The poem “Not Writing” from the book Garments Against Women (2015) was our introduction to the writing of poet and essayist Anne Boyer. In this poem, Boyer lists the multitude of activities that take one away from writing. After finishing this book in 2014, Boyer was diagnosed with highly aggressive breast cancer and underwent treatment. She details her experiences in her forthcoming book, The Undying. In anticipation of this collection of writing, we initiated an exchange with Boyer. An email correspondence that takes place over several months could be another task that defers the act of writing. Or is it where the work happens? A digital epistolary exchange, veiled as administration or conversation, can also be a generative space where the work of writing takes place in disguise. In this conversation, we depart from the manuscript of The Undying, which Boyer shared with us, to discuss disobeying design forms, monuments and their ruins, care and its record. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity from emails that we crafted together and exchanged with Boyer between November 2017 and February 2018.
Alison Karasyk and Amelia Wallin:
The Undying has many lines of inquiry: the impossibility of quantifying pain, the limits of language and writing to fully articulate pain, and speaking through the experience of one’s own body. In Garments Against Women, you refer to this problem as “what-to-do-with-the-information-that-is-feeling.” Does The Undying also take up this admission? Could you elaborate on the transmission of ideas between these projects?
If Garments Against Women is “what-to-do-with-the-information-that-is-feeling,” my hope for The Undying—which I am still finishing up—is that it takes on what-to-do-with-the-information-that-is-information. I think it is a book about how to know when the faculties of knowing are diminished and the most brutal operations of mystification are in effect.
Feeling in The Undying appears as the kind we get in our nerves, and the book is full of hope that there can be an education, too, in extreme sensation that could take us beyond alienation. I’m thinking of the Alphonse Daudet quote I include in the book entreating pain to “be my philosophy, be my science.”
The Undying is a book about wanting so badly to learn something—even the truth, and if not that, an unflinching knowledge of all the lies. While Garments, on the other hand, is maybe more a book about having learned a few things already and wanting to tell. The two books are joined, but not really on purpose. Maybe it’s because I submitted Garments in the weeks before the events of The Undying came crashing down on me, and it is the simple sequentiality of a kind of ordinary life, raising a child, finally getting pretty far through that, and finding a way to make art, then immediately facing the catastrophe of needing care in a world in which single mothers are only meant to take care of everyone else.
Karasyk and Wallin:
In the spaces of medicalized care evoked in The Undying (such as waiting rooms, treatment centers, hospitals), consumption, reproduction, and production are entangled. We are thinking of, for instance, the commodification of illness in the form of the pink ribbon and the spread of neoliberal self-maintenance epitomized by “organic green smoothies and positive thoughts,” as you detail in the book. Your writing offers a counternarrative that addresses and cuts across tropes and ideologies associated with breast cancer survival. At the same time, you surrender to the impossibility of recording a history of illness through literature. Can you speak about the process of entangling your own experience while pushing against grand narratives and the commodification of illness?
I don’t believe it is impossible to record this history, but I do think it is difficult. Part of the difficulty is the overwhelmingness of all the rumors of ineffability. The claim that we can’t write this literature is often a thesis of this literature, but as I say in the book, perhaps this claim is merely evidence that poets have not yet done their best work. Part of it is the almost unbearable power that existing forms exert onto feminized experience. Reproduction, sexual violence, partner violence, and other aspects of human experience traditionally associated with women have, in Western literary traditions, provided the basic materials of melodrama and sentimental accounts for centuries. Now they provide the materials of a seemingly endless production of low-paid, high-click writing of lurid confessions of victimization in which a gloss of “empowered telling” decorates the stubborn operations of someone else’s profit. All the telling in the world when shaped into these accounts cannot seem to dislodge the relations that are told. Our whole lives could be turned into “it happened to me” if we allowed it. But also, it did happen to me. What are we supposed to do about that?
The forms we are given to tell experiences like breast cancer are also in part actual forms, the kinds where we are asked to only fill in the blanks, everything lived now diminished and fungible. And every Facebook comment box remains a form the billionaires have given us to fill out, too. But a blank on a form is a lonely place, and in that, it is the ground of a lie.
The commodification of illness begins before any of its telling, obviously, and can generate its profits even if we never say a word. That also means I am not going to watch us die of this ugly arrangement of the world without fighting back. If telling is the only talent I have, then I will tell, even if a part of what I am telling is that I am clear eyed about what corruption might next happen to/from my telling. I can only hope to be enough of a poet that I can find a literary form that can repel some of these operations that would use the suffering of most of us for the profit of a few. Or if my experience is going to be absorbed, let it at least be like poison.
Unpublished manuscript, Anne Boyer, ‘The Undying’ (forthcoming 2019) page 43 & 88, photograph courtesy of the commissioning editors.
Karasyk and Wallin:
In Garments Against Women, you write, “Monuments are interesting mostly in how they diminish all other aspects of the landscape.” Traditionally, a monument is an unwavering structure made for a public space. There are monuments to commemorate a triumph as well as to acknowledge suffering and culpability. Monuments are made to withstand both weather and time to create the impression of a universal truth.
You take up monuments again in The Undying, writing of a “monument made of notes and starts: ephemeral sensation’s monument of an ephemeralist’s half-literature.” In your writing, the monument is a term that you redefine and recontextualize continuously. You deconstruct its materials and elucidate the counter-rituals sewn within its imagined uses: the temple of weeping, locks of hair left at national monuments. You write, “the condition of having a body that is most interesting for its ruins”; in this way, you reenvision the materiality and function of the monument. Can you elaborate on the monument and its affinity to ruin, particularly how the monument is related to the body and theories of sickness and pain?
If monuments diminish everything else, ruins are the end result of everything else’s revenge. Context—which is that everything else, all that is outside of the monument—becomes animated via metabolic processes and unbeatable in the long game. We know what is around a monument—plants, air, rain, heat, humans, animals, insect life—is what threatens a monument’s deceptive singularity and reveals it to be multiple and surrounded, subject to the same processes that ruin everything else, too. To carefully watch a vine during growing season, particularly one that is tearing off siding and upturning foundations, may be equal to a year’s worth of reading political theory. If it is morning glories versus monumental architectures, I am still definitely on the side of the morning glories.
When I sat down to write the pain part of the book, I was again confronted with the tension between context and the thing. I was removing shards of writing from my journals, but couldn’t get them to recohere, all of it staying fractured by necessity of my fractured thinking at the time. It seemed like I was doing something ludicrous, trying to build a permanent work of literature out of broken little whimpering bits about the most ephemeral experiences when I was still mostly broken and half-ephemeral myself. And I had been fantasizing about a temple for public weeping before I got ill, wanting to make a book about it, so there was the additional comedy of being left instead with a book of ambitious dreaming about architecture, one that is grounded in “the temple” of my own body in peak pathos. Then, it seemed like the best opportunity to practice amor fati: How do I use writing to turn this diseased private, fractured, ruined stuff into a single work—and one that has the seriousness of the enduring, public, and grand? How do I tell about the feelings we have in the cancer pavilion and set it up as what is civic, public, and unavoidable on the government lawn?
Karasyk and Wallin:
Your radical interpretation of monuments and their possibilities leads us to consider how The Undying explores disobeying design forms. You write about the blank spaces in written formats, from hospital forms to Facebook comment boxes. You also write about design expansively in relation to the body in pain and consider how it is affected by objects in its environment. You address this by describing the alienating, circulatory nature of the cancer pavilion and how your own bed is transformed after your diagnosis. Can you elaborate on the relationship between sickness and space, taking into consideration how writing plays into this relationship? Has your relationship to writing changed in considering how language negotiates the frictions inherent within this relationship?
When I was ill I decided that if the cognitive damage from treatment took away my ability to write, I wouldn’t give up a life of thinking, but I would learn, instead, to think via experimental intervention into the physical world. I describe this process and the thinking behind it in more detail in an essay called “How to Go From” in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, a collection of my essays just out from Ugly Duckling Presse. But in short, I practiced for the time when I might need to do this by using my imagination to restage and reconfigure objects and architectures and scenes, or I would watch carefully the way that places and the things in them were and how they were inadequate, and make little sketches in my journals of what existed and how, and what could be improved. I fantasized about many things I still really wish could exist: hydraulic coffin lifters for plexiglass coffins full of embalming honey, or giant scales in which people could weigh themselves against abstractions, or lurid stained-glass medical devices. I was compelled, and probably still am, by the capacity to see and study the forms of the world because once we get what made things (such as objects and environments) really are, we get that they didn’t arrive naturally, and are therefore subject to change. In writing, too, I am compelled by the capacity to imagine something else, to see the forms and spaces we fill out for what they are, to know that how things are now aren’t how they have to be.
This, however, is only one type of thinking of the designed and the made, because there is this other obvious part of it: that space—and in this version of the world in which almost everything is owned, this mostly means the planned or designed space—is where we meet each other. Even the space on the form we fill out is a place we meet. And each other is the most important thing, and the spaces where we are allowed to be with each other determine our forms of meeting. Noticing it, intervening in it, thinking through it is always important, and in sickness, no more or less. It is only in sickness that space is deranged by new experience and sensation, and therefore presents itself as a fresh study.
Karasyk and Wallin:
Cristina Morini, in her article The Feminization of Labor in Cognitive Capitalism (2007), states that the current neoliberal workforce subsumes care work, and its gendered origins, into daily work habits. She explains that the continuous duration of care during motherhood can be likened to instances in the workforce where laborers are required to work ceaselessly for the love of their job.
You draw a relationship between care and data when you speak in The Undying of being made into “a patient of information, produced by the work of women.” This suggests a relationship between the administrative work that records the experience of receiving care and how that care is quantified. Are existing forms of recording or telling similarly “feminized” in order to be consumed and reproduced? Is there a correlation between your experiences of receiving and giving care within the book, as a single mother and as a patient?
A few years ago, I gave a talk at the British Columbia Nurses’ Union conference, and I learned that the nurses were sometimes being followed by people with clipboards who were attempting to observe, quantify, and create assessment tools for everything a nurse might do. The nurses also told me that they often spend more time filling out forms now than they do nursing, including being required to frequently assess the assessment of their own work. In education, too, there is a struggle between this kind of enveloping administrative optic and life’s actual unquantifiability.
These numbers can never reveal what is actually happening, so although these assessing forces can never win at understanding the world, they might succeed in making workers, many of them women, miserable at work through exhausting and diminishing them with this frenzied desire for assessment that is always in addition to already difficult work.
Karasyk and Wallin:
In The Undying, you write about your own body and, by extension, your experiences of health, parenthood, work, and rest. Yet, you move away from a phenomenological understanding of the body; as you write of this philosophical tradition: “‘A body’ gets turned into ‘the body’ there.” What, then, might be a philosophy that comes from a body? Would this be a materialist philosophy? Is there a lineage you are drawing from?
In that passage, my hope was that I could use literature’s capacity for specificity to counter some of the errors in understanding the world that can result from philosophical abstraction. It is no mistake that a poet—Emily Dickinson—is probably the greatest philosopher of pain.
I think we are still working out our thinking that comes from the body. Thus, we are—all of us together, as a collective—still in the process of figuring out and making these materialist philosophies that attend to the world in all of its brilliant and dismaying complexity. It’s easy to mistakenly reduce the world to fit our limited capacity to comprehend it, but this kind of reductive thinking is only necessary when one person or a few people are thinking alone in a rarefied scene. The materialist thinking we need will necessarily involve the many.
Anne Boyer is a U.S. poet and essayist, and the inaugural winner of the 2018 Cy Twombly Award for Poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Art and a 2018 Whiting Award in nonfiction/poetry. Boyer’s newest book, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, is now available from Small Press Distribution or directly from the publisher, UDP. Disappointed Fate collects the best of a decade’s worth of essays, fables, and ephemera from Boyer’s publications in pdfs, websites, chapbooks, one-offs. Boyer’s other books include The Romance of Happy Workers (Coffee House 2008), My Common Heart (Spooky Girlfriend 2011), and the 2016 CLMP Firecracker award-winning Garments Against Women (U.S., Ahsahta 2015; U.K, Mute 2016).