Issue #14 Summer 2008
INTERVIEW WITH MICHELLE NAKA PIERCE
Bootstrap/ PUB LUSH, 2007
4/3/08, Boulder, CO
Perel: What, to you, were the beginnings of Beloved Integer?
Pierce: In 2003, my partner Chris Pusateri moved to Seattle. At the start of our separation, he sent an email to me, saying that the “feeling of connectedness manifests itself in the small details” [see epigraph]. So I began to write the details of my daily life to him, as a way to connect. In some of my writing courses, we spend the first 10 minutes freewriting; I wrote much of the text in that space. Initially, I didn’t conceive of this writing as a project per se; I just wanted to capture the quotidian. It was a small gesture—personal and just for Chris. I had written about 20 or so when Rachel Levitsky and Erica Kaufman of Belladonna* invited me to read in NY. They asked for some work, so I sent 12-15 of them, and they were published as a small chapbook in 48 Minutes Left (Belladonna* Books, 2003); some of them were revised and used later in Beloved Integer. It was at this time that the audience shifted, that I started to think about these small snippets of writing as a project. I continued writing in those 10-minute blocks with my students here at Naropa (though I revised these pieces in longer blocks of time at home), then later with my students at Bard College when I taught in their Language and Thinking Workshop.
As I said, the audience began to shift. On one level, I was still writing for Chris and emailing them to him, but then other layers of the text began to emerge. So the first layer we’ve discussed: the quotidian details of my life, which include the mundane/trivial, but also the intertextual (as in Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author”) of what I am reading/have read. As I wrote these details, I noticed that numbers kept appearing: time of day, number of days, dates, phone numbers, time changes, binaries and space between. I wondered…how do we figure love? Account for it? Figure as in person, number, or diagram/chart, as in Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. I reread his book and was struck by the reflections of a lover when she is alone, absent of her lover. Barthes describes these figures as “fragments of discourse.” He says, “The figure is outlined (like a sign) and memorable (like an image).” It’s interesting…Maureen Owen reminds us (on the back cover) that the integer is a whole number. Yet the discourse here in this book is not whole but fragmented in time and space—it is one-sided.
And finally Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—and let me begin by saying, I am not an expert in this area. But my understanding is that when one is able to measure/locate the position of a particle, the momentum is difficult to determine, and when one is able to track momentum, the position is difficult to locate with exact certainty. So if I focus on the details of the relationship, then is the trajectory (force/energy) of the relationship hard to measure? And if I focus on the momentum, then do I lose sight of the details, which according to Chris is where the feeling of connectedness manifests? Applying these theories to intimacy made the focus shift from quotidian inventory to philosophical inquiry.
Perel: What about the references to Heisenberg in the middle of the pages?
Pierce: I take his equations and write my own interpretations of them, as they apply to these ideas of detail and momentum in the relationship, in order to illustrate a question about distance that I am investigating.
Perel: You do apply a lot of theoretical applications to the notion of relationship in your book and more rhetorical questions that relate to a larger concept of relationship. I wanted to learn more about this intersection between your personal questioning about intimacy and your intimacy as a writer and thinker.
Pierce: Even when I was just writing the text for Chris, there was an element of theoretical thinking coming forth because when I’m writing, I’m never writing in isolation. I’m often reading and stealing or spring-boarding off the ideas that are swirling around. I don’t know if there’s a separation between the private self and the writer self (even if one tries to edit the personal self out). That is how the intertextuality comes into play. The self is a constructed entity, built on all the experiences (which include texts one has read) prior to the present moment. So while this book may seem more personal than say my first book, I think my work might be hybridizing the personal with the theoretical—hybridizing on the level of discourse, not only on the level of genre.
Perel: Let’s look at the line on page 16: “I want to shift focus to an experience larger than ourselves.” Is that “experience larger than ourselves” the actual experience of love—as something beyond the subject—or is it something which transcends love? Or is it the opposite of love?
Pierce: I’m not sure I can expand on that. While I feel that a lot of this text comes from a personal place, my relationship with language is to think about it and play with it. I’m interested in working with Lyn Hejinian’s “Rejection of Closure” and Michael Palmer’s open circuit—there is an “arc” between the writer and reader, and the reader “completes” the circuit of meaning. Chris’s actual absence becomes a platform for that gap in language, as an attempt to make an open gesture. I can look at certain lines and sometimes know where they came from, but not all of the text works on that level. I don’t know what this line “means,” and I’m interested in what it may mean to various readers. Is that what it means to you?
Perel: Considering its theoretical basis in the arc, as an open gesture, I’d say it’s an aporia. The puzzle of intimacy between lovers or between writer and reader cannot be solved, quantified or qualified by language, but writing comes from this desire to push that limit, to solve the unsolvable.
Pierce: Maybe not solve, maybe it’s more of an exploration of the problem—the problem of absence, the problem in language, etc. The shifting of focus to a larger experience might conjure up love for some readers, and I am fine with that, but I remember placing that block of text next to Freud (perhaps it was my editor Veronica Corpuz who suggested it…it’s hard to remember now) in order to suggest that movement away from the personal, which some think of as a self-indulgent act. I think this text exists somewhere in between “mainstream” and “the experimental” (whatever those terms may mean) because sometimes people with experimental leanings want the “I” and the lyric to be challenged more. There is an element of sentiment in the text, and it makes me somewhat uncomfortable.
Perel: So, you think of sentiment as…
Pierce: A device?
Perel: Or habit? That’s why I was asking about that line on page 16. See, a reason why I felt that I had to go back to your book multiple times was because of this interrogation of extremes. It isn’t stuck in a purely experimental place, nor is it just about this love story. But there’s a tone of longing that propels the text, so if you call that longing “sentiment,” how could the text exist without it? What about longing as a point of departure?
Pierce: Yeah, I think that is embedded in the text because of that initial gesture behind the project, a longing for connectedness and communication. These blocks of texts are not in letterform, “Dear Chris,” but they are epistolary. I think the underlying emotion in my life during that time was related to his absence and also his presence… We’re on the phone, he’s flying to Boulder, I’m flying to Seattle, there’s constant readjustment. Absence, presence, the space in between. There’s a moment in the book where we’re both in Seattle, and he’s at his desk facing the wall, and I’m sitting behind him and writing to him! [See page 56.] It’s this activity that began and formed into a writing practice. It was one form of our communication. Even though we also spoke on the phone, it was one way we cultivated the relationship while we were living 1400 miles apart.
Perel: It seems like that longing opened up a longing in different relationships, a longing for different intimacies, and then touched back down to the relationship. The perspective in the book seems to zoom in and out in this way from this personal place to a more public inquiry. The example of when you’re writing to him even when you’re in physical proximity means that intimacy is not just about physical presence, that there’s another sense of presence that’s being interrogated, conjured, and mapped-out in your text.
Pierce: I can see that zooming in and out. I like the way you have described it. And yes, physical proximity does not necessarily provide or establish intimacy. However, I’m not sure I sat down and decided to write “about” intimacy. I didn’t say, “I’m going to write about intimacy, I’m going to write about desire, I’m going to figure this out and tell you.” I was writing to hold onto something. And that’s the crazy part because one can’t really hold on, as it says on page 17: “‘Physics tells us that keeping everything in one place is a myth.’ What myth am I subscribing to by trying to keep you here?” I have this image of who he is, and I am trying to hold on so that I can hold onto the relationship, and yet he has already moved on from that place.
Perel: Right, that wasn’t where I was going, anyway. I was going to ask you what the experience of writing these moments or letters was like for you, when you would get to write these at a point in your day, and if when you began to have a larger audience in mind, whether that was a transformative place for you. Did writing within the experience of absence give…now I’m afraid of asking you because I think I learned this from being in your workshop. Maybe this meaning is not relevant to you.
Pierce: No, please finish the question.
Perel: Did it give you a new sense of meaning about your relationship to Chris? Your relationship to writing? Or your relationship to absence?
Pierce: Well, I’m always surprised that I have any new writing at all. Finishing a book gives me separation anxiety (laughs). I always feel like I’ll never write anything else again! But to answer your question, I think writing the book allowed me to think about the constructed nature of relationship and memory. I was reading Daniel Schacter’s Searching for Memory, in which he says, “different people retain and recollect very different aspects of their everyday environments…. The brain does not operate like a camera or a copy machine…. [O]nly bits and pieces of incoming data are represented in memory.” Essentially, we use fragments of our experiences to construct a past, which in turn are used to construct a self…or in this case, construct the relationship: “What we believe about ourselves is determined by what we remember about our pasts.”
But you mentioned something about being in my workshop. From that experience, what is it that you perceive about me that made you hesitant to ask that question?
Perel: I guess because we discussed the relativity of meaning. It gets hard in your book because there’s a romantic sense of meaning, but it’s turned over, opened up. Other things are inserted. So when I began to ask about meaning, I thought, hmm…what do I mean by meaning?
Pierce: If it works on that level, then maybe one thing that it’s saying is that the relationship is constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed again and again. Each time I sat down to write, each time we had a conversation, regardless if I were writing directly about the relationship or not, I was constructing… I mean, at one point I allude to Stein, I allude to King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I mention Freud… How these things relate to my relationship with Chris, I can’t directly know. But I think of identity as a constructed thing, knowledge and intimacy as constructed things, so it’s not something I can grasp and pinpoint and say, “Oh! There it is!” because as soon as I do that, it’s already moved on from that point. I think the references to re/de/construction are very subtle though. The reader might think the book is just about distance. And I think on some level it is about distance, but it’s also about writing, about absence, about presence, and so on. I don’t know, a lot of things are infiltrating that text because I think the way the mind works, or the way my mind works, is not in a singular linear progression. It’s more weaving or web-like, so all this other stuff is filtering in, and it’s informing how we communicate with one another.
Perel: When you talked about the writing being in between “mainstream” and “experimental” you said that you felt uncomfortable. Will you talk more about that?
Pierce: I think when I’m writing, I’m not necessarily thinking, “how is the audience going to receive this?” Occasionally those questions do pop-up, but for the most part when I’m writing, I’m working on a more present moment relationship with the text that is being developed. But after I write or occasionally in that process, things come up, such as “well, who is going to read this?” I think I say that in the book, actually. I’m not trying to make a universal statement about love or absence or distance or whatever. I think that’s why it shifted after the Belladonna* publication because when I decided it was going to be a project, it highlighted my preconceived notions about writing and that includes audience, clearly. Chris and I discussed this, and he said that he never thought about publishing his companion pieces, that initially he didn’t think of them as a project. But when my book came out, he was working with the Dusie Collective and decided to put his “letters” into a chapbook, North of There (2007), which was then republished in his book anon (BlazeVOX, 2008).
As a writing professor, I’m constantly having this conversation about audience. What does the audience value? What does the audience expect? How do you enter the discourse community? So to go back to your question about “mainstream” and “experimental,” I started to ask what my audience might expect. Yet, I didn’t want my choices to be disproportionately influenced by notions of audience, and I’m not even sure who that is exactly. I think this piece is hard to place because it has sentiment coupled with theoretical language, but hopefully it’s not too sentimental.
Perel: Well, the text is very visual and photographic. Especially when you’re documenting your daily activities. The part when the television is the only light in the room [see page 18] conjured a whole field of emotions for me. Like how a photograph presents a scene that evokes a world of emotion based on some kind of metonymic quality. It’s not like you ever directly say, “I miss you” in the text, but these snapshots from a distance imply this feeling. Perhaps this gives way to a kind of sentimentality, but it’s not deliberate or direct.
Pierce: Are you saying that I’m observing myself? That I’m not inside myself when writing? (Laughs.)
Pierce: I think it’s both, neither, in between. Sometimes I’m clearly in my body. In reference to the scene you described, a wave of emotion came up that almost made me tear-up because I remember that moment vividly; it was a Sunday. But I’m not always working from that space.
Perel: When you talk about the fluidity of what is informing you in your life and in your writing and the subsequent intertextuality that is formed, would you say that this is a more intimate experience of text than writing through your voice alone?
Pierce: Yes, well, I might be reading Calvino, and then he appears in my writing, as he did in this book. But there are gaps between the sign and the referent, which apply to both the writer and the reader. This came up in one of my classes the other day. The device of obfuscation, where the writer knows the meaning and the text is closed. He/she knows what is going on in the text and intentionally obscures it from the reader, but for me there’s more of a space in the writer-reader arc. I’m not trying to obscure; I’m trying to create space for my reader to enter so she may create her own meaning. So yes, there is a reflection on intimacy, relationship, and desire here, as well as on intertextuality, but I want that reflection to be open. There are gaps that are left for the reader, such as paratactic syntax in places.
Perel: As a reader, I found myself getting lost in the physical space of the texts.
Pierce: Yes, there’s a lot of negative space there, like with the graphs. Although the longitude and latitude are indicated, they aren’t plotted. There’s a kind of absence on the graph (even though there are words). I can point to that location, but I can’t describe it to its full capacity because it has already shifted, similar to the physics myth I mentioned earlier. The text moves like a clock (points to the text and moves her finger clockwise from paragraph to paragraph). Though each graph indicates roughly the four cities I wrote in (Albuquerque, Seattle, Boulder, and Annandale-on-Hudson), my writing from each city is disbursed throughout the text. I can’t graph the actual location of each city because the city has changed, Chris has changed, I have changed; all three are no longer what I knew.
Perel: That movement and shift is definitely indicated in your use of Barthes’ fragments. Like on page 48, “Absence can only exist as a consequence. Can only exist as a consequence of this. Only exist as a consequence of this other…” Your manipulation of that line reveals that the signifiers of the “I” and the “other” are in constant flux. It shows that absence is not consequence but condition.
Pierce: But constant flux would seem to indicate that at some point, in a nonfixed system, that absence is consequence, then condition, then neither. The style of writing references Stein’s repetitions that do not repeat. There’s a traveling, a movement. The spatial position (or in your words, condition) is not fixed. The construction shifts, as with the graphs and the cities. Barthes writes that the lover’s discourse is “the site of someone speaking within [her]self…, confronting the other…, who does not speak” because the other is absent. The writing is not really for the absent lover; it is for the self. It makes me question whether I was really writing this to Chris at all. Was I actually writing it in order to traverse that space?
Born in Tokyo, Japan, Michelle Naka Pierce is the author of two books: Beloved Integer (2007) and TRI/VIA (2003), a collaboration with Veronica Corpuz. Her pedagogical interviews have been published in Rain Taxi, Teachers and Writers, and Transformations, and her creative work has been anthologized in For the Time Being: The Bootstrap Book of Poetic Journals and Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry. She is currently associate professor at Naropa University and lives in Colorado with her partner, the poet Chris Pusateri.
M. Perel is a poet and performance artist who has recently made her way to Chicago, Illinois where she will be in the graduate program in performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has self-published two chapbooks, Inhabit Swarm and Testimony via Polter Press, which she runs with Nicholas A. DeBoer (polterpress[AT]gmail[DOT]com). Her writing has also been published in a previous edition of Tarpaulin Sky, Bombay Gin, ShanghaiSMRadiator, Tendril: Naropa University's Diversity Journal, and is forthcoming from Factsimile/French Press. Most recently, she curated the literary section of "Somewhere Out There: The Movement Research Spring Festival" at Judson Memorial Church, NY where she co-taught a workshop in Authentic Movement, writing and hypnosis with Melissa Buzzeo and Alysha Wood.