InterviewsWeekend

She Makes the Dirty Work Look Like a Degas

“I was in a coven for two years in the ‘90s. Well, everybody was in a coven in the ‘90s.”

Sharon Mesmer is a poet, prose writer, essayist and professor of creative writing living in Brooklyn. She was born and grew up in Back of the Yards, a Chicago neighborhood named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards. After moving to New York she received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Brooklyn College, where she studied with Allen Ginsberg.

From 2003 to 2010 she was a member of the Flarf poetry collective, whose practitioners used Google to mine the internet for content, collaborating daily via an email listserv. Mesmer co-edited the anthology, Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, forthcoming this Spring from Edge Books.

Mesmer’s poetry collections include Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place (Bloof, 2015), Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo, 2008), and The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose, 2008). Four of her poems appear in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (second edition, 2013).

Sharon Mesmer (photo by Esther Levine)

Fiction collections are Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette Littératures, Paris, in French translation, 2005), In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose Press, 2005) and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose Press, 2000). Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Purple, and The Brooklyn Rail. She teaches at NYU and the New School.

This interview was conducted in person and by email.

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Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle: You’re a witch.

Sharon Mesmer: Thank you. Yes, I was in a coven for two years in the ‘90s. Well, everybody was in a coven in the ‘90s.  We never hexed, but we divined. The meat locker doors to our hearts were open, and the chains of the law were broken.  I believe that all that witchy work was the main practice that opened my nadis  [network of yogic energy channels]  to  Flarf. That, and the czarnina  [duck blood soup]  my Polish grandmother used to ladle out when I was a kid.

For me,  Flarf was a daily practice like any other. Constantly responding to the constant inflow of the political/cultural/social absurd. A filtering and a distilling. Of course, nothing is as absurd as what we’re seeing now, but we rose to the challenge as we saw it then.

That kind of work was also a way into personalities not my own: I was able to compose in other modes, speak with other mouths, often mouths attached to personalities I didn’t like or agree with.

There was, too, the collaborative aspect: filtering and distilling the words of the other poets (at one point there were 30 + on the flarflist) into my own poems, and then seeing my words in their poems. We were a meta-mind. I miss that intensity, especially these days when there’s so much more to conjure with. But I’m a deep believer in the via negativa:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

T.S. Eliot nicked that from St. John of the Cross. But good modernist poets steal from transcendent medieval saint-poets. (SJC sounds like self-help from the past, especially as Rough Orange Beast, his hour come at last, slouches toward daughter-wife to be born.)

In our end is our beginning? Hopefully. Eliot stole that line from Mary Queen of Scots, you know. She had it embroidered on the inside of the dress she wore to her execution. That’s being optimistic: she was in prison for 19 years. He’s more pessimistic: “In my beginning is my end.” I’m trying to find the middle way.

G C-H: Your blood relations include Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer,  magus of animal magnetism, and Otto Messmer, the creator of Felix the Cat. Mesmerism later became known as hypnotism. Felix was the first image ever broadcast on TV! Do you bend spoons? Cozy up with these cuckoo birds in your family tree?

SM: Felix on TV / cats on youtube is a trajectory to conjure with. Do what thou wilt, kitten, is the extent of the law. The chains of the canine have been broken.

In a great review of Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe that appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2016, Lawrence Krauss noted that every cubic centimeter of space teems with photons left over from the Big Bang, particles that last interacted with matter when the universe was 300,000 years old. And every second, 600 billion neutrinos — which emanate from explosions inside the sun — penetrate our bodies and Earth’s. He says, “Without this invisible background of cosmic material we would not exist.” So, how old are we, really? How permeable? How can we possibly speak with only one voice?

Great-Great-Great-Great Uncle Franz’s “magnetic fluid” was, I believe, something akin to chi/qi or kundalini — as mentioned above. He  knew that nadis make a universe of us and vice-versa. How did this 18th -century Swabian know that? He probably stole the idea from some traveling mystic/guru/swami/qi gong master that he ran into in Vienna in 1768, possibly inviting him (or her) to the performance he’d arranged in his garden  of Mozart’s one-act singspiel about a duped shepherdess. Like Eliot he pilfered, though not from Mary Stuart’s dress.

By the way, the kundalini serpent is female. So we all have a girl snake coiled up somewhere in our coccyxes.

G C-H: You complect a contemporary lyric with magic, rigor, and grace that snaps my head around. (Caught kissing on top of a grave, 16th-century Spain’s Luis de Gongora compelled the fourteen-line severity of the baroque sonnet to encompass both diamonds and doom.)

We all know Russia’s Futurist Zaum, that trans-rational language, Khlebnikov’s nonsense called “Beyondsense.” But beyond good and evil, where good enough just ain’t good enough, Sharon, you push on to Beyoncésense…

SM: Beyoncésense informs us that Gongora’s culteranismo  (culto, cultivated + luteranismo, Lutheranism) was a word created by haters to ridicule it for not being “real” poetry.  Plus ça change. And thank you for using “lyric” in describing my work. It’s been suggested that there is no poetry — and no mind, either — at work in my work. There are a few minds, actually.

The closer Orange Beast slouches, the more I turn to VelKhleb, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Danlil Kharms. Especially Kharms. Northwestern University just published, last month, Alexander Cigale’s wonderful Russian Absurd (a translation of Kharms’s selected poems). The title itself describes the situation at hand.

G C-H: The  untamable painter Walter Robinson gave me your book, Greetings from My Girlie Leisure Place last Christmas Eve. Since then, I’ve read nothing else! Potty mouth. Shit chat. I caught your act at Le Poisson Rouge. You delivered like a bacchante, bare-back on a beer truck, with the devil of love at its wheel. Would it stun you next to learn that my companion, the photographer Seton Smith, finds your oeuvre “intimate”?

SM: Not at all. I expose myself for love of the people.

As for Le Poisson Rouge, it really was a hell of an evening. My gynecologist was there.

And for GFMGLP, thank you. Take another look at the cover image and you’ll see that, thanks to my editor Shanna Compton’s genius for design, one of its rosy polka dots falls squarely upon a kitten’s mouth.

The I Ching says, “Everything serves to further”; I say everything serves to further the desire of a rosy polka dot to fall squarely upon a kitten’s mouth, creating the look of a party girl with lipstick smeared after her long night of raving/snogging.

The kitten is confident, and stares at the skittish puppy (who cannot meet her gaze), much like Kristen Visbal’s newly situated “Fearless Girl” sculpture stares down Di Modica’s Wall Street bull, but way more successfully. I totally agree with what Jillian Steinhauer wrote about fake corporate feminism facing off against entrenched corporate aggression, and everyone going gooey for it.

I swear to god, if I were Jesus,
I would have killed that unicorn every time he directed
An episode of the A-Team.

(Greetings from My Girlie Leisure Place)

G C-H: Uh-huh. GFMGLP’s a relentlessly demented plaster bath laid on with a trowel. Word choice like “moiety” and “propinquity.” Your Annoying Diabetic Bitch sells for $1,872.21 on Amazon. Plus shipping.   You pound reality into submission…

SM: I swear to god, if I were Jesus, I would kill Amazon every time it tries to sell a copy of ADB for that price. I may just write to the seller and say that, while I’m flattered, I would like to know  WTF.  On the other hand, maybe it’s better not to know. Via negativa and all.

I love it that you see my meek efforts to poem as beating reality into submission, which is indeed my goal — a personal revenge on reality for robbing me of a golden childhood which could’ve continued indefinitely had it not been for my anterior pituitary gland secreting somatotropin and lutropin, then releasing them into my bloodstream. But I heard that happens to everybody.

To go back to something I said earlier, when I joined the  Flarf collective, just after the commencement of Gulf War 2.0 in ‘03, I had no idea that the absurdity of  Flarf  — a fitting reaction to the relentless dementedness we were witnessing — would be divested of prescience by the total fucking dementedness that we’re witnessing now. It’s tough to try to go back to  Flarf to respond, because our current condition has rendered  Flarf quaint, though some may say it was quaint before. My hope is that, with the forthcoming release of the long-awaited Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf (Edge Books), readers will at least laugh and feel reprieved.

G C-H: Social Realism, conscience and content, the literal not the literary, seem to be “in” with a vengeance. I once dated a transexual so lovely she was undetectable. Together we met Peter Tork. A consummate shoplifter, she painted her apartment black by splashing paint out of open gallon cans. Carried a sword cane, never went out before midnight. Drew painfully accurate renderings of hand guns in mechanical pencil, decorating her lair with  snapshots of executed female anarchists and horror movie posters to which she had added her own name.

I met her in the graveyard at St. Marks Church during one of her stints outside psychiatric institutions. I later asked if surgery had helped. Insouciant, she replied, “Well, if I only have $5.00, I can buy a book or a sandwich. Either way, I lose.”

SM: Most loveliness is undetectable. Maureen Thorson wrote a detectably lovely chapbook called the Woman, the Mirror, the Eye (2015), after she was diagnosed with AZOOR, acute zonal occult outer retinopathy. AZOOR’s most salient characteristic is that it can’t be seen/detected; the sufferer’s retina appears normal. The condition can only be inferred. Her chapbook is a beautiful mediation on seeing:

The blind poet is a romantic notion — we ascribe a clairvoyance, literally a kind of ‘clear seeing’ — to Homer and Milton. But the only insight I’ve received from my eye problems is into how unclearly we see everything, even ourselves, and how fitful are our illusions of control […] All hail the vanishing point.

Things are always disappearing — objects, but also ideas and ways of being. Remember when a phone stayed in one place? Unless you were breaking up with someone, or waiting for news of a birth or death, your connection (pun intended) was tenuous. That changed after June 29, 2007 — the rollout of the first iPhone. Everyone’s attention span, which was pretty attenuated to begin with, disappeared. Or became fragmented.

I noticed this with my own work: I used to collect ideas for  two or three months, and then write. Now, I wonder what happened to the things I was thinking about two weeks ago. There are small stacks of books next to my bed and my reading chair, and when I look at the books on the bottoms of those piles, it’s like a trip down memory lane: Oh, that’s what I was thinking about. So, nostalgia is different, too.

Social realism: I grew up in a neighborhood on the  South  Side of Chicago called Back of the Yards, named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards. Our house was four blocks away from the stockyards’ 47th Street entrance. Yes, the same stockyards of  The Jungle. The hideousness that Upton Sinclair described in that book  prompted food inspection reforms. For instance, did you know that our FDA of today allows “only” 136 insect fragments and 4 rodent hairs in a jar of peanut butter? Ever wonder what those dark specks in your cornmeal are? That’s not rat hair. Worried there’s not enough protein in beer? No worries. Imagine what people were eating before.

Anyone for cold cuts? Hopefully your friend’s $5 went toward a book.

Kate Beckinsale has her fat ass days,
and thatʼs why I called my compassionate conservative girlfriend a lard ass
and tied her to the treadmill.
Sheʼs still there.
Go ahead – bang her.

(Annoying Diabetic Bitch)

G C-H: Wherever do you get your inspiration? PTSD? Accelerants? Goat’s meat chili with peyote buttons? You say you can’t sleep because your thinking cap’s always on. Anagrams = Ars Magna. Does this guck gush straight from your Orphic maw? Do you edit? Sample? Steal? The poet Brandon Brown maintains he only truly enters the Rapture when revising.

SM: I sample, steal and edit A LOT. Allen Ginsberg was my teacher and friend, but we always mock-fought over “First thought, best thought.” I disagreed. He was a deft  present-moment Buddhist improviser and I’m an afflicted backward-looking Catholic (despite having taken refuge vows in 2010). So, yes, there is a rapture to enter via revising. But Brandon, whose work I really like, will no doubt agree with me when I say that remaining at ease with one’s preoccupations requires a constant friendship with the  Odradek-of-one’s-own-being. Revising is good, but I like being permeable at the beginning. Inspiration is everywhere. Admittedly, it’s a gamble with sanity, especially if you ride the subway every day. The negotiation requires discernment. I’m still learning that.

G C-H: C’mon, shoot the geek. Paintball gun a picture of the ob-literate poetry scene.

SM: Pretty much my entire focus right now, at least with regard to poetry — specifically reading it — is work from outside the US, particularly in translation. I’ve reviewed books in translation for  The Paris Review, American Poetry Review,  The Brooklyn Rail. The work I’ve found is spectacular: epiphanic, revelatory. Eunice Odio, Mircea Eliade, Phillip Meersman, Anise Koltz. (Meersman writes in four languages, including Morse Code.)

My current project, a collection of poems called Even Living Makes Me Die, responds to these works that I’ve been reading. The idea came about when I discovered the work of the late Costa Rican-born poet Eunice Odio. I wrote an article on Odio and her book, The Fire’s Journey, for American Poetry Review.

As I did research for that piece, I became frustrated by the dearth of available information. I emailed one of her translators, Keith Ekiss, and asked: “These little bits of her life create a very ‘glamorous and doomed’ image of her — the woman visionary, dying alone — but is that true?”

I was hoping not, because that myth of the doomed woman poet is just so absolutely played out. He replied that not a lot is known about Odio’s life. Despite an exhaustive search, I came up with only two anthologies containing a few poems, and a bio-bibliographical source book on Spanish-American women. Those three publications introduced me to a group of 19th- and early 20th-century women writers, from throughout the Americas, whose work I’d never read before. They were modern, visionary, sexually frank. As I read their work I began to write “to” them. I researched each as fully as possible. The more I wrote, and read, the more I began to wonder about other “under-known” female poets of the Americas, and this became my goal for Even Living … to learn about their lives and write “to” them.

The title of the collection itself comes from a line by the fabulous 19th-century poet Delmira Agustini: “Already living and dreaming makes me die.” Sometimes their life information was easy to attain, as in the case of the Canadian poet Elizabeth Smart, who died in 1986. Smart published only one book, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, in 1945. It went out of print soon after it was first published, was then brought back into publication in 1966 and 1992. The book, which she called a “prose poem novel” (and which is quite ahead of its time as a hybrid text), chronicles her affair with a British poet named George Barker.

Almost nothing was known of Smart in this country until her son, Christopher, published a biography, The Arms of the Infinite: Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, released in the US in 2010 (I reviewed it for Rain Taxi). I need to do more research on, for example, Martha Wadsworth Brewster (1710 – c. 1757,  the first US-born woman to publish under her own name); Ellen Sturgis Hooper (1812 –1848, American Transcendentalist published in The Dial ); Sarah Helen Power Whitman (1803 –1878, Transcendentalist and, very briefly, Edgar Allen Poe’s fiancée); and Jessie Redmon Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimké and Georgia Douglas Johnson, associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

G C-H: In the wins, I “heart” this Godot by Sophia le Fraga.

SM: I <3 it 2! Srsly. Not being sarcastic.

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