DECEMBER 4, 2016
I FIRST MET Lauren Levin in 2008, after she moved to Oakland from Houston. I remember an early performance from that time in which Lauren was incorrectly introduced (Levin rhymes with “pristine” not “leaven”). I admired her gentle yet assertive way of informing the audience of the correct pronunciation of her name. It felt like a way of saying, “I plan to be present as a poet in the community here, so I want you to know how to pronounce my name, I want you to know me, I want us to share in dialogue.” Lauren Levin takes the work of poetry seriously. Her voracious poetic, intellectual, and political engagements are on display in her first full-length book, The Braid, published this month by Krupskaya Books. The Braid was written over three years during Lauren’s pregnancy and after the birth of her first child, a process with which the book grapples unflinchingly. This is embodied work that addresses identity (gender, race, class, etc.) and is sensitive to the nuances and difficulties of intersectional positions and the larger social-political world. What’s more, the book is a deep pleasure to read — a difficult thing for a writer to accomplish when dealing with heavy subjects. The Braid is honest, smart, funny, angry, tender, and hungry.
ALLI WARREN: I feel so lucky to have had the chance to read early drafts of the poems that make up The Braid, and to return to this writing again in its final form. I’m so excited about the publication of your first full-length book, Lauren!
I want to ask you about the quote from Dolores Dorantes that serves as one of the book’s epigraphs: “This is not poetry / It’s / what circumstances dictate.” I have a fair idea of what those circumstances are/were for you, but for those who don’t know you personally, can you say more about them? Or do you intend “circumstances” here to mean something more general, to point to the outside, to the state of “the world”? Both, and? I’m interested in Dorantes’s word “dictate,” in that I read it as implying a kind of necessity. This might also be a question about the “outside,” about politics and poetry, about the world in which artistic practice takes shape. Where do you feel these pressures most acutely?
LAUREN LEVIN: First, thank you, Alli, for these incredibly generous and thoughtful questions.
In the prehistory of this book, I was pregnant and ambivalent about it and intensely anxious. Couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat: the dial was turned all the way up. Then I gave birth, and was immersed in the chaos of early parenting.
I felt so much more deeply driven by forces outside myself; I had lost my (perceived) control over my physical, physiological, and emotional bodies. At first I thought having a child had taken me away from the greater world. As though I existed only inside Alejandra’s body and couldn’t see out. I felt despair over having lost my political, collective orientation.
But I gradually came to a different understanding, or it was pushed on me (“what circumstances dictate”). When I was pregnant, people would yell stuff at me on the street, touch my body. I became public: the condition of having a body gendered female, writ large.
That that condition felt new to me shows my naïveté and privilege. My whiteness and my class background had allowed me to evade some of the strictures of my gender. So many bodies are never allowed to forget it for a second. Pregnancy forced me to really reckon with my assigned gender and certain ideals connected to it: self-sacrifice, giving, other-orientation.
I like “circumstances” because it sounds so casual and yet encompasses everything. It’s the dire state of the world around us and how my nipples felt when Alejandra chewed on them. Maybe that’s what necessity is: what you do when your circumstances force you to realize something.
My feelings of isolation, of being disappeared, and the state of our world were not actually separate. The world as it is didn’t want me to exist, except as some kind of emptied-out, idealized version of a caregiver. If I wanted something else I had to fight for it. So I came back to the world angrier.
The whole book is like a series of questions to myself: Can I learn something? If, throughout my whole life, I’ve learned to accommodate by being fearful, can I learn another way of responding to stimuli? And what is it? And how can it not just be my fight — how can I do it with other people? What response is needful? What do circumstances dictate?
There are a lot of names in this book — of friends, of family — more so than in your previous works. Can you talk about naming? I wonder if, in the process of writing, the specificity of proper names created a kind of safe space that could hold and propel the writing? What does naming do for you, for the poems?
I talk and write to figure out what I think. So what you say about the names as a kind of comfort feels right to me: in order to get past the fear of speaking plainly, I brought the conversation in. My friends’ names were also a way of trying to write myself back into the world during a time when I felt isolated.
I invented one of the conversations in the book, with Jared. In the poem, I admit that the conversation never happened, which was partly a joke. But I also meant to refer to my loneliness then, taking Alejandra out at 6:00 a.m. with the light an unearthly cold gray-purple, trying to get her little wool hat to stay on her big baby head, and having imaginary conversations with Jared, in which I tried to prove (to no one) that I was still human and had knowledge and thoughts.
Alejandra’s name gets repeated in the book: she’s really the refrain. When I first met her, she didn’t have a name or a sex. We had decided not to find out her sex prior to the birth, and then we were so overwhelmed by her arrival, we forgot to notice. So she got to hang out for a few minutes on my chest without being circumscribed by those ideas.
The process of her socialization (being brought into her name) happens within the book, which is part of its sadness. Teaching her the same awful things I was taught, so she can get by in a shitty world. But it’s joyful, too, in that it’s the beginning of our conversation.
I was shocked by how inhuman and forceful and unintelligible she seemed as an infant, and, ultimately, she’s still mysterious. She doesn’t belong to my narrative. “She” might not be “she.” She might change her name. I would like for her to feel some openness there, even though we did assign her a name and a pronoun, neither of which were her choice.
Can you talk more about Reagan as a figure in the book? Why Reagan now? Why the 1980s?
I thought about using “I’m glad Reagan dead” from Killer Mike’s song “Reagan” as one of the epigraphs for The Braid. I decided not to, for a couple reasons. One, I’m not worthy. I also decided against it because, for me, Reagan is not dead, unfortunately. He’s undead. Which is one answer to the question of “Why Reagan now?” Reagan is a tendency that repeats, a way of harnessing fear for political purposes.
The other day I saw an Onion headline: “Trump Takes Moment To Thank All The Fear In Audience For Making This Night Possible.” I thought, “Oh, I have to write to Alli about that. That’s what Reagan is.”
I’m a person with an anxiety disorder. I’m also a person who was born in 1977, so most of my childhood was during the 1980s. I grew up in a time when the Reagan administration hired a PR firm to publicize the crack epidemic (so-called). The Reagan-era state wanted me to be afraid of certain people and in certain ways. So thinking about Reagan has helped me understand the political dimensions of my anxiety.
I read this great book, Governing Through Crime, while writing The Braid: it claims that every era has its own paradigm of the normative citizen, whom the state is meant to help. In our era (starting with Nixon), the normative citizen is the crime victim. The way the state justifies itself is that “you” (and from the state’s perspective “you” is always white) will be protected from crime.
As the state dismantled the social safety net, it worked to shift the blame onto others it could demonize: people of color, feminists, the poor, people with AIDS. Then it offered a kind of sadistic compensation: “you,” the imaginary normative white citizen, might not get social programs, but at least the criminals who hurt “you” will be punished. And “you” get to identify with the state while it punishes.
As a white person, female, a parent, I’m the prime audience for this Reagan-style politics of fear. I wanted to imagine a way to push against that, to reject Reagan’s Satanic blandishments. Not that I can get rid of my whiteness or class privilege just by wishing. But if I’ll always be anxious, I want at least to condemn the type of safety Reagan-style politics would claim to offer me.
I’d love to hear more about what it’s been like for you to be both a poet and a new parent?
It’s been a different struggle at different times. I don’t think there’s much more terrifying than an infant in one’s first up-close experience of one. That must be why the experience of early parenthood (especially motherhood) is so relentlessly sentimentalized.
That was a realization I had while writing the book — that female parents are supposed to embody the pastoral, to protect everyone else, including male parents, from what it’s like to be stuck in a room with an arbitrary and insatiable little piece of matter. Plus, we’re expected to be happy about it, or at least radiate a reassuring “intuitive” competence — like being stuck in a hall of mirrors, care-work reflecting itself to infinity. So the struggle was to break out of that.
Now that Alejandra is older, the struggle is different. Spending time with her is work, but it’s also pleasurable, often joyful. I suppose now I feel consumed less by her presence and more by time itself, the self-similarity of its rhythms when there’s a lot of domestic labor in one’s life. It’s a struggle to stay connected to sources of spontaneity that further my work.
I’m curious about the line “the mystery of how one person can be part of another,” which, when it appears in the book, seems to point to the experience of motherhood, but I also read it as pointing in more general directions. What does this togetherness mean for you in terms of politics, or ethics, or your approach to living?
All of these things. How do we share? What do we take from each other? I absorb language, thinking, touch from the people in my life; I give it to Alejandra. She’s three now, and she touches my nipples all the time and talks about how she drank milk from them. This morning she was pretending to be a baby frog in my uterus.
I also have the question of how to reconcile my love of touching and being touched with the darker side of how “one person can be part of another.” That is, being absorbed: the predatory, vampiric aspect of power relations. Being valued insofar as you can be ornamental to someone else, or absorb their bad feelings, or reflect their fantasies, or type their manuscripts.
So there’s that mystery, too — the ethical mystery of that kind of appropriation: how is it possible (and ordinary) that the work of women and queer people and people of color has been erased and devalued for thousands of years and continues to be?
Values of liberal empathy would like to say that if you understand someone else’s situation and feel bad for them, the world will change. But that’s not how the world works. It takes much more than empathy to disturb the status quo. And empathy can be pernicious, a way to “cry someone else’s tears” and feed on their pain.
In a way, my concerns about empathy are related to the Brechtian argument about catharsis, which claims that the emotional release of art encourages complacency. People leave the theater having cried all their tears, ready to eat a big dinner and sleep soundly. So Brecht advocates an enforced distance between the work and the audience. While I’m interested in and sympathetic to that argument, I’m not interested in making work that comes across as cool and distanced, either.
Messy intersectional feminist Brechtian work? Whatever that is, it’s a line I’m definitely trying to walk in this book. How to be part of each other, how to be distant.
This work feels more embodied than your other writing. Of course, your body has always been there in the writing, but this work feels more boldly engaged in writing along with the viscera, the abundances, the terrors and powers of embodiment. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment, and if so, was this change intentional? How did it feel to you to write this way? Was it a space of vulnerability, or strength, or …?
This makes me think about how Brandon Brown was reading my newest manuscript (written after The Braid) and said, “There’s a lot of pee in here,” and was curious as to why. I laughed, because I hadn’t even noticed. I guess it felt like my verisimilitude — that to be constantly peeing and commenting on pee is what happens after spending three years swimming in someone else’s bodily fluids and in one’s own heightened fluids. Waking up drenched in breast milk and sweat.
Parenting has been an intensely sensual experience. Feeding, cleaning, touch making a loop between Alejandra’s body and mine. I engage with hers and return to mine with renewed attention. I’m not sure if it’s a site of vulnerability or strength; experiencing my body in such a visceral way has been painful, but useful, too.
When I was growing up, my family had a very gendered division of labor, and I had a strong association that women took care of other people and men had time for themselves. I distanced myself from my body to offer myself a kind of freedom or possibility I was incapable of figuring as other than male. This is hard to talk about. I don’t want to claim that being a woman is “about” having a body that the hospital marks as female when you’re born. Or that female gender and experience is all about childbearing. I actually feel less certain of my gender, less stable in it, now that I am more connected with my body. And I’m happy about that!
I was scared that getting pregnant would force me into a certain form of femininity. But having this deep specific experience of my body actually helped untether me from unconscious essentialist ideas about gender. I always loathed those ideals, but being so repulsed by them really bound me to them — in that binary way, where you get stuck between two poles that are figured as “male” and “female,” and there’s nothing else you can see.
My reproductive capacity, along with other experiences of my body, doesn’t have to be attached to my gender. What I am includes what my body does. But what my body does has changed and continues to change. When I allow myself to connect to my body, there’s a constant flux in my experience of it that’s hard to track with anything as rigid and unforgiving as binary gender.
Fear — the word itself and thinking and feeling around it — occurs often in The Braid. Toward the end of the book you address your fear directly and ask what can be done with it or not (“I am still not sure whether there is something useful / I can do with my fear / or whether I should be trying to just get rid of it”). Has any of this changed since completing the book? Has your sense of fear or your approach to it receded or grown or remained steadily palpable? What do you think you can do or have done with fear, or aim to?
I have a tendency to get myself into double binds — to pick two conditions (like security and fear, or violence and quiescence) and feel that some choice has to be made, but both options are bad. Like how I coped with my family’s articulation of gender: I thought being female amounted to a lifetime of domestic chores, so I wanted to flip to the other side, but that didn’t help.
It feels like a similar move to say that if my fear is bad, its opposite must be good. If one pole is fear and the other is security, neither seems right. But what’s the third term? Is it courage? If so, what is courage? It’s an endlessly ramifying question. But it is something I can learn about: by watching my friends and strangers, people I admire. By having different experiences in my body.
That’s one reason I ended the book on a conversation with Wendy Trevino about how our attempts to grapple with political or collective problems have often only led to more complicated problems. And how frustrating that is, since it’s not even possible to say the new problems are better. Sometimes they feel worse. But at least more complicated problems are less abstracted from the real, less vulnerable to simple solutions, those Reagan-style seductions that say that because you are afraid, you should repress other people.
I’m still afraid. Living with my fear makes me uncomfortable, and maybe that’s all it’s good for, to realize that I can be uncomfortable and still keep going. I was inspired by the fact that Wendy doesn’t think about her own frustration as a reason to give up political work. The opposite. More like an acceptance that that’s just how it’s going to be, doing the work. Of course it makes the problems of the world feel ever more intricate. Because that’s what happens when we see what’s really there.
So that’s a guess as to what my fear is useful for. If I accept that I’m stuck with it and that there’s no right answer that will get rid of it, then I can stop waiting around. I think of myself as a slow learner. One reason is my anxiety, and another, not unrelated reason is that I’ve spent a lot of time waiting around for the right answer. There are no solutions. That may not sound very hopeful, but it helps me get unstuck.