Jane Lewty is the author of Bravura Cool (1913 Press, 2013), winner of the 1913 First Book Prize in 2011, and In One Form To Find Another, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Book Competition in 2016. She has also co-edited two essay collections, Broadcasting Modernism (University of Florida Press, 2010) and Pornotopias: Image, Desire, Apocalypse (Litteraria Pragensia, 2009). She has taught at universities in the U.K., The Netherlands, and the U.S.A.
Dora Malech is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Stet (Princeton University Press, 2018) and the forthcoming Flourish (Carnegie Mellon University Press). Her poems have appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry. She has been the recipient of an Amy Clampitt Residency Award, a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Center Writing Residency Fellowship, and a Mary Sawyers Baker Prize. She is an assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
In One Form to Find Another by Jane Lewty navigates feminine embodiment and memory. Through assemblages of case studies, medical terminology, chat room confessions, quotations, and dialogues, Lewty’s long poem considers the limits of diagnosis and the inexpressibility of trauma. It takes its title from the final line of the title poem of Dora Malech’s Stet, which Lewty first saw in manuscript form. Through anagram and redaction, Malech’s Stet also works through questions of form and failure. Pushing the bounds of formal constraint, Stet enacts language’s capacities for infinite renewal and recombination.
I was interested in the unexpected collaboration between these two books. Though aesthetically different, they share a number of similar underlying concerns. The two Baltimore-based poets talked about their writing processes, influences, the links between their books, and their friendship.
Marlo Starr: To begin, Jane, can you tell me what struck you about that line, “Must we fail in one form to find another?” from Dora’s manuscript?
Jane Lewty: Firstly, I thought it was sonically beautiful; and also one of those perfectly-placed endings. There is something so yearning about the phrase “must we,” a question that—I feel—only functions as a half-question because the poem is over, and there is something declarative in the failure, something performative in the fact that recombining and repeating will occur. Not to an assured understanding but another blazing brilliant mutation. The poems of my own book deal with failure; failure of the body to adequately and correctly express its pain, this baffled collection of cells that renews itself every few years but holds onto memories.
MS: It’s interesting to me that you both started in other fields before eventually turning to poetry. Dora, you trained as a painter in Yale’s visual arts program as an undergrad, and Jane, you earned a PhD in literature studying the modernists and left a tenure-track professor position to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How did you end up in poetry, and why do you think it’s stuck?
Dora Malech: For me, there’s a personal answer and an aesthetic answer. The aesthetic answer is two-fold: I haven’t abandoned visual art. I still make visual art, but in a more limited way. I like having an outlet in one area that serves as a release from another. I’ll write more “experimental” and more “traditional” poems—I like having those as outlets for each other, and I like the visual art as an outlet for the poetry. In terms of the personal answer, Yale has an amazing program that’s kind of a feeder into the New York art world, which meant that I got to see how professional and packaged most of these artists have to be to make it…and how much they have to be able to articulate their vision and sell that vision. And I didn’t feel capable of that, which is ironic for someone who works with words, but it just felt like a world that I wasn’t equipped for. I felt like I could keep making art, but I couldn’t commit myself to that particular world.
JL: I almost have a mirrored answer. Firstly, I’ll say that I find myself returning to concerns that I worked through in scholarship, concerns that I repudiated and said that I would never do again and now I find myself thinking about. I think I turned my back on academia quite decisively because of the world itself. It felt like a nest of vipers, which is quite a reductive reaction, but I just felt very tired. I’d finished a PhD by 26, and I became fairly successful at a very young age—with that comes a lot of negativity in terms of expectation, not to mention the corrosive aspects of ambition that seems fulfilling but isn’t. I got a tenure track job and didn’t like it. I had no confidence and always felt that I shouldn’t be there. I think I was fast-tracked a little bit too quickly through the whole arena and I didn’t linger over what I enjoyed doing, which was simply writing about Modernism rather than occupying space as an academic. My first poetry book, in a strange way, was a sort of rewrite of my PhD dissertation—what I felt I wasn’t really allowed to do. That was very cathartic. I managed to extricate myself from Finnegan’s Wake, thankfully, but I think I might have to go back into it at some point. My work isn’t done there. I’ve stopped thinking that my life has stages that I have to leave behind. It always comes back in different formats, doesn’t it? You find that especially with visual work, don’t you, Dora?
DM: Definitely. If I ever say, I don’t do X, Y, or Z, or I won’t do X, Y, or Z, I will soon be propelled to do exactly that. I find myself drawn to do just that thing. It’s perverse in a way.
JL: Yes, I’m exactly the same way. I say, I shall never read Ezra Pound again, you know what I mean? It’s horrible. It’ll be interesting to see how we both navigate through something we can’t really turn away from. It was foundational, particularly at that age when you do something so intensely and you think you’re going to progress into a specific kind of life, and you don’t. You still hear the echo of it; of what you could have been, and it loops back.
MS: I guess there’s kind of a fine line between love and repulsion, right?
DM: Or if you think of these as lives within lives, whatever you couldn’t figure out in your past life, you’re sort of doomed to repeat until you figure out how to handle whatever that was.
JL: It’s true. I’m laughing, but it’s not funny.
DM: In our most recent books—with Jane turning more toward the body and me turning more toward the body of language (and we’re certainly not the first to do it by any stretch!)—I think of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where there are all these different cities that are, of course, all the same city. And it does feel like that a little bit.
JL: It does, certainly. Another analogy would be a dog circling its own vomit. [Both laughing]
DM: You can’t help but eat it! …And then there it is again.
MS: Speaking of recurrences, the German surrealist Unica Zürn plays an important role in each of your books. Can you tell me about how she came to be a shared influence? Did you come to her separately or did one introduce her to the other?
DM: It’s very possible that I caught her from you, Jane, without realizing it. I remember I was talking about her and you sort of freaked out: Don’t you know this is who I’m working with? And luckily Jane’s nice enough that she didn’t tell me to keep my hands off her. But we were also interested in her for quite different reasons! I was coming to her because of her visual art and because of her anagram poems, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, Jane, but you were interested in the body and Zürn as the muse of Hans Bellmer.
JL: Exactly. That’s how I became interested in her. I mean, of course I was compelled by her poems, but it was mostly how she was objectified by Bellmer—a damaging co-dependent relationship that they both saw as a site of great creativity.
MS: They were lovers?
JL: Yes, he portrays her in a series of photographs, where her body is mutilated in various ways—tied up, contorted. He called them “altered landscapes of flesh”; there’s one shot at such an angle that she looks like a trussed-up slab of meat. It’s called “Tenir au frais” (‘Keep Cool’).” He actually transforms her into carrion in a way. Dead, cold flesh. It’s very unpleasant reading how that relationship became so very generative for him and so atomizing for her. She eventually killed herself, and though you can’t actually specify that relationship as the reason since there were a lot of traumatic events in her life, it’s possible that she became trapped in this notion of her own body. There was a definite element of sado-masochism, though—an element of satisfaction, perhaps enjoyment with a mutual psychosis furthered. I investigate BDSM tropes in my last book and how that kind of relationship is immensely rewarding until it’s not. Anyway, that’s why I was very interested in her.
DM: And she’s someone who wanted to give herself over to something, whether that was Bellmer or whether that was language. She talked about her process of working with anagrams as “the old, dangerous fever of the anagram.” She considered it this very captivating siren song that sucked her under into this obsession. Her visual art is very obsessive also.
JL: It’s all connected. Dark Spring [Zürn’s autobiographical novel], begins, I think, with the projected self lying in the grass after a suicide attempt. Perhaps she just couldn’t reconcile this deeper process of repetition and order and constriction in a productive way with her life, which was at times deeply miserable. I find her so under-regarded, and teach her in my art history classes. I don’t teach Bellmer, I teach her, but I have to show the students those photographs. It feeds into the whole manner in which she is perceived. She can’t be simply restored as an unsung writer because her body was displayed in public like that.
DM: For me, in Stet, she became a touchstone figure, as did Sylvia Plath. Of course, Plath is much better known, but they’re both these women for whom the autobiography and their relationship with a powerful man can overshadow the actual incredible technical craft of each of these artists.
MS: I can’t help seeing a correspondence between these figures and different forms of self-destruction. Jane, your book opens with a woman reenacting a suicide attempt, and Zürn and Plath both committed suicide. Is there a through-line in terms of these women’s attempts to escape or maybe even abstract the physical body?
DM: I mean, Jane, you were recently on a panel on female pain as overlooked or thought to be exaggerated. And I do feel there’s this question of what can make their experiences legible to an observer or reader. Which isn’t quite the same as erasing the body but it’s an urge to be taken seriously or to be believed.
JL: Through whatever form you feel most drawn to, perhaps. The body itself sends out SOS signals. It will alert you to psychological issues that you didn’t know you had—it’s a dense network that is incredibly complex. The body will let you know when you’re suffering, and if you equate that to any form of communication from someone who isn’t being heard correctly…. That’s why people write. That’s why we use it as a therapeutic device at its most elemental level.
DM: Sort of going in a completely different direction, the last sequence in Stet is nine anagrams of Plath’s poem “Metaphors,” which is about her pregnancy. To me, “Metaphors” is an incredibly playful poem, if intense in the finality of its final lines, “I’ve eaten a bag of green apples, / Boarded the train there’s no getting off.” I think Plath gets unfairly thought of as sort of hysterical and humorless, which it the farthest thing from what she was. She was so funny and witty and clever, and so I wanted to engage with that aspect of her work. I also wrote those poems while I was pregnant, and to bring it back to Jane and our overlaps, I encountered the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga when I was visiting Jane in Amsterdam. His book Homo Ludens (Man, the Player) is forever linked to being physically and emotionally present in Jane’s life.
JL: Just as you were talking, I was thinking about how both of our last books—and I hate to use this word, and I don’t mean this word; I don’t mean to sound needlessly scholarly—they’re so intertwined with space and place and thinking and connections drawn that you often associate with academic analysis. We’re unravelling, we’re unspooling what we’re thinking about, but it hasn’t quite taken its shape yet. Again, we’re both quite good at following tangents. Because it’s fun! Dora, I think we’re both quite good in seeing opportunities that may sometimes be dead ends, but sometimes not. Sometimes they all coalesce in this really vibrant landscape. I hate the fact that my book has footnotes, but it does. Because I couldn’t leave anything out. I liked all these other conversations and connections that also looped back into the main topic.
DM: And I think looking at the way Jane works and having a view into her process opened up the idea of a more cohesive manuscript for me. This goes back to the idea of whatever you say you won’t do, you’ll do it eventually: I had always thought of myself as someone who focused more on the individual poem than the manuscript and then let the poems maybe come together more organically, thematically. Stet was the first time that I had let myself really have a formal project that arched across the whole book, and I think some of that was getting more of an insight into the way that Jane works in terms of applying certain kinds of attention to a whole manuscript.
JL: I can’t do it any other way. There always has to be a sort of nebulous overarching idea, but the problem is that it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. It makes the reader suffer, but at the moment I find it more enjoyable to work like that—in that sort of detective way, to push at the boundaries of an idea and see where it can go.
MS: Jane, could you talk about how you ended up working with electronic text and digital archives? For me, the book is concerned both with what archives remember and what they forget. For example, in Case Study #17: “Archive as much as you like [something will always be left out].”
JL: I did become obsessed with archives. I worked in so many actual archives when I did my academic work, and then of course over the last ten years we’ve seen a proliferation of digital archiving, which is such fertile ground…. But in terms of the book, the chatrooms I was talking about contain these fossilized conversations that hang in the air for years, and sometimes you will see them answered by people who have only just discovered them. It’s just such a haunting example of communication breakdown: every time we introduce new technology into society, we’re aware of what we’re lacking. We really want to have noiseless mind-to-mind communication; we’re obsessed with creating devices that might do that for us. The process also showed me that archives can’t really be trusted either: your digital comment or statement or confession is going to be there forever, and it’s going to be picked over and misinterpreted. So there’s something very exposing about the archive, which made me think differently about being inspired by archives in general, realizing that they’re just so vulnerable and naked and open to interpretation and can be twisted. In the book, Case Study #6 and Case Study #34 are two quite long poems that take the form of a conversation. The second one is a hideous development of the first because it’s a re-visitation of the first over and over and over again. The words have always been there, but they’ve been mutated in different ways. Archives can be rewarding and liberating but also a site of pain and loss.
MS: And Dora, you’re also engaging with archival material in the sense that you’re re-making existing texts in Stet.
DM: Listening to Jane, I hear “twisted” and “revisitation” and “mutated,” and I think of the ways in which I tried to make Stet draw attention to language not as an archive exactly, but certainly as a site to be mined and reworked again and again (“Redaction is a / red action, is a // scarlet / scar let // shine”).
MS: Jane, can you also talk about how time functions in your book? Lately, I’ve been revisiting Psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman’s work on post-traumatic stress disorder and thinking about the constant present of trauma. What is the relationship between trauma and the form of your book?
JL: One idea that the book deals with is somatic symptom disorder (SSD), where individuals manifest symptoms of a condition that they haven’t been diagnosed with. There’s quite a bit of research that’s gone into this particular syndrome. A vast majority of the female sufferers have experienced abuse, often when they were very young. They endure a very contained, consistent PTSD throughout their lives, which manifests itself in psychosomatic illnesses. But the fact is, they’re not imagining it. It does happen. I have to be very sensitive in talking about this, but patients will have textbook symptoms of conditions they read about, such as ovarian cancer or tinnitus. They range from the very serious to the mundane. They will have the symptoms but they don’t have the condition, and that was really compelling to me. In the chatrooms, I’d see people “catch” symptoms from each other.
It’s a strange group therapy in this particular, public atmosphere. I had a little bit of it myself, which is what cemented a lot of the book. You are so very gripped in the prison of your own body, which will perform these very gymnastic tricks on you. I think one of my lines is: “You are tired and you have moved something around your body for years.” It can be like that. It can take root in all your organs, and then it will mutate into [what you believe is] a recognized condition. You’ll beg and plead the doctor to diagnose you, because you’re presenting with symptoms. In relation to trauma, this condition is irrevocably linked to events that are unable to be cohered completely. Because it’s inexpressible, the body winds it in and deals with it that way. There’s a quite tragic link between SSD and sexual assault, abuse, violence, even a nonphysical event like romantic betrayal or being psychologically neglected as a child…. The body reacts and then it turns on you. And you think it’s your enemy, but in reality, it’s trying to alert you to something you’ve never addressed properly.
MS: In One Form is so dense and intertextual. In reading it, I felt like I kept chasing threads that led me into whole other networks of association. I was wondering if you could talk about one thread in particular. The actress Isabelle Huppert, who stars in Michael Haneke’s film The Piano Teacher, reappears a few times. What’s her role in the book?
JL: This actually links back to Unica Zürn. The Piano Teacher is a harrowing movie about sexual deviancy. But Erica, the main character, isn’t a deviant—it’s just the coping mechanisms she’s developed. It’s harrowing—I could barely get through it. Isabelle Huppert, who plays Erica, worked with the artist Roni Horn in Portrait of an Image. Horn asked her to recall her previous roles through facial movements because she’s such an expressive actress. You can see Huppert playing all her roles, but she’s doing it through muscle memory. I thought it was really beautiful, and so much of my book is about what we actively choose to remember versus how the body remembers. I thought it was an interesting exercise: Roni Horn said, “Okay, you’re The Piano Teacher,” and Huppert adopted this complete mask of repressed sexuality. She’s worked into the book two or three times, which relates to Unica Zürn as well—the idea of healthy sexuality being diverted or conditioned somehow.
MS: Dora, I see Stet as moving in a much more experimental direction than your previous books. You’ve mentioned at readings that your forthcoming book Flourish tends more toward traditional forms. I’m wondering what this trajectory means for you and whether you’ve felt some pushback. I’m thinking of the poem “Q & A” where the speaker asks, “But haven’t others done all this before?” Have you felt more of a need to explain yourself with Stet?
DM: I think I have felt a need to explain it more. For me, it doesn’t feel completely at odds with the rest of my writing. There are poems in my first two books that aren’t working with anagramming or redaction, which are the main two formal strategies of Stet, but are deeply associative and playful in certain ways. So it doesn’t feel out of left field for me. That said, my first two books I wrote in an overlapping time period, and now, my third and fourth books were written in an overlapping time period. I’m usually working on more than one project at the same time, and they’re often an outlet for each other, in the way that I mentioned earlier. I felt like Stet could be more wild and experimental because Flourish is more narrative. I really let myself go in extreme directions.
That said, I think my fear with this book is that it would seem like some kind of odd interlude when it doesn’t feel that way at all to me. If anything, I think it’s some of the most personal writing I’ve done. It’s just that the personal aspect of it is embedded in the form and not brought to the surface of narrative. It’s also funny because there will be people who have said that this is something that needs to be read on the page, but I find this to be very sound-based and as sound-driven as anything I’ve else ever written. I enjoy reading it out loud. For better or for worse, I think any poem without a clear narrative or clear scene in it will get push back in some circles, but then of course there’s a flipside. The OULIPO poets are not going to invite me to join their club based on this book because I’m not going to stick to writing strictly in anagrams. I resist that kind of aesthetic commitment, and this whole book is about the trouble and anxiety of commitment. This whole conversation in some ways is about what it looks like to want or not want to commit to a body, to a life, to whatever….I mean, we’re talking about “in one form to find another.” I think that unwillingness to stay in a lane will always mean that you’re getting pushback or dissatisfaction from somebody. Luckily, nobody is paying quite enough attention to what I’m doing for any of that to be particularly public. There aren’t too many polemics being written about, “Why aren’t these narrative poems?”
JL: She just won’t stick to anything! [Laughing]
DM: I’m joking, but in a way, I feel bad for someone who writes a bestselling book of poetry and then feels like they have to keep writing that way. I like my freedom.
MS: Could you explain how some of the anagrams work in Stet? Do you use the same rules for every poem? Since we’ve been talking so much about Unica Zürn, maybe we could start with that poem.
DM: The Unica Zürn poem, “This, Certain,” begins with one line of hers in German that serves as the epigraph. It translates in English to, “I scatter the white nothing,” so each line is an anagram of “I scatter the white nothing.” In this poem, each line uses the same letters. In other poems like “Cry unto Country,” each couplet is the anagram. So “mind as conflagration” becomes “mind as a canting floor” followed by new sets of anagrams. With some of them, I came to really like this form that “then reading in the garden” has, where there’s a blank space down the middle and the lines are justified on either side, so the lines are kind of fleeing from each other or repelling each other like opposing magnets to either margin. I particularly like the couplet because I feel like it makes sonic use of the form itself. You can hear the recombination, whereas in the “After Plath” sequence which reworks a whole poem, there’s too much raw material at play for you to fully hear echoes, necessarily. There, you kind of have to go on faith that the repeating is happening. And that’s interesting, but it’s only really interesting to me in terms of form in the context of these other more pressurized anagrams.
Of course, there are other forms in here. The long poem in the middle, “do[or],” is a poem that works by redaction, so the first section takes out the word “or” again and again and again, which to me speaks to this idea of options not taken. Taking “or” out became this process of picking the text apart to find what else is still buried in there.
MS: “Descreation Myth” is one of my favorite poems in the collection, and the final line, “why must monsters make meat of their maker,” seems to resonate with some of our previous discussion related to form and the body. In terms of the process of the anagram, how did you arrive at more “coherent” lines like this?
DM: Thank you. There’s a lot of meat and a lot of monsters in this book, which is not an accident. Some poems like “Descreation Myth” and “then reading in the garden” strive to be more coherent, to let a reader find footing. In terms of their syntax, they’re less fragmented. It was really interesting to find those moments that could come to the surface and breathe beyond the chaos. Or like, “Must we fail in one form to find another?” In terms of process, this was very much a work of simultaneous accretion and dismantling (“Say law [of] always: simultaneous is nauseous limits”). I’d see the troubling echo of “laughter” in “slaughter” and then have to ask, “What can I build around this to make meaning?” Sometimes I’d find a seed of language and then try to grow outward into coherence, other times I’d dismantle a more coherent line to interrogate it. So it works differently in different areas, but they overlap. I’d have to go back to my notebooks, and I don’t always have a perfect memory for these things, but I know I started to hear the world this way. I still do, sometimes. Someone will start talking, and a word or phrase will start breaking down in my mind. It’s very much an enactment. “Make meat of our maker”—that’s both talking both about modes of resistance and talking about the way language itself acts upon me—dismantling me, who is supposed to be the maker.
MS: A question for both of you: Natalie Diaz recently tweeted about friendships and “thinkingships.” I really love her neologism for the way friendship can extend naturally into an intellectual collaboration. How do you read for each other? Do you often exchange work?
DM: Jane is the person who reads my work, and often just that knowing that she reads my works is enough. There are specific situations where I’ll ask for feedback, but sometimes it’s more organic than that—where we are friends and we are talking with each other about what we’re writing and thinking and reading. And we share poems with each other, but there isn’t always this forced march of workshop feedback.
JL: There are only a handful of times where we’ve made it a formal writing activity. Dora is actually the only person who sees what I write. I was very bad at workshop. I was grateful for the writing time, but I’ve never been a community writer. I’m just too enclosed and not very social. You’re the only person who I tell when I’m writing and when I’ve done something. But that’s not to say I want to put undue pressure on you. We spend a lot of our time with in-jokes. We have a huge repertoire of in-jokes.
DM: We spend a lot of time shooting the shit. For me, having an outlet to shoot the shit with Jane might be more productive for my own writing life than rigorous feedback, because it makes me feel like a happy, healthy person who can sit down and write something.
JL: We send each other stuff just to say, “To keep me honest.”
DM: That’s the way to put it. We keep each other honest, and we know where the bodies are buried.
JL: And we know what goes on behind the scenes of the sausage factory. [All laughing]
DM: It makes me wonder about these famous, usually male, friendships. I have the feeling there was more laughing and having a good time than just manifesto-writing.
JL: Literary friendship was exalted to me as a certain type of friendship. And you see that now sometimes on social media. There’s this notion that poets always have to talk about poetry. Dora and I probably do it, but not in a particularly expected way.
DM: I do think it is a different kind of friendship and intimacy to know that we’re both wrestling with certain questions and obsessions in our writing. I hope that it’s in some way productive that Jane knows that I want her to be writing…. These two books having so much overlap is, I think, symptomatic of being written in completely different places, while we were corresponding with each other. And now we’re physically in the same city again, which is great. Each is its own particular kind of intimacy.
JL: We never talked about our books intersecting. It just sort of happened, organically unfolded. Maybe we should get back to it.
Interviewer’s Note: Due to a printing error, the endnotes in Lewty’s In One Form to Find Another do not correspond with their intended pages. I’d like to encourage readers to contact the Cleveland State Poetry Center to request a reprint of the book with corrected endnotes.