does not kneel before the law, what both flinches and does not flinch, what blazes out, what darknesses.


I could say these poems are “about” how we all have our monsters on the inside and on the outside. Sometimes we use the creation of monsters on the outside in order to cope with living with the monsters on the inside. Making the monsters “tender” here, emerging from ruptures in language, or something you’d want to tell things to; making voices in these poems that attend to that “constant crisis” you name through ways of being and receiving the world that seem “wrong” or “bad” or “crazy”; making the subject a tumble of sensations through a lot of different times and spaces—this reminds me of a “drawing” I made last year that says: “Infinite fucks. / Zero fucks. / Giving.” {See attached drawing.}

Something about the monster expresses a (need for a) giving that doesn’t care at all but also cares in an impossible way about absolutely everything. Can we occupy these two states simultaneously, or do we necessarily move between them?


You use the word “vacillation” to describe the ambivalent movement between desire and despair in Lennox’s song—and that word has been important to me for a long time, ever since I encountered it in the later preface to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. I feel like living, like writing, like being in relation to others all quietly but intensely call for a recognition of all of these vacillations, between ways of being (selves), words, choices, actions—these indeterminacies that allow us to respond, to wake up, to change.


I think the language of “Grief Hour” comes from trying to speak from underneath the projections which animate, lose, control, destroy—the voice as embodying a theater of conflictual roles. Once after a class with Wayne Koestenbaum (who has inspired and embodied my work a great deal), Lara Mimosa Montes and I were walking and she said to me—a total read but also full of love as they can be—“It’s like you write from your id.” And, you know, recognizing that arguably one’s id maybe doesn’t have the most language, I think she means that there’s a kind of id-force in the words. I keep going back to certain sections of Julia Kristeva’s dissertation, published as Revolution in Poetic Language, to the places where she characterizes how poetic language comes out of a person, revolting against the social, and how the kind of self-revelation and -production that happens there is unmistakably governed by chance—aleatory. When I write in “Arsenal of Lovers,” “What your day / does best / is air / and out those / tender monsters / meet them / in the tears / your words can make,” I’m trying to acknowledge how in these tiny moments in the exchange of language where there’s the possibility for an honest freedom that might let the monsters “out” in a “tender” way. What comes out can be so beautiful and so ugly, depending on what you think you are or what others think; what comes out can teach you something about yourself, or open up “new possibilities on to the wor(l)d,” as you write, that might inspire a necessary reckoning and a revolutionary love.


BWR: One of the first things I noticed when looking at GRIEF HOUR is the formal variety across poems. “ESSOESS” especially catches my eye with its use of subscript: “It cannot be a new language of blowsrrrrrr / razor-edged point of / intersectinguhhhhh / ultimatumsffffff / fuck all parts of speech…” Listening to your reading of “ESSOESS” (http://www.diaart.org/media/watch-listen/sara-jane-stoner-audio-from-readings-in-contemporary-poetry/category/poetry-reading/media-type/audio), the muscularity, the materiality of the language is immediately and acutely felt, so much so that your energy charges the air in my own chest and throat, and for a moment I am in the poem with you, in the breath of the letters of the words, making muscle shape air into meaning. It’s definitely not comfortable, but it’s a very cool experience. I get a similar vibe from all the words being marked with stresses in “Grief Hour”: “thát lá-lá bót so cúlminating cáught gót trýing hónest shóuld / áctually cróss lúst…” Here the stresses seem to mark the “natural” cadence of the words, like a wonky primer on sprung rhythm, but the constant intense attention to the shape of their sounds has an effect of estrangement for me—the words overheat and denature in my mouth. I’m wondering, how did you approach the formal construction of the poems in the chapbook on an individual and collective level? As a hybrid writer, how do you approach form and genre more generally?


SJS:  During the course of my MFA in fiction two things compelled and spiritually irritated me: first, I believed that every time I sat down to develop a new piece for workshop, I had to write in a completely different way (this is still pretty much true); and second, I couldn’t align my writing self with the conventions of human representation I was being asked to practice. Now I can say more emphatically that I became a “hybrid” writer because I am always critically inside of the question of how the form of the sentence produces and enforces sense, and the ways that sounds can exceed its measures. When I set my book next to this chapbook what brings the work together for me is how all of the pieces feel somehow mediated by other forces, and I think their forms express the action of those forces in different ways—as though language has been lost through the loss of love (“Arsenal of Lovers”); as though the language is a kind of flow arbitrarily started and stopped (“Work Crazy”); as though the lines are a kind of rhythmic release, like an effort to regulate the heart (“Sanitarium Bell”); as though my body under the stress of loss demanded and produced a very particular syntax and prosody (“Grief Hour”). But it feels important to say that all of them started out in puddles of green ink in my notebook, long cursive jags of prose that slowly, very slowly find their shape.


What you write about your experience of listening to “ESSOESS” thrills me, because I have been focused for a long time on thinking about the specificity and the historicity of what’s communicated by the sounds created in honor of the shapes of words—by what Roland Barthes called “the grain of the voice”—to carry felt knowledge across time and between bodies. This poem arose out of a lot of online reading and thinking and feeling through the unintentional or strategic use of violent rhetoric meant to address or refuse violence. I would write a phrase and then I’d hear this noise, like a lot of voices at the same time, and I tried to locate that noise as a force dragging the voice back and pulling it forward into the next utterance, compelling the future. But these drawn out phonemes emerged as a kind of desire for movement, a dialectical energy that could beat or suspend or weaken binaries. When you listen to my reading of an earlier version of this at DIA you’ll hear someone whoop and holler at its conclusion: and that voice is Jordan Martin, who I worked with and learned a lot from at Cooper Union. I dedicated this poem to Jordan (who is an awesome artist, poet, and musician) because their shout felt like a permission that birthed me out of the terror I felt in my body while I was reading it.


I wrote “Grief Hour” over the course of several months in arbitrary chunks that were composed backwards across pages that were added one at a time, a word a day on each page. Sometimes I meditated hard on what word would come out, and then sometimes I just let it go. Sometimes I refused to be influenced by what was on the page already, and sometimes I submitted. During that time, I’d been full on snapping awake at 3am every night, which mystified me until an acupuncturist I saw told me that’s the “grief hour,” when your lung meridian wakes you up if you’re struggling with something. I dedicated this piece to my dear friend Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves for so many reasons. When I sent her a draft of “Grief Hour” she sent me a recording of herself reading it out loud. This brilliant and unprovoked gesture helped me recognize that how I heard this text in my mind was a part of my body that I needed to put on the page, and so the stress marks found their way into the poem. I’ve learned so much from the honesty and generosity of our friendship, the sheer critical beauty and ethics of Adjua’s writing and our conversations; our dialogue has guided me to an understanding of my “monstrosity” and allowed me to access a depth of feeling in my own writing in ways that would be impossible alone. {See attached drawing, which I made while talking with her.}


BWR: Who are some other artists, writers, scholars, activists who influence your work?


SJS: I think I try to hold both a really wide gaze and a really tight (almost myopic) focus as a person and as a writer—so I feel like this list could be incredibly long and/or stupid short, but I’ll try. I am completely inspired by Che Gossett’s Facebook feed, which is an incredible living document of their passionate readings and theorizations of queer necropolitics, prison abolition, (anti) blackness, and Palestinian solidarity—just total fire. I have been deep reading Alice Notley, whose work I feel a kinship with. In some ways, since it was written during my PhD coursework, my book bears a relationship to my readings for the oral exam—I tend to gravitate toward what I call “manifestic” texts: Jacques Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster; Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation (which was the source for the title of my book); Audre Lorde’s essays, particularly “Uses of the Erotic”; Sianne Ngai’s amazing books on affect and aesthetics; Samuel Delany’s brilliant, tender, and explicit auto-criticism; Roland Barthes’ late lectures, particularly The Neutral; Sarah Ahmed’s critiques of the racism and sexism endemic to educational institutions. I’ve really loved being at an institution with Ruth Wilson Gilmore and David Harvey, both faculty in the geography program, whose work is so life and mind-altering. I’m also inspired by Dean Spade and Reina Gossett, whose work as activists challenge me to find ways to talk about the prison industrial complex in as many contexts as I can.


BWR: Related to the last question, how does your work as a teacher affect your writing and vice versa?


As a teacher and as a writer who both reads their work aloud and attends a lot of readings and lectures, I’ve become intensely aware of how ineffective and unaffective talking or reading at another person or group of people can be, and often is. For myself, I want both practices to engage this imaginary muscle that might flex toward an awareness that audiences are multiple in so many ways, and that the failures, miscommunications, and unknowns exceed their opposites. In some ways, my writing self and my teaching self are really aligned in this.


If you’re listening, students know more about the important questions than you do. I was transformed by my experience working at Cooper Union, where the fact of tuition’s absence produced a radically different, student-driven education, even in what was in fact a fairly conservative and flawed structure. Working with students has always felt to me like some of the realest work there is in this life. But it also seems clear to me that unselfconscious pedagogical or canonical positivism continues to partition, exclude, and rank. I work hard to come at it from the belief that my role as a teacher is justified not by some external judgment of my authority but by the students’ desires and purposes in learning and how I can help them access what they need to act on them.


BWR: Could you tell me a little bit about what you’re working on right now?


SJS: I’m working on overdue reviews of Renee Gladman’s Calamities, Ariel Goldberg’s The Estrangement Principle, and a new book on the artist Lee Lozano. I’m also chipping away at my dissertation, which is concerned, most fundamentally, with how different ideas (drawn from literature, philosophy, and a range of intersectional theory) propose interventions in how a person might teach writing. I’m also writing a lot of letters, and have recently become pen pals with a couple of people inside the prison system, through Black and Pink.


BWR: Who are you reading right now? Who are some “emerging” writers you’d like to recommend?


SJS: Right now I’m teaching at the New England Literature Program in New Hampshire, which is a temporary educational community (in its 43rd year) organized through the University of Michigan—so I’m spending a lot of time inside Emerson’s sentences, cleaning toilets, figuring out the best way to explain how blind contour drawing relates to Transcendentalisms, slicing tomatoes, learning about the recent work of the Wabanaki Confederacy, and meeting to organize and implement components of the program with fellow staff members. I’m also preparing for a workshop I’ll be leading this summer at Wendy’s Subway in Brooklyn focused on the inextricability of the aesthetics and politics of a bunch of writers I admire, some of whom are “emerging” and some of whom aren’t (though really we’re all always “emerging” to somebody), including: Ari Banias, Hannah Black, Chia-Lun Chang, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Marwa Helal, Rickey Laurentiis, Layli Longsoldier, Dawn Lundy Martin, Nina Puro, Raquel Salas Rivera, Solmaz Sharif, Danez Smith, Oki Sogumi, Christopher Soto, TC Tolbert, Wendy Trevino, Alli Warren, Laurie Weeks, Maged Zaher.


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