THE GRIEF WORK OF WRITING AND THINKING


Sara Jane Stoner with Daisy Atterbury
March 9th, 2020


Writers Daisy Atterbury and Sara Jane Stoner stage a conversation on the relationship between shame and desire in language, touching on topics ranging from topping, bottoming, the queer erotics of speech, poetry, and the pulverization of "settler subjectivity," self-abolition, and teaching. They speak briefly in the interstices of events: first, inside the form of a workshop, and later on a bench in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in July 2019, where they observe a juvenile hawk hunt a squirrel, talk through the rows of a rose garden, and then wander down Washington Avenue, past a recalcitrant dog named Trixie, to a bar with a quiet backyard. They consider the contradictions and possibilities afforded in relationships to university institutions from positions on the inside and outside, asking what writing and teaching practices afford, cost, and produce in these contexts.

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Daisy Atterbury: I’ve been thinking about shame and desire in relation to power. Everyone has tremendous shame around their relationship to power, whether they’ve experienced disempowerment and disenfranchisement or the opposite, complicity and participation in power structures designed to facilitate domination. The way structural power works, most everyone has both—the double shame of having experienced both disempowerment and proximity to structures of domination in their lives, even if that double shame manifests differently, is constituted differently, is based in often extremely different experiences. So how do you manifest a relationship to language, if language is the vehicle and the medium, such that the reorganization of desire allows us to change our relationship to power, and thus to shame?

Sara Jane Stoner: A conversation is a kind of dynamic relationship manifested in language that is combinatory. I am still deep in work on a piece about the feeling of talking in the present moment that my friend Erica Dawn Lyle is going to publish in her zine SCAM. I’ve felt obsessed by my feeling that the aboutness in a lot of political programming buries the double shame you describe so well, or loops it into a kind of catharsis feedback system that seems something other than the reckoning that people seem to desire. The aboutness of political programming never seems to account for the necessity of that chance-based relationship between desire and language—where do the words come from, what brings me to choose that word—that I think is revealing or altering. Where a person in language finds themselves moved.

DA: I’m always trying to understand this in terms of writing about place. And this question about getting outside of something like a "settler subjectivity," or more specifically, articulating a formulation of presence such that we can begin to understand the ways that ongoing colonial forces and changing relationships to colonial history operate on us as subjects and alter not only our writing but all of our ways of being, making, and loving. And there may be no way to find language for this. But there may be a kind of, I think, beautiful and useful way forward, an impulse to the reorganization and reconstitution of the self, in relation to others, which poetry offers. A pulverizing operation on our current understanding of relation. And it's not just about bodies, it’s weirdly about particles.

SJ: Our work has different but similar attachments to the project of making the poetic happen in language as a way to approach the problem of structural injustice. How this process resists forms of instrumentalization and legibility. How it might frustrate someone who wants you to make a structured argument with clear evidence that constructs the subject of the problem in an authoritative way. The negativity inherent in the poetic subject-object that you and I seem to be involved in making sensible, if not making "sense" of. I thought your writing for the Poetry Studies Now conference at Poet's House this spring was so amazing. I mean, speaking of negativity. I experienced it as a real effort in writing with a will to not let the self cohere; that was powerful and effective and I felt the room struggle with it. Did you feel it?

DA: I felt the struggle with it and the tentative openness to it. I was trying to understand how to speak from a place that accounts for but tries to implode the authority of the speaking subject, with emphasis on how that's not one activity but a practice. How that can become a durational (life) practice and a set of methods. I am also interested in the question of who receives this practice, and I think the ways the work doesn't land are as important as the ways it does. Academia isn't structured to embrace the kind of thought experiment that takes destabilization or let’s say, not knowing, as a starting point, which I think of as the idea eating itself. And I'm so glad you turned to negativity, because I'm also hung up on whether revolution requires some digestible working shared language. And if you're not willing to work within a shared language, if you're always imploding the definition of the thing, you're accomplishing something, but are you just isolating yourself? That's my question [...]