The Performative Structure: A Conversation with Susannah Nevison

Susannah Nevison is the author of Lethal Theater (The Ohio State University Press, 2019), the recipient of the Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize from OSU/The Journal, and Teratology (Persea Books, 2015), the recipient of the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. She is also the author of In the Field Between Us, a collaborative collection with Molly McCully Brown (forthcoming from Persea Books in 2020). Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Crazyhorse, Pleiades, The National Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Virginia, where she is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Sweet Briar College.


Interviewer note: Since reading Nevison’s collection Teratology in 2015, my interest in and attention to the ways that my body is unacceptable to the dominating structures which surround me have grown and deepened. As a poet of the abnormal body and systems inside and outside of that body, Susannah Nevison examines these ideas as they relate to various patriarchal and capitalist frameworks in her newest book Lethal Theater. I had the pleasure of discussing motivations, processes, and implications of Lethal Theater with her here, for The Adroit Journal.

Adele Elise Williams: To begin, what led to your interest in Claude Jones and the history/far reaching implications of the death penalty in the U.S.? A dear friend of mine works tirelessly for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina and conversely, my grandfather was senior judge for the Tennessee State Supreme Court, an awesome man but a man not opposed to the death penalty. As someone who holds firm beliefs on the death penalty as inhumane, I was truly moved by last section of the book—especially the untitled poem on page 64:

I want to ask you where you went, and if there’s water.
I want to know if grief ebbs in death, or if you still
press it to your chest like a lover, doll, or daughter.

Susannah Nevison: Like you, I also believe the death penalty is inhumane, and I believe that it’s a form of torture. I have always been struck by institutionalized suffering—hospitals and prisons, for example—and the ways we regulate “deviant” bodies within rigorously controlled and sanitized environments. As a person who knows herself as a medical subject and patient, I understand the ways in which the medicalized body is both an object in a performance—a part of a system with many moving parts—and also prone to its own spontaneous performance, which can rupture or challenge the larger system.

I think what first drew me to exploring lethal injection is the ways that this particular form of execution, as a final act of punishment, turns a prisoner into a medicalized body to be acted upon, and that the body’s compliance with that process constitutes the imprisoned body’s final performance. Like the traditionally medicalized body in a hospital, which may or may not comply, the imprisoned body’s “compliance” is contingent on a “successful” execution.

However, many lethal injections fail. And when they do, it seems to me, that the imprisoned body is performing outside the circumscribed system, because it reminds the witness what’s really happening: someone is being murdered with intravenous drugs, and when those aren’t administered correctly, the murder no longer looks clean and medical—it looks like what it is. In other words, a failed lethal injection exposes the ways we try to sanitize murder, by demanding that we see the process as painful, as torture; and it does so because the imprisoned body’s resistance to the process exposes the entire execution as a staged performance.

Claude Jones is one of many executed prisoners whose execution went awry. I was struck by his particular story because it’s likely that he was also innocent—and to be very clear, I don’t believe in the death penalty for anyone, regardless of guilt or innocence—but I wanted to consider the other ways in which imprisoned bodies, even as they are forced into this totally bizarre execution narrative, can still, in their final moments, expose the absurdity of execution performance, can refuse to adhere to our cultural script. And I want, more than anything, for there to be larger conversation about that, for America to pay attention to what it’s doing, and to stop rationalizing state-sanctioned murder.

AEW: The idea of performance in this collection is charged and layered. Performance is explored as necessary (butchering livestock for example), destructive (death penalty/execution) and spiritual, mythic (religious parables referenced). Having completed the book, do you have an understanding of performance that is different or perhaps more resolved than when you were writing these poems individually, outside of a collection? As a reader, I recognize obvious destructions of performance at play in the poems, but sense there is something more complicated underneath. The collection feels this way throughout—that yes, dark territory is being explored, but the real danger lies in the narratives’ interstices.

SN: Yes, I think I have a different understanding of performance now, especially a greater understanding of how necessary performance is to essential, basic, identity and to maintaining that identity—cultural or individual—in the face of violence. So much of what allows us to watch someone suffer, or to enact violence on someone else, or to survive violence, is a belief in the narrative—the performative structure—that frames the behavior. And when that framework starts to come undone, it exposes acts of violence for what they are: messy, complicated, identity-changing, annihilating.

The long, last poem in the book explores this by placing two performative frameworks alongside each other: anesthesia and lethal injection. So much about the way we narrativize lethal injection is designed to mimic the performance of medical care, and so much of the way we narrativize medical care depends on obscuring the violence such care can require. I’m interested in what happens if you put a little pressure on that framework, if you explore the ways in which those frameworks overlap, especially in language. If narrative frameworks fail to contain these cultural atrocities (executions) or these cultural acts of necessarily violent care (the medical industry), then we have to face the acts themselves and see them for what they are, and that’s deeply uncomfortable to do if there’s no frame to mediate our experience. But I believe it’s also deeply necessary.

AEW: The collection carries several major narratives—veterinary work, livestock farming, religious parables, and of course the prison system(s) in this country. Was there one in particular that spurred the writing of this book? The title poem and its subject matter certainly feels responsible at first read, but the “I” of the poems has their own story to tell, and without it the depth of accusation and ownership would fall short.

SN: Oddly, the first-person narrative is the last thread that came together in this book. I tried to write a book where “I” was absent. Part of the reason was that I didn’t want to assume a prisoner persona, to speak on behalf of others. The other reason is that I didn’t want the book to seem like it was equating a non-imprisoned speaker’s experience with the immense suffering experienced by those in the prison system. The first-person narrative arrived, I think, because I needed a speaker who was both acted upon violently—assault, surgery—and also capable of enacting and witnessing violence in a controlled setting—the veterinary clinic. My hope was that this thread would ask readers to see how thin the line between subject and object really is, by having one speaker occupy both roles.

But the real jumping off point for the book was actually the CIA torture memos that detailed torture techniques at Abu Grahib. I wanted to know how—in much the same way we sanitize the spectacle of lethal injection—the government sanitized the language of torture so that it could be performed. And one thing I found is that many of these techniques have names that draw on the language of games, as if to make the techniques entirely performative so that the subject tasked with carrying them out perhaps can view themselves as merely playing a part. That fascinated me, and terrified me. And then I began to think about metaphor: how we use metaphor to talk about what we can’t actually say explicitly. In a weird way, these bureaucratic documents turn torture entirely into metaphor so that it can be performed. But the difference, I hope, between these documents and between what most poets use metaphor to work toward, is that a good metaphor should always illuminate the essence of the thing it’s referring to. Not so with these documents—these documents use metaphor as a way to obscure the essence of the thing (torture), so that the techniques can be performed in the first place.

The first poems that materialized were the Parables. I started by re-working the language of torture techniques as Biblical instructions or lessons, to see what would happen to that relationship to metaphor. And when I realized that the project had more to do with all kinds of performance—not just what happened at Abu Grahib—the other threads became clearer to me.

AEW: In that same vein, did the book materialize before you wrote it or as you wrote it? This is something I can’t help but ask other poets! Lethal Theater is tightly compiled but also pointedly individual in its narratives—at what point in your writing process did you know that the narratives at play were connected? (i.e. connecting the speaker ’s experiences with veterinary care/industry to the prison/justice system)

SN: The book emerged first as a series of individual sequences, and as I wove them together I began to see the shape of the book. Once I had a shape, I began to cut or add poems that would make the collection more cohesive. I think I re-wrote the book, completely, three times, because I couldn’t figure out the right order and something always felt off. Finally, I wrote the long title poem, and cut an entire section where the final poem is now. In writing the final poem, I was able to tie the first-person narrative to the other threads, and that’s when I finally felt like I had a version of the book that was working close to the way I wanted. It was such a messy process!

AEW: “Cell Watch: Strip Cell” serves as a sort of primer for the reading of this collection. It is the first poem in the book and sets up several major themes, an integral one being the implication of both the reader and the speaker by the use of you—“But since this is the beginning / of the world, it’s up to you / to define the edges, contour / the known, to introduce the common / language: show him how this world / is nothing more than God’s hand / grenade spinning through the air.” Could you unpack how these lines serve as instructions, as civic responsibility perhaps? Or is that even your intention? (P.S. Those line breaks tho!)

SN: I wanted to open the book where, Biblically, language begins: The Garden of Eden. And I wanted to reimagine prison as the antithesis to this place, not a place of extreme generation, but extreme destruction. I was thinking, too, of Elaine Scarry’s theory that pain destroys language, and considering the prison cell as a place where the world is made very, very small both in scale and in its obliteration and policing of language. A cell is a place where language must necessarily operate in an entirely new way, for both those imprisoned and those overseeing such imprisonment. I wanted to position the reader and the speaker as looking into this space: as witnessing the destruction of language, and as imagining such destruction as a kind of “common language,” we must all learn.

If you are witnessing this kind of suffering, and watching someone lose language, it becomes the responsibility of both the witness and the executor of such violence to articulate what unfolds. And that, of course, is problematic, because it erases the language of the person suffering. I wanted to make the reader occupy that space—of either witness or enactor/enforcer of suffering—and to consider the ways that even writing about suffering is fraught, dangerous, needed. I also wanted to focus attention on that erasure: the subject who is without language, who depends on the violence of other people’s terms to translate their suffering, and even themselves as subjects. So much of the book is about who gets to speak, and what stories we get to tell, and how the way we frame or tell such stories changes our relationship to them. And how where we stand, and what we see, and what we chose to call it—violence, mercy, justice—is integral to those stories, too.

AEW: The religious references and lore throughout seem to serve as a necessary lens for the speaker in their own understanding of the tensions presented in the collection, especially the series of numbered parables/poems. They brilliantly conflate major components of the book—the “he” becomes both the butcher and the butchered, the executed and the executioner. I was totally wrecked by “The wall between your charge and you is thin” and the applications/implications of that one line for the book as a whole.

As a poet who grew up Catholic in the deep South, I find God making regular appearances in my own poetry whether I like it or not; he/it is an abstraction so deeply ingrained in the way I understand the world and myself in it. May I ask if the religious references in the collection are as familiar to the speaker as they seem, or were they simply unavoidable, necessary, in complicating and communicating the message of this collection?

SN: I love the language of the Old Testament, and since it’s where so much of the project began, it became a natural lens for the book. My mother was raised Catholic, and while I wasn’t, it remains a religion I know pretty intimately. I’m fascinated by the way Catholicism often uses fear and violence (especially in the Old Testament) as a necessary precursor to reverence. I think a lot about what suffering amounts to, and its relationship to any kind of grace, and so it seemed natural to me to consider imprisonment through an exploration of redemptive suffering—suffering that moves one closer to God—and non-redemptive suffering, like torture, which is senseless suffering.

It seems to me so much of the language of torture and imprisonment is an attempt to render those processes redemptive: we fold prison and torture into narrative frameworks where they amount to something constructive or just, in order to say that they are beneficial for the subject experiencing them, or beneficial to the society inflicting them. Biblical parables seemed like an interesting way to approach prison or torture instructions, because it forced me to place nonredemptive processes into a redemptive frame. I wanted to highlight the absolute absurdity of considering any kind of torture or imprisonment redemptive, and that using redemptive language to talk about these things can be deeply troubling and dangerous.

AEW: Lethal Theater, like your first book Teratology, examines bodies. While Teratology focuses on the abnormal body, the monstrous spectacle of an atypical body, Lethal Theater focuses on the systems and histories surrounding the body—histories and systems that literally destroy the body. In what ways do you see the purposes of these two collections connected? Do you (see them connected)?

SN: I think both collections are invested in ideas of control and surveillance, in the ways bodies cooperate with or deviate from the systems they are located within: hospitals and prisons. I’m interested in the body as a site of systemic resistance, in what happens when it refuses to follow protocols, either consciously or subconsciously, and the ways that deviance can expose a constructed system. I think Teratology is invested in bodies pushing against that system; I think Lethal Theater is invested in the ways systems shape, construct, and destroy bodies, and how humans use systems to rationalize the destruction of others.

AEW: The poems in this book tangle with concrete and controlled objects (an eye, a needle, an animal, a body) as well as blank and wild spaces (a field, a flood, a river). In this way, the manageable objects serve a purpose and the same could be said for the blank spaces. What do you think about this reading of your work? Have I taken too many poetics courses?

SN: I think this is a great reading! And I think it’s really connected to the previous question. Blank and wild spaces, to my mind, allow room for moments of rupture, excess, and deviance; often, I like these moments to occur within the controlled spaces and objects to challenge ideas about scale and containment. This is probably why these spaces and objects collide so much, especially in the final poem.

AEW: I know that you and Molly McCully Brown have a forthcoming book to be published in 2020 (congrats!!). Would you mind telling us a wee bit of what it is about, and/or how it came about?

SN: This is my favorite thing to talk about! Molly and I met at the Sewanee Writers Conference a few years ago, after we had both won the same book prize from Persea Books. We became fast friends. While Lethal Theater was out at contests, I found myself with a lot of anxiety—and I was also on a fellowship, which meant I really needed to be writing. Molly was avoiding her nonfiction project (it comes out the same time as our book does, and is beautiful, and everyone should buy it: Places I’ve Taken My Body), so we did what good writers do: we invented a project to avoid our other responsibilities. Essentially, we wrote letter poems back and forth to each other, and the project became a way for us to discuss living in bodies that have survived intense medical intervention. It’s a book that comes from a shared sense of kinship, and one that, we hope, offers an alternative disability narrative than what the mainstream media provides. Above all, it was joyful to make—and though the book is an articulation of the grief and isolation medical intervention can lead to, I don’t think of it as a sad book because there’s always an answering voice, a response, a light. It was just a total gift to write a book with one of my favorite writers and people.


Adele Elise Williams

Adele Elise Williams is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Houston where she serves as Nonfiction Editor for Gulf Coast journal. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Cream City Review, Guernica, Split Lip Magazine, Quarterly West, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her current goings-on can be found at

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