Back to Issue Forty-Seven

A Conversation between Dana Levin and Brian Teare


Dana Levin is the author of five books of poetry. Her latest is Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon Press), a 2022 New York Times Notable Book and NPR “Book We Love.” Other books include Banana Palace (2016) and Sky Burial (2011), which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” Recent poems and essays have appeared in Poem-a-day, Best American Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and Poetry, among other publications. She is a grateful recipient of many honors, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, and the Library of Congress, as well as from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting, and Guggenheim Foundations. With Adele Elise Williams, she co-edited Bert Meyers: On the Life and Work of an American Master (2023) for the Unsung Masters Series. Levin serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis.

A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, Brian Teare is the author of seven critically acclaimed books, including Companion Grasses, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, and Doomstead Days, winner of the Four Quartets Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle, Kingsley Tufts, and Lambda Literary Awards. His most recent publications are a diptych of book-length ekphrastic projects exploring queer abstraction, chronic illness, and collage: the 2022 Nightboat reissue of The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, and the fall 2023 publication of Poem Bitten by a Man.  After over a decade of teaching and writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eight years in Philadelphia, he’s now an Associate Professor of Poetry at the University of Virginia. He lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.


Brian Teare: I’m grateful for this chance to talk together, as I’ve been greatly moved by Now Do You Know Where You Are. As you might remember, I first came across “Appointment” in The Yale Review, and wrote to you to say that I was just wowed by it. Re-reading it in the context of the collection, I was struck by how many of the book’s preoccupations are held within it. I think of the book as a meditation on threshold moments, those times in our lives and in our collective history when we face the future while deeply aware of our pasts, moments of fraught becoming, moments deep in difficult process, the now and the where of being embodied spirits. I wonder if you could speak to your own sense of crossing over thresholds in the process of writing this remarkable, vulnerable book?    

Dana Levin: Brian, thank you so much for reading my book with such depth and openness—an ideal reader! I just finished your book, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, which I missed when it originally came out. I’m floored by its formal bravery and structural accomplishments, moved so much by the travail of the body of B (as I’ve been calling it, in my mind). Considering that, and your question here, I’m thinking about metamorphosis, and how much agony is involved in it. Orb Weaver spiders molt by pumping their own blood through their bodies with enough force so their old skins split; when snakes begin to shed, the skin loosens around their eyes so that they are nearly blind for the entire shedding process; caterpillars completely dissolve their bodies so butterflies can form from the goo. Being born (again) is terrifying and dangerous and one is at one’s most vulnerable at the threshold, neither here nor there, skinless and bare. I felt this way, writing from 2016 through 2019, when the book was in the goo stage. 

I think my most profound threshold experience while writing Now was a week in March 2017. I’d taken my beloved cat off all intervention for kidney disease and called a home vet to come and euthanize him on the coming Friday. Murray the Cat seemed very relieved—he napped, he stank, he drank water. Sitting on the floor next to him in my study I could suddenly see how all these notes I’d been keeping about my first two autumns in Saint Louis might make a poem—a poem, a “made thing,” as “poem” means in ancient Greek, that would include prose, and haibun, and lists, and verse, and documentary material. There I sat with my dead-alive cat, in my Santa Fe-Saint Louis, in my timeless-poet-temporal-citizen spirit-body, trying to feel into where I-we-the poem was heading—

Two years later, in 2019, I woke up on the Feast of Epiphany thinking, “You should write down everything you can remember about working with Jensen,” which became “Appointment,” and the remembrance of the difficulty of my birth, and then I realized: Now Do You Know Where You Are was about crossing threshold after threshold, all concentric, like a Buddhist mandala, trying to get to a center of light. The book is a chronicle of those incomplete journeys; a book neither here nor there, for the purists concerned with genre categories, a book trying to find form(s) for not knowing. 

And now I am thinking about emptying, an experience so profoundly evoked in your book. I wonder if you could talk about that in relation to the thresholds you crossed in writing it.

BT: I’m struck by that threshold moment while you attended to Murray the Cat in his final days. Something about finally accepting the death of a beloved? About committing to seeing him over the threshold of what Marie Howe in “My Dead Friends” calls the “frightening door”? I’m so moved by that, knowing how difficult that work is, having sat with my own irreplaceable cats on this very threshold. But it also makes sense that, when we let go of one desire—for the beloved to remain with us, for instance—that our vision changes. We see the world differently—our sense of the work of being here changes. Perhaps I’m projecting, but I hear that in your story of loving Murray the Cat.

Thank you for paying attention to the word empty, for marking emptying as a site of transformation. At some point in 2009, I admitted to myself that what had for several years been steadily increasing discomfort and an odd constellation of symptoms had finally coalesced into chronic pain and illness. The body-mind I had known had more or less vanished, and I did not understand the body-mind that I found myself inhabiting and which increasingly felt like it inhabited me. It indeed felt like an emptying of self. What refilled the site where “I” had been was unrecognizable. I had patchy mental clarity; I had trouble walking for very long. Cognitive fog and limited mobility necessitated a shift in how I wrote. 

During this time I became attached to the visual artist and writer Agnes Martin, whose quasi-Buddhist purview in her Writings was familiar to me from zazen. It was a kind of comfort. Her early grid paintings and drawings helped me see how the typeset page is also a grid or matrix—especially how the sonnet is a grid—and I saw her rather stern, dictatorial, and very certain theory of the nature of art and reality as a kind of conceptual and spiritual grid. Eventually I allowed myself to use them all as formal and philosophical constraints. 

Illness and Agnes necessitated a great emptying out of the writing itself: where I had gone long, I went short. Where I had cultivated maximalism, I went toward minimalism. Where I had written sentences, I wrote short lines. Where I had supplied details and candor, I cut them. I practiced a new formal vocabulary that necessitated new ways of reading and redefined “poem” itself. Like Agnes’ grids, most of the poems can be read multiple ways. I emptied myself of total control over the meaning of the text, much in the way my body-mind evaded control or any certain meaning. Both for myself and for the Western medical doctors from whom I tried to get a diagnosis. 

Perhaps that’s why I’m so moved by and attached to Now Do You Know Where You Are—it is, like The Empty Form, “a book trying to find form(s) for not knowing,” as you so beautifully wrote above. Your book captures quite openly and viscerally the writerly struggle of transformation, allowing the reader to follow along with you. But it also captures the way such linguistic and spiritual transformations are simultaneously rooted in embodiment. The bodyworker and “Incarnation Specialist,” Jensen, asks, “Can you let yourself be completely rewired.” This is a question you seem to be asking yourself as a poet, too. In what ways did you find your work stuck in or returning to old postures? And in what ways did you find yourself rewired as you wrote this book?

DL: Such a meaty question. The old posture: the archetypal, the vatic, the oracular, Delphic knowing. I so love this kind of voice and vision. I can feel the fire of the old prophets—Biblical, Hellenic—wanting to speak through me, to exhort me (and the reader) to change

Such fire can only be fueled by confidence. In 2016, I lost my confidence: my trust in my art, that my poems were worth reading. I had entered the long wilderness of mid-career, where these feelings are not so unusual—yet still, they antagonize. I had had a pretty starry debut, as an emerging poet, and my own evaluation of my career in 2016, as Banana Palace came out, was one of waning

Whether this is true or not is beside the point—I believed it was true, I feared it. The political situation in this country after Trump’s election added pressure and dread to this feeling that what my poems had to offer was not what anyone needed to read.

I spent a lot of time brooding on what “waning” meant, what “needed” meant. I was ashamed to be so attached to the gold star. I could recognize it as an old stay against the blasts and freezes of my parents, a substitution for their affection and regard, which was fitful and quite dependent on my own material success, such as it was for a kid: straight A’s, spelling bee trophy. But such knowing changed nothing about my feelings—understanding, alone, never does. Sorry Freud! 

I knew I was going to have to pry my fingers off gold stars if I hoped to write and live without psychic misery. And then there was leaving Santa Fe after nineteen years for Saint Louis, a city that was a mystery to me, and the death of Murray the Cat—all of these conditions conspired and conflated: I no longer knew where “I” was.

In light of rehashing this history for you, I feel these sentences of yours especially:

“when we let go of one desire…our vision changes.”

“…committing to seeing…over the threshold of what Marie Howe calls the “frightening door””

“What refilled the site where “I” had been was unrecognizable” 

I think these feelings, as you so wonderfully articulate them, are what carried me towards the re-wiring into which “Incarnation Specialist” Jensen had invited me: poems of the lyric interior gave way to poems engaging the Now, as it stood between 2016 and 2020. Turning towards the present after long prizing timelessness in poems resulted in chattier poems, which in turn drove a longer and longer line, all the way into prose. I’d so affiliated my poems—myself as a poet—with heavy enjambment, with the dance of text and textless space, that the lyric paragraph felt like a new country. I found myself attracted to the diaristic, to notation and annotation more than evocation, to remembering more than fantasizing.

As I worked on Now, I made peace with disappointment: a feeling I once surrounded with shame and secrecy. I made peace with wanting and shame! Wanting is such an ordinary feeling. Why so secret? I was also contending with other kinds of fear while working on the book: fear of letting the raw quotidian through, of confessing my dread of Trump’s America, of writing about Whiteness—coming to St. Louis in the immediate aftermath of Ferguson, confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 project—these things reoriented me. 

The willingness to let go, to let vision change, to see through the frightening door—a new way of seeing awaits, if the process doesn’t annihilate you. One thing I deeply admire about The Empty Form is its formal ingenuity, and the way it enacts this struggle to see. I immediately understood that many of your poems were asking me to read them in multiple ways, their meanings changing depending on whether I was reading horizontally or vertically or diagonally. For the first time in my reading life, I had the experience of encountering a poem in the exact same way I encounter works of visual art: my eye liberated to roam, to double-back, to focus and to scan, to zoom in and pan back, to take in the textual field as a visual totality as much as information to decode. Reading your poems made me realize what a little tyrant text is, always mandating you to head in one direction.

And your bravery in proceeding with these formal experiments—the willingness to try a reader’s patience! To risk alienation. Did such fears accost you at all? Maybe not—when the body is in peril, such fears may seem superfluous. But I’m curious if aesthetic fear was a component in the making of The Empty Form.

I thought a lot about shamanic dismemberment while reading the book. Not just in terms of what you were going through, but in terms of the forms of the poems themselves. Especially the poems that made cross-like forms, or grids with their middles missing, or that came in chunks distributed across the field of the page: I thought not only of Christ on the cross, but many rituals of initiation that take the body to limits one thinks it cannot endure: the Sun Dance of the Sioux, Odin hanging on the windy tree for nine days, giving up his eye for poetry.

Maybe what Agnes offered you was a cross to hang your body on. And then there came a moment—you reference at the end of your preface—where you “felt the same way until you didn’t.” I wonder if you could talk about that too. 

BT: What a rich answer. I especially love where you went with my phrase “old postures”! I was thinking quite literally, about bodily posture, in part because of a beloved osteopath who often commented that though my body responded quickly to her manipulations, it always returned to her having stubbornly resumed its old postures. And in art I was thinking about how your work with Jensen seems to have focused on addressing “old postures” both ontological and foundational. But, of course, for a poet, posture is also a stance taken in the poem—and toward the poem—and also a way of navigating career. 

Wanting, ambition, fear, shame, pain, alienation, dismemberment: I think we’re both ultimately talking about suffering? How to relate to it and how to express it? How our poetry holds it? How entrusting suffering to poetic language and poetic form shapes our experience of it? 

I was raised very Christian, and in Christian theology suffering has a lot of value; if undergone or undertaken correctly, it is literally redemptive. I exited Christianity—and was ejected by it—by virtue of coming out as queer when I was a teenager.  These most recent years of acute illness were only the latest iteration of realizing how much existential scaffolding religion supplies. So I think you’re right that, during this period of acute illness, I turned to Agnes with sincere passion, as though she were a religious figure. And though I was shocked when I read your sentence, “Maybe what Agnes offered you was a cross to hang your body on,” in a sense you’re absolutely right. I gave my suffering to her writings; I organized it via her grids; I believed in her.

When I first worked with the gridded poems I didn’t fear alienating readers. On one level, I was simply chuffed to have found a work-around to the many constraints of writing while acutely ill, low-income, and without health insurance. But on another level I was also crystal clear about my ambitions and intentions for the form. I was living in the Bay Area, which was then a context in which one’s poetics—one’s theory of poetry—could at times seem more important than one’s poems. Which meant that by a certain point in drafting the book, I could make a strong case for what I was doing. 

Then I showed a late draft to my friend Jean Valentine, the book’s dedicatee, and she was alienated by it. She wrote me a terse note of complaint, which took me by surprise. It was the one time in our relationship I was aware we really hurt each other—she felt hurt by the alienation she experienced, and I felt hurt by how frustrated she was. But Jean was generous, compassionate, and patient; she sat with the draft, eventually came around to it, and was honored by the dedication. She even read from the book at its first launch party in 2015! And I honored her frustration by incorporating a bit of it into the final draft of the book itself: “I lay down my gaze as one lays down one’s weapons” uses a “voiceover” that complains about not knowing how to read the poem, and urges the reader to give up in order to feel better.

And now back to your question about Agnes: as the preface suggests, I finally tired of her extreme constraints in both concept and form. Though I freely chose to follow them, my dedication to them constituted its own suffering by the end. But Agnes also loved to get rid of things; she eschewed friendships and pets, cut up finished paintings, and jettisoned commonplace ideas and beliefs—evolution, the theory of relativity, etc.—in order to free up her mind for inspiration. So to continue your brilliant insight: if Agnes offered me a cross on which to hang my body, I accepted it because I expected it to save me from suffering. But in the end, what liberation I found was in no longer waiting for or wanting salvation, in giving up—paradoxically following her advice! As I write in the last poem in the book: “I’m happy      I really like/ this painting    there’s no salvation in it.” 

And yet you and I both turn to and return to poetry, to the posture of the first person, even if it’s not exactly the “old posture” either of us had grown used to. In my case, I was certainly curious about whether “the lyric,” as I had been taught to practice it, could survive being gridded, dispersed across the visual field—much in the way I was on some level curious whether my body could survive illness. In your case, as you say, you stretch the poem’s line toward prose, the vatic voice toward chattiness, and root the poems not only in timelessness but also in an explicitly time-bound body, as in “How to Hold the Heavy Weight of the Now.” And I’m struck how that poem opens with a physical gesture and ends with a metaphysical one—“an offering.” 

Throughout your books, the physical and the metaphysical dovetail. The metaphysical and the question of suffering, the physical and the question of change, and vice versa—in your work it can be impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. I wonder how the relation between the metaphysical and the physical changed for you during the writing of this book? I also wonder how the relation between suffering and change might have changed for you? And what does poetry—your making—offer these powerful forces, so heightened at midlife? Was it through making that you literally made peace with shame and wanting?     

DL: Ha, hilarious that you meant your question about “old postures” literally! Of course I immediately responded to it as metaphor—my default conscious state is always out-of-body. I often wonder if my initial birth experience—born sick, after fighting for months for survival in the womb, major surgery without anesthetic at six days old, in isolation in an incubator for two months, with a colostomy bag attached to a hole in my side—made me quite ambivalent about embodiment from the moment “I” incarnated. 

When you wrote, “Wanting, ambition, fear, shame, pain, alienation, dismemberment: I think we’re both ultimately talking about suffering? How to relate to it and how to express it? How our poetry holds it?” I thought, now we’ve gotten to the meat of this conversation—enduring the literal terrible beautiful meat of being human is what you and I are talking about. 

The truth of meat undergirds most poems, implicitly: the situation of the timeless, unfettered imagination shackled to inevitable death. But there are poets for whom the essential soul/body dichotomy is the subject, explicitly. I think you and I are these types. Early on in composing work that would end up in Now, I would think, “At last! Leaving the body as subject!”—I was so focused on the socio-political aspects emerging out of what I was working on, material that felt new and troubling to me, that for a while I forgot: no ideas but in things—no socio-political without bodies. 

Re-embracing my apparently perennial subject matter helped the book become what it is. I think the first poem in the book, “A Walk in the Park,” addresses this whole dynamic directly: after fourteen stanzas of mental wandering and wondering about “spindles” and the nature of incarnation and paradise, “the vigilance /of my genderdoom” kicks in:

And there it was, the fact

of my body—

all the nerves in my scalp

and the back of my neck, 


When I wrote these lines, I didn’t even know I was writing a poem about taking a walk in a park! Getting in touch with the body offered me a setting and situation for the poem, which had at that point been developing as pure lyric meditation, “genderdoom” a concept rather than a felt experience. Writing “genderdoom” made me ask: when, where, do I forget “the fact / of my body” and most acutely remember it? While walking alone “deep in thought / in a city park” was my answer. Thus the poem re-stitched me into my body and the world.

I think incarnating is what writing poems does for me, in the main. So yes, to your last question: it was “through making” that I literally made peace with shame and wanting. Psychically surviving midlife involves re-committing to going on, despite inevitable disappointments and inescapable death.

You asked how the relation between suffering and change might have transformed as I worked on Now. One thing I really got was that the idea of progress was no help to me, in weathering suffering and change: progress of a career, progress of mental health, progress of society, this idea that we’re all supposed to endlessly ascend—like a rocket ship, dropping old parts away to vanish forever—was put to the test as I worked on Now. I no longer believe in ascension. I believe in the inevitability of return: everything turns into its opposite, in a round—and the real question is not how to ascend, but how to endure.

So it blew my mind when you said a part of the process of writing The Empty Form was to see “whether ‘the lyric’ as I had been taught to practice it could survive being gridded, dispersed across the visual field—much in the way I was on some level curious whether my body could survive illness.” You hung your poems up on the cross of Agnes too! You tested them to see if they could endure.

I love how you talk about ending this passion: “if Agnes offered me a cross on which to hang my body, I accepted it because I expected it to save me from suffering. But in the end, what liberation I found was in no longer waiting for or wanting salvation.” The tendency in illness narratives is to privilege the heroism of healing, but you resist this completely. I began to wonder not just about endurance but duration—how much time it took to draft the poems in The Empty Form. I’m wondering if and how revision may have played a part in saying goodbye to a dream of rescue.

BT: I sure wanted “the heroism of healing”! And I desperately sought it from Western doctors during the earliest years of illness, when it was acute and the symptoms were unmanageable. Neither heroism nor healing followed those interactions. And when embodied experience continued to interpose between me and my own sense of agency, I continued to feel that was not okay. I clung to the illusion that I’m in charge of how meaning gets made around here, and what kind of meaning that will be.  An ableist delusion, ultimately. 

Like you, I inherited that particular posture from the culture, and it’s what began to irk me about Agnes—her urge toward pure mind, her purging from her thought and work the messy guts and hormones and genitals of being a mammal. Is there a way to be a dualist that isn’t violent? Of course, that had once comforted me greatly, the way she empties her forms. Like scraping animal skin of its hair and fat with a very sharp, very pretty knife. Her deft, steady hand. Flawless execution.

It was only after Western medical care failed to offer both diagnosis and care that I was forced to give up the dream of heroic healing, to figure out something more like “healing without cure.” The poet and critic Eleni Stecopolous spoke in a 2013 panel about finding  “a therapeutic form of impasse,” and I loved her idea immediately. I think of it as accepting that lack of ascendance about which you speak so eloquently. And it’s true that when I stopped thrashing against the reality of my embodiment, I stopped making my suffering worse. But I suppose writing the serial poems of The Empty Form was a way to record the failure of one way of relating to suffering and to begin to conceive of or practice another? That process took six years, 2009-2015.

It wasn’t “just” a writing project, the way your work is not. It was a metaphysics too, and at the time it felt like the stakes were quite literally my life. Of course, the whole point of the Agnes mode is that the stakes don’t feel like that—you see the beautiful, clean animal skin and not the bucket of its stinking guts—so I tried to empty the work of that level of mortal urgency in order to see what else was there. And I also had to work around the constraints of life with a chronic illness while low-income, uninsured, and precariously employed as an adjunct. 

The idea of the typeset page as a grid allowed me to work in bursts, during free time that coincided with lucidity and energy. Most of the poems were composed that way; I could “hang” a line or stanza on the grid, leave (not usually of my own volition), and come back to it with a bit more language. I built them by hand, bit by bit. The sonnets that bookend most sections were direct ekphrastic engagements with specific Agnes drawings or paintings, and those I wrote in a more through-composed way during the hours when I could concentrate. I remember the blue cotton blanket on which I’d open a book of her work to the painting or drawing I’d write into. Years of that rough woven blue, first in San Francisco, and then in Philadelphia where a new job meant I could begin to build both financial and health care support.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but I experience the finish of a book physically. It really clicks into itself like a joint. Fit and click, and no more poems in that mode. The specific energy is gone, used up or just cut off. I felt that with The Empty Form, except that the final poem managed to squeak through during an acupuncture session in South Philly, right before I had to turn in the final manuscript in 2015. I love that poem like the messenger it is! But in 2021 and 2022, I found myself returning to those years of acute illness, to my notebooks from that time, and, in essence, rewriting The Empty Form by stuffing the beautifully dressed animal skin back full of guts. So I have also experienced the recursive movement you spoke about. I wonder if you could share a bit about how you’re seeing that return in your own work now?

DL: Ah Brian, I am confused and hesitant to report I am writing about my childhood! In prose! Dear god.

Confused and hesitant because: why this, why now? I worry about the value of such a book. Who gives a shit about my life? I once said this to Kaveh Akbar while talking about this prose work, and he mentioned something Vijay Seshadri had said, that our unprecedented experience is the only thing we bring to poetry; our singular unprecedented experience is the only thing we really have to offer. Yes! It’s so easy to think it can have no value, the conditions of society being what they are here in 2023: so many urgent collective problems. Yet, why do we think art can or should even try to solve these problems? What does “solve” mean when it comes to poetry? When you talked about “healing without cure” above, I thought, this is it: the only rubric for poetry’s “use.” 

“Healing without cure” is also the only prescription for enduring an oppressive childhood—the effects of which can last long into adulthood. My childhood was dominated by my bipolar father, whom I adored and feared; and my mother’s fruitless efforts to contain him, which mostly involved denial and minimization of just how violent and damaging he was. 

I’ve always written about my parents, but as time has worn on, writing about them has changed: first, it indicted; later, it grieved. Now I seem to be interested in how my parents, in both their damaging and encouraging ways, primed me for poetry. What were the psychological factors involved in choosing poetry as a way of expression, a method of endurance? The “encouraging” part of my parents is new territory: I’ve been having to confront how, artistically, I’ve kept them both locked in emblems of violence and silence that have hardly changed for forty years. 

In our email exchange, when I told you about my current writing, you said you have been writing about childhood too! “Spooky coincidence or mid-life vibes? DISCUSS!” I don’t know about you, but once I turned fifty I had the uncanny experience of turning around—as if I had never done it before—to start to look into my past. I’d love to hear about this writing you’re doing.

BT: Thank you for daring vulnerability again here, for sharing this turn in your writing and psychic life. Like you, in my first published book I wrote directly about some fundamental childhood traumas; this is, as we all know, fairly typical of first books by poets coming out of late 20th and 21st century MFA programs, most of which carry on the legacy of Confessional and post-Confessional poetry. But after that first book, I decided not to give my family of origin any more time on the page. This was both pragmatic—the publication of that book was stressful for everyone—artistic—as a writer I didn’t want to be limited to or defined by that subject matter—and psychological—I thought by writing out those traumas, I was done with them.

In grad school, I studied trauma theory. One article I obsessed over suggested to me that, by putting traumatic memories back into narrative time, by restoring a sense of timeline and a “proper” ordering of events, the disruptive power of PTSD would diminish. Seeking liberation from my past, I grossly misinterpreted the theory I was reading, and I grossly overestimated the power of narrative to do this work, as well as my own capacity for self-knowledge. It’s not like I thought, after finishing The Room Where I Was Born, that I was “cured” of having had a childhood marred by abuse, mental illness, alcoholism, homophobia, and gun violence. But I did think I was partly “over” a childhood that, it turns out, never really ended in my body and unconscious mind. 

Something about midlife really brought that unendingness out, a fact I addressed both in analysis and trauma-oriented bodywork. And because I was trying so hard not to fall apart, this effort made its way into the new book, Poem Bitten by a Man, the one I described above as stuffing all the guts back into the beautifully dressed animal skin of The Empty Form. Like you, I had a defining and difficult relationship with my mother—so did Agnes Martin, Jasper Johns, so did a lot of artists and writers whose work moves me. So as the title of the book suggests, I began to think about what artists do with the aggression they receive as children, when they are the helpless objects of maternal anger, disappointment, and rejection. How does it live on in our own relationships to the objects we make and with which we define our relationships to the world? 

As Winnicott reminds us, every important object is a site of both love and aggression. So maybe the value of the kind of writing it sounds like you’re doing is that it is about a kind of suffering we all live with: the tension between love and destruction, care and violence. This tension ensouls us. And because it is so difficult to persevere in bodies that hold violent histories wired into their very nervous systems, I hold close the work that models, in a nontrivial way, the complexity of keeping going. And it’s the work I want to be making. Don’t you?

DL: Yes, my brother. Yes.