The book’s examination of the intimate relationship between language and power places it in conversation with this year’s Customs, Solmaz Sharif’s second collection. Much like Sharif, Schwartz is a poet who is sharply attuned to the contradictions of living within the imperial core that is the United States, as well as the impossibility of escaping its hold within the realm of literature. This relentlessness of the state’s imposition on our lives is reflected through the experience of another character, Amira, who is ceaselessly interrogated by an elusive governmental representative. Their dialogue, or lack thereof, drives the poems’ refusal to give simple answers to questions of overwhelming odds.
In my correspondence with the author, I had the pleasure of learning more about the rich intellectual and political context from which these poems were written. Schwartz was generous in her responses to my curiosities and provided me with a road map with which to (re)read the book into a more expansive space of interrogation.
HAZEM FAHMY: Conceptually, how did this project begin for you?
CLAIRE SCHWARTZ: It’s hard to identify exactly how Civil Service began since it came out of many confluences and accumulations, but here are two currents that feel significant. I started writing Civil Service when I was at graduate school at Yale — so, wherever else the project started, it also began in the context of harm coded as benevolence. Like many similar institutions, Yale’s relationship to its surrounding communities is characterized by theft and extraction, while so much of what happens within the university is about coding these structures of violence as “humane,” necessary, in service of some abstract “higher order.” It’s a familiar imperial formation — and pedagogy played a key part in shoring up these logics. Qualifying exams, for example, are often talked about as “a performance of mastery.” In many ways, the poems in Civil Service are a record of refusing this disciplinary structure of knowing and being.
But I’ve just set things up as inside/outside, and that script gives too much credence to borders; it reveals something, but it obscures, too. In an essay she wrote about her time teaching at Yale, June Jordan talked about teaching “the descendants of the slaves as well as the descendants of the slaveowners.” I once heard Fred Moten give a talk at Columbia, and he asked whether when people say, “Columbia community,” they include the Black people Columbia has displaced from Harlem. I was lucky to do my graduate work in the African American Studies and American Studies departments — and to learn from scholars like Inderpal Grewal, Elizabeth Alexander, Jacqueline Goldsby, Kobena Mercer, and Anthony Reed, as well as from thinkers and activists outside the university, who have dynamic and precise understandings of how power functions and critical, agitative relationships to the university’s dominant practices. The fiction of total separation overwrites the intimacies that inequity requires. Often, these intimacies are brutal. But where they exist, there exists the possibility of transformation, too.
Civil Service also began during the Obama presidency, when the conflations between the meanings of power and the optics of representation were circulating with particular force. Those years saw the honing of a racial lexicon of progress that sought to position the complexion of imperial power as somehow reflective rather than necessarily coercive, to hold up the identity of an individual in order to overwrite the ways race describes and prescribes structures of relation. The coinciding movements against anti-Black violence refused these frameworks, and it was in that context that I was really starting to ask questions about what violence looks like, where I was taught to see emergency, and how my own fears and desires are produced. The book is preoccupied both with these particular questions and, more generally, with the possibilities of questioning — an interrogative stance where inquiry becomes a mode of holding the possibilities of relation open. Questions are where we might be together, otherwise.
In the first poem, the speaker remarks: “The poem is an event. / The poem takes place. / That makes the poem a geography.” Thinking about this in light of the physical shapes that punctuate the manuscript, it would seem that there’s a very active politicization of poetic space.
Thank you for lifting up the question of space, which we could have a whole other conversation about. For now, I’ll just say that I’m thinking of June Jordan, who said she conceived of all of her work under the umbrella of environmental design — “that is […] in general, an effort to contribute to the positive changing of the world.” Nothing exists in isolation. It’s true that there are graphic texts in Civil Service. But the linguistic texts, too, are “physical shapes,” and my hope is that the juxtaposition enlivens the forms of each — or, rather, makes the fact of form vulnerable to inquiry. How often have spatial arrangements and patterns of thought sedimented into common sense such that their forms appear inevitable, or they seem almost to be without form at all? Classrooms, neighborhoods, houses, prisons, hospitals — these all have forms, and their forms have implications for how we come to face each other.
Often what “active politicization” registers is a distance from some idea of “common sense.” And often this common sense takes the form of the liberal state script, which says that, faced with the tremendous violence of the state, “civility” and “moderation” are reasonable positions — though, of course, there is perhaps nothing so political, nothing as determinative for the life-chances of global majority, as what seeks to pass as neutral or inevitable. I find poetry — which estranges me from language, the most ordinary medium of my life — to be a useful practice for unsettling my perception so that I might see the forms of my living more precisely, the possibilities of an otherwise more vividly.
Poetry is political. It acts on the reader and in the world — and often it acts in contradictory ways. A single poem might turn the language of the state over to reveal the metaphors of care as an alibi for violence, rely on an ableist metaphor, transform a person’s inner life and fortify them to move back into the world, circulate via a press funded by a predatory bank. I think often of Robin Coste Lewis asking whether her astonishing collection Voyage of the Sable Venus “earn[ed] its right in trees.” I don’t take that to be facile self-deprecation; I take it to be the serious work of taking the world, and one’s impact on it, seriously. That is the place where I want to live.
How did the character of Amira come to you?
Amira came very early in the project, but in previous drafts, she had various primary interlocutors — a rabbi, a fish, a human best friend … Then I read An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading, where Dionne Brand writes: “But it wasn’t inclusion that I wanted. I wanted to be addressed.” I realized Amira’s primary interlocutor, the one on whom she depends, is the reader.
There is an exchange I had in mind when naming Amira, from the opening of Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions. In Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation, it reads:
What is going on behind this door?
The book is shedding its leaves. […]
Have [the rabbis] read the book?
They are reading it.
This sense of the book coming apart, dispersing, by way of the act of close reading touches one of the project’s obsessions: a text is a posture of encounter. Its meaning is not fixed; it is revised each time it meets a reader — and the reader, too, is revised, however slightly. As in any other intimacy, that is a hopeful thing, but it’s terrifying, too: the promise of reconstitution does not guarantee something better, but there can be nothing better without it.
In Hebrew, Amira means “treetop” or “saying,” and this doubled meaning gets at something central to Civil Service. In kabbalistic thought, the tree of life is a diagram representing the origin of the universe; at the top is a kind of infinite energy, absolute compassion — and it is incomprehensible to people, far from the body, at the outer bounds of the self. At the same time, “Amira” encompasses the idea of speech, which calls up the presence of the body, the body reaching for another in language, language as the vector of desire between two bodies. Paul Celan wrote that he “cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem,” and Claudia Rankine elaborates: “The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another.” That is what I am after: the profound presence that is also the fullest mode of being with — these dispossessive modes of presence, like immersive reading or good sex.
In “Lecture on the History of the House,” the speaker states: “When the temple was written, the destruction / of the temple was written.” Do you think the same goes for the eponymous “house” of the poem?
I tend to think of a lecture as a didactic presentation issued by someone in a position of authority, but its root — to read — jostles inside of it. The writer and the reader collude to make meaning — or they struggle toward it, split it open, revise the terms of what might be possible. Throughout Civil Service there are various “lecture” poems that open up concepts whose meanings bind social formations — time, the house, loneliness, etc. In these poems, Amira addresses the reader, and sense becomes both denser and more elliptical. The lecture poems ask a lot of the reader; even if they are read in solitude, they are not meant to be read alone. Which is to say: The book is in the world, and I’m a reader among readers; I can’t answer your question. I can only add to it: If it’s clear that the histories that have forecasted the violences of our present — including the construction of private property, its ongoing anti-Black time — cannot hold, what might be the full range of forms that will take their place? What nonproprietary practices of dwelling and homing might we bring into the future?
In the same poem, the speaker states: “You own to prove you cannot be owned. / In owning, you sign a contract of possession,” followed up by: “Ownership is a chronic condition.” It still feels rare, though decreasingly so, for modern American literature to name the machinations of capital so explicitly.
I can think of any number of American poets who have written poems that directly confront the meanings of capital: June Jordan, Pat Parker, Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, Audre Lorde, and I’m very lucky to be writing in the wake of what they made possible. So it would be easy — and true! — to say that this is nothing new. But maybe there is something to say about how the category of “American literature” has more recently expanded to include “anti-American language” (which language that attempts to confront the machinations of capital necessarily is). There are certainly times and places when the poets I named above — or poets who work in their traditions — would not be included, for example, on a syllabus in a contemporary American literature class, receive well-funded prizes with citizenship requirements or nationalist frames, etc. And it is beautiful and vital to read and resource work that matters, to more widely disperse attention and support.
But for the state, and for the institutions integral to its functioning, inclusion is always conditional, and often its conditions are cruel — both to the included subject and to broader communities the institution attempts to extract them from. There is a reason the liberal “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” framework (impossibly) binds equity to inclusion: incorporating difference and dissent in sanctioned forms is an old trick of consolidating power; it steals the labor of the included subject and parades the fact of inclusion as evidence of its own enlightenment — and, therefore, justification for its own expansion.
When I began this project in the Obama years, it felt as though there was a kind of elasticity to what “American” might accommodate. I think that’s changing now. But I don’t think what we’re seeing is the opposite of what came before; I think it’s an extension of the bloating of power that liberalism and fascism have colluded to authorize.
Later in the same poem: “Theory is productive of the known. / Poetry is productive of the unknown.” What do you see as the relationship between your scholarship and your poetry, and more broadly, what do you see as the relationship between poetry and theory?
I don’t really write anything that I think could be called scholarship, but my poetics are deeply informed by practices developed and shaped in engagement with more traditional scholarly work — an engagement with archives, an attentiveness to entering into a field, the practice of sitting with a question over time … I am not sure I’m committed to scholarship, but I am committed to study, as Fred Moten defines it: “[A] devotional, sacramental, anamonastic kind of intellectual practice.” He continues, “We have to support one another in the care of intellectual practice/s. This is a social imperative.”
As for the second part of the question — the relationship between poetry and theory more generally — I’d point back to the poem you quoted. In a recent conversation with Nicole Chung, Megha Majumdar said: “Every book is an instrument of communication, and so it often feels like you want to have a certain reverence for that instrument and you don’t want to talk about it […] The thing you want to tell them about the book is the book.” My poem is where I said it the best I know how.
Which poets and thinkers did you look to throughout the writing process?
The bibliography in the back of the book offers a grounding, if incomplete, list of compass-texts by writers and thinkers I return to. Edmond Jabès, Dionne Brand, June Jordan, George Jackson, Paul Celan, Christina Sharpe, Solmaz Sharif, Mariame Kaba, Zaina Alsous, Natalie Diaz … I wanted to make explicit that Civil Service is, in so many ways, a record of my own reading — as well as to hold, through the inclusion of extralinguistic texts in that bibliography, that not all reading happens on the page.
The manuscript is very structured while also leaving room for experimentation. Tell me more about your experience putting the poems together.
Because I really think about Civil Service as an architecture of encounter rather than a finished building, it felt important that there were confluences, connections, and recurrences throughout the text, but I did not want the illusion of completion. The fractures and discontinuities are where the reader takes up the text — where it becomes evident that “I pass you my poem. // A poem doesn’t do everything for you. / You are supposed to go on with your thinking,” as Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her poem “Song of Winnie.” The world of Civil Service is not hermetically sealed. It both is and is not our world. The extent to which it is our world has to do with who the “we” is. It has to do with what’s made of the text, what’s made of the world. It is an open question.
I like that word, “experimentation.” Abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba wrote, “We need a million experiments. A bunch will fail. That’s good because we’ll have learned a lot that we can apply to the next ones.”
Hazem Fahmy is a writer and critic from Cairo. He runs the media criticism newsletter Zam Zoum on Letterdrop. His debut chapbook, Red//Jild//Prayer, won the 2017 Diode Editions Contest.